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Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement

(15 posts)

No Lttle Sins

Not every word in the dictionary describes an actual existant thing. For example: unicorns, leprechauns, and peccadillos. And there are no sins venial in their own nature. Nay, he who offends in one point is guilty of all; because the mental state from which the is obedience flows argues an inward contrariety to the nature and will of God (Jas. ii. 10). The only position which can be laid down as to the criminality of sin is this: the guilt of the offence is proportioned to the greatness, the moral excellence, and glory of Him against whom the offence is committed, and who made us for loyal obedience to Himself. Nothing else therefore comes into consideration in estimating the enormity of sin but the infinite majesty, glory, and claims of Him against whom we sin. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 21.

Atonement Assumed

Jesus never spoke at great length on the necessity of atonement. His Jewish audience, steeped in Old Testament Law, knew it well. That a sacrifice was needed to make satisfaction for sin was never in question. Our Lord, in addressing a people familiar with the ideas of sacrifice, did not deem it necessary to [focus]* on the necessity of an atonement, and for the most part narrowed the allusion to the sacrifice of Himself, assuming the necessity as an undoubted truth. God had from the first sought to develop the idea of sin among the chosen people, and to keep their consciences alive to the fact that it must needs be expiated by propitiatory sacrifices. Many laws were enacted for the purpose of awakening a sense of want: civil and ecclesiastical privileges were withdrawn for the violation of these laws, and many afflictive visitations were sent. The government of God was ever anew violated by sinful deeds or transgressions of the law, and in all such cases fellowship with God was foreclosed. Every Jew was aware that, in consequence of a transgression, he was liable to the penalty which must follow; and, in a word, that there was no enduring covenant, and no free access to the Holy One, without a complete fulfilment of the law. No approach could otherwise be allowed to God's presence in the sanctuary services; and there was, besides, a conscious guilt, which tended to estrange the sinner from God, and to make him apprehensive. This was an education of the people in the knowledge of sin. To meet this deep-felt need of pardon, and as a method of remitting the penalty incurred by a violation of the letter, sacrifices were appointed, which operated on the conscience of the Jew in a peculiar way. They gave him a vivid view of the guilt of sin, and of the rectitude and holiness of the Divine government. The whole Old Testament was thus calculated to bring into prominence the necessity of an atonement, and to sharpen the conviction that sin required a higher sacrifice; and the sacrifice, presupposing the sinful deed, showed the inviolability of the law and covenant. If the Jewish worshippers neglected the sacrifices of atonement, they incurred the curses of the law. If they brought the sacrifices, they were purged from their defilement, and had access reopened to God in the sanctuary service, without impediment from without or fear from within. With this doctrine of sacrifice the Jewish mind was familiar. They all admitted the necessity of a sacrifice of atonement in order to avert punishment. This was the great idea for the full development of which the nation had been peculiarly separated from other people, and which was to be learned by them in order to be diffused over the earth. They acknowledged these atonements as the method of averting the threatened penalty, however much they perverted them from the Divine purpose for which they were appointed by extending their effects to moral trespasses, instead of limiting them, as they should have done, to ceremonial defilement. They held the necessity of expiation; and our Lord, accordingly, in speaking to them, proceeds on this conceded truth. And hence His words take all this for granted, wherever He makes reference to His work. With a deeper reference than was commonly attached to the sacrifices, and sounding the depths which underlay them, He throughout assumed the indispensable necessity of an expiation. All His sayings contain this thought in their deeper relation. Thus, when we read of sin to be borne in a sacrificial sense (John i. 29) of a ransom to be paid for the purpose of liberating captives to Divine justice (Matt. xx. 28) of the law, both moral and ceremonial, to be embodied in a sinless life and exhibited in a sacrificial death (Matt. v. 17) of the blood of the covenant which puts men on a new footing, and in a relation of pardon and acceptance, to be dissolved no more (Matt. xxvi. 28)—all these allusions take for granted that an atonement is indispensably necessary, and that the Divine claims must be discharged in full. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 24–25. *Smeaton: “dilate.”

