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Book 2 - Chapter 8: Of the Necessity of Christ’s Satisfaction - by Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius

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Herman Witsius (1636-1708)

Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.

This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.

Chapter VIII: Of the Necessity of Christ’s Satisfaction

I. HAVING explained, from Scripture, the value and efficacy of the satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God, and for the consolation of the elect, it will not be unseasonable to treat of the necessity of this satisfaction; seeing what we have shown, §. 21, from the apology of the remonstrants, naturally leads to this. And here we choose not to state the controversy in the manner we observe the otherwise great Chamierus has done in his “Pancratia,” namely, “whether God could not, by an act of his absolute power, grant remission of sin, without any satisfaction.” We are not willing to enter into any dispute about the absolute power of God, since the consideration of that seems not to suit this recent controversy. For this debate is not to be explained and finally determined from the attribute of the power of God, but from those of his holiness, justice, and the like. Some, when they consider the power of God alone, affirm every thing about it; not reflecting that God can do nothing but what is consistent with his justice, holiness, veracity, wisdom, immutability,—in a word, with all his other perfections. The lawyer, Papinian, ff. lib. 28, Tit. 7, Leg. 15, has said well concerning a good man, that we are to believe that he “neither does, nor can do, any thing prejudicial to piety, reputation, modesty, and in general, that is contrary to good manners.” This, certainly, ought much more to be affirmed of the Great God, that whatever is not a display of, or whatever throws a slur on, any perfection, or on the glory of God, cannot be the work of God. Origen has judiciously pleaded this cause against Celsus, lib. 3, p. 174: “According to us, God, indeed, can do all things consistently with his Deity, wisdom, and goodness. But Celsus, not understanding how God may be said to do all things, affirms, he cannot will any thing unjust; granting he can do what is so, but not will it. But we say, that as what is capable of imparting its natural sweetness to other things cannot embitter any thing, because that would be contrary to its nature; nor as what naturally enlightens, can as such darken; so neither can God act unjustly. For the power of acting unjustly is contrary to his very Deity, and to every power that can be ascribed to God.” And therefore, we think it very unbecoming, on every question about the most sacred right of God, to appeal to his absolute power. We would rather state the controversy thus: Whether God’s requiring Christ to give him satisfaction, before he restore sinners to his favour, was owing to the mere good pleasure of the divine will; or whether the essential holiness, the justice, and the like perfections of God, which he cannot possibly part with, required a satisfaction to be made? We judge the last of these to be more true and safe.

II. In the preceding book, cap. v. §. 19, seq. we proved at large, that the very nature and immutable right of God could not let sin go unpunished; which we may now lay down as a foundation. At present, we will subjoin other arguments more nearly relating to the satisfaction of Christ itself.

III. And first, we may certainly form no contemptible argument, a posteriori, from the event. For as God does not needlessly multiply beings, what probable reason can be assigned, why, without any necessity, he should make his beloved Son, in whom he was well pleased, a curse for us? Let us insist a little on this thought. The infinite wisdom of God contrived the admirable union of the human nature with one of the divine persons; so that God himself might be said to obey, to suffer, to die, in a word, to make satisfaction. That person was “holy, harmless, and undefiled,” the man of God’s delight, his only-begotten and only-beloved Son. Him the most affectionate Father exposed to the greatest reproaches, to the most cruel sufferings and to an accursed death, as a ransom for the redemption of sinners. These sufferings were, a long time before, predicted in various obscure ways, and also prefigured by the whole train of sacrifices appointed by Moses. He permitted the world, after so many other crimes, to be stained with the guilt of deicide, from the view of which the very sun shrunk back and withdrew his rays;—a crime, indeed, truly inexpiable, and in the guilt of which the whole Jewish nation is involved. Would not all this, to speak with reverence, seem a kind of solemn farce, if God, by a single breath, could dispel all our sins as a cloud? Is it not contrary to the goodness, the wisdom, and the holiness of God, without any necessity, and, to speak so, in a mere arbitrary way, to proceed in this manner? If he could have reached his end in a direct and compendious way, why did he take such a wide and perplexed compass?

IV. I would not have any reply here, that God acted in this manner in order to manifest, that his infinite right or authority over the creature was such, that he might inflict the most grievous torments even on the innocent. If, did it so please him, God could claim that right and authority, yet surely he scarce, if ever, has made use of it: and if at any time he has, it was in suffering of a far more gentle and mild nature, than what Christ Jesus our Lord underwent. In a word, if, for the display of that right, he might at times inflict such grievous torments, yet he would withhold his hand from his most beloved and only Son, in whom he so clearly testified that he was well pleased.

