Updated: Mar 3, 2020
What is the Atonement?
We have discussed the person of Christ, so naturally the study of the work of Christ should follow. The two are really not separated, but for the sake of clarity, distinguished. You cannot separate the person of Christ from what he does. For instance, on Thanksgiving Day I went to Walmart to get a few snacks, as it was the only store open, of course. I went in, got my groceries, and as I was heading to my car, I was stopped by Jehovah’s Witnesses who proceeded to hand me a tract. It caught me off guard. I thought it was soft ball for the Gospel, so I asked them, “Who do you say Jesus is?”
“He’s God’s son,” one responded.
I asked, “Do you believe he is God?”
They answered, “No, no, no! He’s the son of God; he is not God himself.”
So, I began to go through a few scriptures with them and began answering various objections they raised. Once I cleared the mines, I said, “A Jesus less than divine cannot save you. God became incarnate; he took on human flesh. He and he alone could ever bear our sins that whoever repents and trusts in him and the work he accomplished will be saved from the wrath of God.” I remember they seemed taken aback. At that point, I closed the conversation with asking them to read a few passages like Hebrews 1 and Philippians 2 for their consideration, and we parted. The point I made to them is that they could not claim a Jesus, who is less than divine, as a savior. There is only one Jesus and only he and he alone could conquer our sin and death by satisfying the wrath of God. No one but God the Son was capable of the task to fulfill the Father’s will for us.
We are going to be looking at “What is the atonement?” or “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” Our course is focusing on the foundational teachings of the Christian faith, and if we do not cover the cross, I feel I have failed the “foundational” aspect of this course. Now by ‘cover’, I do not for a moment mean ‘to cover exhaustively’. We will be talking about the cross and singing about the cross…“Worthy is the lamb who was slain”...for eternity! But, by cover, I mean simply to explore what the Bible says about the death of Jesus from this central angle of atonement. We’re not exhausting it anytime soon.
Let us begin with 1 Corinthians.
"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 1 Corinthians 1:18
I once worked at a fast food restaurant where I got a chance to meet some very unusual people, sometimes a good thing and sometimes interesting. One day I had one of those more interesting encounters, actually a scary one. I was working the front counter register and I had a relatively short line of customers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man enter the line, but I didn’t think much of it. He was about fourth in line. So, I continued taking orders until he was the last one in line, and I came face to face with him. I asked him for his order and began to input it into the register. Then, I looked up and saw his shirt for the first time. His shirt had an image of a bomb vest on it, and my first reaction was fear. Of course, once the initial wave of fear disappeared, I realized that it was a picture of some video game or media thing. But, the initial fear of seeing that image on a t-shirt changed the way I look at passages like this one here in 1 Corinthians. How is it that the symbol of the cross, which I’m wearing around my neck, went from a symbol that evoked terror to a symbol of hope and salvation?
In the first century, a cross was how you killed someone with intense agony. It was a terribly dirty or offensive thing to speak of because it was gory and bloody with nothing glamorous about it. In fact, most people refused to speak about crucifixion in common places. People would cringe if you brought it up. But, Paul talks about boasting in the cross and summarizes his whole ministry as Christ and him crucified. So, why does Paul summarize his Gospel ministry like this, and what is the cross of Jesus really all about? We must consider the intense irony of Paul’s words behind the backdrop of the natural offensiveness of the cross. And, yet it is this symbol that has become the boast of the Christian faith because of who and why a particular Nazarene died on one.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
In the 1900’s a huge controversy erupted over Bible translation. If you have a Bible or Bible app, go with me to 1 John 4:9-10. "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
If you asked John, “What is the cross all about?” “Why did Jesus die?” His prime answer would be, “To be a propitiation for our sins.” If you’re reading the English Standard Version of the Bible, or even the King James Version, it says, "propitiation for our sins." But, the Revised Standard Version says that he is the “expiation for our sins." Why the difference? The difference is owed to a controversy that took place in New Testament scholarship. You see, propitiation is a big word that means something quite simple. It means to make a sacrifice to God that makes him favorable, that makes him propitious toward us. But, in the last century some did not like this idea when speaking of the cross work of Christ, because they reasoned that God was already favorable to us if he sent his Son to die for us. If God so loved the world that he sent his Son, surely the issue isn’t God being made to favor us, but the issue is us. We’re sinners, and so we need cleansing and forgiveness of our sins. We don’t need to appease God in some kind of way, so these people reasoned and some today still think this way.
During that time, C.H Dodd was one of the more well-known supporters of changing propitiation to expiation. He had little conception of the wrath of God. He didn't like the idea that God could be wrathful. Therefore, expiation was a better choice for him, which simply refers to a sacrifice that provided forgiveness and cleansing of sins, but leaves out this whole idea of satisfying God’s wrath. People like Dodd reasoned that the idea of making a sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath and make him favorable seemed to sound a lot like what the pagans did with their gods. People sacrificed to the gods, so that they could get them on their side or just appease their wrath. But, is that what the Bible is talking about? No, and that’s not what John was talking about when he used the word propitiation. Whatever their motives, no matter how much those in the last century wanted to change the word propitiation, we all have to deal with the God who wrote Romans 1:18.