Restitution Required

Sin robs God of the honor and glory he is due. He must be repaid. The point at which the discussion [of the necessity of atonement] must begin is the relation which a personal God occupies to Sin. As the entrance of sin is a [plundering]* of the tribute or revenue of honour which the intelligent creature should have rendered to the Creator; as man was made to render this homage by a pure nature and a God-glorifying obedience, such as a moral representation of the divine image in this world alone could render,—a restoration of this honour to the full, nay, to a still larger degree, is only what supreme justice owes to Himself before salvation can be bestowed. Not that the glory of God essentially is capable either of addition or of diminution. But in reference to His declarative glory—in other words, in reference to what He proposed to make of human nature,—God lost when His rights were denied, and God regains when they are restored. Thus the necessity of the atonement is seen to rest on the divine claims, and on the concrete relations of a personal God to the world. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 29. * Smeaton: “spoliation.”

Necessity of Atonement according to Jesus

What express doctrine is there from the mouth of Christ in regard to the necessity of the atonement? There are various allusions explicit or indirect to the necessity of His atoning death. John iii. 14: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” . . . we limit our attention at present to the import of the must here uttered by Christ. Plainly, the necessity is not to be referred to the fact that the prophets had foretold it. Though the faithfulness of God must needs be maintained on account of the type, there was a further reason, which must be traced up to the divine decree, and to the divine justice. It was not a mere necessity to fulfil the type, but had its ground in the purpose of redemption, and in the end to be attained. Some, toning down the language, would represent it as arising from the present condition of the world, as if the cross were only an occurrence befalling Him in a world of rebels, and where all was out of course. But that does not approach the meaning; and the history of Jesus shows that, except in so far as He chose to subject Himself to the course of things, He was exempt from their power, and beyond their reach. They could not touch Him till His hour was come. The words here uttered mean, that in order to heal and save, He must needs be crucified,—the must indicating a necessity flowing from God’s justice, and from His decree, if men were to be saved. . . . Matt. xxvi. 42: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” The argument from this utterance of Christ for the necessity of His atoning work is of the strongest. There can be no reason assigned why the cup did not pass from Him, except that the divine claims required the endurance for the expiation of sin. The only-begotten Son, notwithstanding this request to the Father, who always heard Him, must drink the cup. And to say that the impossibility of removing it did not spring from the divine justice, is plainly untenable. It cannot be supposed that, except on the ground of indispensable necessity, God would be so inflexible as to visit His Son with all that was comprehended in that cup. The suffering was indispensable—the atonement was necessary—that the cup of suffering might pass from His people. The same thing is proved by passages which describe the irremediable consequences of neglecting the atoning work of Christ. The result of not believing on the crucified Christ is condemnation (John iii. 18). Mark viii. 37: “What shall a man give in exchange [better, what ransom shall a man give] for his soul?” These words occur in a connection which contains an allusion to the rejection or denial of Christ, and are intended to teach that there is a ransom attainable through the reception of Christ, but no ransom to such as neglect the opportunity, or depart this life without finding the only sacrifice. He virtually says, There is no more sacrifice for sin, since they have denied Me, the only ransom or means of deliverance. But this indisputable allusion to a ransom, takes for granted its necessity,—implying that it is only found in Jesus, who has expiated sin, and paid the ransom in the sinner’s place. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 37–39.

