Atonement: The Meaning and Message of the Cross

March 16, 2020

Atonement: The Meaning and Message of the Cross

The atonement of Jesus Christ is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible—it is at the very heart of God’s redemptive purpose for humanity. In secular usage, the word atonement refers to reparation for a wrong or injury; it is derived from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “making at one.” Atonement infers doing what is necessary to reconcile two alienated parties through making amends or providing compensation for a transgression, wrong, or injury. In effect, it levels out an imbalance created by wrongdoing.

In Christian theology, atonement refers to the substitutionary work of the incarnate Son of God, accomplished through the giving of His life at Calvary in payment for sin. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kaphar, translated atonement, literally means “to cover; cancel.” Figuratively, it carries the implication of appeasement, pardoning, and reconciling. In the New Testament, the Greek word katallage, is translated as atonement only in Romans 5:11. However, the same word is translated as reconciliation in numerous other instances. Both the Hebrew and Greek words indicate the reconciliation of man to God made possible by the death of the Perfect Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Without the covering for sin provided through Jesus’ death, there could be no possibility of reconciliation. Thus, the atonement is fundamental to the Gospel message, as it makes forgiveness for sin possible.

The atonement is a provision of God’s love for humanity. The Apostle John made this vital truth clear in 1 John 4:10, where he wrote, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Why atonement is necessary

Sin is what made the atonement necessary. When God created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, they enjoyed perfect fellowship with Him. However, God made them free moral agents—they had the ability and liberty to choose to obey or disobey Him. God gave them only one prohibition: they were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In spite of knowing there was a penalty for disobedience (see Genesis 2:17), Adam and Eve chose to defy God’s directive. They ate from the forbidden tree, and as a result of this act of deliberate rebellion, sin entered into their hearts. Since God cannot tolerate sin, they were immediately estranged from Him.

Sin is not only a series of committed transgressions, but also the inbred condition or nature out of which acts of sin originate.

The descendants of Adam and Eve—every person born into this world—inherited the sinful nature of their ancestors. Romans 5:12 states that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Instead of being born with a desire to do right, every individual is born with an innate predisposition toward evil. Thus, sin is not only a series of committed transgressions, but also the inbred condition or nature out of which acts of sin originate.

Sins may be obvious or subtle, flagrant or hidden, but they always separate from God. The prophet Isaiah indicated this in Isaiah 59:2, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.” Romans 1:18 states, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” “Wrath” in this context does not refer to anger or fury, but to God’s absolute antipathy and holy revulsion toward sin. He cannot tolerate it in any degree, because God’s perfect moral nature can never be stained by complicity with or allowance for unrighteousness.

The immediate result of sin is spiritual death and separation from God, while the end result of sin is death and separation from God for eternity.

The immediate result of sin is spiritual death and separation from God, while the end result of sin is death and separation from God for eternity. Paul explained, “For the wages of sin is death”—physical death, spiritual death (separation from God), and eternal death (forever separated from God with no hope of ever experiencing His saving grace). However, he went on to add, “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). In God’s infinite love and mercy, He provided salvation through the propitiatory sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ as a way for humanity to escape sin’s awful consequences and be reconciled to God. Only a sinless sacrifice could avail, and because Christ was sinless, He could pay the atoning price. Christ willingly gave His life on the Cross, suffering an agonizing death so that we could be saved.

Foreordained and universal

The atonement was foreordained by God. We read in Revelation 13:8 that Jesus was slain “from the foundation of the world.” God, in His foreknowledge, was fully aware that Adam and Eve eventually would sin, and made provision for the redemption of fallen humanity. Before the world was created, Christ understood that He would take upon Himself the disobedience and rebellion of humanity, thus providing an atonement for sin.

The atonement of Christ is a universal provision—it is for all people everywhere. Some hold that Jesus died only for a select group of individuals, but the Word of God teaches otherwise. The unlimited nature of Christ’s atonement is evident throughout the New Testament. For example, Paul wrote, “the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). He asserted that God wills “for all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” and that He “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4,6). We read in Hebrews 2:9 that Jesus tasted death for every man. Christ died to make atonement available to all, but receiving the benefits of the atonement depends upon each individual’s acceptance or rejection of God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The nature of the atonement

The words redemption, substitution, propitiation, and reconciliation illuminate the nature of Christ’s atonement.

