What Saith the Scripture?

On The Atonement

by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College

from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
Lecture V
July 30
, 1856

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

Text.--1 Cor. 15:3: "How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures."

2 Cor. 5:21: "For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."

Rom. 5:8: "But God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

Isa. 42:21: "The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness' sake; He will magnify the law and make it honorable."

Rom. 3:25, 26: "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 justifer of him which believeth in Jesus."

In this last passage, the apostle states, with unusual fulness, the theological, and I might even say, the philosophical design of Christ's mission to our world -- that is, to set forth before created beings, God's righteousness in forgiving sins. It is here said that Christ is set forth as a propitiation that God may be just in forgiving sin, assuming that God could not have been just to the universe, unless Christ had been first set forth as a sacrifice.

When we seriously consider the irresistible convictions of our own minds in regard to our relations of God and His government, we cannot but see that we are sinners, and are lost beyond hope on the score of law and justice. The fact that we are grievous sinners against God, is an ultimate fact of human consciousness, testified to by our irresistible convictions, and no more to be denied than the fact that there is such a thing as wrong.

Now, if God be holy and good, it must be that He disapproves wrong-doing, and will punish it. The penalty of His law is pronounced against it. Under this penalty, we stand condemned, and have no relief save through some adequate atonement, satisfactory to God, because safe to the interests of His kingdom.

Thus far we may advance safely and on solid ground, by the simple light of nature. If there were no Bible, we might know so much with absolute certainty. So far, even infidels are compelled to go.

Here, then, we are, under absolute and most righteous condemnation. Is there any way of escape? If so, it must be revealed to us in the Bible; for from any other source it cannot come. The Bible does profess to reveal a method of escape. This is the great burden of its message. It opens with,

I. A very brief allusion to the circumstances under which sin came into the world.

II. The philosophical explanation of the reasons and governmental bearings of the atonement, must not be confounded with the fact of an atonement.

III. A distinction must here be made between public and retributive justice.

IV. In this atonement God has expressed His high regard for His law and for obedience to it.

V. What can be done to teach these lessons, and to impress them with great and everlasting emphasis on the universe?

I. A very brief allusion to the circumstances under which sin came into the world.

Without being very minute as the manner in which sin entered, it is exceedingly full, clear and definite in its showing as to the fact of sin in the race. That God regards the race as in sin and rebellion is made as plain as language can make it. It is worthy of notice that this fact and the connected fact of possible pardon, are affirmed on the same authority -- with the same sort of explicitness and clearness. These facts stand or fall together. Manifestly God intended to impress on all minds these two great truths -- first, that man is ruined by his own sin; secondly, that he may be saved through Jesus Christ. To deny the former is to gainsay both our own irresistible convictions and God's most explicit revealed testimony; to deny the latter, is to shut the door of our own free act and accord, against all hope of our own salvation.

II. The philosophical explanation of the reasons and governmental bearings of the atonement, must not be confounded with the fact of an atonement.

III. A distinction must here be made between public and retributive justice.

The latter visits on the head of the individual sinner a punishment corresponding to the nature of his offence. The former, public justice, looks only toward the general good, and must do that which will secure the authority and influence of law, as well as the infliction of the penalty would to it. It may accept a substitute, provided it be equally effective to the support of law and the ensuring of obedience.

Public justice, then, may be satisfied in one of two ways, to wit -- either by the full execution of the penalty, or by some substitute, which shall answer the ends of government at least equally well. When, therefore, we ask -- What is necessary for the ends of public justice? -- the answer is,

It has sometimes been said that Christ suffered all in degree and the same in kind as all the saved must else have suffered; but human reason revolts at this assumption, and certainly the scriptures do not affirm it.

IV. Consequently, we find that, in this atonement God has expressed His high regard for His law and for obedience to it.

V. Now, what can be done to teach these lessons, and to impress them with great and everlasting emphasis on the universe?

This being all done for you, sinners, what do you think of it? What do you think of that appeal which Paul writes and God makes through Him -- "I beseech you, therefore, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service." Think of those mercies. Think how Christ poured out His life for you. Suppose He were to appear in the midst of you today, and holding up His hands dripping with blood, should say -- "I beseech you by the mercies shown you by God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God!" Would you not feel the force of His appeal that this is a "reasonable service?" Would not this love of Christ constrain you? What do you think of it? Did He die for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves but unto Him that loved them and gave Himself for them? What do you say? Just as the uplifted ax would otherwise have fallen on your neck, He caught the blow on His own. You could have had no life if He had not died to save it; then what will you do? Will you have this offered mercy, or reject it? Yield to Him the life He has in such mercy spared, or refuse to yield it?


1. The governmental bearings of this scheme are perfectly apparent. The whole transaction tends powerfully to sustain God's law, and to reveal His love and even mercy to sinners. It shows that He is personally ready to forgive, and needs only to have such an arrangement made that He can do it safely as to His government. What could show His readiness to forgive so strikingly as this? See how carefully He guards against the abuse of pardon! Always ready to pardon, yet ever watchful over the great interests of obedience and happiness, lest they be imperiled by its freeness and fullness!

2. Why should it ever be thought incredible that God should devise such a scheme of atonement? Is there anything in it that is unlike God, or inconsistent with His revealed character? I doubt whether any moral agent can understand this system, and yet think it incredible. Those who reject it as incredible, must have failed to understand it.