The linguistic battles were done and Leon Morris wrote the classic, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, demonstrating that propitiation is the correct translation. Now, of course expiation is a component of propitiation, but it cannot be reduced to that. When John wrote about the death of Christ, he saw it as a sacrifice that turned God’s wrath away and cleansed us from the guilt of our sin. But, it is an interesting question that if God so loved the world, why did he need appeasing? If God is so loving as to die for the world, what kind of wrath would need satisfaction? I think that with this line of questioning, we run into the very issue that people like Dodd were trying to avoid. God is no ill-tempered one dimensional pagan Greek god. He is the God who is holy and is love. Leon Morris would say that we must see that wrath is the response of God’s divine personality to sin. The same God who loves this rebellious world enough to enter into his own creation to redeem it, also is the same God who is angry with sin and those who commit it and must punish it. God is love and God is holy. And, the loving God of John 3 is the same God who is angry with the wicked all day long as we are told in Psalms. People like Dodd didn’t believe God was angry with the world when he read about the wrath of God. He did not see God as a just and holy God who was personally being angered and offended by sin, but he read God's wrath as the impersonal consequences of sin. He thought that the wrath of God is just letting people face the consequences of their sin, but he is not personally being involved with any kind of holy passionate response to sin. However, the scriptures do not teach us of an impersonal wrath of God, but the wrath of God! His wrath is no less personal than his love.
Let’s read a couple of texts and ask for ourselves what God thinks of sin.
Psalm 5:4-6 “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man."
John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him."
Romans 1:18 "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."
In today’s society, to believe that God is love is not really hard, but to believe that God simultaneously has wrath is not easy for many of people. So, if we ask what the cross is all about, the core issue is that God’s wrath is very real and very much out of our league. We cannot escape it by any of our means. A couple of years ago there was a viral video of a man who was in court and before the judge gave his sentence, he was permitted to say something. He began singing an apology to the judge. One news article reported it like this, “Can you sing your way out of a prison sentence? Probably not, but that didn’t stop him from trying.” And, try he did. Though the judge was briefly entertained, he did not shorten his sentence. Why? The judge was bound to uphold justice. Now, God is no human judge. He is infinitely more just, and even though we may all stand before him singing or pleading, the justice of God will meet us with hell and condemnation. But God! But God! But, God is rich in mercy with the great love with which he loved us, as begins Ephesians 2. The text of 1 John 4 resounds with propitiation in the love of God, as does the famous text of John 3:16. It is important for us to see love and justice as not at war at the cross, but in harmony and partnered together to bring glory to the Triune God. God loves us, and if you have any doubt, see how he prayed for your sin on the cross, a repulsive, dishonoring, gory cross on which he died a shameful death that you may be raised with him in glory.
If God is so loving, why does he respond so strongly to sin? God’s wrath and justice against sin demand payment, condemnation in hell. If you sin against a rock, no one cares. If a dude smacks a rock on the ground, no one cares. If a dude smacked a person to the ground for no reason, he would face charges. If a dude smacked the king of Saudi Arabia to the ground, he would face immediate death. The same sin may vary in its seriousness depending against whom the sin is committed. All sin begins as a sin against God. As expressed in the law, God requires from all of us that we love him with all of our strength, soul and heart. So, all sin begins with failure to love God. To sin against the highest court in the universe is terrible and worse than any sin we commit against each other. So, if you sin against God, eternal death is the just consequence.
David famously cried, "Against you and you only I have sinned." When you take Uriah into consideration, it would seem David did in fact sin against many others besides God. But, what David was getting at is that all sin is first and foremost sin against God and then others, not the other way around. Second, sin against God is in a different category than sin against a fellow man. As we speak about God's wrath and judgement, some may feel it’s a tad bit like drinking pickle juice. It’s sour and only sour people go on about fire and brimstone. However, no one spoke more about hell than Jesus, and there is no one more loving and merciful than he. So, what the cross calls us to consider is the cost of sin and justice of God. There we find hand in hand altogether favor and wrath, grace and law, justice and mercy. This is why the good news of Jesus is really good news.
1 John 4:9-10 "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
The death of Jesus is how he satisfied the wrath of God. You see, the wrath God had towards our sin was placed on Jesus. The justice that God demanded was satisfied in the death of Christ on the cross. The idea of propitiation is that God so loved the world with which he was angry, that he entered the world in the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ, satisfied that very anger by being accounted as sin for our sakes, and accomplished our salvation by putting his Son to death.
