Monthly Archives: January 2007

Fuller on the Atonement

FULLER AND THE ATONEMENT

Fuller, in opposition to the commercial view of the atonement, consistently defines atonement as a substitutionary sacrifice that expressed divine displeasure against sin:

“…displeasure is expressed against transgression…. Thus, in the death of Christ, though he died, ‘the just for the unjust,’ yet God herein expressed his displeasure against sin…” (Works, I:362).

“…if its [atonement] grand object were to express the Divine displeasure against sin, (Rom viii.3), and so to render the exercise of mercy, in all the way wherein sovereign wisdom should determine to apply it.” (Works, II:373–74).

It does that, but it does much more than that. The atonement is essential because it appeases the wrath of God against the guilty sinner by the fact that God’s wrath is directed against his substitute, the perfect sacrifice of Christ. God is not merely expressing his displeasure; his displeasure is being appeased in the atonement. The purpose of the atonement was not to reveal the offense but to remove it. Reconciliation is the grand object, yet Fuller states that the object of the atonement is two-fold: “the great ends designed were to express God’s love of righteousness and his abhorrence of unrighteousness; and these ends are answered by the obedience of sufferings of Christ…. But his obedience unto death, which includes both, gloriously answered every end of moral government, and opened a way by which God could honorably, not only pardon the sinner who should believe in Jesus, but bestow upon him eternal life” (Atonement and Justification, pp. 72–73).

Even as he limits total depravity to the moral faculty of man, Fuller restricts atonement to a moral sense, as a crime. “Sin is a debt only in a metaphorical sense; properly speaking, it is a crime, and satisfaction for it requires to be made, not on pecuniary, but on moral principles” (Atonement and Justification, p. 68). When Christ made atonement for sin, he did not resolve a debt, but satisfied the spirit of the law by a public demonstration of divine displeasure with sin.

“The sufferings of Christ in our stead, therefore, are not a punishment inflicted in the ordinary course of distributive justice, but an extraordinary interposition of infinite wisdom and love; not contrary to, but rather above the law—deviating from the letter, but more than preserving the spirit of it. Such, as well as I am able to explain them, are my views of the substitution of Christ” (Atonement and Justification, p. 71).

Fuller refused to consider the atonement in pecuniary terms, as a literal payment of a debt. An exact payment for an exact number of sinners with varying degrees of guilt would be inconsistent with free forgiveness of sin. Sinners are “directed to apply for mercy as supplicants, rather than claimants” (Works, p. 170).

“If the atonement of Christ proceed not on the principle of commercial, but of moral justice, or justice as it relates to crime—it its grand object were to express the Divine displeasure against sin, (Rom. viii.3,) and so to render the exercise of mercy, in all the ways wherein sovereign wisdom should determine to apply it, consistent with righteousness (Rom iii. 25)—if it be in itself equal to the salvation of the whole world, were the whole world to embrace it—and if the peculiarity which attends it consist not in its insufficiency to save more than are saved, but in the sovereignty of it application—no such inconsistency can justly be ascribed to it” (Works, pp. 170–71).

Fuller seems to be expressing a penal satisfaction, but he uses non-penal language, overcompensating for his opposition to a pecuniary sacrifice. He uses, instead governmental, moral expressions which give the overtone of a Grotian atonement. Fuller is reluctant to talk in terms of legal equivalents, but that is what Christ’s atonement provided for—a voluntary payment of a debt. But, of course, it was much more than that. Rolland McCune writes,
“Penal satisfaction recognizes that Jesus’s sufferings were different from that of an ordinary human being, but they were the legal equivalent to the infinite debt that sinners owed. His suffering for sin was a generic one not a numerical one. Suffering must be equal but not necessarily identical. Identical suffering must actually be by the guilty sinner himself. Dabney speaks of a stick of wood and an ingot of gold being subjected to the same fire. One is consumed and the other is melted. So the sufferings of Christ and their effects on Him differ from what they would do to the sinner himself. ‘The infinite dignity of Christ’s person gives to His temporal sufferings a moral value equal to the weight of all the guilt of the world'” (Systematic Theology Notes, p. 149, citing Dabney, p. 505).

Others may have more insight into Fuller’s view of the atonment which I would be most happy to see.

Gerald Priest

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