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A Treatise on Atonement, by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou's 1805 work on Universalist theology, edited by Rev. Dan Harper.
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Return to chapter 6.
Continue to chapter 8: Salvation Must Be Universal.

Chapter 7: Atonement in Its Nature

I have already observed that atonement and reconciliation are the same. Reconciliation is a renewal of love, and love is the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, of which St Paul speaks, in Romans viii. 2, by which he was made free from the law of sin. The soul, when governed by the law of sin which is in the members, of which St. Paul speaks in Romans vii. 23, is in a state of unreconciliation to the law of the spirit. And it is by the force and power of the law of love in Christ that the soul is delivered from the government of the law of sin; the process of this deliverance is the work of atonement, or reconciliation.

The reader will now see, with ease, that that power which causes us to hate sin and love holiness is the power of Christ, whereby atonement is made. All the law and the prophets rested on this spirit of love, by which alone they can be fulfilled.

Our Saviour, in his official character, is always called by the names which are applicable to God manifest in the flesh. This circumstance will fully account for all the scriptures which my opponent would urge in support of Jesus' being essentially God.

Christ came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them; the law is as far fulfilled in the soul, as it is brought to love God in his adorable image, Jesus; and a complete fulfilment of the law and the prophets will effect love in every soul on whom the law, in a moral sense, is binding.

Let it be asked by what means are we brought to love God ? Answer, "We love him because he first loved us." God's love to us is antecedent to our love to him, which refutes the notion of God's receiving the atonement; but the idea that the manifestation of God's love to us causes us to love him, and brings us to a renewal of love, is perfectly consonant to the necessity of atonement; it shows us what atonement is, and the power which the Mediator must have and exercise, in order to reconcile all things to God.

The method by which we are brought to love any object, whatever, is, by seeing, or thinking we see, some beauty in the object; and our love is always in proportion to the apparent good qualities of the object seen.

While our minds are darkened by the veil on the heart in reading of Moses, so that the beauties of the ministration of life are hidden from our eyes, and its excellent glories are out of our sight, it is impossible that we should love Christ or his word. Yet during this darkness, we must love something; therefore, as sin and the vanities of elementary life present the greatest beauty to our eyes, of any objects which we behold, our affections are placed on those corruptible things.


Now I call up the question again, has Jesus power to cause us to love holiness, and to hate sin? Answer: yes, if he has power to reveal the divine beauties of the word, to remove the letter and its administration which are death, to take the veil from the heart, and to cause us to see himself altogether lovely.

When a sinner views God as an enemy, and grumbles concerning his being hard and austere, when he feels an aversion to him and wishes to avoid his presence, it is certain the Son hath not revealed the Father to that soul. The ideas thus entertained of God are altogether wrong, and the mind that entertains them has no just Conceptions of the Almighty. But blessed be the expressed image of the Invisible; he hath power to reveal the true character of the Father, to remove the veil from the heart, and to let the sun-beams of divine light gently into the understanding; then God appears altogether lovely, and the chiefest among ten thousand, while the soul in ecstacy embraces the brightness of his glory, crying, "My Lord, and my God." But the idea of the letter is so fixed in the minds of Christian people in general that the veil of the law is as fully on their hearts, as it was on the Pharisees of old, which caused them to be blind to their Messiah when he came.

Christians have for a long time believed that the temporal death of Christ made an atonement for sin, and that the literal blood of the man who was crucified has efficacy to cleanse from guilt; but surely this is carnality, and carnal mindedness, if we have any knowledge of the apostle's meaning where he says, "To be carnally minded is death." The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. The apostles were made able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit. Christ saith, "Except ye eat my flesh, and drink my blood ye have no life in you." Must we understand this in a literal sense? If we do, how shall we understand what he further says of this matter? (John vi. 63) --

The flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.

The apostacy of the Jews happened in consequence of the lips of the priests not preserving knowledge; they fell from the spirit of the law, were lost in the wilderness of the letter, and therefore were blinded. This was a figure of the more dreadful apostacy of Christians, as were various other circumstances recorded in the old testament. The Christian apostacy happened in the same way; and the church has been led into the wilderness of the letter by an hireling priesthood who knew nothing of the spirit of the law; who have preached, in the name of the Lord, the letter, which killeth, in room of the spirit, which giveth life.