2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it as plain as day. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Isaiah 53 prophesied the work of Christ on the cross 700 year before Jesus saying, "But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities." Isaiah 53:5-6
When we look at the cross and do not see the wrath of God, it will be difficult to see the love of God. We must see that our sin is why Jesus had to die. On the other hand, if we see wrath and no love, we misunderstand the whole matter. The God of the universe had a warrant out for our arrest and Jesus was handed over for it. God’s law had a demand for our punishment and Christ was crucified to meet that demand. God promised our death and separation from his grace as punishment for our sin. Christ took our sin and from the cross said in our place, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He died there and was buried in a tomb a few hours later. This is substitutionary atonement. This is propitiation. He stands in our place and bears our punishment on our behalf. One thing that is so astonishing about this is that in the ancient pagan religions people would sacrifice to a particular god to satisfy the wrath of that god or to cause him to favor them. But, the Gospel is that God the Son sacrificed himself to God the Father to satisfy the anger of God. We see here the wonder of love and justice intertwined on the same tree on which Jesus hung.
This brings up a very important idea. We are not God seekers, but God is our seeker. This is why the text says that this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave Christ as a propitiation for our sins. Our salvation is not bound up in some kind of self-initiation for reform, but rather the Scriptures say that apart from God even out best deeds are but filthy rags. We need someone to pay our debt for us. We need atonement. So, what is atonement? It is the teaching of Scripture that Christ took our sins upon himself and was crucified in our place because of our sins, so that we would be set free from the punishment, guilt and power of sin. One look at the cross and we can see without a doubt the fact that Christ takes our sins upon himself. That is, Christ takes the penal consequences of our sin and God’s just wrath in full.
An issue we haven’t yet discussed is that not only are we guilty of having sinned and thus punishment is demanded for us, but we also are obligated by God’s law to fulfill his law and be righteous. In God's law, there are laid out clear penal demands of the law. Yet, God's law not only calls for us to be punished for our sins, it also makes positive demands as to how we ought to live. The issue for man is that he can satisfy neither. He cannot satisfy God's justice by being good enough to fulfill the positive demands of God's law, and neither can he suffer or endure the appropriate punishment in such a way that satisfies his wrath. So, what does the cross have to say to this? Those who trust in Christ are legally represented by him. He is our substitute and representative and fulfills the demands of God's law.
Theologians historically have made a distinction between what has been called the passive and active obedience of Christ. The terms can be a tad confusing so let me simplify them. The active and passive obedience refers to two aspects of how Christ accomplishes God's law on our behalf. The active obedience refers to Christ fulfilling the positive demands of God’s law, like do not lie, honor your father and mother, love God with all your heart, soul and strength. These are positive demands for how we ought to live, and so Christ, especially as seen in going to the cross, always submitted to the Father’s perfect plan. He was and is the obedient Son, and it was necessary for him to fulfill all the righteous requirements of the law of God in our place. The passive obedience is mainly what we’ve been talking about all throughout this lesson.
Christ had to not only fulfill the positive demands of God’s law as our substitute, but also had to suffer the penal demands of God’s law, which teaches us that everyone who does not fulfill the whole law is under God’s curse or judgement. Galatians 3 tells us that Christ became cursed on our behalf, so that we might become partakers of the promises of God by faith. The bottom line is that in order for us to have peace with God, Christ must fulfill the positive and penal demands of God’s law. He must do it, because we cannot. We must keep before us at all times that the Gospel is all about Jesus and not about us. Paul told the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4) that we do not preach ourselves. We must think the same way. We are made benefactors of grace and salvation by a work totally alien to us, and that is an alien concept to me. I want to be the hero of my story. I want to be the one who rescues the village. I don’t want to be the helpless one, but that is indeed where we are. Wash me Savior lest I die, as the hymn says, is not a dramatic line, but the words of a realist. If Christ is not the rock we stand on, we don’t stand at all. Many people have tried atoning for their sins by punishing themselves or by being more religious. Some have tried doing every bit of good they possibly could to attain a right standing with God, but not realizing that they can never do enough good to acquire his favor, because God has already made a way, a better way through his Son Christ Jesus. All who acknowledge his Lordship and trust in his saving work will receive by grace peace with God.
We, who are naturally enemies of God, can become his friends through Christ Jesus. The wrath of God, the Judge, has been satisfied fully in the death of Christ and he has left none for us to face. We can now have peace with God.
"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Romans 5: 6-11
This message is the same message that every Christian must remember and remind themselves of every day. Martyn Lloyd Jones once made note about why so many Christians are spiritually depressed. He noted that too many people listen to themselves rather than preach to themselves. I know that's me. When you start hearing yourself talk to you about your sins and how guilty you are, preach to yourself that it is true that you sinned, but God judged Christ as a sinner, so that he could judge you as righteous. When you hear that voice of inner corruption speak and say, “You’ll never change,” preach, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Are you in Christ? Then, you are a new creation. We must continually reconnect our identity, life and thoughts to the word of the cross. For some the message of the cross is foolishness, but for us it is the wisdom and power of God unto salvation.
I’m going to close with the words of the song “In Christ Alone”. I don’t think we can get much better at capturing the heart of the Gospel than it does.
“In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My comforter, my all in all
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on that cross where Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again.
And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me.
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till he returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
Galatians 2:20-21 "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose."