The Atonement
by Rev. Roderick MacEachen


It is difficult for many to understand why man could not atone for his own sin.  Man, it seems, should have been able to reconcile himself to God.  Apparently his repentance should have sufficed to satisfy the justice of God.  This indeed might have been possible had man in the beginning established his own relations with God.  Had man, in the beginning, been the author or his own innocence and holiness, he might now have been able to regain them.

Yet innocence and holiness were free gifts of God to man.  Through his own folly man had lost them.  If, then, he is ever to possess them again, they can be restored y God alone.  By sin man separated himself from God. It was God Who through love had united man to Himself.  And thus, God alone can restore this union which He Himself could make in the beginning.

By his fall man became a slave of Satan.  He could never free himself from this servitude.  For if Satan was capable of taking man captive, he is also able to keep him in his thralldom.  God alone can liberate man from the servitude of the devil.

Man's sin was infinite in so far as it offended God.  Man has no means in his possession to make satisfaction for such an offense.  God's love had prompted Him to make man heir to eternal glory.  Man willfully wasted his inheritance.  Justice required satisfaction.  For God is an all-just God.  Man had cast away the gifts God had bestowed upon him.  He had sold himself to the servitude of Satan.  Someone must pay the price of redemption.  The price is infinite.  To redeem man was, as it were, a new creation.

God had indeed foreseen from all eternity that man would fall.  God knows all things.  To Him all things appear in an eternal present.  There is no past or future in the infinity knowledge of God.  From all eternity, God had decreed that He would redeem man.  He Himself would become "God the Savior."  This decree was a free act of His divine will.  It was prompted by God's  love and mercy for man.  Immediately after the fall, God had promised man a Redeemer.  He said to the serpent: "She (the woman) shall crush thy head."

True, man would have to suffer.  God had given him such a nature that he is capable, in a manner, of co-operating in the work of salvation.  By his trials and fidelity he can, in some measure, become worthy to receive the grace of salvation.  God decreed that salvation should come upon the human race.  Yet He also decreed that the individual should not receive this salvation except through his own cooperation.

Aside from motives of Faith, it is difficult for the human mind to understand the malice of Adam's sin.  The act of eating the forbidden fruit was insignificant in itself.  Yet there was a principle involved. An example might be drawn from human law.  A hostile nation invades our country.  Fealty to our country is the highest civic virtue.  A citizen hoists the colors of the enemy above his dwelling.  He is tried and condemned to death as a traitor.  He had offended no one.  He had taken nothing from anyone.  He had simply been untrue to his country.

Man indeed rebelled against God.  Yet to the unaided reason it seems that eternal damnation is excessive punishment.  It seems incredible that an infinitely merciful God could allow man to suffer everlasting torments for a moment's infidelity.

The human mind is lost in striving to comprehend the decrees of Infinite Justice.  We strive to measure all by the standards of human justice.  Some would even wish to set up maudlin sentimentality as the norm of God's justice.  Yet man is no more able to fathom the secrets of God's mercy than to create the angels of Heaven.  He would be no more fitted to sit as judge in the Court of Divine Justice than to assume the government of the universe.

We cannot complain against Divine Justice.  God demanded atonement for man's sin.  Yet He Himself paid the price of man's redemption.  The complaint is that He asked man to pay his own little share of the price.  He asked man to serve Him, to suffer here for a few years before he should return to his eternal inheritance.  Alas, many there are who refuse to accept this condition.  They prefer to enjoy the pleasures of this world.  They reject the service of God and forego the offer God has made to take them back as heirs to His eternal kingdom.  They accuse God of injustice because He did not pay all the debt without asking them to contribute.

Nor does God will that anyone should go to eternal damnation.  "God will have all men to be saved."  God showers His graces upon man to enable him to obtain salvation.  He sent His Own Divine Son to teach man the way of salvation.  He established His Church to guide him to his eternal destiny.

Yet now, as ever, it is the old temptation of Satan.  Man still strives to be like God.  He doubts the sincerity of God's commands.  He sets up his own ideas as the norm of his relations with his Creator.  He criticizes the decrees of God.  He tries to persuade himself that he is already like God.  He pretends that he is self-sufficient unto himself.  He would fain be independent of his Creator.  He prefers the dim light of his own reason to the Word of his Maker.  He says that beyond the confines of his intelligence there is no knowledge.  Whatever he cannot understand cannot be.

Thus he deludes himself.  When he accuses God of injustice, he unwittingly proclaims the justice of God.  For there can be no God but a just God.  Take away infinite justice from God and you have no God.  A God without justice would be an imperfect God.  But an imperfect God is a contradiction in terms.

Man's life on earth is filled with misery and suffering.  He must work out his salvation in fear and trembling.  Life is a struggle overflowing with bitterness and sorrow.  Yet life is a blessing that only a God of infinite love could give.  "To be" is incomparably better than "not to be."  If this life were our end and destiny, life would be too often but a poor gift.  But life to the man whose hopes are in Eternity is a royal gift worthy of the King of Kings.

"O happy fault," says the Exultet, referring to Adam's sin.  God knows how to bring good from evil.  In his fallen state, man has attained greater dignity than he could have known otherwise.  Now he can show more love for God.  Now he can show more gratitude to the good God Who gave him life.  Because of the fall, he has experienced more of God's love.

God the Son became man and died for his salvation.  Because of the suffering that sin brought upon the race, there is more opportunity to practice the beautiful virtue of charity.  Christ gave us His Own Body and Blood to nourish our souls and to strengthen us against sin.  He gave us the Church and the Sacraments.  He made mortal men "dispensers of the mysteries of God."

All these wondrous blessings have been heaped upon us because of our fallen state.  God does not reward our sinfulness, but He pities our misery.  He loves us more, as it were, as the father loved his prodigal son.  If we must struggle, God gives us strength.  If we are borne down with grief and sorrow God bears us up.  "The life of man upon earth is a warfare."  Yet it is our glory that God has fitted us for the combat.

The false philosophy of the world leads men to discontent and despair.  It turns men's minds from their true destiny.  Yet the love of God reigns above us.  God rewards eternally every pang that is borne for love of Him.  "We have received," says St. Paul, "not the spirit of this world, but the spirit of God, that we may know the things that are given us from God. . . .  But the sensual man perceives not those things . . . it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand."

And again he says: "The wisdom of the flesh is death, but the wisdom of the spirit is life and peace. . . .  Whosoever are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God . . . and if sons heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ; yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him."