Does The Repentance of Man remove The Necessity of The Atonement ?

Read also: “Does The Mercy of God 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 depend on the efficacy of repentance, and if that is all that is necessary to restore them to the Divine favour, then also an atonement would be 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.

II. The question which next occurs is, whether repentance for sin will of itself be a sufficient ground of hope without an atonement.

There can be no doubt that men often rely on this. Either as a sort of expiation for sin, or as recommending them to God, or as being all that is possible in the case, or as in some unknown way making it proper for God to pardon on that account, men do rely on this as a ground of hope. They would allege that they themselves are required to forgive an offending neighbour; that a parent should forgive a child; that it would be unjust, in the intercourse of man with man, to refuse to forgive when one who has offended is penitent; and, they ask, why may not God be expected to forgive in the same way? If it would be unjust in man not to forgive in such circumstances, why is it not equally unjust in God? They would refer, perhaps, to the fact that even in the Bible we are commanded to forgive an offending brother “not only seven times, but seventy times seven,” if he turn and repent, (Luke xvii. 4, Matt. xviii. 21, 22,) and that without any atonement or reparation; and they would ask whether we are to suppose that God will act on a different principle from that which he requires in us. Thus, in a quotation before made, Dr. Priestley says, “We are commanded to forgive others as we ourselves hope to be forgiven, and to be merciful as our Father who is in heaven is merciful. But surely we are not thereby authorized to insist upon any atonement or satisfaction before we give up our resentments towards an offending brother. Indeed, how could it deserve the name of forgiveness if we did?”

The inquiry now is, whether this view is sustained by the actual course of events in the world so as to be a just foundation of hope for man; that is, whether it is a matter of fact under the Divine administration that repentance for sin arrests the effects of transgression and restores the offender to the favour of God; whether it so reinstates him in the position in which he was before the offence was committed that he has no reason to dread any infliction of the penalty of law? If it does, then it may be argued with plausibility that it might be safe for man to trust to the effect of repentance without an atonement.

In reference to this inquiry, the following remarks may be made.

(I.) It is clear that repentance is not what the law demands. No law of God or of man contains this as a part of its requirement, that there shall be repentance for a fault; that is, that an offence may be tolerated by the law on condition that there shall be a suitable expression of penitence after the offence has been committed. In no country, barbarous or civilized, has such an article been inserted into a code of laws as a part of its provisions or as connected with its administration. No parent would feel that this was a safe principle in the field of domestic legislation, even with all the guarantees and securities that exist to secure the observance of law in the sanctity of the household. No friend would consent to this as one of the conditions of friendship, that any or all the obligations of truth, kindness, respect, fidelity, might be disregarded; that the proposed friend might even invade the sanctity of conjugal life and rob him of domestic peace, on condition that there should be suitable repentance and reformation afterwards. No man could make this a condition on which he would be willing to live with his fellow man; no neighbourhood would be safe if these were the terms on which it was understood that neighbours were to keep up their intercourse with each other. Law knows but two things, the absolute precept, and the penalty: the one to be obeyed, the other to be suffered. All else than this belongs to another system and cannot be regarded as any part of the demand of law. It could not be argued beforehand, therefore, that such an arrangement was to be expected in the Divine legislation. In fact, there is no proof in the nature of things that such an arrangement exists in the Divine constitution respecting those who are the subjects of law.

