At the heart of the gospel is John 3:16. As sinners we are invited to contemplate the reality that God actually gave His only begotten Son in an act of incomprehensible love. That love is measured squarely on what we understand was given. Did Christ enter the grave in the knowledge that as the second person of the Trinity, His true self would not actually die? Is the agape of God clouded with this nagging thought that Jesus had a lifeline to comfort through the physical torture and shame of the cross?
I would like to contrast some thoughts from Dr Woodrow Whidden with Pr Robert Wieland to hopefully put a focus on the difference in understanding of the atonement that exists at present.
Dr Woodrow Whidden
Only God Can Make the Sacrifice. The deeper question, however, swirls around the issue of why it is that only a member of the Godhead (Jesus was chosen) could offer a fully effectual, saving sacrifice for sin. Here we need to move with the utmost care and clarity. We need to remind ourselves that we are on the borders of heavy truth shrouded in the most profound of all mysteries.
First of all, we need to admit that in a literal sense, true deity is naturally immortal and cannot experience death. This simple biblical truth (1Tim 6:14–16) explains one of the reasons for the necessity of the incarnation (Heb 2:9, 14–18). Only dependent, mortal human nature could be subject to death. And in the experience of the incarnation, Jesus took on human nature and died.
But, once more we pose the question? Why was it that only one Who is fully divine would be capable of offering the sacrifice of an atoning death? Why would this be true if Christ in His deity was incapable of death?
Jesus the Only Atonement Maker. It appears that the answer comes in a number of fascinating facets: (1) The very union of divinity with humanity in Christ’s incarnate nature suggests that though divinity did not literally die, it as good as died in the following sense:
Christ’s deity, along with His humanity, self-sacrificially consented to death at every step of the way to the Cross. And in so doing the very nature of Christ’s human death was invested with the infinite value of eternal love. Woodrow Whidden, God is Love-Trinitarian Love!, JATS Spring 2006, pp 98-124.
Pr Robert Wieland
Wherever one finds the idea of the natural immortality of the soul, there he is sure to find self-centeredness as the dominant concept of love. It is as different from the New Testament idea of love as Sunday is different from Sabbath, yet is likewise a cleverly designed counterfeit. The doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul is a flag that warns us: here you will find no true understanding of the everlasting gospel of righteousness by faith because there can be no true idea of New Testament faith, certainly not that which is in harmony with the cleansing of the sanctuary.
This is one of the real reasons why Ellen White warned against the dangers of this false but subtle error. Ultimate Spiritualism is a false righteousness by faith:
The popular ministry cannot successfully resist Spiritualism. They have nothing wherewith to shield their flocks from its baleful influence. … The immortality of the soul … is the foundation of Spiritualism. (1T 344)…
Why is it impossible for true New Testament love to exist in company with this "poisonous draft of Babylon"? Why can’t Babylon see the cross, see agape, and experience genuine New Testament faith? Why can’t she proclaim the true gospel?
Integral to the idea of the natural immortality of the soul is the view that Christ did not make an infinite sacrifice when He died on the cross. He tells the repentant thief, We’ll get a great reward today. "Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Yes, both supposedly went there that day! Throughout His ordeal, our Lord was sustained by the hope of reward and comforted by the assurance that He would not truly die. His sacrifice was only physical agony and human shame, of a temporary nature. Moses made an even greater sacrifice in behalf of Israel when he asked that his name be blotted from the Book of Life if Israel could not be forgiven (Ex. 32:32)! But in this popular view, the complete self-emptying nature of agape in Christ’s love is neatly removed. He was motivated merely by egocentric concern; or at least the hope of reward was thoroughly mixed with His love.
But the true Biblical view is that Christ’s sacrifice was truly infinite and eternal. Not only His human body "died"; He Himself died the equivalent of the "second death", the death without hope of resurrection. Himself being the infinite Son of God, such a sacrifice is the measure of infinite love, beyond our capacity to appreciate fully. Although He was indeed sustained by the bright assurance of His Father’s favor up to the moment that darkness enveloped Calvary, there came over Him then the horror of a great darkness when He cried out, "My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?" the Father’s face was completely hidden. The full weight of our guilt was pressing upon Him. He then lost sight of the resurrection and a future reward:
The Saviour could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal. Christ felt the anguish which the sinner will feel when mercy shall no longer plead for the guilty race. (DA 753).
It is this infinite dimension of Christ’s love that is eclipsed by the pagan-papal doctrine of natural immortality. No church that holds to this concept can adequately appreciate the cross, or preach it in its proper power. This false doctrine further makes it impossible for the "agape of Christ" to constrain us truly, for its high fidelity realism is absent. And with agape thus adulterated, faith likewise is adulterated; and it is inevitable that righteousness be likewise shorn of its true dimensions. Nothing can come of it but disobedience to the law, continued sinning, self- centeredness, and lukewarmness, all cloaked as "salvation by faith". Robert Wieland The Knocking at the Door. The Divine Appointed Remedies: "Gold" 1974
Dr Whidden admits the true position of the Trinity in relation to the death of the Cross: "true deity is naturally immortal and cannot experience death," and therefore the best Jesus did was "as good as died." meaning He did not literally die. Pr Wieland makes clear that Christ died the equivalent of the second death without hope of resurrection. There is a world of difference between the statement “He himself died” and He "as good as died.” It is the difference between pure agape and the survivor ("never say die!") eros. One only needs to look at the footnotes of current articles on the Trinity by Adventist scholars (See here for example, or here for another) to see that primary sources come from the Evangelical churches who all hold the doctrine of the natural immortality of soul and systematically use this doctrine in conjunction with the Trinity.
As Wieland clearly shows, the doctrine of natural immortality as applied to Christ the Son of God dilutes the true understanding of agape and what actually was given at Calvary. I highly recommend the reading of Wieland’s book – The Knocking at the Door. It is one of the most penetrating volumes of I have ever read with reference to Adventism.
These issues were not hidden from our pioneers. There was an understanding of how the Trinity affected the Atonement. I close with a statement by J.H Waggoner:
Pr J.H. Waggoner
And here is shown how remarkably the widest extremes meet in theology. The highest Trinitarians and lowest Unitarians meet and are perfectly united on the death of Christ—the faith of both amounts to Socinianism. Unitarians believe that Christ was a prophet, an inspired teacher, but merely human; that his death was that of a human body only. Trinitarians hold that the term “Christ” comprehends two distinct and separate natures: one that was merely human; the other, the second person in the trinity, who dwelt in the flesh for a brief period, but could not possibly suffer, or die; that the Christ that died was only the human nature in which the divinity had dwelt. Both classes have a human offering, and nothing more. No matter how exalted the pre-existent Son was; no matter how glorious, how powerful, or even eternal; if the manhood only died, the sacrifice was only human. And so far as the vicarious death of Christ is concerned, this is Socinianism. Thus the remark is just, that the doctrine of a trinity degrades the Atonement, resting it solely on a human offering as a basis. A few quotations will show the correctness of this assertion. (J. H. Waggoner, 1884, The Atonement In The Light Of Nature And Revelation, pages 164, 165)