Francis Turretin – The Necessity of the Atonement

Francis-Turretin The Priesthood of Christ, according to the Apostle Paul and the types of the Jewish ritual, is divided into two parts: the atonement which he made to divine justice, and his intercession in heaven, (1 John 2: 2. Heb. 9: 12). The necessity of such an atonement, which is the foundation of all practical piety and all Christian hopes, must therefore be firmly established, and defended against the fiery darts of Satan, with which it is attacked by innumerable adversaries.

Upon this subject, the opinions of divines may be classed under three heads: 1. That of the Socinians, who I not only deny that an atonement was made, but affirm that it was not at all necessary, since God both could and would pardon sin, without any satisfaction made to his justice. 2. That of those who distinguish between an absolute and a hypothetical necessity; and in opposition to the Socinians maintain the latter, while they deny the former. By a hypothetical necessity they mean that which flows from the divine decree, God has decreed that an atonement is to be made, therefore it is necessary. To this they also add a necessity of fitness; as the commands-of God have 1 been transgressed, it is fit that satisfaction should be made, that the transgressor may not pass with impunity. Yet they deny that it was absolutely necessary, as God, they say, might have devised some other way of pardon than through the medium of an atonement. This is the ground taken by Augustine in his book on the Trinity. Some of the reformers who wrote before the time of Socinus, adopt the opinions of that father. 3. That of those who maintain its absolute necessity; affirming that God neither has willed, nor could have willed to forgive sins, without a satisfaction made to his justice. This, the common opinion of the orthodox, is our opinion.

Various errors are maintained on this point, by our opponents. The removal of the grounds upon which they rest will throw light upon the whole subject. They err in their views of the nature of sin, for which a satisfaction is required; of the satisfaction itself; of the character of God to whom it is to be rendered; and of Christ by whom it is rendered.

1. Of sin, which renders us guilty, and binds us over to punishment as hated of God. It may be viewed as a debt which we are bound to pay to divine justice, in which sense the law is called “a hand-writing,” (Col 2:14) as a principle of enmity, whereby we hate God and he becomes our enemy: as a crime against the government of the universe by which, before God, the supreme governor and judge, we become deserving of everlasting death and malediction. Whence, sinners are expressly called “debtors,” (Matt. 6:12); “enemies to God,” both actively and passively, (Col. 1:21); “and guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19.) We, therefore, infer that three things were necessary in order to our redemption; the payment of the debt contracted by sin., the appeasing of the divine wrath, and the expiation of guilt.

2. From the preceding remarks, the -nature of the satisfaction which sin requires may be easily perceived. That which we are chiefly to attend to in sin being its criminality, satisfaction has relation to the penalty enacted against it by the Supreme Judge.
But here we must attend to a twofold payment, which is noticed by jurists. One which, by the very deed of payment, sets at liberty the debtor, and annuls the obligation, whether the payment is made by the debtor in his own person, or by a surety in his name. Another in which the bare fact of payment is not sufficient to liberate the debtor, because, the payment is not precisely that which is demanded in the obligation, but all equivalent. In this case, though the creditor such payment, has a right to refuse the acceptance of yet if lie admits it and esteems it a payment, it is a satisfaction. The former of these takes place in a pecuniary, the latter in a penal debt. In a pecuniary transaction, the fact of the payment of the sum due frees tile debtor, by whomsoever the payment is made. Respect here is bad, not to the person paying but to the payment only. Whence, the creditor, having been paid the full amount due, is not said to have treated with indulgence the debtor, or to have forgiven the debt. But in penal matters the case is different. The debt rewards not things, but persons; not what is paid, so much as him who pays; i.e., that the transgressor may be punished. For as the law demands individual personal obedience, so it demands individual personal suffering. In order that the guilty person may be released through an atonement made by another in his stead, the governor or judge must pass a decree to that effect. That decree or act of the judge is, in relation to the law, called relaxation, and in relation to the debtor or guilty person., pardon; for his personal suffering is dispensed with, and in its place a vicarious suffering accepted. But because, in the subject under discussion, sin has not a relation to debt only, but also to punishment, satisfaction is not of that kind, which by the act itself frees the debtor. To effect this there must be an act of pardon passed by the Supreme Judge, because that is not precisely paid, i.e., a personal enduring of the penalty, which the law demands, but a vicarious suffering only. Hence we discover how perfectly accordant remission and satisfaction are with each other, notwithstanding the outcry made by the enemy respecting their supposed discrepancy. Christ made the satisfaction in his life and at his death, and God, by accepting this satisfaction, provides for remission. The satisfaction respects Christ, from whom God demands a punishment, not numerically, but in kind, the same with that which we owed. Pardon respects believers, who are freed from punishment in their own persons, while a vicarious suffering is accepted. Hence we see how admirably mercy is tempered with justice. Justice is exercised against sin, and mercy towards the sinner; an atonement is made to the divine justice by a surety, and God mercifully pardons us.

