Does The Mercy of God remove The Necessity of The Atonement ?

Read also: “Does The Repentance of Man remove The Necessity of The Atonement?” and “Argument for The Necessity of The Atonement“.


‘It becomes proper, (…) to inquire why, (…) it is necessary that an atonement should be made; that is, why sinners cannot be saved without it; or why, in the language of the Bible, “without shedding of blood is no remission,” (Heb. ix. 22.) If there is any other way by which the difficulties in the case can be met and sinners saved, then of course an atonement is unnecessary. It is proper, therefore, to inquire on what they who reject an atonement rely for salvation, and to see whether such grounds of reliance furnish security of happiness hereafter. If sinners may rely on the mere mercy of God for salvation, then an atonement is unnecessary. (…)


We can look upon the course of events, and see what is the fact in regard to the effect of those things on which men do rely as securing salvation, and argue from the failure of those things as to the necessity of some higher mode of intervention. We can ask whether it will be safe for men to reject the atonement and to rely on those things. We can see in the failure of all those things to meet the circumstances of the case–if they do fail–an argument for the necessity of an atonement. In this there can be no presumption; for we are here manifestly pursuing an inquiry of the deepest interest to ourselves, and which lies within the proper range of human investigation.

Such a course of inquiry it is proposed to pursue in this chapter. The necessity of an atonement will be argued from the failure of all else on which men are accustomed to rely for salvation; or, in other words, by showing that no reliance can be placed on those things to meet the circumstances of the case, it is proposed to demonstrate the necessity of an atonement.

The question relates to the salvation of sinners; and it is to be assumed in this discussion that men are sinners. Apart from the atonement, the only other methods of salvation by which it could be supposed that sinners could be saved are the following: The mere mercy of God; repentance and reformation; punishment; repairing the evils of the past by subsequent good conduct; sacrifices offered for sin; and a process of restoration in regard to moral evils–a recuperative process–similar to the healing of diseases in the body.

These methods of salvation it is proposed now to examine. There are no other methods, besides that of reliance on the atonement of Christ. These exhaust the subject. If a sinner may rely on any one of these methods, there is no need of an atonement. If all of these fail, then there must be an atonement, or the sinner must perish.

I. The mere mercy of God.

As this is perhaps the most general ground of reliance for salvation among men, it is important to examine it with care.

It is undoubtedly true that large classes of men of all classes and conditions–profess to rely on the mercy of God as a safe and sufficient ground of hope in relation to the future world. The most general ground of the hope of happiness hereafter is, probably, that which is founded on good works; on an upright character; on honesty and fidelity in the relations of life; on amiableness, kindness, and courtesy in the intercourse with each other; on the belief entertained by many that they have wronged no one, that they have defrauded no one, that they are just in their dealings with men, that they are faithful in the discharge of their duties as husbands, fathers, neighbours, citizens. But this ground of hope may be laid out of view now; for we are not inquiring whether it would be possible for men to be saved if they were perfectly righteous,of which there could be no doubt, but in what way a sinner may be saved. The question is, How may one who is conscious that he has violated the law of God obtain his favour again? How may we approach him with the hope of pardon? The first of these grounds of hope is dependence on the mere mercy of God, with no reference to an atonement; and it is undoubtedly true that multitudes do profess to trust to this as a safe resort. The man who is externally moral, and who aims to lead an upright life, and who prides himself on his virtuous character, trusts that the few and unimportant errors of his life may be forgiven, and that he may safely rely, in respect to these, on the mercy of God. The skeptic–the denier of the truth of revelation–also relies on the mercy of God, and thinks that he may safely make it an article of his creed that God is merciful, and that he may in safety trust to that mercy for salvation. The Universalist is loud in his proclamation of the mercy of God, and in the expression of his belief that all men will be saved through that mercy; and even the dissolute, the profane, and the abandoned, when all other hope of salvation fails, take refuge, on the bed of death, in what they regard as the illimitable compassion of God.

