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If the divine justice be regarded as commutative, or distributive, or vindictive, we must suppose that the execution of the penalty is an affair of indispensable necessity, and that it must inevitably be inflicted. Besides, in such a necessary execution, there is also implied a necessary and inflexible adherence to the strict letter and form of the law, so that the Public Ruler can not inflict less punishment than was threatened, nor confer more favor than was promised, without violating the constitution.
Then, we must recur to our former question—"Upon what principle shall this penalty of the law be administered?” I answer, upon the principle of PUBLIC JUS
Public Justice is that justice which a government exercises, to preserve the public good, and the public honor of the whole community. In human governments the chief magistrate has a power of suspending penalties, and of dispensing favors, provided he does not exercise such a prerogative to the detriment of the public good. Public justice is related to civil good, as distributive justice is related to personal good. If the penalty be executed, public justice provides that it shall be executed only for the public ends of government, and not for private revenge. If the punishment be suspended, public justice provides that the suspension or remission shall not be detrimental to the public good; it provides that the ends of government shall be as fully secured by the suspension as by the execution. On the principle of distributive justice, Junius Brutus delivered his two offending sons to the lictors, and said, “Execute the law upon them.” On the principle of public justice, Zaleucus spared his offending son from blindness, by consenting to suffer the loss of an eye himself. The ends of good government were as effectually secured by the public justice of Zaleucus, as by the distributive justice of Brutus. The tendency in either administration to produce salutary impressions on the subjects, is decidedly in favor of that of public justice,
The suspension of the Penalty, on honorable grounds,
consistent with Public Justice.
If the chief magistrate, in suspending a punishment, or conferring a pardon, act beside the letter of the law, yet he cannot be said to be unjust, while his measures subserve the general design of the law, and answer to the spirit of the constitution.
Suppose one of a gang of robbers to turn king's evidence. Distributive justice would require that the penalty of death be inflicted upon him as "particeps criminis," and the letter of the law would demand his execution. In such a case the chief magistrate thinks that he will promote the ends of justice, and secure the public good, better by suspending the merited punishment, than by inflicting it; and no honest subject in the kingdom will think him guilty of injustice.
In civil governments, we are every day presented with instances of the suspension of punishment, when it can be done without injury to the public good. A thief is condemned to suffer the punishment of death, but this punishment is suspended, and transportation for life is substituted instead of it. In either case the end of government is answered, namely, that he should no longer wrong honest subjects.
The providential government which God exercises over the affairs of this world, shews that threatenings can be honorably suspended when the ends of good government can be secured by it. The case of Nineveh is io point. The end of divine government, in threatenings denounced by Jonah, was the reformation of the people. This end was secured without an infliction of the penalty; consequently, no one but Jonah has ever thought the suspension or remission of the punishment wrong. That it is a possible case that a punishment may be suspended, when the ends of govern
ment can be otherwise secured, is evident from the whole history of the forbearance and long-suffering of God. The threatened inflictions are long delayed, many serious warnings are given of the approach of judgments—when judgments come, they are not inflicted so severely as was threatened; and their execution takes place gradually, as if God were reluctant to inflict them, and as if he were waiting every moment for a signal to withhold his hand. This induction proves that to secure the ends of government, is rouch greater in the estimation of God, than to execute a threatening; and that his denunciations can be honorably withdrawn, when their public ends are secured.
It has pleased God to give us a specimen of his moral government over the universe in the theocracy which he exercised over the Israelites. In the annals of the theocracy, suspensions and remissions of threatened ishments are facts of very frequent occurrence. Indeed the whole of this divine polity was a system of suspensions, founded upon the substitution of sacrifices, as public expedients and honorable grounds for the non-infliction of threatenings and penalties. Since God in this peculiar polity has clearly shewn that he can on honorable grounds suspend a threatened judgment, without being deemed unjust, he has exhibited to us the exercise of a principle, which is capable of indefinite application to the whole sway of his moral government, and which has actually left well-defined and indelible traces of its operation in the administration of divine providence.
Even if the arguments from analogy failed us in proving the justice of suspending a threatening, there is one fact, that in the history of sinners is boldly prominent, and is presenting itself at every turn; it is the fact that the original penalty threatened to our first parents has been actually suspended. Had it been literally executed, there would have been no human race now existing. The penalty threatened to Adam was, “in the day thou eatest thereof, dying thou shalt die.” Adam
did eat of the forbidden tree; he was spared, he did not die, his penalty was suspended, his punishment was remitted. Was such a suspension just? On what principle can it be justified? It was suspended on the principle of public justice, which made honorable provisions, that the spirit of the divine constitution should be
preserved without adhering to the letter of it.
The Death of Christ an honorable ground for remit
1. The atonement of Christ is a distinct and public recognition of the truth and justice of the sinner's liableness to the punishment threatened in the law.
The apostle Paul in Col. ii, 14, represents the influence of the death of Christ as paying a debt or cancelling a bond. The chirograph, or bond, means the power of the law to condemn a sinner, that is, our obligation and liableness to suffer the penalty threatened by the law for sins. The sinner owes to the public government the suffering of the punishment. It is this due, this obligation, this liableness, that is represented by the chirograph.
The first part of an honorable payment of a debt, whether commercial or civil is, freely owning the justice of the claim, and the reality of the obligation. The whole of the undertaking of Christ proceeds upon this recognition, that what the law requires is holy, just, and good. By blotting out the handwriting and cancelling the bond, he did not mean to imply that ils claims were false, or that its demands were unjust. On the contrary, he nailed the chirograph to the cross, as having been a true and valid indictment.
The death of Christ, or the atonement by his death, supposes the charge against the sinner to be true, and his liableness to the punishment to be just and right. He came to seek and to save that which is "lost," to call, not the righteous, but “sinners," "children of wrath," "condemned already.” If the atonement did not regard sinners as antecedently bound over by sin to suffer the penalty of the law, Christ would not have died to redeem them from under the condemnation of the law. This public testimony to the dueness of the punishment, honors the divine government in maintaining and enforcing its claims on the sinner, and marks sin as an inexcusable wrong, and of unextenuated guilt.
II. The provision of an atonement shews the great concern of the moral Governor for the ends of justice to be secured in his administrations.
God is rich in mercy, plenteous in redemption, and ready to forgive; nevertheless he is concerned for the honor of his justice. He loves right, and he hates wrong. He loves order in his government, and is concerned to prevent disorder. His hatred of disorder and wrong, is commensurate with his love of himself, and with his concern for the public good of the uni
In defending his own rights, the whole of his public character and revealed glory is concerned. He needs no motive to feel compassion and mercy towards sinners, but a safe medium is necessary for the honorable expression of that mercy towards them.
Sin is a public injury to God and to the universe. It is not in the nature of mercy, nor does it become its character, to forgive such a public wrong without an expression of its abhorrence of the crime. Such a mercy would be weak indulgence, a fond and a blind passion. Every one sees that a family governed on such a principle would soon become the pest of a commonwealth. And so would a company of servants or an army of soldiers. Even family discipline requires that when you forgive a child, there ought always to be some expression of displeasure at the offence.
The most powerful expression of mercy's abhorrence of sin, and of its concern for the ends of public justice, has been given in the substitution of the Son of God.