Atonement in Evangelical and Liberal Thought VII

     In my first essay in this series, the reader’s attention was drawn to the root meaning of the word atonement expressed in Tindale’s coining of the word. This is Christ’s work on the cross in which He secured an at-one-ment with God for His elect. This meaning is expressed clearly in Paul’s words to the Ephesians where he explains how even the elect were at enmity with God with no hope in the world but “now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”  Through Christ’s vicarious work on the cross as the new Adam, the middle wall of partition has been broken down and, in union with our Head Christ, we are at peace with God.

The doctrine of reconciling atonement challenged

     This doctrine of reconciliation through the atoning work of Christ was one of the first prophecies of the Bible and formed the basis of the sum total of types, sacrifices and promises in the Old Testament dispensation. Through the shedding of Christ’s blood, we have access to the Father. This doctrine of doctrines has always been a thorn in the fleshly reasoning of irrational man. When Hugh I’Anson Fawcet read Cowper’s There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, he pronounced it  ‘barbarous’. Sir David Cecil tells us that the language of reconciliation is “in the blood-stained imagery originally used by some half-naked prophet to an Oriental tribe among the precipitous cliffs of a Syrian desert.’ Perhaps it is no wonder that many a pseudo-evangelical theologian has denied that reconciliation took place on the cross and looks upon it as a work of man’s agency in accepting the gospel. Indeed, the Biblical doctrine of at-one-ment with God secured through the vicarious sufferings and obedience of Christ is now widely denied by Arminians, Baxterians and Fullerites. Worse still, even highly respected Reformed writers have given up this precious doctrine.

Separating the inseparable

     Symptomatic of this trend is Arthur W. Pink’s work The Satisfaction of Christ . Long out of print, this book has recently been republished,  highlighting the modern taste for an atonement without at-one-ment. Pink, known otherwise as a pillar of orthodoxy, though his works usually appear in highly edited forms, is now published verbatim as denying the Biblical doctrine of reconciliation. Indeed, in his denial Pink boasts that he is revealing novelties of the gospel “completely unknown to almost all of our readers – so superficial to the last degree are the pulpit-ministrations of the best today!”  Christians, he tells us, confuse the nature of the atonement with its fruits. He goes on to say:

“A pertinent example of what we have just said is seen in the now almost current idea that the Atonement of Christ signifies ‘at-one-ment,’ the bringing of God and the sinner together. But that is not the meaning of the term at all, either as used in Scripture or as employed in sound theology. Reconciliation is one of the many effects or fruits of Christ’s Atonement, but was not part of the work he did. Many others have failed to distinguish between what Christ did and that which has resulted therefrom.”

     Pink seeks to separate the attributes, effects and activities of the atonement from the meritorious and causal event on the Cross, seeing them effected mediately (rather than applied ) somewhere in the future when a sinner comes to faith. Thus, for Pink – and he emphasises this on several occasions so that there is no chance of misunderstanding him – reconciliation has nothing immediately to do with what Christ actually did on Calvary but with what eventually resulted from it, taking other factors into consideration. In his chapter The Atonement – Its Efficacy, Pink seeks to shock his readers by saying “The work of Christ, of itself, never did, never will, and never can, save a single soul.”  His subsequent attempt to qualify this statement and thus soothe the shocked reader did not appease this writer. His plea that “It is vitally important to distinguish between what Christ did and that which has resulted therefrom” can only confuse. It is vitally important not to separate them as one cannot remove the attributes of an objective saving act from the act itself. If the work of reconciliation were not wrought out at the atonement and is not the work of Christ, then however Pink strives to legitimise his idea of reconciliation by seeing it as an effective work of spiritual fruit, he is denying the fundament of the Christian faith. He is saying that the connection between atonement and reconciliation is neither direct nor immediate. Here Smeaton is far more reliable than Pink as he pounds home all that really and truly was immediately accomplished and effected in the atonement.  Smeaton warns against any mediate interpretation of the atonement, no matter how ‘pious’ such interpretations are. The act of atonement is not to be seen as a physical, pictorial illustration or metaphor of spiritual disposition to come. Nor is it to be seen as a right purchased for future effect or fruit-bearing, as Pink argues. It is the act of redemption itself: the act of reconciling man with God. This is the very meaning of the term.

