What is the Atonement?

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“Christ died for our sins” (Romans 4:25)

            “How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us?”[1] Jonathan Edwards said, “God abundantly testified by the sacrifices, from the beginning of the world, that an atonement for sin was necessary, and must be insisted on, in order to his acceptance of the sinner.[2] The atonement, according to Grudem, is “the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.”[3] Christ “gave his life for many” (Matt. 10:28).

            From the standpoint of Biblical Theology, then we see that this theme runs throughout the Biblical narrative. The Mosaic system was filled with sacrifices whose blood was shed to cover the sins of the people. These sacrifices anticipated the Sacrifice which God made of himself for himself on behalf of the people. So, Hebrews looks back to the inabilities of the Old Testament sacrifices to highlight the excellencies of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 10:1-10). The book of Revelation holds Jesus up as the Lamb that has been slain. The 24 elders sang, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slaughtered, and you purchased people for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). Biblical theology has given us a picture of sacrificial atonement which is manifested in Christ’s own sacrifice at Calvary.

            Graduating to systematic theology, we see that the sacrifice of Christ was necessary because God is holy, his people are cursed by sin, and our merciful and loving God wants to make salvation from sin possible. Punishment for sin is necessary because sin must be punished. If God did not punish sin, then he would be unjust. Sin must be punished to maintain God’s righteousness, his holiness, his truthfulness, and his love. Christ, then becomes the lightning rod of all these divine attributes. Sin is punished in his flesh so that sinners might go free. God’s holiness is maintained because the sins of his people are covered in the blood of Jesus. His love is preeminently on display in Christ’s willing sacrifice. Penal substitutionary atonement is vital to the understanding of Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology if we are going to be honest with the Sacred Text. It may not fit with modern thought, but it is the revelation of God’s eternal thought. You must choose which to follow.

            This is a broad definition of the word. The Old Testament word translated “atonement” (כֻּפַּ֣ר) is defined in BDB as “cover over (fig.), pacify, make propitiation.”[4] This definition, however, is debated.[5] The word is used to describe situations where one thing is exchanged or ransomed for another (Ex. 10:12; Isa. 43:3). Hence, the word would denote “to atone by offering a substitute.”[6] This word is used to describe the exchange of guilt from the worshiper to the sacrifice which then bears the sin and the punishment of the sin.[7]

            The sacrifices of the Old Testament era were just shadows of what was to come (Heb. 10:1). The sacrifices were not to be the final solution. They were inadequate. Turretin described the shadowy nature of the Old Testament sacrifices: “They are called a ‘shadow’ both physically … and artificially for an obscure and rude delineation of a thing, opposed to the perfect image (eikona) of a thing (in which sense it is used by the apostle, Heb. 10:1)”.[8] Their inadequacies pointed to the final perfect solution of Calvary through their own inadequacies. Hebrews 9 pointed to the necessity of a perfect and heavenly sacrifice which would bring about true atonement. Christ “purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath; that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men; that by this bond his benevolence is maintained toward them.”[9]

What Caused the Atonement?

            Why did my Savior come to earth? The question cannot be answered only in light of our sin. The answer must go back to the nature of God—namely his love and justice. It was because “God so loved the world” that “he gave his only Son so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). God’s justice also demanded that sin could not simply be overlooked. God’s justice is maintained, according to Romans 3:25, by the sending of the Son to be the propitiation[10] for sins. A propitiation is “that which serves as an instrument for regaining the goodwill of a deity”[11]

            The atonement was part of the eternal plan (pactum salutis) and is integral to the order of salvation (ordo salutis). As God, in eternity, purposed to create the universe and humanity, sin was inevitable. Without decreeing sin, God allowed sin to exist through the will of his creatures. “The curse caused by our guilt was awaiting us at God’s heavenly judgment seat.”[12] Since sin was inevitable, the atonement was decreed by God to redeem sinful man from the consequences of sin and to be restored to his fellowship (Acts 2:23).

