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A Treatise on Atonement, by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou's 1805 work on Universalist theology, edited by Rev. Dan Harper.
Table of Contents.
Return to the Preface.
Continue to Part I, chapter 2: Of Sin, Its Origin.


In the Treatise on Atonement, I shall confine myself to three general inquiries:

First. Of Sin.
Second. Of Atonement for Sin.
Third. Of the Consequences of Atonement to Mankind.

These particulars may be represented by a disorder; the remedy for the disorder; and the health enjoyed in consequence of the cure.

And first. Of Sin, which for the sake of ease I subdivide as follows: 1. Its nature; 2. Its cause; 3. Its effects.

1. Of Sin -- Its Nature

Sin is the violation of a law which exists in the mind, which law is the imperfect knowledge men have of moral good. This law is transgressed whenever, by the influence of temptation, a good understanding yields to a contrary choice. Where a law exists, it presupposes a legislature whose intention in legislation must be thwarted in order for the law to take cognizance of sin. This legislature, in all moral accountable beings, is a capacity to understand, connected with the causes and means of knowledge, which standing or existing on finite and limited principles will justify my supposition that sin in its nature ought to be considered finite and limited, rather than infinite and unlimited, as has by many been supposed.

By offering my reasons against the infinity of sin, I shall open to an easy method of showing it to be finite. The supposition that sin is infinite is supported, or rather pretended to be supported, on the consideration of its being committed against an infinite law, which is produced by an infinite legislature, who is God himself. I have before observed, and I think justly, that the intention of a legislature in legislation must be thwarted in order for the law to take cognizance of sin.

Now if God, in a direct sense of speaking, be the legislator of the law which is thwarted by transgression, in the same direct sense of speaking, his intentions in legislation are thwarted. With eyes open, the reader cannot but see that if sin be infinite because it is committed against an infinite law, whose author is God, the design of Deity must be abortive; to suppose which brings a cloud of darkness over the mind, as intense as the supposition is erroneous. It cannot with any propriety be supposed that any rational being can have an intention contrary to the knowledge which he possesses. Was a resolve brought into the State Legislature to be passed into an act, it would be very unlikely to succeed, providing the legislature knew that the intention of the act would utterly fail. It is possible, and very frequently the case, that imperfect beings desire contrary to their knowledge; but this in every instance is proof and often the cause of their misery. In such cases, misery rises to an exact proportion to the strength of desire.

Now to reason justly, we must conclude that if God possesses infinite wisdom, he could never intend any thing to take place, or be, that will not take place, or be; nor that which is, or will be, not to be, at the time when it is. And it must be considered erroneous to suppose that the Allwise ever desired any thing to take place, which by his prescience, he knew would not; as such a supposition must in effect, suppose a degree of misery in the Eternal Mind equal to the strength of his fruitless desire! Were this the case, all the misery to which mortals are subject bears not the thousandth part of the proportion to the miseries of the Divine Being, as the smallest imaginable atom does to the weight of the ponderous globe; providing, at the same time, the idea of infinity is attached to Deity! Again, if we admit of a disappointment to the Supreme Being, even in the smallest matter, it follows that we have no satisfactory evidence whereby to prove that any thing, at present, in the whole universe is as He intended. All the harmonies of nature, which to the eye of wondering man, are so convincing of the existence of that power, wisdom, and goodness which he adores may have continued their laws in active force much longer than God intended; brought into existence millions of beings more than were contemplated in creation; and by this time become a perfect nuisance to the general plan of the Almighty. The admission of the error refuted would sink the mind to the nether parts of moral depravity, where darkness reigns with all its horrors.

The above arguments are introduced to show the absurdity of admitting a violation of the intention of the Supreme Legislator.


I now turn on the other side, and admit as a fact what I have sufficiently refuted, viz. that the intentions of God as a Supreme Legislator are violated by the sin of finite beings; but must beg leave to inform the reader that the proposition will by no means afford the intended consequences; but yields me an argument in favor of the finite nature of sin, which I do not want, and of which I shall make no other use than to explode the proposition itself. If any intention of Deity were ever thwarted, it proves, without evasion, that he is not infinite; if so, his will, or intention, cannot be infinite; and, therefore, the consequences intended by the proposition are forever lost, as they exist only upon the supposition of his being infinite. If it be argued that the intentions of Deity, as a legislator, are violated, not strictly in an infinite sense, but in some subordinate degree, it is giving up the ground contended for, to all intents; for if the intention violated be not infinite, the sin of violating it cannot be infinite.
Again, if sin be infinite and unlimited, it cannot be superseded by any principle or being in the universe; for goodness cannot be more than infinite, neither is there a degree for Deity to occupy above it. And it may be further argued that the admission of the error refuted would be a denial of any Supreme Being in the universe; for, as Deity does not supersede sin, he cannot be superior to that which is equal to himself.