Reading between the Lines

The terms commonly used in the doctrinal discussion of the atonement, and drawn from Bible phraseology, such as Surety, Mediator, High Priest, Advocate—all representing Him as our substitute, who appears in the presence of God for us, and conducts our cause,—are not indeed found in the Lord’s own words descriptive of Himself. But, beyond question, the thing is there; and He acts as fully conscious that, except through Himself, as Mediator, God could have no intercourse with man, nor man with God. He understands and consults the best interests of His people in every respect: He took flesh, and knows the infirmities of human nature by personal experience, that He may sympathize with their condition, and compassionately conduct their concerns: He was lawfully called and appointed to this function. And not only so: the sacrificial language, which we find Him so frequently using, implies a Priest, though he does not expressly appropriate the term. These titles, both numerous and various, imply that He had a relation to mankind which is unique; that He stood between God and man; that He was not an individual unit of the race, as all the negative theology represents Him; but acting in a representative capacity for it. He assumes a position that no one but Himself could dare to occupy. Thus, when He calls Himself the way, in the saying, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John xiv. 6), He means that He is the exclusive Way; not only paving the way for others, but constituting, in His own person and work, the only way by which any could have access to God. That this is the meaning is evident from the subjoined words, “No man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” Could Christ affirm this of Himself, if He were nothing more than a teacher, an example, or a merely human founder of a new religion? Certainly not. It could not be maintained that there never was any other teacher, or that Moses, David, and the prophets were in no wise either commissioned or fitted to point out the way of acceptable worship. Neither could the words hold, if they were interpreted of Jesus as an example or as the founder of a new religion. There are other examples, though by no means so perfect as He; and were He only, like Moses, the instrument or founder of a new religion, men might accept the religion, and without much injury forget the founder. But the Lord says that He cannot be omitted, forgotten, or superseded, and that from first to last no man approaches God but by Him. This shows Him to be a Mediator, a High Priest, or introducer on the ground of His person and work, and cannot be affirmed of any prophet or apostle that ever trod the earth. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 52–53.

Who Killed Jesus?

When we inquire by whom the Messiah was brought into the humiliation of actual death, we find that though dogs are said to compass Him [Psalm 22:16],—that is heathen soldiers acting against Him; though the assembly of the wicked are said to inclose Him,—that is the company of the chief priests and their faction,—yet Messiah's death is emphatically ascribed to God Himself; “Thou hast brought Me.” Properly speaking the Lord was not overcome by His enemies. They could have had no power at all to exercise over Him but for His voluntary undertaking, and the consequent judgment exercised upon Him by the righteous Father. This is put beyond doubt by His own reply to Pilate (John xix. 11), and by Peter’s exposition (Acts ii. 23). . . . But this substitution was no make-believe, no mere semblance, but a true exchange of places—the most real of facts. He was accounted as the sinner not by a mere as if He were so, but because He was made sin (2 Cor. v. 21), and hence was treated as a sinner. And all this was not by a mere Divine permission allowing a free rein to human wickedness, but by God’s determinate counsel. That we may have no doubt of this, we shall have to trace in His soul-trouble a direct infliction from the hand of God. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 87, 95.
Smeaton on the meaning of “to bear sin”: But the phrase, “to bear sin,” demands more particular consideration. Wherever the language occurs, it carries with it the notion of an oppressive burden, or of penal endurance. But let us consider the phrase in examples. It occurs, first, in the sense of living under the frown or punitive hand of God: thus the Israelites “bore their iniquity” according to the number of the days in which they had searched out the land, each day a year (Numb. xiv. 34): it is used as synonymous with being guilty (Lev. v. 17; Num. v. 31): it is found as equivalent to being cut off (Lev. xx. 17; Num. ix. 13): it occurs in the sense of being punished with death (Num. xviii. 22, 32. Compare also Ex. xxviii. 43; Lev. xxiv. 15). In all these instances it refers to a person bearing his own sin. Where the reference, again, is to the sins of others, it means to undergo punishment for them, or to feel the penal effects and the unpleasant consequences due to the sins of others (Lam. v. 7; Ezek. xviii. 19). Hence, if we abide by the usage of language, the phrase can only mean, in this passage, to endure the penal consequences inseparable from the sins of mankind. And as to the origin of the figure, it is taken from lifting a burden in order to carry it, or to lay it on one’s shoulders. But as the language is sacrificial, it points to the victim bearing the sin which the offerer laid upon it, by the laying on of the hand. The language, rightly understood, can only mean that Jesus was put in connection with sin; that He took Sin as such, and not the mere consequences of it, or the element of punishment alone; that He bore sin considered as guilt in its relation to the moral Governor; that He was made the world’s sin, and bore it,—thus becoming, not personally but officially, the proper object of punitive justice, and enduring the penalty due to the sins of mankind. The words prove that the work of Christ was a provision for sin as such,—that is, for sin considered as demerit and guilt; and only as the atoning work of Christ is adapted to this end, and divinely accepted, does it reverse the consequences of sin. A canon of easy application is, that the interposition of Christ implies that the burden of sin which was transferred to Him pressed heavily on the world, that mankind could not rid themselves of it, and could do nothing to remove it; and the language implies that the Lamb of God made it His—His heritage or property,—bearing in His own person what we had committed. It must be noticed, further, that the verb beareth, which is in the present tense, is not used as a prophecy, neither as an allusion to the constant efficacy of the sacrifice, but as indicating that Jesus was even then the sin-bearer. He never in fact appeared “without sin” during His humiliation (Heb. ix. 28); and His coming in the likeness of sinful flesh was at once a proof that sin was borne by Him, and that this was already a part of His satisfaction. He was, even then, bearing sin, and many of the penal effects of it. It is a mistake to say, then, that the thought of the passage is an allusion to the abolition of sin; for the first idea of a sin-offering was not so much the consuming of moral evil—though that undoubtedly follows, and is a necessary consequence at the next remove—as the bearing of guilt. And an Israelite dreading divine wrath ever thought of the sin-offering in this light, as liberating him from its burden or pressure. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 100–102.

