The Nature of the Atonement: A Look at What Christ Did When He Died
John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." In other words, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, became man and lived among us. That is the fantastic truth that we celebrate at Christmas, and should be rejoicing in every day. But why did God become man? First Timothy 1:15 answers: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Christ came to save sinners.
But how did Christ accomplished this salvation He gives to sinners? The apostle Paul again answers for us, saying "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3). Christ Jesus came to save sinners by dying for them on the cross. We are going to look at this marvelous truth by examining this question: "What exactly did Christ do when He died?"
I'm sure that you would agree with me that this is a very important truth to understand. The death of Christ is at the heart of our salvation and is the ultimate display of God's love. To ignore the great doctrines explaining what Christ did when He died is therefore to ignore not only how God saved you, but how much God loves you. Imagine the insult we would be giving to God if we said we didn't care how He saved us or how He showed His love for us. Therefore, we must honor God by seeking a greater understanding of Christ's death. I just can't comprehend the mindset I often encounter that sees value in coming to college for four years to take hundreds of hours of secular classes, yet does not rejoice in taking the time to understand the many aspects of the marvelous wisdom and work of God that rescues believers from eternal punishment. If we are willing to put in intellectual effort to prepare for our careers, we should be willing to put in intellectual effort to increase our faith in Christ.
As we see the brilliant glory and wisdom of God and Christ revealed in the atonement, it will not only honor God but also cause us to come to a greater devotion and love for God and Christ. And it will make us more secure in our faith as we see the awesome action God has taken to conquer sin. In addition to this, my goal tonight is also to provide incentive to encourage you to love each other more. Jesus said, "This I command you, that you love one another" (John 15:17) and John the apostle said, "This commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also" (1 John 4:21). We are supposed to love one another! And that means at least this: seeking to find out what will benefit others, and then meeting their need joyfully. Serve each other with joy!
People, the doctrines of the Bible are a powerful foundation and incentive to love because they fuel our joy in God, which overflows in love to others. They also transform our minds so that we will think more like Christ, and therefore act more like Christ. Just telling someone what they should do isn't always the most effective means to making them do it. But as our understanding of and love for God increases, these things in turn transform our wills and help to make us consistently loving people (Romans 12:1-2). Thus, we can see why the apostle John tells us that the love of God expressed in sending Christ is an example that encourages us to love one another: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).
In examining the nature of what Christ did on the cross, we are going to look at six things. The words are big but the concepts behind them are simple. The six things are this: substitution, expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, and resurrection. As we will see, our sins have created very specific problems for us, and each of these six things is aimed at solving a particular one of these problems. But before diving in, I wish to briefly relate the atonement to what we learned earlier this semester about justification.
The relationship between justification and atonement
A very important doctrine of our faith is justification. Justification is a legal act of God, at the moment we believe in Christ, in which God forgives our sins, clothes us in the righteousness of Christ, and declares us righteous. Justification therefore brings out these two important truths about the work of Christ: Christ had to not only pay the penalty for the times we have broken God's law, but He also had to obey God's law perfectly for us. Thus, Christ's saving work does not simply consist in His death and resurrection. It also consists in His entire earthly life, for it is during that life in which He perfectly obeyed God for us so that God, in our justification, could impute to us Christ's righteousness. This righteousness that Christ won for us is often called His active obedience. But as we also saw in justification, God not only imputes Christ's righteousness to us, but He also forgives our sins. The reason that God is able to forgive our sins is because of the death of Christ. This canceling of our unrighteousness that Christ won for us is often called His passive obedience. People, praise God for the wise and amazing ways in which these truths connect to one another!
Now we are ready to look more closely at the death of Christ. The first thing that we will look at is substitution. Most of us should be familiar with the meaning of this word from football and other sports. A substitute is somebody that takes your place. For example, in a football game the coach might substitute a different player into the game for you. Thus, to say that Christ is our substitute means that He died in our place. He died as our substitute.
