The doctrine of atonement by the death of Christ is one of the great and distinguishing principles of the gospel, and its importance is acknowledged by most denominations of professing Christians: yet there are some who suppose that this doctrine is not necessarily connected with the Divinity of Christ; and, indeed, that it is inconsistent with it. It has been objected, that according to the Scriptures it was the person of Christ that suffered; but that this is inconsistent with his Divinity, because Divinity could not suffer. To which it may be answered, that though the person of Christ suffered, yet that he suffered in all that pertains to his person is quite another thing. A great and virtuous character among men might suffer death by the axe or the guillotine, and this would be suffering death in his person; and yet he might not suffer in his honour or in his character, and so not in all that pertained to him. A Christian might suffer martyrdom in his body, and yet his soul be very happy. To object, therefore, that Christ did not suffer in his person, because all that pertained to him was not the immediate seat of suffering, is reasoning very inconclusively. It is sufficient if Christ suffered in that part of his person which was susceptible of suffering.
It has been objected, that, as humanity only is capable of suffering, therefore humanity only is necessary to make atonement. But this objection proceeds upon the supposition that the value of atonement arises simply from suffering, and not from the character or dignity of him who suffers; whereas the Scripture places it in the latter, and not the former. “The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin.”—He, “by himself, hath purged our sins.”—Some, who have allowed sin to be an infinite evil, and deserving of endless punishment, have objected to the necessity of an infinite atonement, by alleging that the question is not what sin deserves, but what God requires in order to exalt the dignity of his government, while he displays the riches of his grace in the forgiveness of sin. But this objection implies that it would be consistent with the Divine perfections to admit, not only what is equivalent to the actual punishment of the sinner, but of what is not equivalent; and, if so, what good reason can be given why God might not have entirely dispensed with a satisfaction, and pardoned sinners without any atonement? On this principle the atonement of Christ would be resolved into mere sovereign appointment, and the necessity of it would be wholly given up. But, if so, there was nothing required in the nature of things to exalt the dignity of the Divine government, whilst he displayed the riches of his grace; and it could not with propriety be said that “it became Him, for whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
If God required less than the real demerit of sin for an atonement, then there could be no satisfaction made to Divine justice by such an atonement. And though it would be improper to represent the great work of redemption as a kind of commercial transaction betwixt a creditor and his debtor, yet the satisfaction of justice in all cases of offence requires that there be an expression of the displeasure of the offended, against the conduct of the offender, equal to what the nature of the offence is in reality. The end of punishment is not the misery of the offender, but the general good. Its design is to express displeasure against disobedience; and where punishment is inflicted according to the desert of the offence, there justice is satisfied. In other words, such an expression of displeasure is uttered by the Lawgiver, that, in it, every subject of his empire may read what are his views of the evil which he forbids, and what are his determinations in regard to its punishment. If sinners had received in their own persons the reward of their iniquity, justice would in that way have been satisfied; and if the infinitely blessed God, “whose ways are higher than our ways, and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts,” has devised an expedient for our salvation, though he may not confine himself to a literal conformity to those rules of justice which he has marked out for us, yet he will be certain not to depart from the spirit of them. Justice must be satisfied even in that way. An atonement made by a substitute, in any case, requires that the same end be answered as if the guilty party had actually suffered. It is necessary that the displeasure of the offended should be expressed in as strong terms, or in a way adapted to make as strong an impression upon all concerned, as if the law had taken its course; otherwise atonement is not made, and mercy triumphs at the expense of righteousness.