On “Son of Man”

A few interesting observations on the use of the title “Son of Man”: 1. It must strike every one who attentively examines our Lord's use of this title, that we never find it used after His resurrection. The reason seems to be, that it was not descriptive of His resurrection state; that it belonged only to the days of His flesh; and that when He had left behind Him the servant form in which He appeared among men there was no longer any occasion for using it. This is further confirmed by a striking expression which He addressed to the disciples in the hearing of the Pharisees: “The days will come when ye will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and ye shall not see it” (Luke xvii. 22); which can only mean one of those days they then enjoyed, or the days of His flesh. They would wish them back again. This decides on the meaning of our phrase. 2. Nor does He ever use the expression, Son of Man, in His prayers to God,—as if it were not in keeping with the peculiarly close relation subsisting between Him and God the Father. It is descriptive of what is official rather than personal, or of what He became rather than of what He was. 3. Neither does He use it in His capacity of teacher. When announcing any truth, or expounding any principle of duty, He says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you.” It is no exception to this observation, that we find Him saying in the parable of the tares, “The Sower of the good seed is the Son of Man.” For that allusion is not to the function or office of a teacher dealing with all men indiscriminately, but to the efficacious illumination which the Lord dispenses as the head of His Church, on the ground or basis of the priestly work which He had already finished. 4. Another observation forces itself on the attention of every one who examines the several passages where this phrase occurs. It is a title used almost exclusively by Christ Himself. He is seldom or ever so called by His disciples. He appropriates to Himself the title, Son of Man, as the special definition of His condescending grace; and as displaying to those who heard Him not the divine relation, which was natural and proper to Him, but the new condition which He had taken to Himself, and into which He had stepped down, for the attainment of an object worthy of such abasement. And when Stephen on one occasion uses the phrase, “Son of Man,” he nearly quotes our Lord's own words, before the same council, at His trial (Acts vii. 56). And when John, in Revelation, says, “I saw one like unto the Son of Man,” it may be only a quotation of Daniel. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 112–113.
[W]herever [“Son of Man”] is found—whether referring to His poverty or to His betrayal—to His condemnation or to His crucifixion,—it alludes to vicarious punishment. The Lord, by means of this expression, utters His own consciousness of appearing in the likeness of sinful flesh, and states that He passed through the various grades of a humiliation, which can only be considered as the steps of a vicarious curse-bearing life. He intimates, by His use of this phrase, that He not only had assumed a true humanity, but stood in the position of the second man; in other words, was the surety self-emptied and abased. We may put it in many other forms, but this is the sense. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 118.

