In July, 1908, The British Congregationalist reported an abstract of a paper read by Forsyth at the International Congregational Council in Edinburgh on 1st July the same year. This paper, reprinted in Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses (edited by John Huxtable; London: Independent Press, 1962) reveals a challenge as new as it is old. And as the full title suggests, atonement and the forgiveness of racial guilt form part of the very essence of Evangelical Christianity (although certainly not all that postulate the name). Because this message needs to be heard and ever reheard, I reproduce it hear for your consideration. In an unpublished sermon, Forsyth asked, ‘What is the true nature of the divine majesty? It is not material vastness, nor the majesty of force, nor the majesty of mystery. It is not the majesty of thought, great as thought is. The true majesty of God is His mercy. That is the thing He did which a man would never have done – He had mercy on all flesh. His greatness was not in His loftiness, but in His nearness. He was great not because He was above feeling, but because He would feel as no man could. God’s majesty is saturated through and through with His forgiving love, which comes out most of all in His treatment of sin.’
And lest we think this be only an individualistic thing (although nothing could be more ‘personal’, as Forsyth himself argued in many places), Simon Wiesenthal reminded us that ‘It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future.’ (The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1998, 267-8). But enough of my preaching. Read on and hear Forsyth going at it like a wild boar in a vineyard unyet fully weeded.
In our modern psychology we start from the primacy of the will and we bring everything to the test of man’s practical and ethical life. And so, also, we start ethically from the Holiness of God as the supreme interest in the Christian revelation.
By the Atonement, therefore, is meant that action of Christ’s death which has a prime regard to God’s holiness, and finds man’s reconciliation impossible except as that holiness is divinely satisfied once for all. In regard to Christ’s Cross, we are face to face with a new situation. We are called upon to set Jesus against Paul and to choose. The issue comes to a crisis in the interpretation of the death of Christ. To treat that death as more than a martyrdom is called a gratuitous piece of theology. Every man must make his o’wn atonement, and Jesus did the same, only on a scale corresponding to the undeniable greatness of his personality. Such teaching is, in my humble judgment, foreign to Congregationalism. The Atonement which raises that death above the greatest martyrdom, or the greatest object-lesson of God’s love, is for us no piece of Paulinism. Paul says he received it from the Lord. It was part of the Christian instruction he received at Damascus. He delivered to the churches what he received among the fundamentals (I. Cor. 2:23) from earlier Christians, that Christ died for our sins. How came the Apostolic circle to have this view of Christ’s death? Must they not have been taught by Christ so to view it in such words as are echoed in the ransom passage, and at the Last Supper?
We have been warned against the idea that Christ taught about Himself or His work, as an essential element of His own gospel. But let us leave the question whether He taught Himself, and go back to the prior question, “Is the Gospel primarily what Jesus taught?” Those He taught never understood Him so. If they had, could they have done anything else than go about retailing that teaching, with a lament at its premature arrest? But the prime thing we know about their teaching is that Christ crowned Israel by dying for our sins. He was all to them in the Cross. That was the starting point of the Gospel, and it is the content of the Gospel. And it is always to these that the Church must come back to take its bearings and be given its course.
It is reported in most quarters in England that there is a serious decline in church membership. It is well to face the situation and to avoid extenuation. And if we do, we shall admit to ourselves that the real cause is not the decay in religious interests or sympathies, but in personal religion of a positive and experienced kind. The sense of sin can hardly be appealed to by the preacher, and to preach grace is, in many even orthodox circles, regarded as theological obsession and the wrong language for the hour. It is said in reply that the sense of sin has not departed, but has only changed its form. We are more dull to individual sin because we are more alive to social sin. I would say in answer: (1) Public compunction does not move to ask forgiveness, which is the prime righteousness of the Kingdom of God. (2) The tendency is welcome insofar as this. The more sin is socialized, so much the more imperative becomes the necessity of an Atonement. If it is man that is wronged, it is man that has wronged him; it is man that has sinned; man that is condemned. Surely, therefore, the wrong inflicted on man sets up a corresponding responsibility on man at this centre. That seems inevitable if we believe in responsibility, and also believe in the unity of the human race. But it comes home far more mightily and solemnly from a belief in another unity, the belief in the absolute and moral unity of God—in a word, a real belief and a real sense of God’s holiness.