V. To insist upon it, that the whole of this affair was otherwise ordered by the arbitrary will of God, for confirming the saving doctrine of Christ by this exemplary martyrdom, is contrary both to reason, Scripture, and experience. For God had many other means, of a far more easy nature, by which he could confirm the doctrine of salvation, than by the dreadful passion of his beloved Son. And the Scripture shows us that this was done by Christ’s miracles accompanying his most effectual preaching: and the native demonstration of the truth evidenced the divinity of his doctrine. By these things he approved himself to John’s disciples, Matt. 11:5; and even to the whole multitude, Luke 7:16, and John 6:14. And lastly, we gather, both from Scripture and experience, that the cross of Christ was “unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness,” 1 Cor. 1:23.

VI. Nor are we to say, it was necessary we should be taught in so laborious a manner, or even by the very example of the Son of God, that it is through many tribulations we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven. For if nothing else was intended, we might have been sufficiently taught all this by the examples of other martyrs. And then, further, there is scarce one in a thousand of those who are saved, who in the way to salvation, secluding the curse of God, have been called to suffer so many dreadful and great indignities as Christ did. Why, then, were we all to be taught, by the example of the Son of God, that the gate of heaven is on no other terms open, but by passing through those hard sufferings? Unless we say, that satisfaction was made to the justice of God by the sufferings of Christ, and that in no other way satisfaction could he made thereto, there can no other just, holy, and wise reason, and worthy of God, be ever assigned for them. Certainly, for my own part, I never remember to have heard of any.

VII. If any affirm, that no satisfaction was necessary on account of the justice of God, but that he exacted it on account of some other prefections, namely, to declare his power and will to punish sin, which he might suffer to go unpunished; I answer: such power and will are scarcely to be called perfections in God; seeing Christ, Matt. 5:45, 48, reckons God’s mercy, long-suffering, and bounty towards men, even the unjust, among his perfections. Which would certainly be most laudable, if God could at pleasure let sin go unpunished, and if that impunity were no ways inconsistent with his most holy nature, and his law, which is the transcript of that nature. Nay, if God can, consistently with his highest glory, not punish sin, it might be questioned whether he can consistently with this inflict punishment at all: because, in that case, he seems to afflict the sinner without a reason, and ill-treat the work of his hands; and to do any thing without a reason, can on no account be for the honour of God.

VIII. Perhaps some will judge it the safest course not to intrude into the depths of the unsearchable wisdom and infinite power of God, and to say: God, indeed, was pleased for wise and good reasons, though known to himself alone, on no other terms, to set us at liberty, but by the satisfaction of his Son; but yet could in a far different way bring us to salvation, nay, could redeem us by a word or sign. And, indeed, the great Augustine formerly spoke in this strain, de Agone Christiano: “God could have done all things, had he so willed; but did not, and that for wise reasons, though unknown and incomprehensible to us: but though he had done otherwise, yet he would equally have displeased your folly.” And again, de Trinitate lib. xiii. c. 10: “Let us maintain, that this method, by which God sees proper to deliver us by a mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, is perfectly good and for the honour of God: but also let us acknowledge, that God was at no loss for another possible method, as all things are equally subject to his power; but yet none was more adapted to deliver us from our misery, neither was any necessary.” I am certainly much pleased with that extreme modesty, by which we dare not determine any thing rashly concerning the reasons and ends of the actions of God, and judge inconsiderately about his ways, because there is that in them, the reasons whereof our ignorance cannot unfold; nay, which seems, to our presumptuous folly, to be against reason. But when we are able to know and give such reasons for the divine conduct as tend to set the glory of his adorable justice, wisdom, holiness, and goodness in the clearest light; it is no longer modesty, but rather tends to darken the glory of the perfections of God, not to acknowledge them: which is the case here. The reason why God, willing to save elect sinners, chose to do it by the satisfaction of his Son, is, because, in his wisdom, he saw no other way by which satisfaction could be made to his essential holiness and justice. And by affirming this, we derogate nothing from the power of God, who doubtless cannot but act agreeably to his holiness and justice: and we admirably proclaim his wisdom, which found a means, which appeared impossible to every created understanding, whereby satisfaction might be made to his justice; and the sinner, consistently with his holiness, be saved. In order the more clearly to illustrate, and at the same time the more firmly to establish, all this, let us attentively consider what the Scripture declares concerning the impulsive and final cause of giving Christ.