According to the Order of Nature

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. —2 Corinthians 5:21 On the cross, Christ said, “It is finished”; but the cross is not where he began to bear our sin. He did not first take sin upon Him, or was first made sin, upon the cross. He was not first a man, and at a subsequent period the sin-bearer or the curse-bearer. What has been truly and correctly said as to the assumption of humanity may be equally applied to this. He was not first a man, and then incarnate, or assumed into the personality of the Son; for the humanity never existed but in that personal union. In like manner we may say that the humanity never was without this imputation of sin; for that assumption of sin by which He became the sin-bearer, was in, with, by, and under the assumption of our nature, though the sin is separable and distinguishable from the humanity. Nay, we should rather say that, according to the order of nature, the sin was imputed and assumed simultaneously with His mission, and therefore, in a certain sense, prior to the actual incarnation; though it became His, in point of fact, only with the possession of a common nature. They who limit the sin-bearing to the three hours on the cross—a too widely diffused notion—have far diverged from biblical language and ideas. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 122–123.

The Baptism of the Sin-Bearer

Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. —Matthew 3:13–15 This testimony is replete with meaning, whether we consider the occasion of it or the import of the terms. It may be called a key to that large class of passages which speak of Christ’s obedience as the righteousness of His people, or represent Him as made of God unto us righteousness, because He was first of all made sin for us (2 Cor. v. 21). As to the occasion which called forth this saying, we find it uttered on the memorable day of Christ’s baptism, when he came to the Baptist, the new Elias*, the culminating point of the Old Testament prophecy, and its voice. John may be regarded here as the living expression of the law and of the prophets, which had during many ages witnessed to the coming Messiah, and which now, by their greatest representative, were to introduce the Christ into His office. As the Lord Jesus recognised them, so they were to inaugurate Him as the truth of the prophecies, and as the substance of the types or shadows. So close in every point of view is the connection, rightly apprehended, of the old and new economy, that the one is incomplete without the other. But though Jesus was fully conscious of His mission from the day when the boy of twelve first trod the courts of the temple, and declared that He must be about His Father’s business, He would take no steps towards the public discharge of His office till He was formally inaugurated into it by an authorized prophet on the one hand, and by divine testimony on the other . . . The Baptist, as a sinner, feeling that it rather became him to exchange places with Jesus, and to be not the giver but the receiver in the interview, refused, for a time, to confer his baptism on the Redeemer. He could not conceive what the Christ had to do with a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,—what it was to Him, or He to it. But that reluctance was overcome by the explanation which our Lord subjoined:—”suffer it to be so now”—that is (for the now is emphatic), in my present state of humiliation, and as an action suited only to my state of substitution in the room of sinners. . . . But the Lord subjoins an explanation as to the principle and end for which He sought John’s baptism: “For thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” It is not the special act of baptism to which alone allusion is here made. The language is more general, though the occasion was particular. There is nothing to warrant the limitation of the words, which must be accepted in the full force of the phraseology. The Lord had a public confession to make; and the words here used furnish a key to the whole action. We must then, first of all, notice the import of these His words of confession: it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. The Lord virtually says, “It is not unworthy of the Son of God to go down so far; for it is not a question of dignity or pre-eminence, but of fulfilling all righteousness.” The reception of baptism was only a voluntary act, and not a service personally necessary or required on His own account; for He acted of free choice when He became incarnate. But it became Him to fulfil His undertaking, and in doing so He was not free to omit this or any part of His work; for though he was under no obligation to take the flesh, yet there arose a certain duty from His engagement to the Father, from His mediatorial office, and from the old prophecies. There was a certain hypothetical necessity or propriety which required His acting as He now did, if the end was to be gained. It may be thus put: “It becometh me to appear in the likeness of a sinner, and to fulfil all righteousness.” —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 128–130. * Elijah