Two weeks ago when he was teaching us how to share our faith, Eric posed this question to us: Why did Christ have to die for our sins? Why couldn't He have done a thousand push-ups, or run a marathon? To answer the question, he took us to Romans 6:23: "The wages of sin is death." Sin earns us death, and therefore we deserve to die because of our sins. Now, there is only one way to pay a death penalty: death. Christ had to die for our sins because that is the penalty we were under. Just as you cannot pay a $50 speeding ticket by baking cookies for the judge, so also the only way to pay the penalty for our sins is death. Since God is just, He cannot overlook that penalty. Therefore, God sent Christ to die instead of us so that we can be forgiven.
This is what it means when we read in Romans 5:8 that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Christ died instead of His elect. In 1 Peter 3:18 we read: "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God..." Jesus said in Matthew 20:28, "...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." The Greek word translated "for" in this verse means "instead of." Thus, Christ gave His life as a ransom in the place of (or, instead of) many. As we read in Isaiah 53:5-6, "He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities,...But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him." This concept of substitution is very important to grasp because we will see that it is the unifying theme of everything else that we are going to look at.
With this in mind, the second aspect of Christ's death is expiation. Expiation means the removal of our sin and guilt. Remember earlier this semester when we learned the meaning of "impute"? In our context, it means to be given credit or blame for something that you did not personally do. In justification the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. Well, expiation refers to the fact that our sins and guilt were imputed to Christ on the cross. God transferred them to Christ and therefore punished Him for our sins, thereby removing our legal guilt. Now, remember that imputation does not refer to a change in your character, but in your standing. Thus, we must never think that Christ became inherently sinful on the cross. Rather, He was regarded by God as legally guilty for what we did. He was given the blame of our sin, not the pollution of our sin.
We see expiation taught in many Scriptures. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Notice how expiation is so closely tied to substitution. Our sins were transferred to Christ, our substitute, and by reason of this He suffered and died so that His righteousness would be transferred to us. In John 1:29, John the Baptist testifies, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" Christ takes away sins, that is, He expiates them. First Peter 3:24 says, "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed." As we saw in Isaiah 53:6, "The Lord has cause the iniquity of us all to fall on Him." Hebrews 9:26 says, "...He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." Verse 28 says that He was "offered once to bear the sins of many." In Hebrews 1:3 we read this glorious statement: "When he had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high." Christ canceled our sins by His death! Praise God!
The truth of expiation should make it clear that Christ was sinless, for He had to be sinless in order to be a successful expiation. He could not have died for our sins if He had sins of His own to pay for. He could not have dealt with our guilt if He had guilt of His own to deal with.
Thus, Christ's sacrificial death on the cross as our sacrifice removed our sin and guilt.
Let us now take a look at propitiation. Wayne Grudem rightly defines propitiation this way: "A sacrifice that bears God's wrath to the end and in so doing changes God's wrath toward us into favor" (Systematic Theology, p. 575). Whereas expiation referred to the removal of our sins, propitiation refers to the removal of God's wrath. As we learned a few months ago, God is intensely angry at sin because it is the contradiction of His holiness. This anger and hatred that God has at sin and sinners is called His wrath.
Often times we hear the phrase "God hates the sin but loves the sinner." That's not fully true. God hates the sin and the sinner. He hates the sinner because what is in a sinner other than sin? Psalm 5:5 says, "Thou dost hate all who do iniquity." Ephesians 2:3 says that we are "by nature children of wrath." So God hates and is angry at all people as they are by nature, and the end result of this for those who don't trust Christ is eternal torment in hell. Do you think that this truth is important to tell people? If you don't, you are not fully alerting them to the danger that they are in, and thus are presenting the way of salvation to them without showing them exactly what they need to be saved from. Furthermore, if you would prefer to ignore the truth of God's wrath, then you are preferring to devalue in your heart the greatness of Christ's death. Why? Because one reason that the death of Christ is so marvelous is that it rescues us from the terror of God's wrath.
In other words, the good news is so good because the bad news is so bad. The bad news is that God hates all sinners. The good news is that God also loves sinners, and therefore sent Christ to take away His Almighty wrath and righteous hatred. Christ's death didn't make God love us. He already loved us. But it took away God's just wrath that was against us so that we could experience this love forever.