IX. The sacred writers, on several occasions, inculcate, that God’s not sparing his own proper Son, but giving him to us, and delivering him up to death for us, was the effect of his unspeakable love to mankind, John 3:16, Romans. 5:8, 1 John 4:10. But if we could be saved any other way than by the sufferings of the Son of God, the love of God would not shine with such lustre in that method. For love is truly great, and inexpressible to the last degree, when implacable justice having demanded the punishment of mankind, God’s love to man and free purpose of salvation have nevertheless prevailed, by finding out for that end, in the treasures of divine wisdom, an amazing method of reconciling justice with mercy; but it was such as could have no effect, without giving up the most beloved Son to the most cruel torments for us. But if, without any prejudice to justice, our salvation could be procured many other ways than this, and even by a single word or nod, what great ardency of love was there in his giving the Son? It would certainly have been an instance of a very singular and notable mercy, to have forgiven our sins: but to have effected this by the death of his Son, when, without any urgent necessity, with equal advantage he could have scattered our sins some other more compendious way, by a nod or sign, as some affirm; why is that urged by Christ and his apostles, as an argument of such inconceivable love?

X. The apostle declares, that the end of Christ’s satisfaction was a declaration of the righteousness of God, Rom. 3:25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation (propitiatory, mercy-seat) through faith in his blood, εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὑτοῦ, to declare his righteousness.” God set forth his Son, both to himself, delighting in him, Is. 42:1, as having appointed him, in his eternal counsel, to be the Mediator, and viewing him as thus appointed; and to us, placing him in open view, and setting him on a throne of grace and glory, in the sight of all. He set him forth as “a propitiation,” propitiatory mercy-seat; where the apostle alludes to the cover laid upon the ark of the covenant, called בפרת, ἱλαστήριον, the propitiatory mercy-seat: signifying that by which God was reconciled to man, in which he dwells and rests, and from which he gives gracious answers. Moreover, it is not called the propitiatory, mercy-seat, unless it be sprinkled with blood, to be applied to us by faith. That is, Christ reconciled us to the Father only by sufferings. In the tabernacle was כפרת בדם שעיר, a mercy-seat in the blood of the goat, that is, sprinkled with the blood of the goat, Lev. 16:15. So that here nothing did avail but the blood of him who is set forth to be a propitiation, unless we would here translate ἱλαστήριον, an atonement; an appellation given to Christ, because he is the sacrifice to be offered for sin; which, coming in the room of the guilty, was to bear their punishment, and not only merit their freedom from punishment, but reconcile God, who before was offended, satisfaction being made to vindictive justice by this vicarious punishment. But, to what purpose was all this? “To declare the righteousness of God διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν, for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” God had so passed by and not punished the sins of believers in former times, that, notwithstanding these, he called them to enter upon the heavenly inheritance. But it was necessary to show, that this was done without any injury to the justice of God. Now it is evident, that no satisfaction was made to divine justice, either by the repentance of believers, or the typical pomp of sacrifices, or by the blood sprinkled on the golden mercy-seat. It was therefore necessary that the righteousness of God should be manifested in the propitiation and blood of Christ; by which was plainly shown, that God, agreeably to his justice, suffers not the sins of any to go unpunished. But if God, without injury to his justice, without any difficulty and trouble, and without a satisfaction, can pardon sins; the whole appears to have been an empty show, and by no means worthy of God, without any necessity, to appear with such terrible majesty in the most cruel death of his most beloved Son. Which being so horrid to think of; we conclude, from this discourse of Paul, that it was not possible but God must punish sin; unless he intended to set forth Christ as a propitiation, and so declare his righteousness: because not to punish sin, without a propitiatory atonement, would be a disapprobation of divine justice. For when justice is not manifested, it is disapproved of; especially in this grand work of our salvation. For so God himself speaks, Is. 56:1. “My salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed.”

XI. Some perhaps will say, that the righteousness of God here means, as in other places, his veracity and constancy in performing his promises; the apostle only intended that God therefore set forth his Son to be a propitiaton, in order to fulfil his prophecies and promises, and thus showed himself just, that is, faithful. But it is quite otherwise; for the righteousness of God here denotes that rectitude by which, according to his law, by inflicting condign punishment, he discovers the demerit of sin and his hatred to it, and how unbecoming it is for him to have fellowship with the sinner, at the expense of his own glory. And that this is the meaning is plain, because the apostle, having to explain in what manner God, without any injury to his justice, had foreborne sinners, and passed by their sins, most beautifully shows, that all regard was paid to the honour of divine justice, in the propitiation by Christ’s blood to be made and revealed in due time; for it was in virtue of this that the sins of the believers in past times were forgiven. But the other explication does not remove this difficulty just mentioned. The design of the whole is to show, that God is just when justifying the sinner for the merits of Christ.

