The Atonement

Over the last several months, we have been making our way through the different aspects of the gospel. Thus far, we have considered the Incarnation and the two kinds of Obedience offered by Jesus Christ (Active and Passive) from his birth to the Cross.

The next aspect of the Gospel that we are considering is the Atonement. Having just celebrated Good Friday, what better time than now to consider this important aspect of the Good News of Jesus Christ for our salvation. We will define the Atonement and take a look at the different aspects, or benefits, of the Atonement from the Holy Scriptures, Systematic Theology, and in the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.

The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, or simply, “The Atonement,” is the penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ wherein he pays the price of redemption and purchases his people out of their estate of sin and misery. There are several important aspects and/or benefits for us in the Atonement, let us consider them now.

This term originates from a Hebrew term meaning “to cover,” with respect to sins, or “to pacify” with respect to the just wrath of God. Thus, in the Old Testament, atonement means to cover the sins of the people and pacify God’s wrath for sin with the blood of sacrificial animals (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). Therefore, regarding the death of Christ, “atonement” refers to the sins of his people being covered by his blood and the just wrath of God being pacified or propitiated because of the Cross. Every year, Israel’s sins were atoned for on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) but in Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross, there is no longer a need for a yearly atonement. His death was once and for all. Consider these important texts:

Leviticus 16:6, 11, 16 – “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house… Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house… Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.”

Isaiah 53:5 – “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.”

Matthew 1:21 – “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1 Corinthians 15:3 – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

Hebrews 9:11–12 – “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once and for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

1 Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

Penal Substitution
This means that in the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, he paid the penalty due to us for sin. The sin comes from both original sin – Adam’s breaking of Divine Law (Covenant of Works) in the Garden of Eden – as well as our own actual sins. As Michael Horton writes regarding the penal aspect of substitution, this means that “Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was the payment of a debt to divine justice as a substitute for his people.” (Christian Faith, 999) Jesus dying in our place, as our substitute, is also sometimes called “vicarious,” which means he died “in our place.” Consider:

Isaiah 53:6 – “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.”

Romans 5:17–18 – “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Colossians 2:13–14 – “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Belgic Confession – “[Jesus Christ] presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted. For it is written that ‘the chastisement of our peace’ was placed on the Son of God and that ‘we are healed by his wounds.” (Article 21: The Atonement)

Jesus Christ is often called the Redeemer of God’s people. But what does that mean? It means he purchased his people out of their estate of sin and misery that they find themselves in because of Adam’s sin. Concerning redemption, Richard D. Phillips writes, “Redemption is a term borrowed from the marketplace and involves the idea of making a purchase. It presupposes some kind of bondage or captivity…Redemption takes us from slavery to freedom, and from affliction to salvation because a payment has been offered to deliver us from bondage.” (“What is the Atonement?”, 17)

Romans 3:23–24 – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 1:7 – “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

Colossians 1:13–14 – “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Westminster Shorter Catechism – “God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect? The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Q. 20, 21)

This refers to the price that was paid for the redemption of God’s people. Very specifically, the price is the death of Christ whose blood was poured out in order to satisfy the just wrath of God. The ransom has been paid in full by God the Son, to God the Father, for sinners who are dead in sin and unable to redeem themselves. Consider:

Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

1 Timothy 2:6 – “Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

1 Peter 1:18–19 – “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

Revelation 5:9 – “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

Heidelberg Catechism: “Why do you call [Jesus] ‘our Lord’? Because – not with gold or silver, but with his precious blood – he has delivered and purchased us body and soul from sin and from the tyranny of the devil, to be his very own.” (Q. 34)

Like Moses between God and the sinful people of Israel at Sinai, and like the priests who offered the blood of the sacrificial animals in the Temple; Jesus shows that he is the true and greater Moses and he is the Great High Priest. He is the one who goes between the just wrath of God on behalf of his sinful people, offering his own blood and making intercession for us. Regarding this, Louis Berkoff wrote, “His intercessory work is based on his sacrifice…He presents His sacrifice to God and on the ground of it claims all spiritual blessings for His people.” (“Summary of Christian Doctrine”, 108) For example:

1 Timothy 2:5 – “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Hebrews 7:25 – “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

1 John 2:1 – “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Westminster Larger Catechism – “The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fullness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.” (Q. 36)

Related to penal substitution, this is another important aspect of the Atonement. What does it mean? Ligon Duncan writes, “Propitiation means ‘averting the wrath of God by the offering of a gift.’ It refers to the turning away of the wrath of God as the just judgment of our sin by God’s own provision of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.” (“Propitiation” from The Gospel Coalition) Here are some examples:

Romans 3:25 – “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

Hebrews 2:17 – “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

1 John 2:2 – “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

1 John 4:10 – “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.”

Heidelberg Catechism – “Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation.” (Q. 37)

According to Michael Morales, “Expiation refers to the cleansing of sin and removal of sin’s guilt. In the sacrificial system of Israel, blood was collected from an animal’s severed arteries and then manipulated in a variety of ways. Blood was smeared, sprinkled, tossed, and poured out.” Regarding Jesus, he concludes, While the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins, the blood of Jesus the God-man, shed on the cross and applied by the Spirit to those who trust in Him, cleanses sinners from their sins. The thorns pressed onto His brow, an image of humanity’s cursed estate, were but a token of His bearing the weight of His people’s guilt on His head, further demonstrating that He endured our fiery judgment to provide us with true expiation.” (“Expiation and Propitiation” from Tabletalk) Consider:

Leviticus 17:11 – “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

Psalm 103:12 – “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

Hebrews 9:22 – “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Hebrews 10:22 – “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

This refers to the new relationship between God and man because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Instead of hostility, the substitutionary atoning death of Christ brings peace between God and his people. The apostle Paul even calls his apostolic ministry, “a ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18–21)

Romans 5:10–11 – “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Ephesians 2:13–16 – “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Colossians 1:20 – “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

Westminster Larger Catechism – “Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering himself a sacrifice without spot to God, to be a reconciliation for the sins of his people; and in making continual intercession for them.” (Q. 44)

Definite Atonement
Often referred to as “Limited Atonement,” this doctrine gets at the extent of the Atonement, or whom Jesus died on the Cross for – was it for all people or all of his people? David and Jonathan Gibson provide this, “The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone.” This doctrine is at the heart of the biblical and Protestant view of the Atonement. For a deeper understanding of Definite Atonement, take a look at these texts:

John 6:37–39 – “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

John 17:1–9 – ““Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”

Ephesians 1:3–7 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

Canons of Dort – “Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.” (1st Point, Article 7: “Election”)

Canons of Dort – “For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father.” (2nd Point, Article 8: “The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death”)

Westminster Confession of Faith – “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, fore-ordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” (3.8, “Of God’s Eternal Decree”)

It is my prayer that as you consider the Atonement and meditate on these biblical teachings, you will come to a deeper understanding of what God has done for you in the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The atoning death of Jesus and all its benefits are crucial for understanding the gospel, and without the gospel of Jesus, we are still dead in our sin. Praise God for the atoning death of his Son, which has purchased us for himself, fully paid for all our sins, and reconciled us to God!