3. This reasoning is greatly fortified from a consideration of the relations in which God stands to the sinner. He may be viewed in a threefold relation: as the creditor; as the Lord and party offended; and as the judge and ruler. But though both the former relations must be attended to in this matter, yet the third is to be chiefly considered. God here is not merely a creditor, who may at pleasure remit what is his due, nor merely the party offended who may do as he will with his own claims without injury to any one; but he is also a judge and rectoral governor, to whom alone pertains the infliction of punishment upon offenders, and the power of remitting the penal sanction of the law. This all jurists know belongs to the chief magistrate alone. The creditor may demand his debt, and the party offended reparation for the offence or indemnity for his loss; but the judge alone has the power to compel payment, or exact punishment. Here lies the capital error of our adversaries, who maintain that God is to be considered merely in the light of a creditor, who is at liberty to exact or remit the punishment at pleasure. It is however certain, that God sustains the character of judge and ruler of the world, who has the rights of sovereignty to maintain, and professes himself to be the guardian and avenger of his laws; and hence lie possesses not only the claims of a creditor, which he might assert or remit at pleasure, but also the right of government and of punishment, which is naturally indispensable. We must, however, in the punishment itself, distinguish accurately between the enforcing of the penalty, and the manner and circumstances under which it is enforced, as they are things widely different. Punishment may be viewed generally; and in this respect the right of Heaven to inflict it is indispensable, being founded in the divine justice. If there be such an attribute as justice belonging to God, then sin must have its due, which is punishment. But as to the manner and circumstances of the punishment, the case is altogether different. They are not essential to that attribute. They are to be arranged according to his will and pleasure. It may seem fit to the goodness of God that there should be, in relation to time, a delay of punishment; in relation to degree, a mitigation of it; and in relation to persons, a substitution. For although the person sinning deserves punishment and might suffer it with the strictest justice, yet such punishment is not necessarily indispensable. For reasons of great importance, it may be transferred to a surety. In this sense, it is said by divines that sin is of necessity punished impersonally, but every sinner is not therefore of necessity to be punished personally. Through the singular mercy of God some may be exempted from punishment, by the substitution of a surety in their stead.

But that we may conceive it possible for God to do this, he must not be considered as an inferior judge appointed by law. An officer of that character cannot remit anything of the rigour of the law by transferring the punishment from the actual offender to another person. God must be viewed in his true character, as a supreme judge who giveth account of none of his matters, who will satisfy his justice by the punishment of sin, and who, through his infinite wisdom and unspeakable mercy, determines to do this in such a way as shall relax somewhat of the extreme rigour of punishment, by admitting a substitute and letting the sinner go free. Hence we discover to whom the atonement is to be made; whether to the devil, (as Socinus, with a sneer, asks,) or to God, as sovereign judge. For as the devil is no more than the servant of God, the keeper of the prison, who has no power over sinners, unless by the just judgment of God, the atonement is not to be made to this executor of the divine vengeance, but to the Supreme Ruler, who primarily and principally holds them in durance. We may add, that it is a gratuitous and false supposition, that in the suffering of punishment, there must be some person to whom the punishment shall be rendered, as in a pecuniary debt. It is sufficient that there is a judge, who may exact it in order to support the majesty of the State, and maintain the order of the empire.

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Michael lives in Belleville, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, MO with his wife Erica and daughter Alissa. An 8 year Navy veteran, he is now employed at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) where he oversees advanced educational programs. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Religion (Biblical Studies) from Liberty University. He is an avid reader and blogger operating the website Christian Apologetics and Intelligence Ministry ( which provides both original content and relevant posts and articles from around the web. Mike serves as the Managing Editor of Servants of Grace, and the editor for Servants of Grace Apologetics.

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