Australia’s T. C. Hammond, principal of Moore Theological College in the middle of the twentieth century, had this to say of the atonement:
If the student has insufficient time for an attempt to master the other important sections of Christian Doctrine, let him, at least, have a firm grasp of this, which is the very heart and core of the Faith.1
Indeed, the atonement is “the very heart and core” of our Christian faith. Every other element of Christian doctrine either leads to, or follows from this doctrine.
It is not my intention in this post to address the extent of the atonement (i.e. whether it is limited or not), but rather to address the very nature and definition of the atonement.
Why is the atonement necessary?
The atonement is necessary because God is angry at sin2 and because God has justly condemned sinners.3 Because of his sin, man was separated from fellowship with God at the fall, continues to be separated from fellowship with God, and will someday be ultimately separated from fellowship with God forever. But God, in his passion for his own glory, chose to demonstrate his grace4 by restoring some to fellowship with him.
What is atonement?
An atonement is an action that covers an offence. A thief may atone for his crime against the victim by returning the stolen goods and by providing compensation. But his crime is not only against the victim, but also against the state. And atonement in relation to the state may require time in prison. Once he has served his time, he is free to live and move in society as a free man because his crime has been atoned for—his debt to society has been paid.
This is a very limited illustration of the atonement. In the atonement, our sin is not merely against a finite being, but against an infinite being—God himself. Clearly, the cost of an offence against an infinite being can be nothing less than an infinite cost. Scripture teaches that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,”5 and yet our mere physical death does not satisfy God’s justice because our lives are finite. It takes eternity for a finite being to pay an infinite debt.6 That is why my blood cannot atone for my sin. An offence against God can only be satisfied by the death of an infinite being.
In the atonement, Jesus Christ—an infinite being—paid the debt we could never pay.
How does the atonement work?
Many elements of the gospel are at work in the atonement:7
- In expiation, the guilt of sin is removed.
- In propitiation, the wrath of God is turned away.
- In imputation, the righteousness of Jesus is accounted to us and our sin is accounted to him.
- In redemption, the sinner is bought back at the cost of Jesus’ blood.
- In justification, the sinner is declared righteous.
The mechanics of some of these doctrines will be considered in future posts, but for now, it is important to see that in each of the above, Christ’s work is vicarious—that is, it was done in our place. This is why we call the atonement substitutionary. Jesus was our substitute in all of these things. He bore the penalty of our guilt. He suffered the wrath of God against us. He lived a perfectly righteous life and yet died under the penalty of our sin. He bled the price of our redemption. He took our “guilty” verdict. The atonement was vicarious—in our place.
Where do I stand?
The question I mean to raise here is “Do I stand before God free of guilt and God’s wrath, with God’s imputed righteousness, redeemed to God, and declared righteous?” The answer to this question flows naturally from our understanding that the atonement is vicarious. My standing before God is determined by my standing with Jesus Christ. If I am “in” Jesus Christ, then all that he has done, is done in my place. Indeed, “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”8
And in case there was any doubt as to why he did it, he goes on to explain that it was “according to the riches of his grace.” God did so because he wanted to. He atoned for us because he is gracious.
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! Can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!9
Grace to you.
1 Hammond, T. C. In Understanding Be Men: A Synopsis of Christian Doctrine for Non-Theological Students. London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1936. p. 148. Emphasis added.
2 This will be addressed at length under the theme of propitiation.
3 John 3:18.
4 Ephesians 1, 2.
5 Hebrews 9:22.
6 This is the logical basis for the existence of a literal, eternal hell.
7 Some of these will be addressed in the remainder of this series.
8 Ephesians 1:7.
9 From the text “Hallelujah, What a Saviour!” by Philip P. Bliss.