Let's look more closely at the biblical teaching on this issue. After teaching the just wrath of God upon all people for there sins in Romans chapters 1-3, the apostle Paul teaches that Christ was the propitiation to take away this wrath from God's elect: "God displayed [Christ] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:25-26). If God had forgiven sins without satisfying the justice of His wrath, He would not have been just. For God is holy, and therefore He must punish all unholiness to vindicate His righteousness. Therefore He sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins (that is, to absorb the wrath for our sins and make God favorable) so that He might be just and the justifier of those who believe.
Hebrews 2:17 says that Christ made "propitiation for the sins of the people." First John 3:10 says, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." As this verse points out, propitiation magnifies God's love because it shows the great cost at which He loved us. He became man and died to save us by enduring the worst possible fate--His own Almighty wrath. To deny that Christ was the propitiation for sins is to deny that He paid the penalty for sins, for God's wrath is the penalty of sin.
This truth is at the heart of the gospel. We need to take comfort in this truth! Don't you ever find yourself terrified as you consider the wrath of God? Thanks be to God that we have no need to fear if we have come to Christ, as Christ our sacrifice has endured it instead of us, removing it from us forever. Thus, without an understanding of propitiation, we are not only misinterpreting Christ's death, but destroying the rock solid ground of our consolation. Let us admire Christ for His ability to remove the wrath of God from us, and praise Him for His amazing love!
Whereas expiation had in focus the need created by our guilt and propitiation had in focus the need created by God's wrath upon us, reconciliation has in focus the need created by God's alienation from us. That's right--because of our sins God had alienated Himself from us. It was not only that we had turned our backs on God. Because of our sins, He had turned His back on us as well. Reconciliation is the work of God through the death of Christ wherein He removes the alienation He had from us. It means that, by the death of Christ, God changed the attitude He had towards us. He had separated Himself from us, but now He is reconciled to His elect.
The fact that reconciliation means the removal of God's enmity towards us is shown in Romans 5:10-11: "For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." When were the elect reconciled? 2,000 years ago when Christ died and we were enemies! Therefore, reconciliation doesn't mean that we laid aside our hostility to God. Rather, it means that God removed the alienation that He had from us. This is clearly related to propitiation, for "God's alienation arises out of His just wrath over man's sin and rebellion. By reconciliation, God's alienation is removed because His wrath is appeased through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ" (Robert Morey, Studies in the Atonement, p. 33).
The next aspect of Christ's death is redemption, which means deliverance through the payment of a price. Our sins had put us in captivity and we needed to be delivered. The price that is paid to deliver a person from captivity is referred to as a ransom.
A while back there was a movie out called Ransom where a couple's child had been kidnaped. In order to get there child back, they had to pay a price. In other words, they had to pay a ransom to redeem their child. Thus, John Murray defines ransom as "the securing of a release by the payment of a price" (Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 42). Christ's death was the ransom that secured our release. Mark 10:45 says, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Notice that Christ came to accomplish a ransom, the ransom price was His life, and this ransom was substitutionary (cf. Revelation 5:9). Romans 3:24 tells us that "redemption has been accomplished by Christ and thus it is said to be secured in Christ: `Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus'" (Morey, p. 35).
But what did we need to be released from? I will mention three things: the curse of the law, the guilt of sin, and the power of sin. We were in bondage to those three things, and Christ released us from that bondage by the ransom of His death.
The curse of the law. First, we were in bondage to the curse of the law. The curse of the law is the wrath of God upon all those who break it. John Murray writes, "It is from this curse that Christ has purchased his people and the price of the purchase was that he himself became a curse," (p. 44), for we read in Galatians 3:13-14, "Christ redeemed us from the cruse of the law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, `cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'--in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles..." Notice also that redemption is substitutionary: "Christ became a curse for us." The thing that really grips me is that God wants to bless those who deserve the curse of the law. Look again: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law...in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles..." Wow! It is a marvelous thing that God would want to bless those who only deserve His wrath, and secure this blessing by becoming man and enduring His wrath in their place!