3. The question might be asked -- Why did Christ die at all, if not for us? He had never sinned; did not die on His own account as a sinner; nor did He die as the infants of our race do, with a moral nature yet undeveloped, and who yet belong to a sinning race. The only account to be given of His death is, that He died not for Himself, but for us.

It might also be asked -- Why did He die so? See Him expiring between two thieves, and crushed down beneath a mountain weight of sorrow. Why was this? Other martyrs have died shouting; He died in anguish and grief, cast down and agonized beneath the biddings of His Father's face.

All nature seemed to sympathize with His griefs. Mark -- the sun clothed in darkness; the rocks are rent; the earth quakes beneath your feet; all nature is convulsed. Even a heathen philosopher exclaimed -- Surely the universe is coming to an end, or the Maker of the Universe is dying! Hark, that piercing cry -- "My God, My God; why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

On the supposition of His dying as a Savior for sinners, all is plain. He dies for the government of God, and must needs suffer these things to make a just expression of God's abhorrence of sin. While He stands in the place of guilty sinners, God must frown on Him and hide His face. This reveals both the spirit of God's government and His own infinite wisdom.

4. Some have impeached the atonement as likely to encourage sin. But such persons neglect the very important distinction between the proper use of a thing and its abuse. No doubt the best things in the universe may be abused, and by abuse be perverted to evil, and all the more by how much the better they are in their legitimate use.

Of the natural tendency of the atonement to good, it would seem that no man can rationally doubt. The tendency of manifesting such love, meekness and self-sacrifice for us, is to make the sinner trust and love, and to make him bow before the cross with a broken and contrite heart. But many do abuse it, and the best things, abused, become the worst. The abuse of the atonement is the very reason why God sends sinners to hell. He says, "He that despised Moses' law, died without mercy under two or three witnesses; of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of grace?"

Hence, if any sinner will abuse atoning blood, and trample down the holy law, and the very idea of returning to God in penitence and love, God will say of him, "Of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy" than he who despised Moses' law and fell beneath its vengeance?

5. It is a matter of fact, that this manifestation of God in Christ does break the heart of sinners. It has subdued many hearts, and will, thousands more. If they believe it and hold it as a reality, must it not subdue their heart to love and grief? Do not you think so? Certainly if you saw it as it is, and felt the force of it in your heart, you would sob out on your very seat, break down and cry out -- Did Jesus love me so? And shall I love sin any more? Ah, your heart would melt as thousands have been broken and melted in every age, when they have seen the love of Jesus as revealed on the cross. That beautiful hymn puts the case truthfully --

"I saw One hanging on a tree,

In agony and blood;

Who fixed His languid eyes on me,

As near the cross I stood."

But it was not the first look that fully broke his heart. It was only when,

"A second look He gave which said

I freely all forgive;

This blood is for thy ransom paid,

I died that thou mayest live."

that his whole heart broke, tears fell like rain, and he withheld no power of his being in the full consecration of his soul to this Savior.

This is the genuine effect of the sinner's understanding the gospel and giving Jesus Christ credit for His lovingkindness in dying for the lost. Faith thus breaks the stony heart. If this demonstration of God's love in Christ does not break your heart, nothing else will. If this death and love of Christ do not constrain you, nothing else can.

But if you do not look at it, and will not set your mind upon it, it will only work your ruin. To know this gospel only enough to reject and disown it, can serve no other purpose save to make your guilt the greater, and your doom the more fearful.

6. Jesus was made a sin-offering for us. How beautiful this was illustrated under the Mosaic system! The victim was brought out to be slain; the blood was carried in and sprinkled on the mercy-seat. This mercy-seat was no other than the sacred cover or lid of the ark which contained the tables of the law, and other sacred memorials of God's ancient mercies. There they were, in that deep recess -- within which none might enter on pain of death, save the High Priest, and he only once a year, on the great day of atonement. On this eventful day, the sacred rites culminated to their highest solemnity. Two goats were brought forward, upon which the High Priest laid his hands, and confessed publicly his own sins and the sins of all the people. Then one was driven far away into the wilderness, to signify how God removes our sins far as the east is from the west; the other was slain and its blood borne by the high priest into the most holy place, and sprinkled there upon the mercy-seat beneath the cherubim. Meanwhile, the vast congregation stood without, confessing their sins, and expecting remission only through the shedding of blood. It was as if the whole world had been standing around the base of Calvary, confessing their sins, while Jesus bore His cross to the summit, to hang thereon, and bleed and die for the sins of men. How fitting that, while Christ is dying, we should be confessing!

Some of you may think it a great thing to go on a foreign mission. But Jesus has led the way. He left Heaven on a foreign mission; came down to this more than heathen world, and no one ever faced such self-denial. Yet He fearlessly marched up without the least hesitation, to meet the consequences. Never did He shrink from disgrace, from humiliation, or torture. And can you shrink from following the footsteps of such a leader? Is anything too much for you to suffer, while you follow in the lead of such a Captain of your salvation?

of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart

  1. Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart, is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE XII).

  2. Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit, but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).

  3. Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).

  4. Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved, were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).

  5. Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses: (1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and, (2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).

  6. Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation. The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  7. Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity, because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  8. Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect... it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  9. Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).

  10. Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  11. Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it. The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).

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