This holiness of God is the real foundation of religion; Love is but its outgoing; sin is but its defiance; grace is but its action on sin; the cross is but its victory; faith is but its worship. This holiness is no attribute of God, but his very essence. The moral is the real. It is not a quality in God, but the being of God, in which all else inheres. God is Holy Love. To bring sin home and grace home, then the Holy must be brought home. But that, again, can be done on the scale of the Church, and the world, only by replacing the atoning Cross at the centre of Christian faith and life. What is our problem today? It is to take the mass of men, inert and hopeless some, others indifferent, others hostile to God, and to reconcile them with God’s holy will and righteous kingdom. It is to destroy our national and social dislike of that new enthusiasm, supplant lust by a higher ardour, bend the strongest wills to the obedience of the Holiest, and by moral regeneration restore men both physically and socially. It is the grand object of history. And the more we are pre-occupied with social righteousness, so much the more we are driven to that centre where the whole righteousness of God and man found consummation and adjustment, and a principle and a career in the saving judgment of Christ’s Cross. It is the cross that makes moral worth an infectious power, and keeps character from being self-contained, and gives a moral guarantee of a social future.
It is sometimes said: “There are several theories of the Atonement, but we have to do with the fact, and not with our understanding of it”. The one thing we need is to understand the Atonement. Such a fact as Christ or his Atonement only exists as it is intelligible, as it comes home to us with a moral meaning or a moral nature. When preachers denounce Theology, or a Church despises it for literary or social charm, that is to sell the Cross to be a pendant at the neck of the handsome world. It is spiritual poverty and baldness; it is not the simplicity in Christ, to be sick of grace, judgment, atonement, or redemption.
A moral order of the world is our one modern certainty, among those who are certain of anything. And if, as we Christians believe, this moral order reflects the nature of a holy God, without exhausting His being, then the supreme interest of the world lies there. Christianity is only true if it deal with this, and only final if it comes to final terms with this. This it does by the consummation of God’s judgment in the central act of mercy. Now a judgment upon man alone would have destroyed him. And a judgment borne by God alone would be manque. But borne by God in man, in such a racial experience as the cross of Christ, it is the condition of a new conscience and of a new ethic of the race. When the cross goes out of the centre of religion, religion goes out of the centre of man’s moral energy. The pathos of Christ takes the place of His power. We tend to overprize the subdued, composed and vespertinal type of religion whose patron saints are outside the Evangelical succession with Francis or Fra Angelico, or we are engrossed with the genial brotherly and hustling type, and all the time the Church is dropping into a vague Arianism: it is losing faith.in the real presence of the redeeming God, and therefore in a strenuous ethic. The idea we are offered is a kingdom of man with God to serve it, rather than a kingdom of God, with man to serve it. We do not so much owe our soul to the fact of Christ, we impose on that fact the soul within us, the humane soul, crude but very capable, dim but unlost, and so we really receive what we give. Man needs but evolution, not revolution. God is our helper, and no more. Only in a figurative sense is He our Redeemer. He helps us realize our latent spiritual resources and ends. It should be clear that this is another religion from that of Redemption, and it has no room or need for Atonement. It is only as God’s act that Christ’s death can retain or regain a central place in faith. Second, it is only as an act revolutionary, and, further, it is only as an act in which his holiness gives the law to His love and makes grace precious.
There are two sets of admissions that have to be made here:
1. As to the doctrine in history, we ought to admit the value of much of the Socinian and rationalist criticism. We can no longer speak of a strife of attributes in God the Father, justice set against mercy and judgment, against grace till an adjustment was effected by the Son. There can be no talk of any mollification of God or of any inducement offered, by either man or some third party, to procure grace. Procured grace is a contradiction in terms. Further, we must not think that the value of the Atonement lies in any equivalent suffering. Indeed, it does not lie in the suffering at all, but in the obedience, the holiness. We must renounce the idea that Christ was punished by the God who was ever well pleased with his beloved Son.