I am sensible there are thousands who profess Christianity, who are blind enough to object and say, "Then the Gospel has nothing to do, in the salvation of mankind." But suffer me to say the Gospel is nothing but the spirit of the law, which is the word, or logos, spoken in the law, brought forth from the shadows of the first dispensation. To believe in any other atonement than the putting off the old man, with his deeds, and the putting on of the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness, is carnal mindedness, and is death.

There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of mankind, and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the blood, or life, of the everlasting covenant. O love, thou great Physician of souls, what a work hast thou undertaken! All souls are thy patients; prosperous be thy labors, thou bruiser of the head of carnal mind.


In this view of the subject, we may see how the divine grace of reconciliation may be communicated to those who have never been privileged with the volume of divine revelation, and who have never heard the name of a Mediator proclaimed as the only way of life and salvation. I have no doubt but thousands whose education has taught them to look on the Christian religion as an imposture, may possess a good degree of this love, which is the spirit of life in Christ Jesus; and though none can feel or experience this divine animation, only through the medium of the second Adam, we do not conceive that its agency is confined particularly to names, sects, denominations, people or kingdoms.

The word, which is nigh us, even in our hearts and mouths, is every where, operating, in some degree, in all hearts. The enmity which God put between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman is everywhere felt, and the two are struggling in every breast. When the creature-like nature or the carnal mind, which is enmity against God, leads the whole man captive, it is then that the soul is in a state of unreconciliation arid death; but when the heavenly man, which, after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness, binds the strong man armed and whispers heavenly invitations to the soul, revealing himself in the understanding, the soul immediately ceases to confer with flesh and blood, beholds with inexpressible admiration the heavenly beauties of the new nature, is moulded into its likeness and experimentally become a child of God; the way to the tree of life is opened and the soul enters by the anchor of hope within the veil, where the cherubims are disarmed of the flaming sword, and stand looking down on the mercy seat, where God communes with his people. Thus, by the spirit of the word, the soul is brought to a sweet communion with God; it feels its eternal sonship, and rejoices therein; with joy unspeakable and full of glory.


Perhaps the Christian reader will here pause and say, I can witness that what the author writes is true; but then, he does not tell of a regular law work; without which we can never be brought to taste those delicacies in the Gospel provisions. To this observation, I reply: I believe there are as egregious errors crept into the Christian church, in this particular, as in anything relative to the Christian religion; and I further believe that among those who have really tasted that the Lord is gracious, there are such differences on the above point that, in many instances, they amount to a disfellowship, and tend greatly to destroy the blessed work begun in the heart. But those errors undoubtedly originate in some theories which are produced by the wisdom of the carnal mind, which is so opposed to the wisdom from above that it is always endeavoring to introduce something that may serve to raise animosities, and to sow discord among brethren.

Some, who, by the force of a false education, have been led to believe, that God is an enemy to the sinner, have supposed they were every day exposed to the just vengeance of the Almighty, and have fancied that they could clearly see the justice of God in their eternal banishment from heaven and happiness; and they have been so wrecked on this wheel of torture as to be deprived of sleep and every kind of repose, for a tedious time, some longer and some shorter. Awful dreams, fraught with the most terrifying imaginations, have corroded the mind; and sometimes a burning lake of fire and brimstone has been painted so clearly, that, for several days together, the poor frightened soul would feel as if it were on the brink of a precipice expecting the next moment to be the fatal one.

In this awful situation, it pleases God to manifest himself; and in a moment, all those frightful imaginations are dispersed, and an universal calm takes possession of the whole region of the mind. The soul now rejoices as a captive set at liberty, or a pardoned criminal; and there is nothing to be heard from him but the praises of his Benefactor. In this hour of joy, should he hear ten thousand singing praises to his Redeemer, he would not wish to stop them, to know whether they had all felt just as he had, before he knew the truth. But in a short time, carnal mind, still alive in the members, begins to make its intrusions, and in a very deceitful way. It pretends to wish to help the soul along in religion, and says, there must be a close examination, it will not do to harbor errors, etc. But instead of setting the creature to examine himself, it sets him to examine his brother; his brother happens to be one who, in fact, loves Christ and his word, and to all appearance, walks in the path of obedience. But his brother is one whose education was not quite so perverse as was his; his brother is one who was taught that God is an enemy to sin not to sinners; that he will chastise for iniquity, but that God is not so incensed as some imagine. This brother cannot tell all that his interrogator has experienced, and is therefore rejected, for not telling a good law work.