And yet it may be doubted whether any of these persons really rely for salvation on the mercy of God. If the moral man, conscious as he may be of a few errors and follies of life, were questioned, he would say that he does not believe that he deserves eternal death, and that it would be wrong in God to consign him to future woe; and thus he is depending for salvation not on the mercy but on the justice of God. The skeptic, also, if questioned on the subject, would not allege that he had any communication from heaven to assure him that he might safely trust to the mercy of God, for all such revelation be on principle rejects; but he would maintain also that it would be wrong in God to consign him to an eternal hell, and thus he relies for salvation not on the mercy but on the justice of God. The Universalist, also, loud as he is in praise of the mercy of God, and stoutly as he maintains that through that mercy all mankind will be saved, yet as loudly and as stoutly maintains that it would be wrong in God–that it would be horrible injustice–to consign men to everlasting punishment; and thus he also relies not on the mercy but on the justice of God for salvation; and, after all that he says in favour of the mercy of God, he has no belief that there is any occasion for the exercise of mercy in the case, but his system would be practically the same, and his hope would be precisely the same, if God were possessed of no such attribute as that of mercy, but were severely and only just. In like manner, also, even the abandoned and profligate sinner would maintain that it would be wrong in the God who made him to doom him to everlasting wretchedness for the sins of this short life; and thus he, at last, also finds refuge and hope not in the mercy but in the justice of God.

But, if it were true that men really relied on the mercy of God for salvation, would this be a safe ground of hope for a sinner?

In reference to this question, let the following considerations be borne in mind.

(1.) Mercy cannot be safely relied on by an offender in any human administration. We have seen, in a previous chapter, (ch. ii.,) that no government could safely offer unconditional pardon to offenders, and that pardon can in no case be administered under a human government without doing much to weaken the strong arm of the law. Mere mercy can in no case be made a ground of hope under a human government. When pardon is extended to the guilty, it is in most, if not in all, cases, done not on the ground of mere mercy, but on the ground that there was some defect in the process of the trial; or that the sentence of the law was too severe; or that there were some extenuating circumstances in the case; or that there was something in respect to the age, the sex, or the previous character of the offender which made it proper to interpose with executive clemency; or that there was evidence of such a reformation as to make it proper to remit the remainder of the sentence or to commute it; or that there was evidence that the punishment had answered all the ends contemplated by punishment; or that there was some new testimony in favour of the offender which was not before the court on the trial, and which might have modified the verdict; or that there is reason to suppose that, if all the testimony in the case had been before the court, the accused would have been acquitted: that is, so far as these circumstances bear on the case, the ‘Pardon’ is in fact an act of justice, and not of mercy.

(2.) It is to be borne in mind, in regard to dependence on the mercy of God for salvation, that there are other attributes in the Divine character than mercy, and that, so far as appears, they are as essential to that character as mercy is, and that it is as important for the good of the universe that they should be displayed as it is that the attribute of mercy should be exhibited. “A God all mercy is a God unjust.” There is as certain evidence that God is just as there is that he is merciful. In estimating the character of a neighbour, a merchant, a professional man, a magistrate, in forming our conception of a perfect man, we think of truth, and purity, and justice, and uprightness, as really as of kindness. We regard these as essential to a perfect character. We have no conception of a character as entitled to high respect and confidence where these are not found. If we could conceive of a case in which there were no traces of these attributes, we should say, however merciful or amiable the man might be, his character was radically deficient. If we could conceive of a case where the attribute of justice is never exercised–where a man in his dealings with others always disregards its claims, however amiable or kind he might be, we should say that such a character was worthy only of universal detestation.

It is worthy of special remark, as bearing on the point before us, that, when we say that the attribute of justice is essential to our idea of a perfect character, we say at the same time that it is essential to our idea of such a character that the attribute should be exercised or displayed. It would be of no value as a dormant attribute, any more than a dormant attribute of mercy or goodness would be. On suitable occasions, it is as proper that the attribute of justice should be displayed as the attribute of mercy; and, if there is any evidence furnished by our instinctive sense of what is essential to the character of perfection in God, that one of these attributes will be displayed, there is the same evidence, so far as that source of proof is concerned, that the other will be.