The guilt of sin. Second, we are redeemed from the guilt of our sins. Our guilt is taken away because the penalty has been paid by the ransom of Christ's death. We know that Christ's death delivers us from the guilt of our sin because the New Testament often speaks our forgiveness and justification coming from His death. For example, we read in Ephesians 1:7 that "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us" (Cf. Colossians 1:14). The forgiveness of sins flows from redemption, and thus we must say that Christ's death redeems us from the guilt of our sins. And because forgiveness is involved in our justification, we read of justification as being through Christs's redemption: "...being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus..." (Romans 3:24). Romans 5:9 says that we have been "justified by His blood" and therefore shall be "saved from the wrath of God through Him."
The power of sin. Third, we are in bondage to the power of sin. As Robert Morey says, "sin is a cruel master and we need deliverance. Christ delivered us though the price of His own death (1 Cor. 6:20)" (Morey, p. 39). It is an amazing thing the Christ redeemed us from our bondage to sinning. We read in 1 Peter 1:18-19, "...knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ." Peter says that knowledge of the precious value of the price of our redemption, Christ's death, should causes us to take God and holiness seriously: "...conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth," he had said in verse 17 right before we read that we were redeemed. People, your life is very important and valuable because you have been bought by Christ. Therefore make sure that you treat God with respect and are careful to use your life to obey Him. You wouldn't drive a $20,000 car recklessly, why would you live your life recklessly knowing that your redemption cost infinitely more than that?
Revelation 1:5 says, "to Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood." In Titus 2:14 we read that Christ "gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds."
Our redemption from the power of sin is a strong incentive to live holy lives: "You have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your bodies" (1 Cor. 6:20). The apostle Paul regards the fact that we died to sin in Christ (Romans 6) as the basis and incentive of our sanctification (progress in holiness). People, Christ's death delivered you from your sinful way of life and purchased holy living for you. As 1 Peter 1:18 said, we were redeemed from our "futile way of life." Recognize that all of the holiness in you and all of your obedience is a fruit of Christ's death. He bought your holiness. Therefore, thank Him for this. And as you pray for God to cause you to increase in greater holiness, ground your prayers in the fact that Christ bought this holiness for you by His death.
These various aspects of the death of Christ manifest the glorious way He saved us from the terrible consequences we had brought upon ourselves by our sins. In summary, Christ died in stead of us (substitution) as a sacrifice that took away the guilt of our sins (expiation), the wrath of God (propitiation), God's alienation from us (reconciliation), and delivered us from our captivity to the curse of the law, the penalty of sin, and the pollution of sin, (redemption). What a powerful and glorious savior. And what a great sufficiency there is in our salvation. Christ dealt with all of the needs we had created by our sins.
But the heart of our faith is not only the truth that Christ died for our sins, but also the truth that Christ rose from the dead. Christ was resurrected from the dead. His resurrection validates that His work of atonement was successful, and it guarantees that we will, at His Second Coming, have our bodies raised as well. Yes, Christ has not only rescued us from spiritual and eternal death, He has also rescued us from physical death because, through His resurrection, we will one day have our bodies raised from the dead as well (Philippians 3:21). Christ is a wonderful Savior. May we come to know Him more closely and be more like Him.
The Extent of the Atonement
Before giving a brief application of these great truths, there is one last truth to bring out: Christ's death was successful. By this I mean that Christ did not merely die to make salvation possible for people, but rather His death actually makes certain the salvation of everybody that He died for. In other words, everybody that He died for will be saved. That's what I mean when I say that Christ's death was successful.
It should be clear at this point that, since Christ's death saves everybody that it was intended for, and yet many people are never saved, Christ therefore did not die for everybody. For if He had died for everybody, then everybody would be saved.
I mention this not because I want to restrict the boundaries of God's saving mercy, but in order to preserve a central truth of the gospel: That Christ is a savior who really does save. You see, if you wish to affirm that Christ died for everybody, then you must deny that Christ's death secured salvation for anybody. That is because if Christ died for everybody, then people that Christ died for can perish (since not everybody is saved). But if people that Christ died for can perish, then Christ's death did not guarantee, or secure, anybody's salvation. That is, Christ's death wasn't enough to save us. So you see that, if He died for all, then He did not actually secure anybody's salvation when He died. He just made it possible for you to save yourself by believing. Therefore, on the view that He died for everybody, your salvation does not ultimately depend on what Christ did for you, but on what you did for yourself by believing.