The New is in the Old concealed

     It is here that Pink shows grave linguistic weakness. Pink develops a differential theology of atonement, reconciliation, redemption and ransom based on the different English words used in translation the Scriptures without paying due note to their actual meaning. For reasons of space, one example must suffice.  Arguing that there is ‘an important difference’ between ransom and redemption, the former being a mere price paid and the latter meaning ‘accepting deliverance,’ Pink quotes Jer. 31:11, “For the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he.” and Hos. 13:14, “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death.” This is pure Hebrew poetry known as Hebrew parallelism where the same thing is expressed in two different ways. The method the A.V. translators used to depict this poetic form shows the high standard of their own literary capacities. However, had Pink looked up the word for ‘ransom’ in Jer. 31:11, he would have found gah-al (lag) and had he looked up the word for ‘redeem’ in Hos. 13:14, he would have found the very same word. The same term, rendered by either ransom or redemption means to free from captivity or punishment by paying a price.  The same root word is used by Job when he says that he knows his Redeemer lives and the same word is used to indicate a kinsman and even one who defiles himself. Here we see the full gospel in one word, Christ our Kinsman and federal Head became Sin for us that He might redeem us from the curse of the law. This is the work of reconciliation. If Pink had looked further into the doctrine of reconciliation outlined in Leviticus, he would have seen that the root of the word koh-pher (???), is also used for redemptive mercy and ransom yet also expresses reconciliation and atonement. Furthermore, it is the same word used for a protective covering, satisfaction and purging. Here again, we have the entire gospel in a single word. In His work of reconciliation, Christ covered our sins by His blood, thus purging them away when He made satisfaction on the cross. Truly, one can find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Playing into the hands of the un-reformed

     Actually, this idea of Pink’s plays fully into the hands of the Fullerites. They say that reconciliation is effected through the act of believing which gives atonement its purpose and actuality. The Bible teaches, however, that the atonement secured its purpose and carried out its aim in the historical act. This atoning act is not conditional to any agency of man. The atoning act is the will of God before the foundation of the world, worked out in Christ’s redeeming death on the cross. Andrew Fuller always seeks to separate the attributes of the saving act from the act itself. He sees the act as being performed by Christ but the attributes as being effected when the believer grasps out and takes them. He does not accept Christ’s act on the Cross as the once and for all time saving and securing activity of the atonement. Though Pink is most obviously, in other respects, no Fullerite, what he says here supports the error. Indeed he teaches that the work of reconciliation has nothing ‘really’ or ‘actually’ to do with the atonement. But our union with Christ is secured and vouchsafed in the atonement. It is not a by-product, nor a possibility awaiting fruition at some future date.

     Pink complains about “the horrible and blasphemous idea of Arminians” regarding the atonement but rests his own view of atonement without reconciliation on three factors which remind one of the accusations John Wesley made in his Preservative against Unsettled Notions in Religion against his former pupil James Hervey who put Wesley right in his Aspasio Vindicated. The controversy arose because Wesley took the doctrines of reconciliation, pardon, freedom from guilt and placed them all in the act of believing through the operation of the Spirit. All the attributes of atonement are thus found in conversion and growth in grace but not before.

Atonement and the work of the Spirit

     On taking up this denial of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross with Pink’s present publisher’s, I was told that my view by-passed the Spirit’s work and did not take into account experimental salvation. It is good to be reminded of such essential matters, without which no saving faith is possible but we must view the work of the Trinity biblically and historically and also think of the current inroads that are being made in evangelical thinking. Arminians and especially Pentecostals have long emphasised ‘the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s saving operations,” but for the wrong reasons. Pentecostals tend to subordinate the work of the Father and the Son to the work of the Spirit in salvation. Arminians come near them as they have no doctrine of the Father’s particular election nor the Son’s vicarious fulfilling of the law and particular pardon gaining sacrifice, thus removing our guilt. When Hervey read of such a wrong view of the Spirit’s work from Wesley’s pen, he told him plainly what Pink should have known, i.e. “The work of the Spirit in the believer is not the cause of our acquittal and reconciliation but the privilege of those who are acquitted and reconciled.” The believer receives what Christ has worked out from eternity for him.

     Experimental salvation is not separating the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the atonement but believing in the covenant work of the Trinity in providing a ransom for our sins. It is faith in what Christ has done for us and is doing in us. This is the work of the Spirit, to reveal Christ to our hearts as our Saviour. Seeing reconciliation as the delayed action of the cross in our lives wrought out by our wilful participation ‘in memoriam,’ as it were, of what was there provided but not secured is not reconciliation in any way at all.

