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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Expiation

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"a religious act, by which satisfaction or atonement is made for the commission of some crime, the guilt done away, and the obligation to punishment cancelled. The chief methods of expiation among the Jews were by sacrifices; and it is important always to recollect that the Levitical sacrifices were of an expiatory character; because as among the Jews sacrifices were unquestionably of divine original, and as the terms taken from them are found applied so frequently to Christ and to his sufferings in the New Testament, they serve to explain that peculiarity under which the apostles regarded the death of Christ, and afford additional proof that it was considered by them, as a sacrifice of expiation, as the grand universal sin-offering for the whole world. For our Lord is announced by John as the Lamb of God;' and that not with reference to meekness or any other moral virtue, but with an accompanying phrase, which would communicate to a Jew the full sacrificial sense of the term employed, 'the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.' He is called 'our Passover, sacrificed for us.' He is said to have given 'himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savor.' As a priest, it was necessary 'he should have somewhat to offer;' and he offered 'himself,' 'his own blood,' to which is ascribed the washing away of sin, and our eternal redemption. He is declared to have put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, to have 'himself purged our sins,' to have 'sanctified the people by his own blood,' to have 'offered to God one sacrifice for sins.'

Add to these, and to innumerable other similar expressions and allusions, the argument of the apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which, by proving at length that the sacrifice of Christ was superior in efficacy to the sacrifices of the law, he most unequivocally assumes that the death of Christ was a sacrifice and sin-offering; for without that it would no more have been capable of comparison with the sacrifices of the law, than the death of John the Baptist, St. Stephen, or St. James, all martyrs and sufferers for the truth, who had recently sealed their testimony with their blood. This very comparison, we may affirm, is utterly unaccountable and absurd on any hypothesis which denies the sacrifice of Christ; for what relation could his death have to the Levitical immolations and, offerings if it had no sacrificial character? Nothing could, in fact, be more misleading, and even absurd, then to apply those terms which, both among Jewis and Gentiles, were in imse to express the various processes and means of atonement and pecular propitiation, if the apostles and Christ himself did not intend to represent his death strictly as as expiation for sin misleading, because such would be the natural and necessary inference from the terms themselves which had acquired this as their established meaning; and absurd, because if; as Socinians say they need them metaphorically, there was not even an ideal resemblance between the figure and that which it was intended to illustrate. So totally irrelevant, indeed, will those terms appear to any notion entertained of the death of Christ which excludes its expiatory character, that to assume that our Lord and his apostles used them as metaphors is profanely to assume themn to be such writers as. would not in any other case be tolerated; writers wholly unacquainted wtih the commonest rules of language, and therefore wholly unfit to be teachers of others, and that not only in religion, but in things of inferior inmportance.

2. "The use of such terms, we have said, would not only be wholly absurd, but criminally misleading to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews, who were first converted to Christianity. To them the notion of propitiatory offerings, offerings to avert the displeasure of the gods, and which expiated the crimes of offenders, was most familiar, and terms corresponding to it were in constant use. The bold denial of this by Dr. Priestly might well bring upon him the reproof of archbishop Magee, who, after establishing this point from the Greek and Latin writers, observes, 'So clearly does their language announce the notion of a propitiatory atonement, that if we would avoid an imputation on Dr. Priestly's fairness, we are driven, of necessity, to question the extent of his acquaintance with those writers.' The reader may consult the instances given by this writer in No. 5 of his 'Illustrations,' appended to his 'Discourses on the Atonement;' and also the tenth chapter of Grotius's De Satisfactione, whose learning has most amply illustrated and firmly settled this view of the heathen sacrifices. The use to be made of this in the argument is, that as the apostles found the very terms they used with reference to the nature and efficacy of the death of Christ fixed in an expiatory signification among the Greeks, they could not, in honesty, use theml ini a distant figurative sense, much less in a contrary one, without giving their readers due notice of their having invested them with a new import. From ἄγος, a pollution, an impurity, which was to be expiated by sacrifice, are derived ἁγνίζω and ἁγιάζω, which denote the act of expiation; καθαίρω, too, to purify, cleanse, is applied to the effect of expiation; and ἱλάσκομαι denotes the method of propitiating the gods by sacrifice. These, and other words of similar import, are used by the authors of the Septuagint, and by the evangelists and apostles; but they give no premonition of using them in any strange and altered sense; and when they apply them to the death of Christ, they must, therefore, be understood to use them in their received meaning. In like manner the Jews had their expiatory sacrifices, and the terms and phrases used in them are, in like manner, employed by the apostles to characterize the death of their Lord; and they would have been as guilty of misleading their Jewish as their Gentile readers had they employed them in a new sense, and without warning, which, unquestionably, they never gave.

