Beware of ‘Airy Nothings’: Hugh Martin on the Atonement

Anyone who has spent time studying the nature of the atonement knows that there is much debate around the unpopular notion of  penal substitution.  Even in the last few decades, “crucicentric” evangelicals have begun questioning the atonement and its penal nature, along with its substitutionary role in salvation. In its place have arisen a bevy of Christus Victor and Christus Exemplar theories.  Thus, a defense of penal substitution is always needed.  Yet, sometimes the best defense comes not from our own day, but from centuries gone-bye.

Such is the case with Hugh Martin.  In his work entitled simply, The Atonement, Martin, a Scottish Presbyterian from the nineteenth century, does a masterful job unpacking the biblical presentation of the cross “as it relates to the covenant, the priesthood, and the intercession of our Lord.”  He argues for penal subtitution and particular redemption and presents a robust understanding of the cross.

In a world of competing theories of atonement, Martin’s biblical logic is much appreciated and instructive.  While many like Steve Chalke, Denny Weaver, and Thomas Finger offer a reductionistic approach to the cross, Martin incorporates all the biblical data and secures it to the penal substitution of the cross.  He argues that if you “get” the primary nature of the cross, you will be able to keep the other secondary and tertiary benefits; but if you misunderstand penal substitution, you will let go of everything else too.  His quote is worthy of consideration and meditation.

(1) It was by the atonement of a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, satisfying Divine justice, that Christ had scope for that unmurmuring patience by which He left us an ‘Example’ that we should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2:21-24)

(2) It was by dying a substitutionary and atoning death that He underwent ‘Martyrdom’ as a witness for the truth (John 18:37).

(3) It was in setting His face as a flint to go to Jerusalem, there to fill up with antitypical reality all Jerusalem’s priestly services, by offering Himself without spot to God a curse-bearing sacrifice for sin, that He denied Himself and took up His cross, and commended ‘Self-denial’ to His followers.

(4) It was when he proffered Himself to the sword of offended justice, awakened against Him, according to His own covenant arrangement, by the Father, that He illustrated ‘Self-surrender.’

(5) With Him, ‘Self-sacrifice’ was specifically sacrifice for sin, a satisfaction and a reconciliation.

(6) There is indeed in His Cross a ‘Governmental Display.’  It ‘declares the righteousness of God for the remission of sins;’ but only because Christ is there ‘set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood’ (Rom 3:25).  And it declares, manifests, [and] displays the love of God; but only in that God ‘sent forth His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).

(7) A ‘Moral Influence,’ also, undoubtedly flows from the cross of Jesus.  But it is a fountain of moral influence; — moral influence without spiritual power were needlessly exerted on men dead in trespasses and sins; — it is a fountain both of Moral Influence and of regenerating energy to turn us unto righteousness, only because He there gave Himself in justice-satisfying substitution, ‘the just for the unjust, that He might bring us unto God’ (1 Pet 3:18).

Secure the intrinsic and essential nature, and the primary and direct design of the atoning death of Christ, and all the secondary results—flitting otherwise as mere shades in dream-land, vainly claiming the reality of fact—become real and true, and are secured.  But when they claim to be of the essence of the atonement, they fight against their realization… In the hands of those who plead them as explanations of the cross, they are at the best but ‘airy nothings;’ ‘their local habitation,’ and only home of life—their source of truth, reality, and power—is just that same old doctrine which they malign and would subvert.  As if sunbeams revile the sun! (The Atonement [Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1997], 69-71).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss