On the Atonement

“While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…”
(Romans 5:10 ESV)

This evening in our confirmation class I have the monumental task of trying to explain the Doctrine of Atonement to Junior High students.  This is such an important teaching of the church, for in it lies the “how” and “why” of our salvation.  Still, it is a complicated teaching to comprehend.  Volumes have been written in an attempt to explain the Atonement.  I took a semester’s class at Princeton Seminary on this subject alone.  Sometimes even the definition of the word “Atonement” raise more questions than answers.  Here are a few:

(R.C. Sproul) In taking God’s curse upon Himself, Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s holy justice.  He received God’s wrath for us, saving us from the wrath that is to come.  Jesus did not die for Himself, but for us.  His suffering was vicarious; He was our substitute.  He took our place in fulfilling the role of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

(Charles Hodge) Jesus saves his people by doing for them, and in their stead, what they were unable to do for themselves, satisfying the demands of the law in their behalf, and bearing its penalty in their stead; whereby they are reconciled to God, receive the Holy Ghost, and are made partakers of the life of Christ to their present sanctification and eternal salvation.  We are cleansed by his blood from guilt, and renewed by his Spirit after the image of God.  Having died in Him, we live in Him.  Participation of his death secures participation of his life.

(Cornelius Plantiga Jr.) Atonement: The process by which Jesus Christ puts right what sin puts wrong.  Christ’s suffering and death are an atonement, a making amends, for sin. 

Images of the Atonement are biblical and helpful, but limited in scope.  Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine does a great job of listing these.  There is the Financial Image, in which we, because of sin, are slaves or captives of the enemy.  Jesus, our Redeemer, comes forward to pay the price for our freedom: the price is high, his life for ours, but he pays it for us because of his love for us (see Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Peter 1:18; Titus 2:14; Rom 3:24, and Gal 3:13). 

Secondly, there is the military Image, in which God and the Devil are at war for possession of men, whom the Devil has stolen from the Kingdom of God and carried off to his kingdom of darkness.  Christ is our Victorious Savior who invades the realm of Satan arrayed for battle, and gives his life to set us free from the power of death, and rose from the dead to deliver us from death to life (see Mark 3:23-27; Col 1:13; 2:15; 1 Cor 15:24-28; Eph 2:1-8).

Next we find the Sacrificial Image.  We are guilty of sin and deserving of God’s wrath.  A priest comes forward to a bloody altar, where sacrifices are made to atone for our sins.  Blood is shed, a life is offered.  It is a sign of our sorrow to God for our sins, of our offering our lives to God, and of our cleansing from the stain of sin.  But this priest is different, and this sacrifice is different.  He gave not the life of an animal, but his own life.  “He lets his own blood be shed in order to make peace again between the people and God.  He is himself the “lamb” which is slain.  He suffers for the sake of sinful men, as their representative, so that they might be reconciled with God” (see Mark 14:22-24; Rom 3:25; John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7).

Finally, there is the Legal Image.  We are in a courtroom, standing before the Judge.  We have broken the law, and the verdict has come in: Guilty.  The sentence for our crime: Death.  Suddenly, a righteous man who has obeyed the law stands beside us, takes our death upon himself, and suffers the consequence of our guilt.  We who were enemies of the law and the Judge are now acquitted and reconciled.  Order is restored.  We no longer fear the Judge or the judgment, but are free to live a new life (see Rom 5:6-11; 2 Cor 5:16-21; Col 1:19-20).

None of these illustrations is perfect, and if carried too far can say some things that are never intended in the Doctrine of Atonement.  But each has a consistent theme: In every image we see our desperate situation: We cannot free ourselves, we cannot save ourselves, we cannot reconcile ourselves.  And in every image we see Jesus Christ coming in love to save us by laying down his life in order that we might have life.

The Heidelberg Catechism has this to say about the Atonement:

Throughout his life on earth, but especially at the end of it, Jesus bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race, so that by his suffering, as the only expiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and might obtain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and everlasting life.

If there is one thing the Doctrine of Atonement should teach us it is this: “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, not 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 5:8-11 ESV).


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