3. "As to the expiatory nature of the sacrifices of the law, it is not required by the argument to show that all the Levitical offerings were of this character. There were also offerings for persons and for things prescribed for purification, which were identical; but even they grew out of the leading notion of expiatory sacrifice, and that legal purification which resulted from the forgiveness of sins. It is enough to prove that the grand and eminent sacrifices of the Jews were strictly expiatory, and that by them the offerers were released from punishment and death, for which ends they were appointed by the lawgiver. When we speak, too, of vicarious sacrifice, we do not mean either, on the one hand, such a substitution as that the victim should bear the same quantum of pain and suffering as the offender limself; or, on the other hand, that it was put in the place of the offender as a mere symbolical act, by which he confessed his desert of punishment; but substitution made by divine appointment, by which the. victim was exposed to sufferings and death instead of the offender, in virtue of which the offender himself was released. With this view, one can scarcely conceive why so able a writer as archbishop. Magee should prefer to use the term 'vicarious import' rather than the simple and established term 'vicarious,' since the Antinomian notion of substitution may be otherwise sufficiently guarded against, and the phrase 'vicarious import' is certainly capable of being resolved into that figurative notion of mere symbolical action, which, however plausible, does in fact deprive the ancient sacrifices of their typical, and the oblation of Christ of its real efficacy. Vicarious acting is acting for another; vicarious suffering is suffering for another; but the nature and circumstances of that suffering in the case of Christ are to be determined by the doctrine of Scripture at large, and not wholly by the term itself, which is, however, useful for this purpose (and therefore to be preserved), that it indicates the sense in which those who use it understand the declaration of Scripture, 'Christ died for us,' so as that he died not merely for our benefit, but in our stead; in other words, that, but for his having died, those who believe in him would personally have suffered that death which is the penalty of every violation of the law of God.

4. "That sacrifices under the law were expiatory and vicarious admits of abundant proof. The chief objections made to this doctrine are,

(1.) That under the law, in all capital cases, the offender, upon legal proof or conviction, was doomed to die, and that no sacrifice could exempt him from the penalty.

(2.) That in all lower cases to which the law had not attached capital punishment, but pecuniary mulets, or personal labor or servitude upon their non-payment, this penalty was to be strictly executed, and none could plead any privilege for exemption on account of sacrifice; and that when sacrifices were ordained with a pecuniary mulct, they are to be regarded in the light of fine, one part of which was paid to the state, the other to the Church. This was the mode of argument adopted by the author of The Moral Philosopher, and noth ng of weight has been added to these objections since his day. Now much of this may be granted without any prejudice to the argument, and, indeed, is no more than the most orthodox writers on this subject have often remarked. The law under which the Jews were placed was at once, as to them, both a moral and a political law; and the lawgiver excepted certain offenses from the benefit of pardon, because that would have been exemption from temporal death, which was the state penalty. He therefore would accept no atonement for such transgressions. Blasphemy, idolatry, murder, and adultery were the 'presumptuous sins' which were thus exempted; and the reason will be seen in the political relation of the people to God; for, in refusing to exempt them from punishment in this world, respect was had to the order and benefit of society. Running parallel, however, with this political application of the law to the Jews as subjects of the theocracy, we see the authority of the moral law kept over them as men and creatures; and if these 'presumptuous sins' of blasphemy and idolatry, of murder and adultery, and a few others, were the only capital crimes considered politically, they were not the. only capital crimes considered morally; that is, there were other crimes which would have subjected the offender to death but for this provision of expiatory oblations.

The true question, then, is whether such sacrifices were appointed by God, and accepted instead of the personal punishment or life of the offender, which otherwise would have been forfeited, as in the other cases; and, if so, if the life of animal sacrifices was accepted instead of the life of man, then the notion that 'they were ere mulets and pecuniary penalties' falls to the ground, and the vicarious nature of most of the Levitical oblations is established. That other offenses besides those above mentioned were capital, that is, exposed the offender to death, is clear from this, that all offenses against the law had this capital character. As death weas the sanction of the commandment given to Adam, so any one who transgressed any part of the law of Moses became guilty of death; every inman was accursed,' that is, devoted to die, who 'continued not in all things written in the book of the law.' 'The man only that doeth these things shall live by them' was the rule; and it was, therefore, to redeem the offenders from this penalty that sacrifices were appointed. So, with reference to the great day of expiation, we read, 'For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins; and this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year' (Leviticus 16:30-34).

