One of the most influential books in my life has been Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement by George Smeaton (buy at RHB or free ebook at Monergism). I started reading it during the first hour of the first day of my first week of Gospel ministry in 1995 and it continues to influence me to this day. I had no idea how much Christ himself had taught about his own atonement. I had always assumed that he’d left most of the teaching on it to his apostles. Not so. In almost 500 pages, Smeaton proved how Christ not only did the atonement but taught about it continually as well.

Doctrinal Day-Dreaming
George Smeaton has always intrigued me. (If you wish to more about Smeaton, there is a biography written by Free Church of Scotland historian, John Keddie.)  I first came across his name at the daily chapel in the Free Church College in Edinburgh, where I usually sat beside a display cabinet containing many “icons and artifacts” of Scottish Presbyterian history. Among them was a piece of paper which, if I recall, was the founding document of a Saturday morning “Exegetical Society.”

In it, signatories such as George Smeaton, Horatius Bonar, Robert Murray M’Chyene and other Scottish Presbyterian luminaries committed to gather at 6am every Saturday morning to exegete some passage of Scripture in the original languages. During the sometimes dreary chapels, I often day-dreamed my way into that gathering of great minds and holy hearts. What I would have given to have been a fellow-student of theirs in the mid-1800′s!

Given such a background, it’s little wonder that the outstanding strength of Smeaton’s writing on the atonement is his exegetical rigor. His exegesis demonstrated to me how verses I had thoughtlessly passed over were absolutely packed with theology, specifically with the doctrine of the atonement. Many a sermon idea germinated in my mind as I slowly read my way through about ten pages a day over many weeks.

Christ’s Viewpoint on His Work
In his preface to Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, Smeaton notes that prior to his volume there had been little or no emphasis on Christ’s own teaching on the atonement. Rather there was an almost exclusive focus upon the Apostolic development of the doctrine. The only exceptions were the heretics who focused on the Lord’s sayings with a view to getting evidence to support their anti-penal-substitution falsehoods!

Smeaton’s work, as is the case with so many classic theological works, arose out of a desire to defeat heresies and rescue what he calls “the central truth of Christianity and the great theme of Scripture.” However, he keeps his focus on the Bible and draws out his doctrine from the Gospels, not in opposition to false teachers. As he put it:

We here inquire simply what Jesus taught. We do not ask what one eminent church teacher or another propounded, but what the great Master said. We turn away our eye from every lower source of knowledge, whether called Christian consciousness, feeling, or reason, to the truth embodied in the consciousness and words of Jesus.

He divided his work into eight main divisions (the bold headings are my 21st-century summaries of 19th-century wordiness):

1. The Sources: The sources of our knowledge in the recorded sayings of Jesus, and the mode of investigation.

2. The Presuppositions: The postulates or presuppositions of the whole doctrine. Under this chapter, we shall notice, in separate sections, the great fact of sin for which a provision is made, the necessity of the atonement, the harmony of love and justice, the unique covenant-position of Jesus, and the influence of His Deity in the matter of the atonement.

3. The Elements. The constituent elements of the atonement, represented under a variety of sections, as consisting of sin-bearing and sinless obedience.

4. The Individual Effects. The effects or consequences of the atonement on the individual Christian, both in an objective and subjective point of view that is, in respect of the acceptance of His person, and the renovation of his nature by the communication of divine life.

5. The Wider Influence. The influence of the atonement on other interests in the universe, in reversing the previous order of things, in the conquest of Satan, in procuring the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the like.

6. The Success. The actual efficacy of the atonement, or the question for whom it was specially offered.

7. The Application. The application of the atonement.

8. The Acceptance or Rejection. The endless happiness or woe of mankind decided by its reception or rejection, and the influence exercised by this great event on morals and religion.

As part of my passion to make profound theology accessible, in the coming months I hope to present Smeaton’s teaching in simplified and summarized form with the hope not only of resuscitating Smeaton for modern readers but also of reviving the still neglected teaching of Christ about his own atoning work.