Andrew Fuller Friday: On Satisfying Justice

Imperfect, however, as the foregoing similitude may appear in some respects, it is sufficient to show the fallacy of Mr. Paine’s reasoning. “The doctrine of redemption,” says this writer, “has for its basis an idea of pecuniary justice, and not that of moral justice. If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me into prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me; but if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice, but indiscriminate revenge.”* This objection, which is the same for substance as has been frequently urged by Socinians as well as deists, is founded in misrepresentation. It is not true that redemption has for it basis the idea of pecuniary justice, and not that of moral justice. That sin is called a debt, and the death of Christ a price, a ransom, &c., is true; but it is no unusual thing for moral obligations and deliverances to be expressed in language borrowed from pecuniary transactions. The obligations of a son to a father are commonly expressed by such terms as owing and paying: he owes a debt of obedience, and in yielding it he pays a debt of gratitude. The same may be said of an obligation to punishment. A murderer owes his life to the justice of his country; and when he suffers, he is said to pay the awful debt. So also if a great character, by suffering death, could deliver his country, such deliverance would be spoken of as obtained by the price of blood. No one mistakes these things by understanding them of pecuniary transactions. In such connexions, every one perceives that the terms are used not literally, but metaphorically; and it is thus that they are to be understood with reference to the death of Christ. As sin is not a pecuniary, but a moral debt, so the atonement for it is not a pecuniary, but a moral ransom.

There is, doubtless, a sufficient analogy between pecuniary and moral proceedings to justify the use of such language, both in Scripture and in common life; and it is easy to perceive the advantages which arise from it; as, besides conveying much important truth, it renders it peculiarly impressive to the mind. But it is not always safe to reason from the former to the latter; much less is it just to affirm that the latter has for its basis every principle which pertains to the former. The deliverance effected by the prince, in the case before stated, might, with propriety, be called a redemption; and the recollection of it, under this idea, would be very impressive to the minds of those who were delivered. They would scarcely be able to see or think of their commander-in-chief, even though it might be years after the event, without being reminded of the price at which their pardon was obtained, and dropping a tear of ingenuous grief over their unworthy conduct on this account. Yet it would not be just to say that this redemption had for its basis an idea of pecuniary justice, and not that of moral justice.

It was moral justice which in this case was satisfied: not, however, in its ordinary form, but as exercised on an extraordinary occasion; not the letter, but the spirit of it.

The Scripture doctrine of atonement, being conveyed in language borrowed from pecuniary transactions, is not only improved by unbelievers into an argument against the truth of the gospel, but has been the occasion of many errors among the professors of Christianity. Socinus, on this ground, attempts to explain away the necessity of a satisfaction. “God,” says he, “is our Creditor. Our sins are debts which we have contracted with him; but every one may yield up his right, and more especially God, who is the supreme Lord of all, and extolled in the Scripture for his liberality and goodness. Hence, then, it is evident that God can pardon sins without any satisfaction received.”* Others, who profess to embrace the doctrine of satisfaction, have, on the same ground, perverted and abused it; objecting to the propriety of humble and continued applications for mercy, and presuming to claim the forgiveness of their sins past, present, and to come as their legal right, and what it would be unjust in the Supreme Being, having received complete satisfaction, to withhold.

To the reasoning of Socinus, Dr. Owen judiciously replies, by distinguishing between right as it respects debts and as it respects government. The former, he allows, may be given up without a satisfaction, but not the latter. “Our sins,” he adds, “are called debts, not properly, but metaphorically.”† This answer equally applies to those who pervert the doctrine as to those who deny it; for though in matters of debt and credit a full satisfaction from a surety excludes the idea of free pardon on the part of the creditor, and admits of a claim on the part of the debtor, yet it is otherwise in relation to crimes. In the interposition of the prince, as stated above, an honourable expedient was adopted, by means of which the sovereign was satisfied, and the exercise of mercy rendered consistent with just authority; but there was no less grace in the act of forgiveness than if it had been without a satisfaction. However well-pleased the king might be with the conduct of his son, the freeness of pardon was not at all diminished by it; nor must the criminals come before him as claimants, but as supplicants, imploring mercy in the mediator’s name.

Such are the leading ideas which the Scriptures give us of redemption by Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul especially teaches this doctrine with great precision: “Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” From this passage we may remark, first, That the grace of God, as taught in the Scriptures, is not that kind of liberality which Socinians and deists ascribe to him, which sets aside the necessity of a satisfaction. Free grace, according to Paul, requires a propitiation, even the shedding of the Saviour’s blood, as a medium through which it may be honourably communicated. Secondly, Redemption by Jesus Christ was accomplished, not by a satisfaction that should preclude the exercise of grace in forgiveness, but in which, the displeasure of God against sin being manifested, mercy to the sinner might be exercised without any suspicion of his having relinquished his regards for righteousness. In “setting forth Jesus Christ to be a propitiation,” he “declared his righteousness for the remission of sins.” Thirdly, The righteousness of God was not only declared when Christ was made a propitiatory sacrifice, but continues to be manifested in the acceptance of believers through his name. He appears as just while acting the part of a justifier towards every one that believeth in Jesus. Fourthly, That which is here applied to the blessings of forgiveness and acceptance with God is applicable to all other spiritual blessings: all, according to the Scriptures, are freely communicated through the same distinguished medium. See Ephes. i.*

 Fuller, A. G. (1988). “The Consistency of Christian Doctrine, Particularly that of Salvation through Mediator, with Sober Reason,” Chapter IV in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 2, pp. 80–82). Sprinkle Publications.

By |December 2nd, 2022|Categories: Andrew Fuller Friday, Blog|

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