5. "To prove that this was the intention and effect of the annual sacrifices of the Jews, we need do little more than refer to Leviticus 17:10-11 : 'I will set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.' Here the blood which is said to make an atonement for the soul is the blood of the victims; and to make an atonement for the soul is the same as to be a ransom for the soul, as will appear by referring to Exodus 30:12-16; and to be a ransom for the soul is to avert death. 'They shall give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, that there be no plague among them,' by which their lives might be suddenly taken away. The 'soul' is also here used obviously for the life; the blood, or the life of the victims in all sacrifices, was substituted for the life of man, to preserve him from death, and the victims were therefore vicarious.

6. "The Hebrew word כפר , rendered atonement, signifying primarily to cover, to overspread, has been the subject of some evasive criticisms. It comnes, however, in the secondary sense, to signify atonement or propitiation, because the effect of that is to cover, or, in Scripture meaning, to remit offenses. The Septuagint also renders it by ἐξιλάσκομαι, to appease, to make propitious. It is used, indeed, where the means of atonement are not of the sacrificial kind; but these instances equally serve to evince the Scripture sense of the term, in cases of transgression, to be that of reconoiling the offended deity by averting his displeasure, so that when the atonetment for sin is said to be made by sacrifice, no doubt can remain that the sacrifice was strictly a sacrifice of propitiation. Agreeably to this conclusion, we find it expressly declared, in the several cases of pecular oblations for transgression of the divine commands, that the sins for which atonement was made by those oblations should be forgiven.

7. "As the notion that the sacrifices of the law emere not vicarious, but mere mulets and fines, is overturned by the general appointment of the blood to be an atonement for the souls, the forfeited lives, of men, so also is it contradicted by particular instances. Let us refer to Leviticus 6:15-16 : 'If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance in the holy things of the Lord, he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing, and shall add a fifth part thereto, and shall give it to the priest.' Here, indeed, is the proper fine for the trespass; but it is added, 'He shall bring for his trespass unto the Lord a ram without blemish, and the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him.' Thus then, so far from the sacrifice being the fine, the fine is distinguished from it, and with the ram only was the atonement made to the Lord for his trespass. Nor can the ceremonies with which the trespass and sin offerings were accompanied agree with any notion but that of their vicarious character. The worshipper, conscious of his trespass, brought an animal, his own property, to the door of the tabernacle. This was not a eucharistical act; not a memorial of mercies received, but of sins committed. He laid his hands upon the head of the animal, the symbolical act of transferring punishment, then slew it with his own hand, and delivered it to the priest, who burned the fat and part of the animal upon the altar; and, having sprinkled part tof the blood upon the altar, and in some cases upon the offerer himself; poured the rest at the bottom of the maltar. And thus, we are told, 'The priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.' So clearly is it made manifest by these actions, and by the description of their nature and end, that the animal bore the punishment of the offender, and that by this appointment he was reconciled to God, and obtained the forgiveness of his offenses.

8. "An equally strong proof that the life of the animal sacrifice was accepted in the place of the life of man is afforded by the fact that atonement was required by the law to be made, by sin offerings and burnt offerings, for even bodily distempers and disorders. It is not necessary to the argument to explain the distinctions between these various oblations, nor yet to inquire into the reason for requiring propitiation to be made for corporal infirmities, which in many cases could not be avoided. They were, however, thus connected with sin as the cause of all these disorders; and God, who had placed his residence among the Israelites, insisted upon a perfect ceremonial purity, to impress upon them a sense of his moral purity, and the necessity of purification of mind. Whether these were the reasons, or some others not at all discoverable by us, as such unclean persons were liable to death, and were exempted from it only by animal sacrifices. 'This appears from the conclusion to all the Levitical directions concerning the ceremonial to be observed in all such cases: 'Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in,' or by, 'their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle which is among them' (Leviticus 15:31). So that, by virtue of the sin offerings, the children of Israel were saved from a death which otherwise they would have suffered from their uncleanness, and that by substituting the life of the animal for the life of the offerer. Nor can it be urged that death is in these instances threatened only as the punishment of not observing these laws of purification; for the reason given in the passage just quoted shows that the threatening of death was not hypothetical upon their not bringing the prescribed purification, but is grounded upon the fact of 'defiling the tabernacle of the Lord which was among them,' which is supposed to be done by all uncleanness, as such, in the first instance.