Redemption: The concept of redemption, as explained in Leviticus 25:47-49, has to do with the setting free of one who is enslaved, through the payment of a ransom price or penalty. Jesus Christ, through His death on the Cross, paid the price for all who were “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14). The Apostle Peter states that we are not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver or gold, but “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-20). In Old Testament times, if a slave preferred to remain a slave, redemption was not forced upon him, and the same is true of the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Individuals must choose to accept the provision Christ made for deliverance, or pay the penalty for sin.

Substitution: The death of Christ was substitutionary in nature. Although the words substitute and substitution do not appear in Scripture, the principle of replacement is clearly seen in what Christ did upon the Cross. There, as our Substitute, He bore the awful judgments of God against sin. Paul explains this in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

Propitiation: The Apostle John wrote in 1 John 2:2, “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” The word propitiation, translated from the Greek word hilasmos, expresses the concept of appeasement or reconciliation. A propitiatory sacrifice averts punishment for sin.

In New Testament writings, the word propitiation points to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, as the means by which God’s judgment against sin is appeased or placated. God is eternally righteous and holy, so He cannot overlook sin or excuse the guilty—justice demands that a penalty be paid for an offense. The prophet Nahum reminds us that God does not acquit the wicked. A price must be paid for wickedness and sin (see Nahum 1:3). Christ paid the price for our sins through His death; this conciliation or appeasement made it consistent with God’s righteous nature to pardon sinners. The Innocent Blood was shed for the guilty, that we might be pardoned and made free.

Reconciliation: The concept of reconciliation is also a theme of the Atonement, and is closely related to propitiation in what it accomplishes. Adam’s sin alienated humanity from God, but Jesus’ death made reconciliation available and possible for all. Colossians 1:21-22 states, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”

Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice

Throughout the Old Testament, blood is set forth as the means of atonement. Leviticus 17:11 indicates why blood is necessary. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” That point is reiterated in New Testament teaching. Hebrews 9:22 states, “And without shedding of blood is no remission.” Since the wages of sin is death and life is in the blood, blood is required in order for the wages of sin to be paid.

This was first demonstrated in the Book of Genesis when God created a covering for Adam and Eve—a covering necessitated by their act of sin—based on the shedding of the blood of innocent animals. Later, God accepted Abel’s blood offering, while Cain’s offering of the fruit of the ground was rejected. Noah offered animal sacrifices when he came out of the ark after the Flood. Abraham was known for the many blood sacrifices he made unto the Lord.

The slaying of the Passover lamb looked ahead to the time when Christ, our Passover Lamb, would be “sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

On the eve of the day the Israelites were released from Egyptian bondage, the blood of a lamb without blemish was applied to the door posts and lintels (top of door frame) of their houses (see Exodus 12:3-7). This exempted them from death when the Lord passed through the land that night to smite the Egyptians, slaying the eldest in every Egyptian home. God had told the Israelites, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13). If they had ignored God’s instruction to apply the blood, had ventured out from under the blood that night, or had substituted something for the blood on the doorways of their houses, the firstborn sons in their families would have perished as well. The slaying of the Passover lamb looked ahead to the time when Christ, our Passover Lamb, would be “sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).  

Many of the ceremonies of the Tabernacle worship and commandments of the Levitical Law prefigured the death of Jesus Christ as the Perfect Sacrifice—they were “a shadow of good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). Daily sacrifices reinforced that God could not tolerate uncleanness or impurity, and gave the Israelites an example of the blood of a pure, undefiled creature as a cleansing agent (see Hebrews 9:19-22). The scapegoat taken into the wilderness on the annual Day of Atonement represented Christ, who took the condemnation and curse of sin upon Himself when He suffered on the Cross outside the city (Hebrews 13:12). Before the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, an offering was presented and killed at the brazen altar, and the blood carefully drained. That blood was then taken into the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, where it was applied as directed by God.

The atonement in Old Testament prophecy

The Old Testament contains over one hundred distinct prophecies about Jesus, and a number of these deal with His atoning death. For example, verses 14-16 of Psalm 22 describe the Messiah’s suffering when He was crucified for the sins of mankind. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.”