It is further to be observed that in all the arrangements among men themselves it is contemplated that there shall be as real a manifestation of the attribute of justice as of mercy. (a.) There are more laws made to secure justice between man and man than there are to secure the exercise of mercy from one who is wronged towards him who wrongs him. There are more provisions in the administration of the laws to secure the exercise of justice than of mercy. There are all the arrangements in the courts: the forms of indictment; the pleadings, the trial by jury; the writ of habeas corpus; the securities against false imprisonment; the examination of witnesses in open court; the confronting of the witnesses with the accused; the right of appeal: in fact, nearly all the arrangements in the courts of law have reference to the securing of justice. Those which have reference to the exercise of mercy are comparatively few. There is little legislation in regard to it; and few of the great conflicts in the world have been with reference to the exercise of mercy. Those great conflicts which have marked the progress of society have pertained to the exercise of justice and not of mercy, have been struggles in securing what is right, not what is to be expected as the result of the exercise of compassion. (b.) In like manner, it is true that justice is more frequently exercised than mercy. The daily transactions between man and man are transactions of justice. The transactions in courts are those of justice, and not of mercy. The question on trial when a man is arraigned for libel, treason, piracy, or murder, is not a question whether he is a fit subject for executive clemency, but whether he has committed a crime that subjects him to the penalty of the law; not a question whether he shall be pardoned, but whether he shall be punished. The dispensing of pardon is regarded as an event that is to be rare; the dispensation of justice is one that is to be constant. The former is left to an executive, with few rules in regard to its exercise; the latter is guarded with all the skill of legislation, and all the sanctions of law, and all the precautions against abuse and corruption which can be thrown around the tribunals of justice.

(3.) There is abundant evidence that substantially the same order of things is to be found in the Divine administration, and that the attribute of justice is the one that is prominently contemplated there.

(a.) There are abundant indications in the world that there is such an attribute in God as justice, and that justice will be regarded in his dealings with mankind. This is found not only in the appointment of law to regulate the conduct of men, but in the fact that evils are brought upon the violators of that law as punishments, not as expressions of mercy. The material thought here is, that such inflictions are an expression of displeasure on the part of God, and are designed, according to the proper notion of penalty, as has been before explained, to show the sense which the lawgiver entertains of the value of law and of the evil of disobedience; not that they are in their nature disciplinary, or merely designed to reform. Abundant indications of this are to be found in the Divine dealings; and they are familiar to every one. They occur in the numerous instances in which a certain course of conduct is uniformly followed with certain calamities or evils, or in which the evil has all the marks of being a specific penalty appointed for that particular offence. The evil in the case is such as occurs only on the commission of that offence; and it so uniformly occurs as to show that it is designed to be a penalty for that offence. It is not of so general a character that it may be a matter of doubt whether it belongs to that offence or some other, or whether it has any relation to conduct considered as crime; but it is as particular and as specific as if there were no other offence to be punished. Thus it is, for example, with the consequences of intemperance, where there can be no doubt that the calamities which come upon the drunkard are the consequence of his particular habits of life, and are designed to express the sense entertained by the Great Lawgiver of the value of the law which binds men to temperance, and of the evils of a violation of that law. The evils in the case are of such a nature, and are so uniform, as to leave no room for doubt on the subject. They are evils which follow no other course of life, and they cannot be separated from that habit. It cannot be proved that the radical idea in inflicting these evils is that they shall reform the offender; for, as the result shows, they do not tend to such an effect. The woe, the sorrow, the poverty, the disease, the dishonour, that attend the career of the drunkard, the peculiar form of the ultimate effect of the habit, that form of insanity known as mania-à-potu, all have the appearance, and all seem designed to accomplish the effect, of a specific penalty. The things that are essential to the idea of a penalty or an infliction of justice are found in all these effects: (a) They are so specific and peculiar as to show that they are connected with that offence as the cause; (b) they are so uniform as to show that the whole thing is arranged on plan, and that they do not occur by chance; and (c) it is apparent that they are intended not for purposes of reformation, but as a suitable expression of the value of the law in the case, and of the evils of violating that law. They become, therefore, a proof that there is such a thing as justice, and that the world is not administered on the mere principle of mercy; that is, that men have much to fear from justice, whatever they may or may not have to hope from mercy. They are not in a world of mere mercy, but in a world where there are proofs that God is just.