9. "As a further proof of the vicarious character of the principal sacrifices of the Mosaic economy we may instance those statedly offered for the whole congregation. Every day were offered two lambs, one in the morning and the other in the evening, 'for a continual burnt offering.' To these daily victims were to be added weekly two other lambs for the burnt offering of every Sabbath. None of these could be considered in the light of fines for offenses. since they were offered for no particular person, and must be considered therefore, unless resolved into an unmeaning ceremony, pecular and vicarious. To pass over, however, the monthly sacrifices, and those offered at the great feasts, it is sufficient to fix upon those, so often alluded to in the Epistle to the Hebrews, offered on the solemn anniversary of expiation. On that day, to other prescribed sacrifices, were to be added another ram for a burnt offering, and another goat, the most eminent of the sacrifices for a sin offering, whose blood was to be carried by the high-priest into the inner sanctuary, which emas not done by the blood of any other victim, except the bullock, which was offered time same day as a sin offering for the family of Aaron. The circumstances of this ceremony, whereby atonement was to be made 'for all the sins' of thee whole Jewish people, are so strikingly significant that they deserve a particular detail. On the day appointed for this general expiation the priest is commanded to offer a bullock and a goat as sin offerings, the one for himself and the other for the people; and, having sprinkled the blood of these in due form before the mercy seat, to lead forth a second goat, denominated 'the scapegoat;' and, after laying both his hands upon the head of the scape-goat, and confessing over him all the iniquities of the people, to put them upon the head of the goats and to send the animal, thus bearing the sins of the people, away into the wilderness; in this manner expressing, by an action which cannot be misunderstood, that the atonement, which, it is affirmed, was to be effected by the sacrifice of the sin offering, consisted in removing from the people their iniquities by this translation of them to the animal. For it is to be remarked that the ceremony of the scape-goat is not a distinct one: it is a continuation of the process, and is evidently the concluding part and symbolical consummation of the sin offering; so that the transfer of the iniquities of the people upon the head of the scapegoat, and the bearing them away into the wilderness, manifestly imply that the atonement effected by the sacrifice of the sin offering consisted in the transfer and consequent removal of those iniquities.

10. "How, then, is this impressive and singular ceremonial to be explained? Shall we resort to the notion of mulcts and fines? If so, then this and other stated sacrifices must be considered in the light of penal enactments. But this cannot aggree with the appointment of such sacrifices annually in succeeding generations: 'This shall be a statute forever unto you.' The law appoints a certain day in the year for expiating the sins both of the high- priest himself and of the whole congregation, and that for all high-priests and all generations of the congregation. Now, could a law be enacted inflicting a certain penalty, at a certain time, upon a whole people, as well as upon their high-priest, thus presuming upon their actual transgression of it? The sacrifice was also for sins in general; and yet the penalty, if it were one, is not greater than individual persons were often obliged to undergo for single trespasses. Nothing, certainly, can be maore absurd than this hypothesis. Shall we account for it by saying that sacrifices were offered for thee benefit of the worshipper, but exclude the notion of expiation? But here we are obliged to confine the benefit to reconciliation and the taking away of sins, and that by the appointed means of the shedding of blood, and the presentation of blood in the holy place, accompanied by the expressive ceremony of imposition of hands upon the head of the victim; the import of which act is fixed, beyond all controversy, by the priests confessingr over that victim the sins of all the people, and at the same time imprecating upon its head the vengeance due to them (Leviticus 16:21). Shall we content ourselves with merely saying that this was a symbol? But the question remains, Of what was it the symbol? To determine this, let the several parts of the symbolic action be enumerated. Here is confession of sin; confession before God at the door, of the tabernacle; the substitution of a victim; the figurative transfer of sins to that victim; the shedding of blood, which God appointed to make atonemument for the soul; the carrying the blood into the holiest place, the very permission of which clearly marked the divine acceptance; the bearing away of iniquity; and the actual reconciliation of the people to God. If, then, this is symbolical, it has nothing very correspondent with it; it never had or can have anything correspondent to it but the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and the communication of the benefits of his passion in the forgiveness of sins to those that believe in him, and ir. their reconciliation emwith God.