Zechariah is another Old Testament prophet who foretold Christ’s death. We read in Zechariah 12:10 that in the last days, all the people of Jerusalem “shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son.” Zechariah 13:6 records, “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

The majority of Old Testament references to Christ’s atonement are found in the Book of Isaiah; Chapter 53 especially is known as the great prophecy of the Suffering Servant. Isaiah 53:8-12 prophetically described Christ’s death and the provision He made for atonement, stating, “he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

All the types, shadows, and Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament culminated at Calvary when Christ “suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Accessing the atonement

The fact that Jesus died for the sins of humanity does not mean that individuals are no longer separated from God. Salvation is provisional: it is available for all, but each person must come to God personally in order to receive pardon from sin.

When repentant sinners come to God acknowledging their need, confessing their sins, and believing that Christ’s atoning work at Calvary avails for them, they will experience reconciliation with God.

The benefits of the atonement are appropriated through faith in the provision made by Christ’s death. When repentant sinners come to God acknowledging their need, confessing their sins, and believing that Christ’s atoning work at Calvary avails for them, they will experience reconciliation with God. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Ephesians 2:8-9 makes the same point, noting, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Benefits of the atonement

The power of the atoning Blood is not ­limited to salvation; believers enjoy many other benefits through the Blood of Jesus. These benefits include the following:

Joy and freedom from guilt. Paul wrote in Romans 5:11, “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” In Romans 8:1 he stated, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” Sinners try many ways of soothing their guilty consciences, but the Bible says, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). There is only one place sinners can go to find relief from guilt. That place is described in the words of an old hymn, “There is a fountain filled with Blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath its flood, lose all their guilty stains.” The Blood of Jesus Christ can set one free from the bondage of sin and eliminate all condemnation and guilt.

Sanctification. The Atonement not only provides for justification and forgiveness of sins, but it also provides for entire sanctification, a second work of grace by which the inbred nature of sin is removed, making the saved individual pure and holy in heart and motive. The writer of Hebrews addressed this, stating, “Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate” (Hebrews 13:12).

The Apostle John pointed to the two-fold remedy for sin provided in the Atonement when he wrote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin [singular, denoting the sin nature]. If we say that we have no sin [that we were not born with a sin nature], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [plural, meaning committed sins] he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins [salvation], and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [sanctification]” (1 John 1:7-9). We obtain both forgiveness for committed sins and cleansing for the sin nature through the Atonement.

Divine healing. Divine healing is provided by the atonement. We read in Isaiah 53:5 that by His stripes, endured at the Crucifixion, we are healed. Peter reinforced this truth when he said of Christ, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). This includes healing of physical ailments and disease (see Matthew 8:16-17). Whether our need is physical, spiritual, or emotional, we can find the remedy in Jesus’ Blood.

Gives power in prayer. The atoning Blood is of primary importance in intercessory prayer. When we are living in obedience to every known command of God and find ourselves in need of protection, deliverance, or strength, we have access to God through the Blood of Jesus. We read, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19,22). In Romans 8:34, Paul stated, “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”

Enables victorious living. Christ’s death at Calvary dealt a crushing blow to the enemy of our souls. The writer of Hebrews stated that Christ took on the form of human flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Through the Blood and the word of our testimonies, Satan is a vanquished enemy, for we read in Revelation 12:11, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.” Knowing and recounting what God has done for us protects us from Satan’s deceptions.

Eternal life. If we believe and receive salvation and remain faithful to God, we will have the joyful privilege of being united with Christ throughout eternity, and the Atonement is the means by which this is possible. One of the most familiar verses in Scripture, John 3:16, states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Clearly, any attempt to place a value on the Blood of Christ would be impossible. It is priceless! The Blood is essential and can never be set aside or replaced.

A question for you

Have you availed yourself of the benefits that are available through the atoning work of Christ? Have your sins been forgiven? Do you know what it means to have the Blood of Jesus applied to your heart? If not, you can find deliverance from sin and power to live a life without sin from now to eternity. There truly is wonder-working power in the Blood of Jesus!

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