Labor Redeemed

Every aspect of human existence, however mundane, has been redeemed by Christ. He entered also, as we have every reason to conclude, into the primeval curse of labour. When we find Him designated not only the carpenter’s son, but the carpenter (Mark vi. 3), the language plainly refers to the fact, that during the course of His private life the Lord Jesus followed the occupation of a carpenter. We are constrained, both on exegetical and on dogmatic grounds, to decide for this interpretation. There seems no ground to doubt that Jesus earned His bread by the sweat of His brow, whether we look at the plain words used by the evangelist, or at the necessity devolving on the substitute of sinners of entering into every part of our curse. And He has in consequence transformed the curse of labour into a blessing, and sanctified not only manual and mental labour in every form in which it can be viewed, but also the entire earthly calling to all His followers till the end of time. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 138. This should not be taken to mean that labor itself is a part of the curse. Adam was given a job to do in Eden (Genesis 2:15). Indeed, God is said to have completed and rested “from all his work which he had done” (vv. 1–3). He is working even now (Philippians 2:13), and surely, he is not subject to the curse. Work, therefore, is good. The “curse of labour” refers to the difficult and often unproductive nature of our labor in a world cursed with sin (Genesis 3:17–19).

The Humility of Christ

British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was once described (possibly by Winston Churchill) as “a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.” Whether or not Churchill is the originator of the quip, it is certainly true of all of us. Though we all harbor a great propensity for pride, we all have great cause for humility. Conversely, there is one in whom no reason for humility can be found, yet who embodies the virtue in everything he has done. “I seek not mine own glory” (John viii. 56). In this humility lies the foundation of Christ’s moral excellence. The humility of Jesus found expression in a constant renunciation of His own honour. It shows that He lived in another element and before another public than that of human opinion, which attaches weight only to that which is ostentatious, or comes recommended by success or marked superiority in the race of life. His public before which He acted was not human opinion, but the eye of His Father, before whose perfections all the distinctions of man, as well as all their praise and honour, are little and puny indeed. He did not wish to rise, but to abase Himself: “I am among you as one that serveth.” Though so exalted and excellent, He was more humble than any creature in the universe. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 164–165.

No Abstract Atonement

In our theology of the atonement, we use the language of substitution, and this is appropriate—Christ truly fulfilled the law and bore the penalty of sin in the place of sinners, providing a righteousness that we did not possess, and satisfying the wrath of God against sin. But substitution does not tell the whole story. It was not only for sin in a vague, abstract, indeterminate sense that He was delivered up, but in the room of the sinners given to Him, and whose place He representatively occupied. It was only in their room and stead that Jesus was placed at the bar as a criminal. And this was a real transaction before the tribunal of God, not a semblance of a trial. The sinner was there, but Jesus took his place. And only in this way can we explain either the prophetical sayings which describe Him as wounded for our transgressions (Isa. liii. 5), or those apostolic sayings which represent believers as co-crucified (Gal. ii. 20), as co-dying (Rom. vi. 8), and as suffering in the flesh (1 Peter iv. 1), when in point of fact the Lord appears to human view single and alone in the historic narrative of the evangelists. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 171. Therefore, believers can know not only that Jesus died specifically for us, but that we died in him, so that “I am crucified with Christ” is not a hypothetical proposition that became reality when we believed, but an historical event that actually took place on the cross. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, I was.
It was the High Priest offering up His soul to God that said, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” And He uttered it with a loud voice, to show that strength still remained in Him, and that, by His own authority, He released the spirit from the lacerated and wounded body. The curse was, “Thou shalt die;” and now it was exhausted, and sin annihilated. Now heaven and earth were reunited; God and man were at one again. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 182.


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