The Necessity of the Atonement

            It was not necessary for God to save anyone. Rebellious sinful creatures deserve the penalty of their rebellion and sin. Every extension of God’s grace is an example of his free choice made in love. God did make atonement for the angels who sinned (2 Pet. 2:4), but he did freely choose to atone his people through Christ. Grudem wrote, “the atonement was not absolutely necessary, but, as a “consequence” of God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary. This is sometimes called the “consequent absolute necessity” view of the atonement.”[13]

            The death of Christ was a necessary component of the atonement. Jesus prayed for that “cup” to pass from him if it were possible (Matt. 26:39). Apparently, there was no other way for the atonement to be possible. Hebrews 9-10 emphasized the reality that all the Old Testament sacrifices were presented in the search for full atonement which they could not render. Anselm rightly said sin brings a debt “which no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man: it is, therefore, necessary that a God-Man should pay it.”[14] Jesus preached the necessity of his own death before his crucifixion (Lk. 9:22) and after the resurrection, Jesus preached the necessity of the resurrection (Lk. 24:25-27). Grudem noted that “since ‘it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins’ (Heb. 10:4), a better sacrifice is required (Heb. 9:23). Only the blood of Christ, that is, his death, would be able really to take away sins (Heb. 9:25–26). There was no other way for God to save us than for Christ to die in our place.”[15]

The Nature of the Atonement

            Grudem included two section in his discussion of the atonement: Christ’s obedience for us, in which he obeyed the requirements of the law in our place and was perfectly obedient to the will of God the Father as our representative, and (2) Christ’s sufferings for us, in which he took the penalty due for our sins and as a result died for our sins.”[16] These two areas are referred to as the active and passive righteousness of Christ. In both instances, the focus of the atonement is on Christ and his work rather than the human response to his work. Bavinck wrote, “As high priest, with the offering of his perfect obedience, he has covered the sins of his people, thus averting God’s wrath and securing his grace.”[17]

Active Obedience

            The active righteousness of Christ is necessary because forgiveness alone would only leave us standing naked before God. The covenant with Adam demanded obedience not just the absence of sin. “Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us.”[18] Philippians 3:9 reveals Paul’s confidence in Christ’s active righteousness. Paul said that he did not have a righteousness of his own, “but that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness of God that depends on faith.” Jesus had to obey “in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Because of Christ’s active obedience, Christians are not neutral before God. In Christ, Christians are positively righteous before the Father.

Passive Obedience

            “In addition to obeying the law perfectly for his whole life on our behalf, Christ also took on himself the sufferings necessary to pay the penalty for our sins.”[19] Christ’s suffering on behalf of humanity could be seen throughout his earthly life (Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 5:8, 12:3-4). He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3). The cross is the culmination of this passive obedience. It was on the cross that Jesus bore the penalty for our sin which the redeemed deserve. It was necessary for Christ to die in judgment rather than as an infant or by accident or by an angry mob.

To take away our condemnation, it was not enough for him to suffer any kind of death: to make satisfaction for our redemption a form of death had to be chosen in which he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself. If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of the judge to die—we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer.[20]

 This included the physical pain, the psychological pain of sin bearing (Is. 53:6, 12; Jn. 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24), the pain of abandonment/separation from his inner circle and the separation from the Father (Matt. 27:46), and finally the wrath of God was laid upon him (Rom. 3:25-26).    

            This suffering on the cross has been denied by many modern theologians. However, the suffering of Christ on the cross is a repeated theme of the New Testament and a central focus foreshadowed in the Old Testament. These themes in the Old and New Testaments cannot be ignored. Michael Horton described this theme of vicarious atonement in the Old Testament which is carried over into the New Testament and applied to Christ as the perfect sacrifice.

It is especially in Leviticus that we see the sacrificial system inaugurated in Israel. The clearly expiatory nature of the sacrifices in Israel is seen in Lev 1:4; 4:29–35; 5:10; 16:7; 17:11, including transfer of guilt (Lev 1:4; 16:21–22). The burnt offering—singled out for atonement—was to be either from the flock or the herd, but in either case “a male without blemish” (Lev 1:3). Guilt would be transferred from the worshiper to the sacrifice by a laying on of hands, “and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (v. 4). Further, on the Day of Atonement the priest would sprinkle the blood of the sin offering on the altar and mercy-seat, which contained the treaty-tablets in the ark of the covenant. “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven” (4:30–31; cf. 16:21–27).[21]

This penalty for sin was inflicted on Christ by the Father (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:8). The suffering was temporary but complete (Jn. 19:30; Is. 53:11; Rom. 8:1). Therefore, the sacrifice is not renewed or repeated (1 Pet. 3:18). The Bible teaches that it is the blood of Christ which ransoms the redeemed (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Heb. 9:14, 10:19; 1 Jn. 1:7). Christ’s death was a “penal substitution” which means that “Christ’s death was “penal” in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a “substitution” in that he was a substitute for us when he died.”[22]

            As Christ suffered as the substitute for his people, he also serves as the representative for all his people.