Atonement as a pardoning work

     Pink has obviously a wrong view of reconciliation because he has a wrong view of pardon. He views pardon as coming in stages. The atonement, he argues, takes care of pre-conversion sins and grants pardon and freedom from guilt for them alone. Quoting T. Manton (1620-1677), he argues “Sins to come cannot be properly said to be pardoned, for till they are committed we are not guilty of them.”  Pardon comes for post-conversion sins, Pink explains as repentance and faith are practised. Wesley had a similar view and complained against Hervey’s view of perfect and full pardon at Calvary. He teased Hervey whose trust was in the finished work of Christ by saying: “If Christ’s perfect obedience be ours, we have no more need of pardon than Christ himself.” Wesley did not believe what he was saying but taunted Hervey with what he thought was a ridiculous proposal. Hervey, however, saw the logic as being completely Biblical. He agreed that we have no more need of pardon as pardon was fully obtained for us in Christ’s atoning work. Hervey thus points Wesley to Heb. 10:14, “By one offering, he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” Believers, Hervey explains, commenting on the verse, are not reconciled for one day or one year, according to how they fall in and out of grace; they are reconciled for ever. “The pardon is irrevocable; the blessing inalienable.” Note that Hervey believed that pardon was full because reconciliation was complete. Pink denies both these factors. Reconciliation, he maintains, is not the work of Christ in the atonement and full pardon is conditional to the behaviour of the believer. Though Hervey believed in full reconciliation and pardon in the cross, he nevertheless daily prayed for forgiveness, knowing the weakness of the remaining man of sin in him. But he prayed with the assurance that forgiveness was ever his own. He prayed from pardon, from faith and from freedom of guilt as already obtained rather than for pardon, for faith, for freedom from guilt as things still to be effected. There is a difference in praying for forgiveness because one has been reconciled and praying for forgiveness to be reconciled. Pink’s doctrine of purchased but unforgiven believers cries out to be worked over and put on a more Biblical basis

Atonement in stages

     Pink, however, in challenging the ‘It is finished’ of Christ’s redeeming death, separating the event from its attributes, develops a strange doctrine of cleansing from sin in three stages starting not at the cross but at an initial remittance of sin at the resurrection where the right to forgiveness is procured but not that forgiveness itself.  We must then see Christ’s blood, he argues, as acting in three ways; as shed, as pleaded and as sprinkled. The shedding refers to the remission of sins by which Christ purchased and procured a right to forgiveness for us. The pleading of the blood is Christ’s work in heaven continually presenting its merits on our behalf to the Father, and our continually pleading its merits for ourselves. The sprinkling of the blood comes next when it is “actually sprinkled or applied to our conscience,” in order that we might receive forgiveness after new guilt has been incurred. When Wesley came with a similar argument to Hervey, the Anglican saint gave him Daniel 9:24. The work of the Redeemer is “to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness.” This was the complete work of the reconciling atonement and a clear refutation of Pink’s extraordinary theory. If Christ did not make reconciliation for iniquity on the cross, then we would be still in our sins and of all men most miserable. Thanks be to God that Christ really and truly did remove our iniquities in His work of reconciliation on the cross!

The Old is in the New revealed

     The clearest refutation of Pink’s view comes from Paul when he says in Romans 5:10-11,

“For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.”

A brief glance at the Greek text shows that Paul uses the same word katallasso (??????????) for reconciliation as he does for atonement. The basic meaning of this word is to exchange one thing for another or give payment and to change a person from enmity to friendship. Again, we have the entire gospel in this word. Jesus Christ, exchanged His life for ours and paid the penalty of His own blood in order to reconcile us with the Father. When viewed in the light of Scripture, Pink’s doctrine of delayed-action pardon and an atonement without reconciliation is seen to be totally erroneous. It must be thus condemned as such and seen as dangerous in the hands of those who have, up to now, known Pink as an orthodox man and will thus accept anything new from him in trust and dependency on his good standing. It must be shown that whoever our mentors in the faith, whether they be called Pink, Gill, Witsius, Spurgeon or Bavinck, these men are only good guides to us as long as they have their eyes on Scripture and their gaze on Christ. If we fail to maintain this caution, we are neglecting our duties as watchmen.

The next and final essay in this series will take up the relation of justification to the atonement and the preaching of the gospel.