What we have seen about the nature of the atonement today should make it clear that Christ's death secured the salvation of everybody He died for, rather than merely making possible the salvation of every human to ever live. For example, we saw that Christ took away the sins of everybody that He died for and paid there penalty (expiation). Now, the reason people go to hell is because they are guilty of sin and have to pay the penalty for their sins. Therefore if Christ has removed your sins and paid their penalty, you cannot go to hell because there is no penalty left for you to pay! Since some people do go to hell, it follows that Christ had not taken away their sins--that is, He did not die for them.
Again, hell involves eternal separation from God. But we saw that Christ reconciled us to God--that is, He removed the separation between God and us. Therefore, those that Christ died for will not go to hell because Christ has removed the separation between them and God.
Hell also means the everlasting endurance of the wrath of God. Since Christ propitiated--that is, removed--the wrath of God for those He died for, it therefore follows that everybody Christ died for will be saved. God cannot send you to endure His everlasting wrath in hell when His wrath has been fully removed from you by Christ. How could we honestly say that Christ's death was an actual propitiation for sins if many of those that He died for have the wrath of God upon them to all eternity?
People, I tell this to you because I want you to see that the cross actually saves so that you will trust in it whole-heartedly. Christ didn't just make your salvation possible. He is such a great Savior that He accomplished everything necessary for your salvation. It is true that we must believe in Christ to benefit from His death, and that only those who come to Him will be saved. But this doesn't mean that the saving power of the cross depends upon faith being added to it. Rather, the saving power of the cross is such that faith flows from it. Christ bought you and your faith at the cross.
Again, I tell you this not because I wish to limit the boundaries of God's love, but because we need to preserve the truth that the cross actually saves, and it saves successfully. If Christ died for everybody, then the cross was not fully successful because people that He died for can perish. But thanks be to God, Christ's death was successful--it saves everybody that it was intended for. Take comfort in the great truth that Christ fully and actually saved you at the cross. Your salvation is ultimately based upon the rock of Christ's death, not the weakness of your will.
If you are interested in looking more in depth at the important issue of who Christ died for, see The Extent of the Atonement: Who Did Christ Die For?.
In conclusion, I will bring out a few of the applications of these great truths. There are tons more than I am going to mention, so I hope that you will work them out for yourselves as you think about this throughout the week.
First, let us admire and worship Christ for what He did. The atonement He made is a truly marvelous thing, and it reflects the excellencies of Christ and the Father's character. Can you see the marvelous wisdom of God displayed in the work of Christ's cross? Praise Him for what He did, and fellowship with God in His great work of salvation.
Second, these truths, if we unite them with faith, will bring us to know and thus love Christ more. As a result of tonight, seek to grow in your devotion and love to Christ. Fellowship with Christ in the glories of His successful sacrifice for sins.
Third, these truths should make us grow in our hatred of sin. As Robert Morey writes, "God Himself had [to become man] to die a bloody death at the hands of wicked sinners. To see the awful suffering and to hear the awful cry, `My God, my God, why have Thou forsaken Me?' reveals how awful sin must be in the sight of God. Don't look at sin so see sin's true nature. Look at what it did to Christ on the cross" (Morey, p. 3). As we grow in our hatred of sin, we will flee from it more and thus grow in holiness.
Fourth, let us feel and see more forcefully how sinful we really are by nature. Robert Morey writes, "to see sin as it really is, contemplate what it cost to remove it. If we had fallen into a deep pit, we could tell how deep we had fallen by the length of the rope let down to save us. In the same way, we can only understand the depths of depravity into which sin has brought us by the lengths to which God must go to redeem us." As we understand our depravity, this should bring us greater humility and dependence upon Christ for righteousness.
Fifth, let the awesome sacrifice Christ made inspire you to follow His example in sacrificially loving others, especially Christians. We are to imitate the love that Christ manifest in dying for us: "...whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Love one another!
Sixth, take great confidence in Christ. He did everything necessary to give you a full and wonderful salvation. You never have to look anywhere other than Him for what you need.
Finally, if you are not yet a believer, don't delay. See the glories of God in the cross of Christ, and come to Him for salvation.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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