In the obedience of this servant, Yahweh in fact becomes his people’s righteousness and sanctification in the power of the Spirit (Jer 23:6; 1 Co 1:30; Ro 5:18; 2 Co 5:21). In this way, believers are not only forgiven their sins but justified—that is, declared righteous by God’s imputation of Christ’s obedience to their account—and not only justified but renewed, and one day they will be glorified in union with their already-glorified head.[23]

The covenant of works established with Adam (and consequently mankind) has been replaced with the covenant of grace established by God with Christ and all those who belong to him. As Paul wrote, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21).

Other Views

            There are other views of the atonement which are acceptable as long as the vicarious penal substitutionary atonement model remains the foundation of all that occurs. These other views cannot replace the penal substitutionary atonement. The other views do add richness to the multifaceted work of Christ on the cross.

            Jesus’ death was a ransom paid for sin (ransom theory). This fits with the concept of atonement. However, one must not suppose that the ransom was paid to Satan. Jesus’ death is also an influential moral act. Peter Abelard argued that this was all that occurred at the cross. This, of course, is wrong. However, Jesus’ death is an incredible teaching moment (Phil. 2:5-11). Like the moral influence view, the example view holds that Jesus sacrifice is an example of how we should trust God and obey him fully. This is certainly true, but it does not wipe out the preponderance of Scriptures on the necessity of Christ’s death to bear the wrath of God.

            The governmental theory teaches that Christ did not have to die for God to forgive sins, but that God sent Christ to die in order to show that there was a legal penalty for those who broke the law. It is true that sin, the breaking of covenant law, requires a legal penalty. However, that does not mean that Christ did not have to die in order to bear the penalty of divine wrath. If one says that God does not have to punish sin, then the justice of God and Divine simplicity must be set aside.

The Extent of the Atonement

            There has been much debate on the extent of the atonement. Grudem put the question this way: “when Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved?”[24] Some argue that the Gospel is open to all and the atonement must be available to all. Others argue that if atonement is for all, then all will be saved (universalism). Grudem wrote:

As far as we are concerned, the free offer of the gospel is to be made to everybody without exception. We also know that everyone who repents and believes in Christ will be saved, so all are called to repentance (cf. Acts 17:30). The fact that God foreknew who would be saved, and that he accepted Christ’s death as payment for their sins only, does not inhibit the free offer of the gospel, for who will respond to it is hidden in the secret counsels of God. That we do not know who will respond no more constitutes a reason for not offering the gospel to all than not knowing the extent of the harvest prevents the farmer from sowing seed in his fields.[25]

Perhaps it may be best to say that the atonement is only for the redeemed, but it is available and powerful enough for all. Many passages speak of those who are God’s and those who have been given to Christ (Jn. 17:9; 6:37-39; Jn. 10:11, 15; Rom. 8:34). This limited view must be balanced with 1 John 2:2, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (Jn. 1:29; 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:3-6). Dangers appear in the extremes. Christ’s death is great enough for all, but only applied to the saved.  

The Benefits of the Atonement

            The atonement is one of God’s most incredible acts which lead to incredible blessings for Christians which are impossible to truly appreciate. Bavinck listed the following:

the juridical, that is, the forgiveness of sins (Mark 14:24; Heb. 9:22); justification (Rom. 3:24; 4:25; 5:9; 8:34; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21); adoption as children (Gal. 3:26; 4:5–6); the right to eternal life and the heavenly inheritance (Rom. 8:17; 1 Pet. 1:4); also redemption (ἀπολυτρωσις, Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:15), which, however, sometimes has a broader meaning as well (Rom. 3:24; 8:21, 23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:14; 4:30; 1 Pet. 1:18–19);

the mystical, consisting in being crucified, buried, raised, and seated with Christ in heaven (Rom. 6–8; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1–13);