XII. It likewise deserves our consideration, what the apostle has expressly said and often repeated, that the legal sacrifices could never abolish the guilt of sin, Heb. 10:1, 4, 11. But why might not a thing so easily to be removed without atonement, be expiated by the death of legal sacrifices? And it is to be carefully observed, that the apostle denies this, from a consideration of the nature of the thing. It is said they could not do it, not because it seemed otherwise to God, but because sin is of a nature that no blood of bulls or of goats can wash out its stain; which the light of nature itself will readily yield to, as a thing certain. And indeed, the church of the Old Testament confessed, that their sins could not be expiated by any blood of calves or rams, not though multiplied to thousands; by any libations of oil, though ten thousand rivers thereof were poured out; nay, not by the death of their first-born, Mic. 6:6, 7.

XIII. And we must not omit the apostle’s inference, whereby, from the inability of legal sacrifices to make satisfaction, he concludes the necessity of the alone sacrifice of Christ. For after he had said, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins, he immediately subjoins, “wherefore when he cometh into the world he saith,” &c., adding, “he taketh away the first,” the offering of beasts, “that he may establish the second,” the offering of the body of Christ. But that inference would not hold, could there be some third way of expiation, or if no satisfaction was necessary. But now the apostle argues, supposing it a thing granted by the Jews, that sins cannot be forgiven without a proper atonement; but as this could not be effected by the legal victims, it certainly follows, that it is to be sought for in the offering of Christ, without which the stain of sin remains for ever indelible. The justness of this inference of the apostle arises from the nature of God, and of the thing itself; for if we are to infer the necessity of the offering of Christ from the free and arbitrary good pleasure of the divine will, the apostle’s reasoning would have been to no purpose, the good pleasure of God only was to be insisted upon.

XIV. In like manner the same apostle argues, Rom. 3:19–21, &c. Where he lays it down as a fundamental truth, that the whole world is subject to condemnation before God. Whence he infers, that none can be justified by the works of the law. And from that concludes, that we can be justified no other way but by the blood of Christ: which is doubtless a very trifling way of arguing, if God, by his mercy alone, by his bare nod, can take away sin, and adjudge the sinner to life. For the Jews would very readily answer, that there is another far more compendious way of justification, it the infinite mercy of God, and in the most free act of his power, without exposing the Messiah to reproach. And to mention it once more, we are not to have recourse to the most free disposition of the divine will, as if that was the alone cause of this necessity. For if the apostle makes any such supposition, there is an end of all further reasoning. He would have gained his point, just by mentioning that disposition. And if he does not suppose this, his argument is of no force. Which is far from being the case.

XV. We must not here omit that expression of the apostle, by which he cuts off those who have sinned against the Holy Ghost, from all hope of salvation, by this argument; because, having rejected Christ’s expiation, “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin,” Heb. 10:26. For when he would intimate that there was no hope of pardon, he asserted that there remained no more sacrifice, laying it down as an undoubted truth, that the offering of a sacrifice necessarily goes before pardon. If this was not the case, why might not man, who wanted a sacrifice, hope for pardon, without any satisfaction from the infinite mercy of God?

XVI. To the same purpose is what the apostle says, Heb. 6:6, “It impossible to renew those again unto repentance, who crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” Which last words are variously explained by divines, but doubtless are intended to give a reason, why those who have made the crucifixion of Christ of no use to themselves, are excluded from all hopes of salvation; because, without that, it is impossible to obtain salvation. The very learned Moses Amyraldus, in Disputat. de peccato in Spiritum Sanctum, §. 40, thus expounds it: Since those apostates have no further interest in the sacrifice already offered, because they have rejected it, therefore, if they would be saved, they must look out for another. And because none could offer a true expiatory sacrifice, besides that of Christ alone; if they will be saved, it is necessary they give up Christ to be crucified afresh, and again exposed to open shame. But it is impious to design such a thing, which on no account can be obtained of God, Rom. 6:9, 10. If this exposition be admitted, it presents us with a very strong argument for our opinion; because it supposes such an absolute necessity for the satisfaction of Christ, that if what he has already done be of no avail, a new satisfaction must be made, before the sinner can have any hopes of mercy.

