Hugh Martin on the Atonement – A Review by Donald Macleod
The Presbyterian Church in Scotland is heir to a rich theological tradition, and one of the glories of that tradition is its passion for the doctrine of the atonement.
There were several reasons for this. One was that our preachers took with deadly seriousness Paul’s directive, ‘we preach Christ crucified’. Another was the nature of the Scottish Communion Service. At the heart of this Service lay the ‘Action Sermon’, so called not because it was a prelude to the ‘action’ of distributing the elements, but because it was the Thanksgiving or Eucharistic Sermon (the Latin for thanksgiving is gratiarum actio). Since Communion was a remembrance of Christ’s death, this sermon almost always focussed (and still does, I hope) on the sufferings of Christ and the doctrine of the atonement. There is a splendid example of such preaching in Rutherford’s Communion Sermons, edited by Andrew Bonar and published in 1876.
The word ‘atonement’ is not itself directly biblical. It is a purely English word which, reduced to its elements, simply means at-one-ment. The concern of the doctrine of the atonement is to clarify how this oneness was brought about, and Scotland’s most eminent theologians, including William Cunningham and George Smeaton of the Free Church and Thomas Crawford of the Church of Scotland, treated the question extensively. But the most thrilling and stimulating treatment is that of Hugh Martin, first published in 1870 and now available in a brand new edition with a foreword by John C. A. Ferguson and Sinclair B. Ferguson.1
ATONEMENT AND COVENANT
Martin begins by reminding us that Christ’s work of atonement was the result of an eternal covenant between the three persons of the trinity. We need to be careful how we picture the scene here. It doesn’t mean that the Three sat down at a table, negotiated and then delivered a communiqué (the gospel). The covenant is part of the eternal, unspoken communion between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each fully acquainted with the mind of the others. They share a common love for the world: a love which has neither beginning nor cause, but was there from all eternity. Together, as the eternal trinity, they resolve to save the world, and in that work each will have his own unique personal role. In particular, the Son joyfully accepts the ‘honour’ (Heb. 5:4) of serving as Mediator between God and the human race. This role involves both a specific work (John 17:4) and specific promises. The result, writes Martin, is that whatever Christ did he designed to do; and he designed to do it because he was designated to it. At every point he was acting by commission, within the framework of a ‘regular, full, complete covenant.’
This covenant is no abstract theological speculation. Martin links it directly to evangelism. ‘The gospel call,’ he writes, ‘comes forth from the covenant, and summons sinners into it.’ And to those who argue that Calvinists cannot offer a universal call because they do not believe in universal redemption, he says, quite simply, that the one thing which a universal call takes for granted is ‘that sinners are outside the covenant.’ Christ is to be offered to every outsider.
WHY DID THE WRATH FALL ON CHRIST?
Another idea which Martin highlights brilliantly is the absolute ‘right-ness’ of Christ having to endure the anger of God. The starting-point here is the unqualified necessity of that anger. It’s not as if God sat down one day, gave the matter some thought and decided, ‘I think I’ll be angry with sin.’ Quite the contrary, writes Martin. Anger originates not in the will of God, but in his nature: ‘On the supposition of sin, the Divine nature, and particularly the Divine holiness, assumes necessarily the aspect of wrath.’ God recoils from even the smallest sin with the sort of involuntary revulsion we feel when we read of, for example, 200 Nigerian schoolgirls being abducted and sold as sex slaves. We don’t decide that on balance we should probably be upset. We are upset, yet our upset is but a pale shadow of the revulsion God feels in the presence of evil. Even our own benighted consciences tell us that we deserve his anger.
But why did the wrath of God alight here, at Calvary? Christ had no sin. Are we living, then, in a universe which is ‘one vast hell of suspense and horror,’ where the anger of God can fall anywhere, anytime, even where it is not deserved? No, says Martin. The wrath falls here, at Calvary, precisely because it is deserved; and it is deserved because in the eternal communion (covenant) between the Father and the Son, Christ made himself one with his people. He covenanted to become their substitute; his position as substitute justifies his suffering in their place; and his substitutionary self-offering, bearing the curse that we deserved, satisfies God that it is right to forgive us and be at peace with us.
Calvary, then is not the scene of some heroic martyrdom or some solemn tragedy or some dreadful miscarriage of justice. It is the place where God, the Eternal Word, has covenanted to bear our sin; and where he suffers, not only with us, but for us: in our place.
This is why the remission of the believer’s sin is so complete. There is nothing to add: not our tears, not the labour of our hands, not our zeal in Christian service. As Martin puts it (quoting the ‘ever to be lamented William Cunningham’), Christ has fulfilled all ‘the righteousness which God’s righteousness requires him to require.’ In him, we are whiter than the snow.
THE CROSS AS VICTORY
But it is when he stresses that the death of Christ was not simply a suffering, but a victory, that Martin is at his very best. ‘I refuse to believe in the cross as a mere passive endurance,’ he writes. On the contrary, ‘Christ acted in dying. It was his duty to die – his official duty.’ But it was not only a duty. It was a triumph: in the hour of his extremest weakness he defied and vanquished the world’s utmost evil. When earth and hell and heaven conspired to subdue him, his action outlasted and outlived them all. His cross became his throne, a chariot of victory and triumph, the means by which God destroyed the principalities and powers and put them to an open shame (Col. 2:15).
It is easy to walk away from such reflections as if they should be left to theologians with nothing better to do. Martin would have had little patience with this. Instead, he saw the theology of the cross as the mother of spiritual life: a point borne out, surely, by the way the Lord’s Supper portrays the Christian life as a life of ‘remembrance’ focussed on the death of Jesus. But Martin also saw the doctrine of the cross as the very heart of evangelism, where ‘theology ransacks all her brightest treasures’ and turns them into arguments for ‘charming’ and ‘compelling’ those outside to come in.
In its relations to the covenant, the priesthood, the intercession of our Lord
The Presbyterian Church in Scotland is heir to a rich theological tradition, and one of the glories of that tradition is its passion for the doctrine of the atonement. There were several reasons for this. One was that our preachers took with deadly seriousness Paul’s directive, ‘we preach Christ crucified’. Another was the nature of […]
Reprinted with permission from The Record (Free Church of Scotland), August 2014.
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