Christ’s death and God’s will

George Smeaton, The Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement:

Peter intimates that God subjected Him to death, and that He was not properly overcome by His enemies, — that it was the will of God, His determinate counsel or plan, that Messiah should be delivered as a malefactor into the hands of men, and be put to death with the forms of justice. With all the possible modes of carrying out this great counsel before the divine mind, this peculiar plan had been selected. He might have been cut off, had God willed it, by holy hands and a holy ministry ; but the Judge of all determined that it should be executed by the hands of the wicked and lawless. Or the Messiah might have been made the great moral sin-offering of the world by the immediate hand of God, without the intervention of any human agency to put Him to death. But the counsel of God with infinite wisdom appointed otherwise, to the church’s unspeakable advantage. Not only was the fact of Christ’s death appointed, but the mode of it. The sinless Surety, taking our guilt, and placing Himself at the divine tribunal, was to be delivered in the guise of a malefactor into the hands of the wicked, and brought forth to be examined, sentenced, and condemned by a judicial tribunal, that it might be evident that He was innocent, and yet accounted guilty, — that is, that the punishment of the guilty passed over to the sinless Substitute. Had the transaction been in secret, we could not so fully have been assured of this exchange of places.

The statement here made, that God by a judicial act delivered Jesus into the hands of men, gives us a right conception of His vicarious death. That great transaction was the result of divine appointment, and had its validity on that account. On the one hand, if the ransom was to possess any value, it must be of God, and not against His will; for without divine appointment it could not have served the purpose. The judicial sentence by which He became the object of punishment, and was delivered into the hands of sinners, was carried into effect solely on the ground that He was already a sin- bearer in our stead by express covenant with the Father. He had a full exemption from penal infliction on the ground of two absolute securities — His perfect sinlessness, and His relation as the only begotten Son. He was secured in a perfect immunity from suffering of every kind; and He could be delivered over to penal visitation only with His own consent, and because He could resume His life which He condescended to resign. The delivery presupposes sin-bearing by suretyship or substitution; for how otherwise could He have been the object of punitive justice? How else could justice have touched Him? It could not by possibility have reached Him except on the ground that our sin was laid on Him as the Head and Representative of His people. But God delivered Him over, as a judge delivers a malefactor to punishment, because their guilt was made His own.…

As to the mode of His death, Christ was to be tried and judged by men. The manner of His death, as well as the atoning death itself, were equally appointed in God’s counsel and outlined in prophecy. Our Surety was accounted guilty, while personally sinless; and however Pilate pronounced Him without fault, and acquitted Him, there was another tribunal whose sentence was only registered at that earthly tribunal, and there, though personally innocent, He was in His capacity as Mediator by no means innocent. What He bore was in respect of man most unjust, but perfectly just in respect of God. It is urged that He could not be the object of punitive visitation, for it would be unworthy of a sinless being to be treated as a sinner. The answer is obvious: He was not the object of divine punishment on His own account, or considered in His personal relation to His Father. But He sustained the person of sinful men, and bore their sin, as the prophets and apostles again and again repeat. The object of the Father’s delight personally, He was the object of punitive justice as the representative of sinners. The question, therefore, comes to this: Was sin the proper object of punishment? Is this an innate belief or first principle in natural theology? The reason why it pleased the Lord to bruise Him was, that sin could not be discharged without punishment, on account of the insult or wrong done to the divine perfections. Thus the infliction was just in respect of God, who visited sin with its due recompense of reward. When He was arraigned at a human tribunal as a rebel and blasphemer, that was but an emblem of what we had merited at the hand of God, or of what the Surety actually endured in our stead as a satisfaction to divine justice. An invisible hand executed in an infinite measure those punishments of which we see the outward form in the arrest and bonds, the stripes and scourging, the condemnation and mockery, the shame and casting out of the camp, as well as in the expressions which fell from Him amid His desertion. What came from man, was but a feeble outline of what came from the hand of God. That outward punishment showed the chastisement and curse which God Himself was inflicting upon the Surety; for behind the visible tribunal and the visible infliction was hid something infinitely more formidable which He suffered immediately at the hand of God. There were visitations and desertions infinitely more severe than any stripes that were visible, when He was made to feel the turpitude and guilt of sin, and to realize His obligation to punishment, temporal and eternal. But it is not possible to conceive what He endured.

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