2. Any Theology of Atonement must be adjusted by the fact that Christ’s forgiveness may and does reach personal cases apart from conscious reliance on His atoning work.
But, after all these admissions, more stress has to be laid on the necessity of this atonement for that maturer Christian experience which gives us the true type of faith. Faith is, above all, the life of a conscience stilled by the forgiveness of God. This may take a true, though an incipient form, in the deep impression made by the tender mercies of the kindly Christ. Many never rise above this level. They place themselves among those whom He forgave and healed in his life. But if such people go on to think, must they not begin to have certain misgivings? There rises in the soul a deepened sense of Christ’s demand. His judgment grows more serious than it seemed in our first forgiveness. We oscillate between the goodness and the severity of God. These alternate, as it were. And the conscience gets no rest till it find the one final fact in which both are reconciled and inwoven, with grace uppermost. For a man to make Christ’s atonement the sole centre of his moral life or of his hope for the race, is not easy. There are a thousand influences of no ignoble kind which may arrest a man’s total commitment of himself and his kind to the new creation in Christ’s cross, and it seems a reasonable self respect which solicits him to reserve a plot of ground in his interior where his house is his castle, and he can call his soul his own, even at the challenge of the Holy and all-searching Judge. He does not, perhaps, venture to say that God and the soul are co-equal foci in the moral ellipse, but he struggles—sometimes pathetically—to set up what is as impossible morally as mathematically, a subsidiary centre; which is a contradiction in terms.
I have already asked concerning Christ, “Was His will to die one with His will to save?” The forgiveness has always been attached to Christ’s death from New Testament times downwards. But this suggests a serious question when it is declared that if we are true to the true Christ to the Gospels, we shall relegate a final atonement in the Cross to the region of apostolic theologoumena. How came such a teacher, such a prophet, to be so deeply, so long, and so continuously misunderstood? There has surely been some gigantic bungling on the Church’s part, some almost fatuous misconception of its Lord, a blunder whose long life and immense moral effect is unintelligible. The Church has done its Lord many a wrong, but none so grave as this. It has often travestied His methods, misconstrued points of His teaching, and even compromised His principles; but these things have been done against its best conscience and its holiest spirits. But this perversion is greater than these. For it has been the perversion of Christ’s central gospel by the Church’s wisest and best.
But we cannot stop here. What was Jesus about to leave such a blunder possible? What a gauche Saviour! How unfinished with the work given Him to do! If He left His disciples convinced that what was to Him a side interest was His supreme bequest, and if the net result of this act, all these ages, has been to deepen and spread the mistake, was He any fit trustee for the purpose of God? Nay, further, if the effect of Christ has been that the Church has worshipped a Redeemer on the cross, when it should have hearkened to God’s prophet in His words, and given Him worship when it owed Him but supreme attention, what must be the frame of mind in which He now lives and sees the misbirth that has come of the travail of His soul? He who we thought ever lived to make intercession for us, must ever live in petition for Himself that God would graciously forgive the well-meant failure He must sadly own. And what before God He would have to confess for us and deplore for Himself, would be not only a diminution of God’s glory, but its unhappy eclipse by His own. He has been taken and made a king in spite of himself; a king whose effect has been, not to hallow the Father’s sole and suzerain name, but to obscure it by His own, to divide the worship and deflect the work of God.
These thoughts are efforts to think to a finish, and to think with the foundation of faith, the intelligence of conscience, and the experience of life. And they handle matters where to be right is to be right upon a final, sublime and eternal scale. To be wrong is to fly from orbits of celestial range and do damage at last to the inhabitants of heaven, as well as the dwellers on earth.To be right here is to secure the Church’s future; to be wrong here is to doom it. But for the Church to be right here is for the Church continually to cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy, O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, and grant us thy salvation.”