Shall we, finally, say that those sacrifices had respect, not to God, to obtain pardon by expiation, but to the offerer, teaching him moral lessons, and calling forth moral dispositions? We answer that this hypothesis leaves many of the essential circumstances of the ceremonial wholly unaccounted for. The tabernacle and temple were erected for the residence of God by his own command. There it was his will to be approached, and to these sacred places the victims were required to be brought. Anywhere else they might as well have been offered, if they had had respect only to the offerer; but they were required to be brought to God, to be offered according to a prescribed ritual, and by an order of men appointed for that purpose. Now truly there is no reason why they should be offered in the sanctuary rather than in any other place, except that they were offered to the Inhabitant of the sanctuary; nor could they be offered in his presence without having respect to him. There were some victims whose blood, on the day of atonement, was to be carried into the inner sanctuary; but for what purpose can we suppose the blood to have been carried into the most secret place of the divine residence, except to obtain the favor of him in whose presence it was sprinkled? To this we may add that the reason given for these sacred services is not in any case a mere moral effect to be prcduced upon the minds of the worshippers: they were 'to make atonement,' that is, to avert God's displeasure, that the people might not 'die.' 11. "We may find, also, another more explicit illustration in the sacrifice of the passover. The sacrificial character of this offering is strongly marked; for it was an offering brought to the tabernacle; it was slain in the sanctuary, and the blood was sprinkled upon the altar by the priests. It derives its name from thee passing over and sparing of the houses of the Israelites, on the door-posts of which the blood of the immolated lamb was sprinkled, when the first-born in the houses of the Egyptians were slain; and thus we have another instance of life being spared by time instituted means of animal sacrifice., Nor need we confine ourselves to particular instances. 'Almost all things,' says an apostle, who surely knew his subject, 'are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood there is no remission.' Thus, by their very law, and by constant usage, were the Jews familiarized to the notion of expiatory sacrifice, as well as by the history contained in their sacred books, especially in Genesis, which speaks of the vicarious sacrifices offered by the patriarchs; and in the book of Job, in which that patriarch is said to have offered sacrifices for the supposed sins of his sons; and where Eliphaz is commanded, by a divine oracle, to offer a burnt-offering for himself and his friends, 'lest God should deal with themafter their folly.'

12. "On the sentiments of the uninspired Jewish writers on this point, the substitution of the life of the animal for that of the offerer, and, consequently, the expiatory nature of their sacrifices, Outram has given many quotations from their writings, which the reader may consult in his work on sacrifices. Two or three only may be adduced by way of specimen. R. Levi ben-Gerson says, 'The imposition of the hands of the offerers was designed to indicate that their sins were removed from themselves and transferred to the animal.' Isaac ben-Arama: 'He transfers his sins from himself, and lays them upon the head of the victim.' R. Moses ben-Nachiacan says, with respect to a sinner offering a victim, 'It was just that his blood should be shed, and that his body should be burned; but the Creator, of his mercy, accepted the victim from him as his substitute and ransom, that the blood of the animal might be shed instead of his blood- that is, that the blood of the animal might be given for his life.'

13. "Full of these ideas of vicarious expiation, then, the apostles wrote and spoke, and the Jews of their time heard and read, the books of the New Testament. The Socinian pretense is, that the inspired penmen used the sacrificial terms which occur in their writings figuratively; but we not only reply, as before, that they could not do this honestly unless they had given notice of this new application of the established terms of the Jewish theology; but, if this be assumed, it leaves us wholly at a loss to discover what that really was which they intended to teach by these sacrificial terms and allusions. They are themselves utterly silent as to this point; and the varying theories of those who reject the doctrine of atonement, in fact, confess that their writings afford no solution of the difficulty. If, therefore, it is blasphemous to suppose, on the one hand, that inspired men should write on purpose to mislead, so, on the other, it is utterly inconceivable that, had they only been ordinary writers, they should construct a figurative language out of terms which had a definite and established sense, without giving any intimation at all that they employed them otherwise than in their received meaning, or telling us why they adopted them at all, and more especially when they knew that they must be interpreted, both by Jews and Greeks, in a sense which, if the Socinians are right, was in direct opposition to that which they in tended to convey."

Some modern writers deny the expiatory character of the Jewish sacrifices. So Bushnell (Vicarious Sacrifice, page 425) asserts that no such thing as expiation is contained or supposed to be wrought out in the Scripture sacrifices. On this see British Quarterly, October 1866, reprinted in the Theol. Eclectic (New Haven), 4:397; and also an article on the Expiatory Nature of the Atonenzent (Brit. Quarterly, October 1867; also in the Theol. Eclectic, 5:201 sq.). (See ATONEMENT); (See REDEMPTION); (See SACRIFICE).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Expiation'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/e/expiation.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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