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John Dick on Christ Suffering the Just Equivalent Not the Quantum of the Law’s Punishment

May 22, 2009


1) But how, it may be asked again, could the sufferings of Jesus Christ satisfy for the sins of “a great multitude which no man can number, out of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues?” The common answer is, that the transcendent value of his sufferings was the consequence of the dignity of his nature; and it seems to be sufficient. His sufferings were limited in degree, because the nature in which he endured them was finite; but their merit was infinite, because the suffering nature was united to the Son of God. An idea, however, seems to prevail, that his sufferings were the same in degree with those to which his people were liable; that he suffered not only in their room, but that quantum of pain and sorrow which, if he had not interposed, they should have suffered in their own persons through eternity; and so far has this notion been carried by some, that they have maintained that his sufferings would have been greater or less, if there had been one more, or one fewer to be redeemed. According to this system, the value of his sufferings arose, not from the dignity of his person, but from his power. The use of his Divine person in this case, was not to enhance the merit of his sufferings, but to strengthen him to bear them. If this is true, it was not necessary that he should have taken human nature into personal union with himself; it was only necessary that he should have sustained it; and this he could have done although it had subsisted by itself. That the sufferings of the man Christ Jesus were greater than those which a mere mortal could have borne, will be readily granted; but, although it does not become us to set limits to Omnipotence, yet we cannot conceive him, I think, considered simply as a man, to have sustained the whole load of Divine vengeance, which would have overwhelmed countless myriads of men through an everlasting duration. By its union to himself, his human nature did not become infinite in power; it was not even endowed with the properties of an angel, but continued the same essentially with human nature in all other men. Nor is the supposition which we are considering, at all necessary; for as, in virtue of the union, the sufferings of his human nature were the sufferings of the Son of God, they acquired an incalculable intensity of value, and were equivalent to the sufferings of all his people, as his obedience was equivalent to the obedience which they were bound individually to perform. The will of God determined their degree, and the dignity of his person imparted a worth to them above all price. This view of the subject does not occur, I believe, in some of our Theological systems, and in our popular books; but I persuade myself that it is just, and is preferable to the loose declamatory expressions which we often hear with respect to the greatness of his sufferings. John Dick, Lectures on Theology (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1850), 1:505-506

2) It has been objected to the vicarious nature of the death of Christ, which imports that he endured the punishment due to our sins, that he did not actually suffer the punishment to which we were liable, for his sufferings were temporary, whereas eternal death is the doom of transgressors. The objection comes with an ill grace from Socinians, who deny the eternity of future punishment, unless they mean to refute us from our own principles, or to use the argumentum ad hominem; but from whatever quarter it comes, it involves a difficulty which may occur to the attentive inquirer. It has been frequently said, that eternity is not a necessary adjunct of the punishment of sin, but arises from the limited capacity of creatures, who could not endure, in a definite time, the full execution of the penalty. I am disposed to call in question the accuracy of this statement, and to believe that it is not from the weakness of the subject that suffering will be perpetual, but because the penalty implies the final forfeiture of happiness; and that, by the constitution of things, the loss incurred is a total and irretrievable loss. Sin separates the creature from the Creator, without the possibility of reunion. Be this as it may, I remark, that, in considering the atonement of Christ, we are not to inquire what was the quantum of suffering, in order to ascertain whether it bore an exact proportion to the sufferings which would have fallen to the lot of those when he died to redeem. Some men have allowed themselves to go into estimates of this kind, and have presumptuously, and, in my opinion, nonsensically maintained, that the sum of suffering was so nicely adjusted between our Savior and the objects of his love, that, if there had been a single person more to be saved, his sufferings would have been proportionably augmented. They seem to have imagined, that he actually endured all the pain which the millions of the redeemed were doomed to endure throughout the whole of their being.–We should scarcely have expected arithmetical calculations to be introduced into a subject so little connected with them; but human speculations are sometimes pushed to an extravagant and ridiculous length. This comes from understanding our sins to be debts in a literal sense, and the sufferings of Christ to be such a payment as a surety makes in pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings. I remark by the way, that they have gone to the opposite extreme, who have ventured to affirm, that one drop of the blood of Christ would have been sufficient to redeem the world. They might be asked to tell us, why he shed so many drops, and even poured out his soul unto death, and whether they seriously believe that he suffered more than was necessary for the salvation of mankind? To return to the first calculators, they entirely overlook the personal dignity of our Savior, which must have given an unspeakable value to his sufferings; for had this been taken into the account, they would have seen, that such an accumulation of pain as they imagine was unnecessary. According to their hypothesis, the dignity of his person added nothing to the value of his sufferings, nor did they need to be enhanced by it, as they were equal in degree to the appointed sufferings of his people. We can hardly speak, without presumption, upon a subject so mysterious and awful. His sufferings were great, beyond the power of language to express, or of imagination to conceive; but if we admit that all the acts of his human nature were finite, we cannot consistently say that his sufferings were infinite in degree, and must consequently admit that their transcendent worth was owing to the union of that nature to the divine, lie did not, therefore, suffer all the pains and sorrows of sinners, but he suffered what was equivalent. It was the blond of his Son of God which was shed; it was the Lord of glory who was crucified. Hence, although his sufferings were temporary, they satisfied the demands of justice, and were a valid ground upon which God might pardon the sins of believers. It was not necessary that the sacrifice should remain for ever upon the altar, because it was so superior in worth to all Former sacrifices, so precious in itself, that, in the language of Scripture, God “smelled a savor of rest.”

Perhaps our ideas are not always distinct, when we speak of the death of Christ as a satisfaction for sin. That word, indeed, is used to signify any thing with which the person having a claim is contented, whether he receive the whole that he claims, or only a part of it, or something instead of it. In law, it strictly signifies a payment which may or may not be admitted, according to the pleasure of him to whom it is due; and it takes place when not the very thing is done which he had a right to demand, but something which he is pleased to accept as an equivalent. In the present case, what the law demanded was the death of the transgressors themselves; it was, therefore, a relaxation of the law, to admit another to die for them; and, on this account, the death of Christ was properly a satisfaction to justice; something with which it was content, although not the very thing which it originally required. It is on this ground that sinners were not ipso facto set free from guilt and condemnation, but continue under them till they believe. The reason is, that they did not themselves undergo the penalty, but another underwent it in their room; and the Lawgiver had a right to settle the terms of their actual deliverance. We need not, therefore, puzzle ourselves with inquiring how much Christ suffered; for, besides that this is a question which we are not competent to decide, it is enough to know, that he suffered all that was necessary to demonstrate the Divine abhorrence of sin, to maintain the authority of the law, and to exclude the impenitent from the hope of impunity. John Dick, Lectures on Theology (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1850), 2:72-74.

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