It is now possible, that the reader is more surprised than before, and will say the author does not talk like a Christian; and feeling some disagreeable emotion, he thinks he will read no further. But stop, dear sir; that determination may arise wholly from a want of divine charity. If you are, in reality, a Christian, and stand in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free, what you here read will do you no harm.

I am now about to examine your law work, as you call it, and shall argue that what you call law is only a creature of false education.


Before you found peace, you thought you could see the justice of God in your eternal exclusion from heaven and happiness. Now I ask, can you find that God ever gave a law to man which required endless misery in case of disobedience? Sure I am that the scriptures speak of none, neither do the dictates of good reason admit of its existence. Perhaps my opponent may say, we are not to use our reason in matters of religion. I answer, if we are not to understand the things of God by scripture and reason, we are at a loss to know how to come at them. I have before argued this point particularly, in order to show that such a penalty does not exist in the law of God. Did you think an exclusion from heaven and happiness would be an exclusion from holiness and righteousness? Did you ever see the justice of God in your being sinful, unholy and impure ? You answer, no. Then you never saw the justice of God in your endless exclusion from heaven and happiness.

A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God's law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner. How often do professed Christians address the Almighty, and say, "Hadst thou been just to have marked iniquity, we should, long since, have been in the grave, with the dead, and in hell with the damned." This address amounts to nothing more, or less, than a complimental accusation against God of injustice! It surprises me to think now professed Christians will contend for the honor and glory of God in a way that renders his character infinitely inglorious and dishonorable.
Further, you believed (you say) before you were a believer in the truth, that you stood in danger, every moment, of falling into endless misery. I would ask, if that were true, which you believed before you believed the truth? I further ask, are you now exposed to those dreadful torments? You will say, you hope for the better. And what is it that now preserves you from such danger? You confess it is your Saviour. But was it not he who preserved you before your conversion? And are you more safe in his hands at one time than at another?

Some have gone so far in their law work as to say they saw the justice of God so plainly, and it appeared so beautiful, that they were perfectly willing to be endlessly miserable, according to its requirements. Such Christians will not allow that a person can be savingly converted without being first willing to be endlessly miserable. This I must confess is a law work as unreconcilable to scripture and reason as it is corrosive to the mind. The amount of it is this: I see so much beauty and divine excellency in the justice of God that I am perfectly willing to exist, to all eternity, in rebellion against it! I wish to know what the soul has to be thankful for in the work of salvation? If it be brought to be willing to be endlessly miserable, it cannot be thankful for the gift of eternal life. Again, if a willingness to be damned is a good situation, we ought to continue in it; and then hell and endless woe would be as valuable a prize for which to run, in the Christian race, as heaven and immortality.

It is generally believed the Saviour strives by his Spirit to bring the creature into a state of grace and salvation; and that the devil strives, with all his wily arts, to get the soul into hell and endless torments. Now, if these things be so, to which is the soul reconciled when it is willing to be endlessly miserable? That multitudes have been in great fear of being rejected by the Almighty at last, I have no doubt; for I confess those torments have been mine, in no small degree. But I contend it is impossible for any one to be willing to be endlessly miserable. Happiness always was, and always will be, the grand object of all rational beings; and to reverse this object would be to reverse man from a reasonable to an unreasonable creature.

The above notion of law work has been the awful means of driving multitudes of blinded mortals into as much despair as the mind is capable of. Honest hearted persons who do not wish to be deceived, or to deceive others, knowing that they never felt willing to be damned, and being told they must be willing in order to be saved, have supposed that God had already reprobated their fearful souls to endless ruin! Others have been so deceived as to think they had better be willing to be damned than not to be saved; desiring salvation so much, they think they had better be willing to be shut out of heaven forever than to miss of salvation and have, either honestly or hypocritically, said they were willing to be damned; expecting great favors, in consequence of the confession. The moment we have a just idea of the spirit of the law making an atonement for sin, all those absurdities and contradictions are removed, and their causes taken away.


