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ON THE SACRIFICE AND ATONEMENT OF
[Preached on Good Friday.]
HEB. IX. 28.
Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.
In the earliest ages of the world, and among nations widely separated from each other, we read of sacrifices and oblations as forming an essential part of religion. It is recorded in the first book of the Bible, that Cain and Abel, Noah and his descendants, Abraham and Melchizedek, in addition to other acts of religious worship, offered sacrifices to God. The practice began, therefore, with the first institution of human society, and continued through a long series of ages, antecedent to the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. After that event, the law given by Moses ap
pointed, with great minuteness, what things were to be offered, what particular victims were to be slain, the time and manner of the service, with many peculiar rites and ceremonies, which, including the various forms of ablution and purification, constituted a considerable part of the Levitical code.
These sacrifices and oblations, it may be observed, were either expiatory, or eucharistical. They formed either the free-will offerings of a grateful mind, chearfully acknowledging the mercies of God, as the author of all good, and his sovereign power in governing the world; or else they consisted of victims, whose blood was solemnly shed at the altar, as an expiation and atonement for sin.
It is not easy to perceive how the slaughter of an innocent animal could be supposed to have this effect; but the difficulty arose from the relative nature of the offence;-from the want of means to appease the justice of God, and, after repeated transgressions, to procure reconciliation, and forgiveness. When man violated those laws, which his fellow-creatures must have soon formed for mutual safety and protection, it was practicable, in many cases, to inflict punishment commensurate with the offence; and often the
injured party, when property was invaded, or destroyed, could obtain restitution, or redress. But what was the desperate transgressor to do, whose conscience was harassed with the dreadful idea of having outraged the mercies, and offended the justice of his Great Creator? He might rebel against his sovereign will, and, by his crimes, offer a sort of violence to the majesty of Heaven; but, in strict propriety of language, he could in no case make any adequate compensation.
It is impossible, however, to conceive, that a human being thus circumstanced, should not feel something like sorrow and contrition, penitence and remorse: but mere feelings come far short of the real performance of duty; and we naturally have recourse to some suitable action, that might at least testify the sincerity of repentance, though it might not wipe away the turpitude of guilt.
We may readily suppose that this state of mind would lead occasionally to all those varied forms of penance and mortification, abstinence and self-denial, which we find recorded; and, among other things, it might have suggested the expedient, or have acquiesced in the propriety, of sacrifices. The sinner might reflect,
that though he could make no restitution to God, yet he could punish himself; and, by the highly symbolical act of shedding blood, he could express a due abhorrence of his guilt, and acknowledge the enormity of his own transgressions.
In process of time, therefore, sacrifices were deemed acceptable and efficient, in proportion to the value of the victims that were immolated: and, to such excess of superstition did this lead in some modern, as well as in most ancient nations, that parents have been known to sacrifice their own offspring, as an expiation and atonement for their sins. Hence we read in the holy Scriptures of "letting their children pass through the fire to Moloch;" and the prophet Micah, evidently alluding to this horrible superstition, makes the idolatrous king of Moab ask this significant question: "Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul ?" The law of Moses, mild and merciful in its general complexion, punished this dreadful violation of one of the first laws of nature with death. Yet the code of the great Jewish legislator abounded with rites and ceremonies of various kinds. Some of these were calculated to check the uncommon proneness of
the Israelites to idolatrous worship, or to preserve the strict union of the chosen people, by separating them from the surrounding nations; others appear to have been, at least, innocent, connected with objects of political economy, or admirably adapted to promote cleanliness and health; while its offerings and sacrifices, beside the public expression of gratitude and thanksgiving to Almighty God, which they afforded; -beside the solemn act of expiation and atonement, which they indicated from time to time, had the distinguished merit, under a dispensation that was evidently temporal, both with respect to its motives and sanctions, of typifying the great, final, and efficient sacrifice of Christ suffering on the cross for the sins of men.
This awful event in the history of God's providence, which we commemorate at the present holy season, may be said to have cast a flood of light on the Hebrew Scriptures, developing the regular plan of divine mercy, justice, and wisdom, from the creation of the world. Accordingly, the holy evangelist applies the figurative language of the inspired Isaiah on the present occasion; "The people who sat in darkness saw great light; and to them who sat in the region and shadow of death, light is sprung up."