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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Vicarious Suffering of Jesus Christ

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Under the head of ATONEMENT we have given a historical review of opinions on this subject, and in the article MEDIATION we have discussed the character and extent of the expiation effected; it remains to consider the ultimate ground or virtue of such a redemptive act. Why was it necessary that any victim should suffer in man's stead? The real need, as we conceive, lies not altogether in God's disposition, but quite as imperatively in that of the sinner himself. As the divine law being a transcript of the moral attributes of Deity, and therefore of all moral intelligences was but the product or creature (so to speak) of God himself, he may be conceived as having the sovereign right so far as his own attitude or interests are concerned to abrogate, waive, or suspend it or its penalty in any case upon his own terms or at his simple pleasure. But he could not do this arbitrarily, or in such away as to contradict his own nature that is, in such a manner as to countenance sin, to which he is essentially, absolutely, and forever opposed. Human sin, be it borne in mind, consists not so much in contravening God's express command as in violating the inherent prescriptions of the moral sense of the universe, including man himself. If, therefore, God should be so weak as to overlook or condone man's crimes, without the fulfillment of such conditions as should conserve that moral instinct, he would incur the contempt of the criminal himself. In other words, man, if pardoned at all, and if so as to feel himself really and justly forgiven, must be pardoned in accordance with the ordinance graven on his own moral constitution.

That ordinance may be summed up, if we may interpret it by consciousness, by the analogies of parental conduct and social release, and by the explicit terms of Holy Writ, in the one essential requirement of such a state of mind, on the part of the culprit, as warrants the presumption of voluntary non-repetition for the future of a like offence; that is, in one word, repentance. Without this no one feels that he can properly for himself, or safely for others, either forgive or be forgiven any fault. The question now is, How can this state of mind most certainly, effectually, and permanently be produced? That God could infallibly bring it about by a direct influence upon man's mind no one can doubt, and some have gone so far as to assert that this is the actual and invariable fact; but this is to deny free agency, and to stultify the whole course of the divine procedure in permitting any sin whatever. We know of no means so likely to reduce the natural rebellion and corruption of: the human heart as that which God has actually adopted, namely, by the presentation, in the person of the Redeemer, of a specimen of perfect holiness suffering the penalty due to the sinful race from pure motives of philanthropy and piety. This spectacle at once enhances the majesty of law, puts sin to the blush, and enkindles the least spark of magnanimity remaining in man's bosom.

There have been instances of similar devotion among friends on earth, and these have stirred the generous emotions of humanity wherever recounted; how much more the unprecedented self immolation of a disinterested (or rather offended) one in behalf of guilty man (Romans 5:7-8)! So far, then, from the vicarious suffering of Christ being necessary to appease the wrath of God, it is really seen to be the highest exhibition of his love yearning for some consistent plan of salvation (John 3:16). In point of fact, it is found that this act-as a divine and not merely human expression of sympathy does melt and subdue the sinful soul, when it comes to be apprehended under the Spirit's light of conviction, as no denunciations of vengeance or view of dangerous consequences can do. Yet the penalty must still be held in reserve for recusant and hardened cases, else the effect of the contrast itself would be-destroyed, and the conscience of the universe would be shocked. We conclude, then, in a last analysis, that the moral purpose and need of the death upon Calvary was for the condemnation of sin and for a crowning proof of divine intervention.

In a forensic point of view, it was substitutional, if so accepted by the party for whose benefit it was volunteered; but as a remedial measure, its virtue lies in its power to impress and win and reform (John 12:32). It is thus that the cross becomes the instrument of a glorious regeneration (Galatians 6:14). In other words, the final cause of the sacrifice of Christ is to be sought, not so much in any prudential considerations of the divine government or human society as in the essential nature of God himself and in man's conscience which is a copy of God's moral consciousness. Both these require a penalty for the violation of that law which is written in the constitution of the intelligent universe, not simply as a vindictive infliction for the past, nor merely as a safeguard against, the future, nor yet purely as a spectacular exhibition of infinite and gratuitous compassion, but chiefly and imperatively as a satisfaction to the instinctive and irrepressible sense of in desert which the view of sin excites in all right-minded beings, and to stamp it with an emphatic rebuke. This is wholly irrespective of personal interests, whether of resentment, injury, or pride, on the part either of individuals or of communities; it is alike, if not equally, shared by the Creator and the creature, by the innocent and the guilty.

To this grand sentiment all other ends are subordinate; and thus, as ever with great moral principles, the comparatively minor, although really immense, advantages of amnesty and protection and reformation are at the same time secured, not by a compromise, but by a full and inexorable adherence to the demands of everlasting right. The substitution of Jesus, the innocent victim, for the conscious culprit is indeed a device of that love which is always fertile in resources; but it is not an evasion of justice: it is an accomplishment of the law far more significant and effectual than the personal anguish of the sinner himself can be; and yet it leaves room for the latter also in the alternative of the refusal of the former. Just at this point, too, comes in appropriately the determinative weight of the human will, which God has left free to be cast into the scales of destiny. In the interval which divine forbearance has set between the sentence of the convict and his execution (Ecclesiastes 8:11; Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:9) an ample pardon has been provided, not by "executive clemency," but as a "receipt in full" from a friendly hand, which needs but the grantee's endorsement to make it valid. That act on the subject's part is genuine penitence, including the individual faith which alone prevents remorse from degenerating into despair (2 Corinthians 7:10); and this complex state of the soul a hopeful contrition-could, so far as we can see only be engendered by the proper apprehension, under the light of the Holy Spirit, of a just but relentless doom, vicariously but fully endured. In the Cross these demands all meet and harmonize.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Vicarious Suffering of Jesus Christ'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/v/vicarious-suffering-of-jesus-christ.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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