The same remarks might be made of many other courses of conduct. In relation to licentiousness, to gluttony, to fraud, to oppression, to murder, it might be shown that, sooner or later, all such offenses impinge on some arrangement designed to show that there is a law in the case and that that law cannot be violated with impunity; and what is material in the point before us is, that justice and not mercy is to be expected to follow as the result of such violation of law; that what is to be anticipated is not an expression of compassion, but an expression of displeasure; not an indication that the offence will be overlooked and forgiven, but that it will be marked and punished.

And we may refer here, in further illustration of this point, to the instinctive feelings of mankind when they are about to commit a crime. What their nature teaches them to anticipate is not forgiveness and impunity, but punishment. They find within them, so far as their minds act at all, not an anticipation of mercy, but of justice. The reproofs and checks of conscience, the dread of the consequences, the fear of death and of the judgment as viewed in connection with the offence, all indicate that there is an arrangement in the human mind to keep up the idea of justice in the world; but there is no corresponding arrangement when an offence is committed which has reference to the exercise of mercy, nothing that points to the exercise of mercy as that arrangement does to the infliction of justice.

In the actual dispensations of Providence, moreover, there are more proofs of justice than of mercy; there are more things occurring that can be properly traced to the infliction of penalty, and that should be regarded as proofs that God is just, than there are that can be regarded as proofs that he is merciful. In other words, there are more specific things that can be directly and certainly traced to the idea that God is just, than there are that can be traced to the specific idea of mercy. There are, indeed, numerous proofs of goodness, numerous evidences that God is benevolent, and that he desires the happiness of his creatures; but it is to be observed that these, for the most part, are found in the original constitution of things, or in the arrangements made anterior to the commission of crime, and therefore they cannot with propriety be referred to in this argument, for the arrangements which we are seeking for in the inquiry about the mercy of God are not general original arrangements of benevolence, but specific arrangements contemplated as following the violation of law; and the remark which is now made is, that, placing ourselves in that position, or regarding crime as committed, there are in fact more arrangements for the infliction of justice than for the exercise of mercy.

In other words, judging merely from the course of events under the Divine administration, there is more to be dreaded by a sinner than there is to be hoped for; more that should lead a violator of law to fear what is to come than to cherish hope.

(b.) There are in the world numerous instances of what may be called unfinished justice, or cases in which, for some cause, the infliction of justice is not complete, but seems to be arrested midway. The death of the individual, or some other cause, arrests the process of justice which was commenced, and whatever may be necessary to complete the process is reserved for another sphere of being. Thus it is often, for example, in reference to the drunkard. A process of retribution in disease, poverty, disgrace, is commenced; and we know what would be the ultimate result if the intemperate man should live for many years, for we can see that result in numerous other cases. But he is slain in battle, or cut off by the pestilence, or stricken down in a brawl, and the process is arrested midway and he is removed to other scenes. So it may be in the remorse that follows the commission of crime; so in the sentence that is pronounced on a murderer, a thief, or a pirate; so in the career of a forger. A sentence is pronounced and partly executed, but the offender dies by an ordinary disease; or remorse begins to prey upon the soul with the moral certainty that, if life should be lengthened out, all the future would be embittered, but the guilty man is cut down by some form of disease, or by an act of his own hand is removed to another world, and the process of retribution which had been commenced here is checked midway. It was not a process of mercy, but of justice. As far as we could trace it, it was the mere infliction of justice, with not the slightest intimation that there would be any exercise of mercy.