Let it be inquired then whether this great end of moral government could have been answered by the sufferings of a mere creature. Some who deny the Divinity of Christ appear to be apprehensive that it could not, and have therefore supposed that God, in order, it should seem, to bring it within the compass of a creature’s grasp, required less of his Son than our sins deserved. It is true, indeed, if Christ be only a creature, it must be less, infinitely less, that was accepted, than what was strictly deserved. In the atonement of Christ, God is said to have “set him forth to be a propitiation—to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins.” Now this, as well as the nature of things, implies that one who makes an atonement must be of so much account in the scale of being as to attract the general attention. But the sufferings of a mere man, whose obedience could be no more than duty, or whose humiliation contained in it no condescension below the place that became him, would be no more adapted to excite the general attention of the intelligent creation than the sufferings of an insect would be to attract the attention of a nation. It were as rational to talk of the king of Great Britain setting forth a worm tortured on the point of a needle, to declare his regard to righteousness, while he pardoned the deluded votaries of the Pretender, as to talk of a mere creature being set forth as a propitiation for the declaration of the righteousness of God in the remission of human guilt.
To suppose, because humanity only is capable of suffering, that therefore humanity only is necessary to make atonement, is to render dignity of character of no account. When Zaleucus, one of the Grecian kings, had made a law against adultery, that whosoever was guilty of this crime should lose both his eyes, his own son is said to have been the first transgressor. To preserve the honour of the law, and at the same time to save his own son from total blindness, the father had recourse to an expedient of losing one of his own eyes, and his son one of his. This expedient, though it did not conform to the letter of the law, yet was well adapted to preserve the spirit of it, as it served to evince to the nation the determination of the king to punish adultery, as much, perhaps more than if the sentence had literally been put into execution against the offender. But if instead of this he had appointed that one eye of an animal should be put out, in order to save that of his son, or if a common subject had offered to lose an eye, would either have answered the purpose? The animal, and the subject, were each possessed of an eye, as well as the sovereign. It might be added, too, that it was mere bodily pain; and, seeing it was in the body only that this penalty could be endured, any being that possessed a body would be equally capable of enduring it. True, they might endure it, but would their suffering have answered the same end? Would it have satisfied justice? Would it have had the same effect upon the nation, or tended equally to restore the tone of injured authority?
Some have placed all the virtue of the atonement in the appointment of God. But, if so, why was it “not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sin?” It does not accord with the Divine proceedings to be prodigal of blood, especially in a superior character, where one far inferior might answer the same end. When, in order to try Abraham, Isaac was bound, and ready to be sacrificed, a lamb was found for a burnt-offering; and if any gift from the Divine Father, short of that of his only begotten Son, would have answered the great purposes of moral government, there is no reason to think that he would have made him a sacrifice, but would have spared him, and not freely have “delivered him up for us all.”
It has been objected, against the necessity of Christ’s being a Divine person in order to his making atonement, that, if he who makes atonement be infinite, it must needs be followed by the salvation of the whole human race. But this objection supposes that the number of the saved is to be proportioned to the ability of the Saviour; and then it would seem that Christ being a mere man, he saved all that his finite merit would extend to. With just as much propriety might it be alleged that the power by which we were created could not be infinite; for if it had, there must then have been an infinite number of worlds in existence. And the wisdom and goodness by which we are saved cannot be infinite; for, if so, all the world, and the fallen angels too, would be interested in that salvation.
In short, the Deity and atonement of Christ have always, among thinking people, stood or fallen together; and with them almost every other important doctrine of the gospel. The person of Christ is the foundation-stone on which the church is built. An error, therefore, on this subject affects the whole of our preaching, and the whole of our religion. In the esteem of the apostle Paul, that which nullified the death of Christ was accounted to be another gospel; and he expressed his wish that those who propagated it, and so troubled the churches, were cut off. The principle maintained by the Galatians, it is true, did not consist in a denial of the Deity of Christ; but the consequence is the same. They taught that justification was by the works of the law, from whence the apostle justly inferred that “Christ is dead in vain.” And he who teaches that Christ is a mere creature holds a doctrine which renders his sufferings of none effect. If the Deity of Christ be a Divine truth, it cannot reasonably be denied that it is of equal importance with the doctrine of justification by his righteousness. If therefore a rejection of the latter was deemed a perversion of the gospel, nothing less can be ascribed to the rejection of the former.
Excerpt from “The Deity of Christ” in Miscellaneous Tracts, Essays, Letters, Etc.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 693–695). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.