Again, I further inquire, can that be considered as an infinite evil which is limited in its consequences? The answer must be in the negative. If sin be an infinite evil, and infinite in its consequences as an evil, not only all created beings must suffer endlessly by it, but God himself can never cease to experience the torment-giving power of that which he is unable to avoid; I say more, if sin be infinite and unlimited, for it must be unlimited if it be infinite, it follows that there is no such principle in the universe as any one property which we are wont to attribute to the Almighty: for, if once we admit a principle of divine justice to have an existence, it is granted that sin is bounded by it, and therefore cannot be infinite; and it is a fact that sin can nowhere exist, only where it can be compared with justice. Again, it ought not to be supposed, that the intentions of Deity were ever violated, if we admit at the same time that he had power to avoid such violation. And who, in their senses, will say that that which is unavoidable by God, is avoidable by man?

Enough, undoubtedly, is said, to show the egregious mistake of supposing sin to be infinite; and more need not be written on the subject were it not by some contended, that Job xxii. 5, is in full proof of the infinity of sin. "Is not thy wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite?" In answer to this passage, I need only turn the reader to chap. xlii. 7:

And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said unto Eliphaz the Timanite, my wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends, for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

Observe, kind reader, the words which are brought to prove the infinity of sin, are neither the words of God, nor of one whom he approved; but they are the words of that Timanite against whom God's anger was kindled, for not speaking the thing that was right.

Once more, and I close this part of my query: -- If sin be infinite in its nature, there can be no one sin greater than another. The smallest offence against the good of society is equal to blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. If what we call a small crime be not infinite, the greatest cannot be, providing there is any proportion between the great and the small. Are not the words of Christ, Matt. xii. 31, where he speaks of sins and blasphemies that should be forgiven unto men, and of blasphemies that should not be forgiven men, a sufficient evidence that some sins are more heinous than others? Again, 1 Epistle of John v. 16, where some sins are said to be not unto death, and some unto death, etc.


Now, admitting the matter proved, that sin is not infinite, it follows, of course, that it is proved to be finite. However, we will now attend to the direct evidences of the finite nature of sin.

The law which takes cognizance of sin is not infinite, not in the sense in which it is violated, it being produced by the legislature which I have before noticed, viz. a capacity to understand, connected with the causes and means of knowledge. In order for a law to be infinite, the legislature must be so; but man's ability to understand is finite and all the means which are in his power for the acquisition of knowledge are finite; all his knowledge is circumscribed, and the law produced by such causes must be like them, not infinite but finite. An infinite law would be far above the capacity of a finite being, and it would be unreasonable to suppose man amenable to a law above his capacity. All our knowledge of good and evil is obtained by comparison. We call an action evil by comparing it with one which we call good. Were it in our power to embrace all the consequences that are connected with our actions in our intentions, our meanings would seldom be what they now are. Had it been so with the brethren of Joseph, when they sold him to the Ishmaelites, that they then knew all the consequences which would attend the event, they would not have meant it, as they did, for evil; but seeing with perfectly unbeclouded eyes their own salvation, and that of the whole family of promise, they would have meant it for good, as did the Almighty who superintended the affair. Now the act of selling Joseph was sin, in the meaning of those who sold him; but it was finite, considered as sin, for it was bounded by the narrowness of their understandings, limited by their ignorance, and circumscribed by the wisdom and goodness of him who meant it for good. If this sin had been infinite, nothing we can justly call good, could have been the consequence; but whoever can read the event without seeing that the best of consequences were connected with it?

The promised seed in whom all the families of the earth are to be blessed, according to the word of promise to Abraham, was to descend from that family which was preserved through seven years of famine, as a consequence of the good intended in that event. And who but God can comprehend the infinite good contained in all the glorious plan of mediatorial grace? We then see, that what in a limited sense, we may justly call sin, or evil, in an unlimited sense, is justly called good.