(c.) There are strong probabilities that these unfinished processes of justice will be carried out and completed in another world. The probabilities are found in such circumstances as the following:

One is, that it seems to be necessary that it should be so in order that there may be consistency in the Divine dealings. There would evidently be an inconsistency which we could not well reconcile with a character of perfection in arresting a process of justice in one case, and in another case in carrying it out in full; in removing one to a world where he would, by the mere fact of the removal, escape a large part of the deserved penalty, while another is retained upon the earth that he may meet it in full. It is certainly more probable that the original arrangement will be carried out by the full infliction of the penalty, and that what is commenced here and is unfinished when the offender dies will be completed in another world. It would be difficult, if not impossible, if this were not so, to vindicate the Divine character.

A second circumstance is, that, so far as we can trace the course of things, there is nothing to justify the expectation that the process of justice commenced in this world and left unfinished by death will not be completed in another world. The process of justice is indeed often arrested; but there are so many cases in which, when that process is arrested, it ultimately, though after long intervals, overtakes the offender, that there is every reason to believe that the process will be completed at some period in the future. Long intervals of time often occur between the commission of a crime and its punishment. Large tracts of land or ocean intervene between the place where an offence was committed and the place where punishment is inflicted. The crime may have been committed in youth, and partially checked or punished then; but the full retribution may come, in some unexpected manner, only in old age. The crime may have been committed in America; and far on in life it may be punished by some calamity that shall come upon the perpetrator in India or on the ocean. Why shall we not suppose that this arrangement will extend to the future world, and that crime perpetrated in the beginning of our existence here will meet a just retribution there? That sin committed on earth will be punished beyond the grave?

A third circumstance is, that those intervals of life which for a time suspend consciousness–as sleep or delirium–do not arrest the arrangements for the punishment of guilt. There are many crimes unpunished when men lie down to rest at night. There is at the close of each day, just as there is at the close of the lives of individuals, much unfinished justice. Yet neither sleep nor delirium arrests permanently the regular operation of things. The crimes that were committed yesterday and that were unpunished travel over the interval of the night’s rest and meet the guilty as they awake to a new day; the consequences of a particular course of conduct will travel even over the delirium of fever, or even a more protracted and permanent insanity, and meet the offender in their consequences in future life on the restoration to health and reason.

Then why should not the same thing occur in regard to death? Why should that suspend or annihilate a law which we find to be so universal? Death annihilates nothing. Death may not–probably does not–even suspend consciousness as much as the delirium of a fever, or as is done by a night’s sleep. No man can assume that death will do what delirium and sleep will not do, or that he may hope for that in the case of death which he may not hope for in the delirium of fever or a more enduring insanity. No man can assume that the arrangements for justice commenced here will not be resumed beyond the grave, and that the processes of justice unfinished here will not be perfected in another world.

(4.) There is no such evidence that men are saved by mere mercy without an atonement as will make it safe to rely on that alone.

The proof on this point is as ample as any proposition can be where there is not a direct declaration from heaven, or where there is not absolute demonstration. For,

(a.) All the cases of Christians are to be laid out of view. They profess, indeed, to be saved by the mercy of God, and not by justice; but it is mercy in each and every case through an atonement, and their only hope of that mercy is that which is founded on the atonement.

(b.) There is no other mercy promised to men in the Bible than that which is founded on the atonement. There the offer of salvation is ample; but it is limited in the most absolute manner to mercy dispensed through the blood of the Redeemer. It is a great principle, also, in all things, that when God has revealed one method of obtaining his favour, or proposed one mode by which it is to be secured, all others are, of course, excluded. That fact is proof not only that it is the best mode, but it is proof that there is no other mode; and, whatever we may suppose may have been abstractly true about the possibility of any other mode originally, yet the fact that that mode has been selected and revealed to man as the mode in which God is willing to bestow his favours excludes, of course, all other methods, and is at the same time a demonstration that that is not only the best, but that it is the only one. The business of man is not to find out what method there might possibly have been of securing the Divine favour, and then to infer that that is now a possible method: it is to find out what God has chosen and prescribed; and that ends the matter. If, therefore, God has said that mercy shall be bestowed through an atonement, that excludes all other methods; and speculation as to what might have been becomes vain, if not improper.