I doubt not but God communicates his grace to persons laboring under every kind of deception; and in respect to that grace, no dispute arises among believers. Their disputes arise from notions which they entertained before they were enlightened, or from certain inventions of their own, afterwards, which do not arise from the spirit of truth.

The divine efficacy of this atoning grace may be communicated to the most vile and profligate person in the world, and stop him in his full career of wickedness; it can show the sinner, in a moment, the deformity of sin, and the beauty of holiness. In other instances, the morally virtuous are led a long time in concern and great trouble about themselves before they find him of whom Moses and the prophets did write.

God is not confined to character, time or place, to work the work of atonement in the soul; he does all things well, and in the best time and way; and Christians do very wrong to contend about those differences which sin and deception caused in them before they knew Christ.

Two persons are discoursing about the agreeable flavor of the pineapple; one says to the other, it tastes very differently from what I expected it would before I tasted it; I thought it was a crabbed sour. Says the other, I am sure you never tasted of a pineapple; for before I tasted of one, I thought it was a disagreeable bitter. Thus they dispute, each in his turn arguing, that the other had never tasted of the fruit, because they had different ideas about it before they actually had any knowledge of it.

Would you not, kind reader, advise those disputants to come to a solution of their question in a different way? Surely you would; and if they could agree about the real taste of the pineapple, you would advise them to let their former false notions alone.

Then, Christian reader, go and do likewise, in the religion of Jesus; and wherever you find a brother who has in reality tasted that the Lord is gracious, fellowship him, as one initiated into the kingdom of God.


Atonement by Christ, was never intended to perform impossibilities; therefore, it was never designed to make men agree and live in peace while they are destitute of love one to another; but it is calculated and designed to inspire the mind with that true love which will produce peace in Jesus. As atonement is a complete fulfilment of the law of the heavenly man, it causes its recipient to love God and his fellow creatures, in as great a degree as he partakes of its nature. Ask one brought out of darkness into the marvellous light of the Gospel, how God appears to him: and he will answer, more glorious than he can describe. Ask him how he feels towards his fellow men; and he will say, even of his enemies, he wishes them no worse than to enjoy the blessings of divine favor. In times of refreshing, how many thousands have been heard to speak of the goodness of the Lord, and of the infinite fulness of his grace; and with what love, affection, and fervency have they invited their fellow men to the rich provisions of the Gospel!

The earth, in time of drought, ceases to be fruitful; the streams and springs thereof are dried up; the fields put off their robes of green, and gardens afford no fragrant delights; but when the heavens give the wonted blessing in gentle showers, how suddenly is the face of nature changed! The purling rill murmurs through the mead, pastures and fields teem with vegetation, and gardens blush with enamelled beauties.

So the soul, unwatered with the rain of righteousness, and destitute of the waters of eternal life, is like a barren fig-tree that yields no wholesome fruit. But behold the transition; the moment atoning grace is effective in the mind, the parched ground becomes a pool, and the thirsty land, streams of water. The soul is like the earth that drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom they are dressed; and like a garden well watered and cultivated, yielding all manner of precious fruits.

Look on the trees after autumn has plucked their leaves, and winter frozen their trunks and limbs: Without faith in spring, their future life would be hopeless; but wait for the season of nature's appointment, when the increasing majesty of the sunbeams gently removes the chains of frost, and warm zephyrs are breathed on the surrounding snow, removing it from the land; the embryo blossom, nicely concealed in frost, now swells with genial heat; and the leaf, so nicely folded in winter's chest, now displays its matchless green, and the whole forest rejoices in expanded delights.

So if we look on man, in the sinful Adam, there is no appearance of heavenly life, or divine animation; the soul is bound in the fetters of sin, frozen with covetousness, and apparently dead in the winter of iniquity. But behold the Sun of righteousness arising with healing in his wings, removing sin by the power of grace, and killing moral death with divine life and animation, and causing the soul to rejoice in the kingdom of grace and glory. Then it may be rightly said (Song of Sol. ii. 11-12):

The winter is past, the rains are over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing is come.