We say of the top of yonder mountain it is exceedingly high; and of yonder valley, it is low; and this we justly say, by comparing one with the other, in respect to the centre of our earth. But the moment we extend our thoughts to contemplate the millions of worlds in unbounded space, and take the whole in one grand system, the idea of high and low is lost. So is sin finished, when, by divine grace, our understandings are enlightened, and we hear our spiritual Joseph say, "Grieve not yourselves, ye meant it unto evil, but God meant it unto good."

It will be granted, on all sides, that no action unconnected with design ought to be considered sin; it is then an evil intention that constitutes an evil action. For instance, a man exerting himself to the utmost of his abilities to save the life of his neighbor accidentally takes his life; the consequence is not the guilt of murder, but heart-aching grief for the loss of his friend. Again, a man exerting himself with all his ingenuity and strength to take the life of his neighbor misses his intention and saves his life from immediate danger; the consequence is not the approbation of a good conscience for having saved the life of his neighbor, but condemnation for having designed his death, and perhaps mortification in his disappointment.

By these instances, the reader may see that no act can be determined to be morally good, or evil, by the consequences which follow, but only by the disposition, or intention, which the actor possesses when the act is done. Then, in order for the sin to be infinite, the intention of the transgressor must be infinite, embracing all the consequences that can ever arise from what he does; but this is never the case with finite beings. We never know all the effects or consequences that will be produced from the smallest of those acts which we do in time. It is the immediate consequences which we have in our power to calculate upon, and in them we are often deceived. Our acts as moral accountables are all limited to the narrow circle of our understanding; therefore our goodness is limited, being of the finite nature of our knowledge, and our sin is in the same finite and limited circle.

It may be argued very justly that as no finite cause can produce an infinite effect, no finite creature can commit an infinite sin; and as every effect must stand in relation to its cause, so man being finite cannot be the cause of an evil which does not stand in relation to man the finite cause. Should the reader suppose that my admitting the act of selling Joseph was attended with unlimited consequences is in opposition to my sentiment wherein I limit all actions which originate in finite causes; I reply, as the act of selling Joseph respected the purpose of Deity, and the plan of grace, those who sold him do not stand as even the shadow of a cause, but only as instruments, by which God effected his own divine and gracious purpose.

Perhaps the reader by this time, is ready to say, according to this reasoning, there can be no such things as real evil in the universe. If, by real evil, be meant something that ought not to be, in respect to all the consequences which attend it, I cannot admit of its existence; for I cannot conceive of any productive cause whatever, that can be, strictly speaking, limited in its consequences. For instance, the first transgression of man, no one can suppose has ceased in its consequences; for, from that cause, the knowledge of good and evil exists in moral beings, and when the effects of that knowledge will cease, I cannot imagine. If it be objected, that to call that a sin which produces an infinite continuance of good effects, must be absurd; I say, in reply, the objection comes too late; for it is already proved, that the consequences of an act do not determine whether the act be good or evil.


I have, in the foregoing queries, spoken of that kind of sin which is productive of remorse; however, we read, besure, of the sin of ignorance, see Num. xv. 27, etc.; but this I conceive to be more of a legal than of a moral nature, and it is sometimes called error; it is in a thousand instances productive of sorrow and disappointment, but never of guilt. If we consider the Jews under the law, or the Gentiles, who, the apostle says, were a law unto themselves, we shall find them exposed to guilt, on the same principles. Therefore, moral transgression must vary, as the knowledge and understanding of men vary, in various circumstances.

If it be thought by the reader that I have passed over the spirit of the law, which is love to God in a superlative degree, and an esteem for our neighbors equal to that which we have for ourselves; I answer, I have not altogether passed by it. This law of divine love is that infinite law of perfection which is higher than our capacities extend, in a finite state. The law given to Israel, literally speaking, was only a shadow of the spirit of love; and all our knowledge of moral holiness is but a faint resemblance of that sublime rectitude from which the most upright of the sons of men are at a great distance.

Having said so much on the nature of sin as to make the subject plain to the reader's understanding, I will now pass to an inquiry into its cause, or origin.

Continue to Part I, chapter 2: Of Sin, Its Origin.
Table of Contents.

Paragraphing and some punctuation altered for clarity. See the Preface to the 2011 Web Edition.