(c.) The rejecters of revelation can pretend to no evidence that men are saved by the mere mercy of God. They have no revelation to tell them so; for, on principle, and of design, they deny that any revelation has ever been given to man. No one of their number has come back from the eternal world to assure the living that they who reject the atonement made by the Redeemer are saved by the mere mercy of God. The rejecters of revelation profess to have no means of communicating with the eternal world; they have no means of ascertaining what will be the result of human conduct there; and all their hope in the case must be founded on mere conjecture.

(d.) There is no evidence furnished in death that men can be saved, or are saved, by mercy irrespective of the atonement.

The death of all Christians, as before remarked, is to be laid out of view here; and the death of no others furnishes such evidence as the case would demand that they who reject that atonement are saved.

Two reasons may be given why this is so: (I.) one is, that men who profess to rely on the mercy of God for salvation without reference to the atonement, but who, as we have seen above, really rely on the justice of God and believe it would be wrong in God not to save them, are often greatly alarmed when they come to die, showing that, so far as the evidence in their case goes, this cannot be regarded as a safe ground of trust. The fact that such men are alarmed when they die, and that they then seek for some other ground of hope, is at least so common as to show that no one can certainly anticipate that he will himself regard this as a safe ground of reliance when he dies. This fact is such as to vitiate any argument that may be urged in favour of the position that men may safely rely on the mere mercy of God without an atonement; for if this is a safe ground of reliance for salvation, it ought never to give way under any circumstances. In the prospect of passing over such a river as that of death, what we want is not a bridge that may break down, but a bridge that never will break down and that never does. In the prospect of the storms that may beat around our dwellings, what we want is not a foundation that may give way when the rain descends, and the floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon the house, but such a solid rock that it will never give way, however vehemently the storm may beat upon us. Such is the rock on which the Christian builds his hopes. It never gives way when he dies; for no true Christian ever doubts the sufficiency of that trust on which he relies, never doubts that if he is a Christian he is safe. Can it be said that no infidel, skeptic, philosopher, ever doubts, when he comes to die, that, if he is an infidel, a skeptic, a philosopher, he is safe? (2.) The other consideration is, that, even if it were a matter of fact that they who reject the atonement have no misgiving about the foundation of their hope when they lie down to die, this would not prove that this is a safe ground of reliance. Freedom from alarm and from the dread of death may proceed from other causes than that of safety, or from any well-founded assurance of future happiness. The calmness and peace of the dying skeptic may be accounted for satisfactorily on some other supposition than that he is actually going to heaven, or that he will be saved by the mercy of God without an atonement. In the sternness of the stoic, in the studied and cultivated purpose of the infidel philosopher, in the stupidity which sin engenders, and in the paralyzing influence of disease as men pass away from life, may be found a sufficient explanation of the fact that such men die calmly. If it be said that the same solution might possibly, or with equal reason, be applied to the calm death of the Christian, it may be replied that we do not refer to that calmness in death as the main proof that the soul is safe; for the reliance of the Christian is on what he regards as a promise made to men that if they repent and believe the gospel they will be saved. Their hope is based on that. Their calmness in death is not the ground of their hope: it is the fruit or result of a hope founded on the promise of God.

The conclusion which it seems proper to derive from these remarks is, that it is not possible to demonstrate from reason, from experience, or from the actual course of events in the world, that men who have violated law will be saved by the mercy of God irrespective of an atonement. It would be probably found, on a just analysis of their own processes of thought on this subject, even by those who profess thus to rely on the mercy of God, that the conclusions to which they come in their own case are based not on reason, but on feeling; that they are the suggestions of a hope which can pretend to no solid basis; that they cannot be referred to any facts in the world, and that therefore they are perfectly valueless to man.

Source: Albert Barnes, The Atonement (1860), Chapter 6: Necessity of an Atonement, p 157, 161-180.

Read also: “Does The Repentance of Man remove The Necessity of The Atonement?” and “Argument for The Necessity of The Atonement“.

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