the ethical, that is, regeneration (John 1:12–13), being made alive (Eph. 2:1, 5); sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30; 6:11), being washed (1 Cor. 6:11), cleansed (1 John 1:9), and sprinkled (1 Pet. 1:2) in body, soul, and spirit (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:23);

the moral, consisting in the imitation of Christ, who has left us his example (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Luke 9:23; John 8:12; 12:26; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5; Eph. 2:10; 1 Pet. 2:21; 4:1);

the economic, that is, the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant, the inauguration of a new covenant (Mark 14:24; Heb. 7:22; 9:15; 12:24); the freedom from the law (Rom. 7:1ff.; Gal. 2:19; 3:13, 25; 4:5; 5:1; etc.); the cancellation of the bond with its legal demands, the breaking down of the dividing wall, the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile and all other existing sets of opposites into unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11–22; Col. 2:14);

the physical, that is, the victory over the world (John 16:33), over death (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:15), over hell (1 Cor. 15:15; Rev. 1:18; 20:14), and over Satan (Luke 10:18; 11:22; John 14:30; Heb. 2:14; 1 Cor. 15:55–56; Col. 2:15; 1 Pet. 3:22; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 12:10; 20:2; etc.).[26]

Bavinck’s list may seem extensive, but further contemplation reminds the grateful Christian that a true comprehension will never be grasped in our finite minds. As Bavinck wrote: “The fruits of Christ’s sacrifice are not restricted to any one area of life; they are not limited, as so many people think nowadays, to the religious-ethical life, to the heart, the inner chamber, or the church, but are extended to the entire world.…The grace of God and the free gift through grace are superabundant (Rom. 5:15).[27]

Be Thankful

            “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.” Every Christian should find the cross of Christ a continual source of overwhelming joy. The cross of Christ is an embarrassment of riches. The blackness of our sins serves as the most appropriate background to highlight the jewel of God’s love. Calvin wrote:

Since our hearts cannot, in God’s mercy, either seize upon life ardently enough or accept it with the gratefulness we owe, unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death, we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and his hand is armed for our destruction; to embrace his benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone.[28]

The cross of our Lord is the foundation of our hope, the reason for our joy, and the source of our comfort.   

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 507.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Miscellanies: (Entry Nos. 833–1152), ed. Harry S. Stout, Amy Plantinga Pauw, and Perry Miller, vol. 20, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002), 164.

[3] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 568.                                                                                             

[4] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 497.

[5] “On the strength of this connection it has been supposed that the Hebrew word means “to cover over sin” and thus pacify the deity, making an atonement (so BDB). It has been suggested that the ot ritual symbolized a covering over of sin until it was dealt with in fact by the atonement of Christ. There is, however, very little evidence for this view. The connection of the Arabic word is weak and the Hebrew root is not used to mean “cover.” The Hebrew verb is never used in the simple or Qal stem, but only in the derived intensive stems. These intensive stems often indicate not emphasis, but merely that the verb is derived from a noun whose meaning is more basic to the root idea.” R. Laird Harris, “1023 כָפַר,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 452–453.

[6] Laird Harris, TWOT, 453.

[7] “The life of the sacrificial animal specifically symbolized by its blood was required in exchange for the life of the worshipper. Sacrifice of animals in ot theology was not merely an expression of thanks to the deity by a cattleraising people. It was the symbolic expression of innocent life given for guilty life. This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshipper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice and confessing his sins over the animal (cf. Lev 16:21; 1:4; 4:4, etc.) which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoatR. Laird Harris, “1023 כָפַר,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 453.

[8] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 149.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 505.

[10] A propitiation (ἱλαστήριον) is a sacrifice which bears the wrath of a deity so that the worshiper may go free. “The unique feature relative to Greco-Roman usage is the initiative taken by God to the effect of removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self” (BDAG, 474).

[11] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 474.

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 508.

[13] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 569.

[14] Anselm “Why God Became Man” Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 320. 

[15] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 570.

[16] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 570.

[17] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 447.

[18] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 570.

[19] Ibid.,571.

[20] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 509.

[21] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 495.

[22] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 579.

[23] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 491.

[24] Ibid.,594.

[25] Ibid., 595.

[26] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 451.

[27] Ibid.,, 451.

[28] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 505.

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