XVII. Moreover, our sentiment tends to display the glory of the divine perfections. It sets off the holiness of God, by reason of which he can in no respect become like a sinner, or, without due satisfaction, allow him to have communion with himself, and the inhabitation of his Spirit. It exalts the justice of God, which is implacably inclined to punish sin. It preserves inviolable the majesty of God, which, as zealous for his honour, can suffer no contempt to be put upon it by sin, a contempt which all sin effects, to go unpunished. It glorifies the unsearchable wisdom of God, which found out a way, above the reach of all created understanding, by which justice and mercy might be happily reconciled, and the honour of them both maintained pure. In a word, it magnifies the inestimable grace and love of our God, who, when there were no other means of our salvation, spared not his own Son, but gave up him for us all. And who would not heartily embrace an opinion, that displays, in such an eminent manner, the glory of God?

XVIII. Nor is it less subservient to the promotion of piety. It teaches us to tremble before the majesty of the most high God, who, from his being God, cannot clear the guilty. It heightens the horror of sin, which it becomes us to believe is of so atrocious a nature, that nothing short of the blood of a most holy and truly divine Sacrifice, could wash it away. It sets before us the unspotted holiness of God for our pattern, that, like him, we may entertain a mortal hatred to sin, and have no manner of fellowship with it. In a word, it inflames our hearts with the most deserved returns of love, willingly to devote ourselves to his service who, out of pure grace, delivered up his Son for us unto death, without which we should have remained miserable through eternity. And thus our opinion is that true doctrine which is according to godliness.

XIX. And it does not derogate in the least from any of the divine perfections. Not from his absolute power; because, doubtless, God cannot deny himself and his own perfections; nor, by his actions, testify sin not to be contrary to his nature; nor ever behave as if he took pleasure in it, by communicating himself to the sinner. Not from his most free will: as God neither wills, nor can will, any thing, but what tends to his glory, which requires his appearing as unlike the sinner as possible. Seneca spoke well, quest. Nat. lib. 1: “God is not hereby less free or less powerful; for he is his own necessity. Nor does it derogate from the liberty of those actions of God which are called ad extra, or without him. For though he is, by no necessity of nature, constrained to external operations, considered in the gross or together; yet, supposing the existence of one operation without him, many others necessarily follow. For instance: God was at liberty to create a world out of nothing; but having done it, it became necessary that he should govern the same in a way agreeable to his justice, holiness, wisdom, and goodness. In like manner, here, God was at liberty to permit sin; but then, having permitted it, his essential justice requires it to be punished. He was also at liberty to save some sinners; yet, having declared his will with respect to this, there was a necessity for a suitable satisfaction to intervene, on account of those immutable divine perfections which he cannot, in any of his actions, disavow. As little does this derogate from the wise counsel of God, in ordering the punishment of it, as to the time, the degree, and the persons. For though we do not think that God inflicts punishment from his nature, in such a manner as fire burns (though even in this respect he compares himself to fire, Is. 27:4, and Deut. 4:24), yet his nature is a strong reason why he orders and inflicts punishment in a most wise manner. Now the nature of God requires, that he so display the glory of his justice, as that he may likewise manifest the riches of his grace. Nor does it derogate from the infinite goodness of God, as if by that he could grant repentance to the sinner, and so receive him into favour, without any satisfaction. For the bestowing of the spirit of regeneration is an effect of the highest love. But that God should so much love a sinner, continuing still impenitent, without the consideration of a satisfaction, is a conduct inconsistent with his other perfections, as we have already so frequently shown. God cannot but take his Spirit from him, who maketh a mock of him. It is not becoming to grant repentance by means of the same Spirit, without the intervention of the sacrifice of the priest, whereby sin may be expiated.

XX. Seeing, therefore, both the nature and actions of God, and the reasoning of the sacred writers, teach us the necessity of a satisfaction; since by that doctrine the eminent perfections of God are placed in the most shining light; because the right observance thereof tends very much to promote piety; and as thereby there is no derogation made from any of the divine perfections, we conclude it is the safest course soberly to embrace it.

XXI. Yet we must observe, when speaking in general of the necessity of a satisfaction, or of such a punishment of sin, wherein the righteous and holy God may be justified and sanctified, we set no bounds to the time, the degree, or the special manner of the punishment. The history of the life and death of Christ makes it very evident, that dispensations and mitigations, at least a compensation by an equivalent, took place here, and consequently could justly take place. And who will assert, or, if he should presume to say so, can plainly prove, that it was impossible that Christ, in order to make satisfaction, should undertake and submit to sufferings, fewer in number, shorter in duration, less intense in quantity, as to the parts of the body, and faculties of the soul, the moments and periods of his life spent here upon earth? And here let that saying of Paul, Rom. 12:3, be ever a rule to us: “Not to think more highly than we ought to think, but to think soberly.”

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