How mysterious are the ways of God! What infinite depths of wisdom lie concealed from the sight of mortals! He, who varies the seasons of the year, and diversifies nature through so great a number of changes, without losing the smallest particle of matter, can carry his rational creatures through all the dispensations designed in infinite wisdom, without losing any, and consummate the whole in glory at last.


Suffer me, kind reader, in my faithfulness with the saints, to excite a close examination. It can be of no avail to believe we are partakers of atoning grace, unless that is really the case. I am of opinion that many may be deceived in these things; some may suppose they are experimentally acquainted with them, when in reality they have no other evidence of it than that some godly minister, as they suppose him to be, can fellowship them as Christians; while others do in reality feel this divine spirit of grace in its atoning operations, but dare not suffer themselves to believe it, because they have not obtained the approbation of some, in whom they have been taught to put confidence.

I would, therefore, note some faithful evidences in this case which will not deceive us; and in doing this, I shall keep the reader close to the spirit of the law, which is love to God and man. From these two points and their consequences, all the evidence which can be obtained must be deduced.

The question then is, do you love God? If you answer yes, I ask, why do you love him? -- and why do you endeavor to serve him? If you answer, because it is your duty, and you fear his rod if you do not; I tell you, you are deceived; you have no real love to your Maker. Undoubtedly you would say (as many vain professors of Christianity have said), "If you were certain of salvation in the world to come, you would do all the mischief here you could." If the Gospel of Jesus Christ have any enemies in this wicked world, you are of that class. Your profession of Christianity, for forty or fifty years; your attention to church ordinances, and the mighty parade you have made in a round of (what you call) religious duties, have only served to paint you like a whited sepulchre. You lack the one thing needful, which is love.

You are ready to oppose all professors of Christianity who do not subscribe to your articles of faith. The weapons of your warfare are a tongue of slander, and a spirit of persecution; and you are daily raising false accusations against those who faithfully serve the Lord in spirit and in truth. The Pharisees of old made as great professions of religion as you do, and were as punctual to those customs; whereby they made void the law as you are to those whereby you make void the Gospel; and like you, they were zealous of defending their religion; and in their zeal they murdered the Lord of life and glory!

Perhaps you will say the author is hard in his reproofs. I reply, if you are not of the class of which we speak, you will not feel the rebuke; but if you are, you not only deserve it, but greatly need it. On the other hand, if you can truly say you love the Lord on account of the divine beauties and excellencies you behold in him; that he is in truth to you altogether lovely and the chiefest among ten thousand; that you delight in his service because it is your meat and drink to do his will; that your greatest enjoyment is obedience to his commands, which are joyous and not grievous, and in keeping of which there is great reward; let your denomination be what it may, let you live in what part of the world you will, you are a friend to the religion of Jesus, and you have sweet communion with him who sits at the right hand of God. Are you rich in the things of this world; you view all your possessions at the will, and you wish to have them at the disposal, of the Master whom you serve. Are you adorned with titles of human honor; how sweet is it to lay all these things at the feet of him whom you esteem infinitely honorable. Are you poor in the goods of fortune; you possess the true riches. Are you a disconsolate widow; behold God is your husband, and the father of your fatherless children.

Atoning grace produces all which the Bible means by conversion, or being born of the Spirit; it brings the mind from under the power and constitution of the earthly Adam, to live by faith on the Son of God, and to be ruled and governed, even in this life in a great measure, by the law of the spirit of life, in Christ Jesus. It opens eternal things to our view and contemplation; it brings heaven into the soul, and clothes the man in his right mind; it inspires the soul with divine meekness and boldness at the same time. It was this that enabled the apostles of our Lord to preach the Gospel, in defiance of the rage of their enemies, and gave them immortal consolations in their sufferings for the cause of truth. It causes the Christian to love all God's rational creatures, and to wish their saving knowledge of the truth; it produces good works in their purity, and all the morality worth the name is founded on it. Its divine power is stronger than any possible opposition, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it; it opens a door of everlasting hope, and conducts the soul, by way of the cross, to immortality and eternal life. This dispensation of atonement is manifested through Christ, for the reconciliation of all things to God, in his glorious kingdom of holiness and happiness.

In this general view of atonement, we come to our last inquiry proposed in this treatise, namely, the consequences of atonement to mankind.

Continue to chapter 8: Salvation Must Be Universal.
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