(2.) It is a matter of fact that mere repentance does not remove the effects of sin and restore an offender to the condition in which he was before he committed the offence. “The present conduct of the penitent will receive God’s approbation, but the reformation of the sinner cannot have a retrospective effect. The agent may be changed, but his former sins cannot be thereby cancelled: the convert and the sinner are the same individual person, and the agent must be answerable for his whole conduct.” Even Cicero goes no further on this subject than to assert, Quem poenitet peccasse, pene est innocens. The penitent is only almost innocent. Does repentance bring back the property that has been squandered in gambling or dissipation, the health that has been ruined by debauchery and intemperance, the reputation that has been lost by fraud and dishonesty, the public favour that has been forfeited by forgery or fraud, the vigour of early years that has been wasted by profligacy? Will any penitence, however sincere or prolonged, bring up from the grave the man that has been murdered, and restore him to his family and friends? Will it call back to the ways of purity the young female that has been led into a career of sin by the arts of the seducer? No. All these are now fixed. They belong to the past. They cannot be changed. The health is permanently destroyed; the property is wasted; the sacred citadel of virtue has been taken; the murdered man is in his grave; the victim of seduction is ruined. No repentance on the part of him who has caused any of these things can ever change them; no repentance can place the offender himself in the situation in which he was before he committed the crime. By reformation a man may indeed regain an honourable position in society; but even under the most favourable circumstances this removes but a part of the evils caused by a sinful course. It brings back nothing that was lost; it changes no facts in the past; it furnishes no assurance of the Divine favour. The consequences of a sinful course are not to be turned aside by floods of tears. The erring female cannot avert the effects of a criminal course by nights of weeping, by the fact that the heart is broken by the remembrance of crime.

(3.) Equally clear is it that mere repentance does not remove the effects of crime on the conscience of the offender himself. Even though all the external consequences of sin could be averted by an act of penitence, still, there would be consequences of guilt on the mind itself which would not be removed. Remorse, the sense of self-dissatisfaction, the apprehension of what may occur hereafter, would still remain. There is nothing in the bitterest repentance that has any effect in silencing the deep self-disapprobation which arises from the commission of crime. That springs up in the mind entirely irrespective of the apprehension of the consequences of guilt and the dread of the future, however it may, as a secondary effect, suggest that there is much to dread hereafter. That feeling of self-disapprobation or remorse is one quite independent of any loss of health or property or reputation as the effect of the deed done. It stands by itself. It springs directly out of the crime. It would exist if there were no future to be dreaded, and would exist in view of the crime itself if it had done nothing to waste health to destroy property, or to injure reputation. And this is in no manner affected by mere repentance. An offender, no matter how much he weeps, no matter how bitter or how prolonged may be his penitence, cannot, does not, feel that the crime which he has committed is in any way affected by his sorrow for it. It is none the less; it seems to him none the less. Even should he wholly reform, and become eminently virtuous, that would not affect his own sense of the evil of the sin, except to deepen his sense of that evil. The same thing is true in his apprehension of what is to come as the reward of sin; for sin not only produces remorse in view of the past, but it directs the mind on to that which is to come. By a law of our nature, the apprehension of what is to occur beyond the grave springs up in the mind just as the feeling of remorse does, an apprehension quite separate from remorse, indeed, in its nature, though conjoined with it in fact. It is so separate that it must be dealt with in its own way, and be removed by an arrangement that shall have a special adaptation to it. And this is not removed by repentance. The mind of the guilty man does not feel any assurance, however deep the penitence, that there will be no consequences of sin to be apprehended in a future world. After all the tears that he may shed; after the keenest mental sorrow that his mind can experience at the remembrance of guilt, it is still true that the apprehension in regard to the world to come will not be lessened. There is a conviction that the crime deserves a deeper retribution than the mere shedding of tears; and there will be a conviction that nothing has been done by repentance to furnish any security that the sin will not draw on fearful consequences in the future world. No act of penitence, no tears or mental sorrows, can remove from the mind the consciousness of guilt; none can remove the apprehension of the wrath to come. No such act can secure to a guilty man peace on a bed of death; none, therefore, can accomplish what is needful to have accomplished in behalf of the guilty.

It is clear, therefore, that there is no reason why men should rely on repentance as a ground of hope in regard to the remission of sin. It is certain that there is no such ground of hope given by God himself to mankind; for the rejecter of revelation pretends to no promise of this kind, and no such promise is made to man in the Bible. It is equally certain that the course of events furnishes no such ground of hope; for, as we have seen, mere repentance does not remove the effects of guilt and restore the offender to his former position, does not take away remorse from the mind, and does not remove the dread of the wrath to come. (…) It is wrong to assume–that mere repentance will restore an offender to the Divine favour. Hence on this ground we argue the necessity of an atonement.’

Source: Albert Barnes, The Atonement (1860), Chapter 6: Necessity of an Atonement, p 157, 158, 161-162, 180-187.

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


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