July 28, 2008

Ralph Wardlaw (1779–1853): Atonement not Commercial

There is a great deal too much, it is to be feared, in the conceptions of many regarding the atonement, of the principles of commutative or commercial justice,--of the literal notion of debt and its payment. It is a grievous mistake. That sins are called debts, is true. But they are debts, rather in a figurative than in a literal and proper sense. We owe obedience to God; and all our failure to render that due obedience, may be regarded as an accumulation of unpaid debt. But it is debt of which, when once contracted, the payment is impossible. Even the sinless perfection of obedience for the future cannot cancel it; any more than a man can discharge the bond for his past debts by punctual payments in time to come. We can never pay up obedience which we have failed to render, as a debtor may pay up principal and interest of what he owes, and defy thereafter demand or prosecution.--And, as we owe obedience, we owe satisfaction for disobedience. That satisfaction we can never render. It can, in our case, consist in nothing else save the endurance of the punishment, which, in consequence of our failing in what was due from us to God, has become due from God to us. "The wages of sin"--that which we have earned,--that which is, in justice, our due,—"is death."—Let it be remembered, that there is a material difference between the cancelling of a debt on payment of it by a surety, and the forgiveness of sin on account of a propitiation. The forgiveness of sin is simply the free remission of its punishment. The sinner who is pardoned, does not cease to be guilty, and to deserve the penalty. A debt of property may be paid by another; a debt of obedience never can. It is, in its very nature, intransferable. The sinner, in himself considered, can never cease to be guilty. A sinful creature may become a sinless creature. There may be an entire change in his nature. But a guilty creature can never become an innocent creature. That which has been done can never be undone; and that which has been deserved by the doing of it, can never cease to be deserved. No substitution, no atonement, can in this respect, alter the nature of things.--In these and other respects, the parallel between debtor, creditor, and surety in pecuniary transactions, and the sinner, the lawgiver, and the mediatorial substitute in the scheme of redemption, has by many been pressed too closely, to the injury of truth.—The atonement of Christ, then, we are satisfied, out not to be considered as at all proceeding on the principles of commutative or commercial justice; inasmuch as the payment of debt, according to this description of justice, strictly and properly cancels claim, and leaves no room for the exercise of grace.
Ralph Wardlaw, Discourses on the Nature and Extent of the Atonement of Christ (Glasgow: James Maclehose, 1844), 58–59.

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