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What is Atonement? (1 John 2:2)

What is Atonement?
1 John 2:2

September 14 is “Missions Sunday” at Woodmont. Consequently, the sermon that day will focus on missions and will not involve 1 John. However, for classes and small groups, this provides a good opportunity to think about atonement and the meaning of the gospel as the death and resurrection of Jesus. This topic was introduced in 1 John 2:2 and John will raise it again in 1 John 3:7 and 1 John 4:10.

I have provided a link below that will argue for a specific understanding of the atonement. You might find this article helpful in preparing this lesson, Atonement. However, for our discussion I wanted to stay within John’s letter in order to understand how he uses the idea of atonement. I will concentrate on three texts: 1 John 2:2, 1 John 3:7 and 1 John 4:10.

Exegetical Notes:

1 John 2:1-2: the work of Christ dealt with sin. Jesus is a propitiation (atoning sacrifice) for sin. The term “propitiation” means “to turn aside wrath.” The work of Jesus turns aside the wrath of God regarding sin. God does not want to punish, but he must punish sin. God does not want to condemn, but he wants to save. Consequently, the Father and Son cooperate out of their love for humanity to avert the wrath of sin. They deal with sin so that they justly forgive it.

1 John 3:7: the work of Christ dealt with Satanic power and his works. How does the death of Christ destroy Satan’s works? The presence of the light dispels the darkness, but the light also trumps and defeats the darkness by its own righteousness and holiness. It counteracts the darkness. The ministry of Jesus offers multiple examples of this, but the death of Christ—the submission of Christ to the Father as the suffering servant for his people—is the greatest demonstration of righteousness. The Son submits for the sake of others and thus conquers the Satanic temptation to put himself first. The Son breaks the power of Satan by his own purity and by his self-sacrificing love for humanity.

1 John 4:10: the work of Christ reveals the love of the Father. God is love. Therefore, God’s actions arise out of love. The clearest demonstration of that is the cross of Jesus—Jesus died because the Father loved us. Even here we should consider how the Father himself suffers with us through the suffering of the Son and because of the suffering of the Son. When Christ died, the Father suffered as well, and his own suffering arises out of his love for humanity. If God would give us his Son, will he not give us all things?

You might read ahead in the teaching notes on 1 John 3 and 4 to get a contextual perspective.

Theological Perspectives:

Sometimes “atonement” is pictured as the loving Son appeasing or placating the wrath of the Father. We almost get the picture that the Father wants to punish our sin, but the Son convinces him otherwise. Indeed, the Son becomes an advocate against the intention of the Father.

However, John’s picture of the atonement undermines this perspective. 1 John 4 reveals that the atoning sacrifice of the Son arises out of the love of the Father. It is a demonstration of the love of the Father that he set forth the Son as a propitiation—an averting of wrath. The atonement is motivated by the love of God (John 3:16).

Nevertheless, the atonement is an averting of wrath. It is a propitiation regarding sin. Sin is an obstacle between God and humanity. Sin separates us from the Father. But it was the Father who sent the Son, and as a community they decided how they would deal with sin. The work of Christ does something to sin; it destroys it, pays for it, redeems us from it. It averts the wrath of God by justly conquering sin and removing it.

Thus, the cross is not only an expression of love, but it is also an expression of justice. It is God’s just but loving act. It demonstrates his love, but it also demonstrates his justice (Romans 3:25-26). Love and justice meant at the cross. The God of light and the God of love ---moreover, the God who is light and the God who is love--- meet at the cross. This is the holy love of God—he loves righteously and the righteous one loves deeply. The cross redeems because God is holy love and the love of God deals with sin because he is light.

But the death of Christ was also part of the cosmic struggle between light and darkness, between God and Satan. Christ came to destroy the works of Satan, and the destroyed it by his power—a power that arises out of his own righteousness and purity. The light dispels the darkness. Righteousness overcomes evil. At the cross, Jesus triumphed over Satan (Colossians 2:13-15), and further his resurrection means life conquered death. The power of that life is the power of righteousness that overcomes Satan. It is that power that will be revealed in his second coming. There is an eschatological dimension to the defeat of Satan, and we anticipate this when we follow Jesus in his purity and await the fullness of the kingdom of God when the earth will be filled with God’s holiness and righteousness.

Though this lesson has focused on atonement (cross, death), we need to remember that other Christological themes are highlighted in 1 John. Indeed, some themes may be more fundamental to the letter. For example, incarnation (that the Son came in the flesh) is the fundamental truth of our relationship with God—the incarnation reveals the eternal life of God. Also, the ethics and purity of Jesus (as well as his second coming) are important themes, especially in 1 John 3. Consequently, we must be careful not to exalt the cross above other Christological themes but rather see them as an integrated whole.

Teaching Particulars:

Teaching this material, I would lead the class/group in a discussion of each text in 1 John and think about the implications of those texts for understanding the work of Christ. The goal is to enable the class to answer the question, “What did the death of Christ accomplish?” In other words, what does it mean to say that “Christ died for us” or that “Christ died for sin”?

Following this teaching method would mean that the outline would look something like the exegetical notes combined with theological comments on each point: (1) the death of Christ dealt with sin (1 John 2:2), (2) the death of Christ destroyed the works of Satan (1 John 3:7); and (3) the death of Christ demonstrated the love of God for us (1 John 4:10).

But in teaching this material, press the point of application at each point. How does each of these points shape our lives, transform us and how do we live them out in faithfulness to Christ’s work for us?

For example, to say that God dealt with sin through Christ means that sin has no role in our own life. Christ died for sin so that we could die to sin. John writes so that we may not sin because when we sin we disrupt our fellowship with God who acted in Jesus to cleanse us from sin. Sin is serious business. It cannot be taken lightly since our sin mean that in order to cleanse us Christ died. We cannot treat sin cheaply, but we rather must remember the tremendous cost of cleansing our sin.

A further application is the kind of life we live. Do we participate with Christ in the destruction of the works of Satan or do we contribute to the works of Satan? We are disciples of Christ. His task was to destroy hate, evil and injustice in the world, and it is our task as well. We should follow Jesus in the task of destroying the works of Satan. We do this by living in the light and as the light shines it dispels the darkness.

Lastly, the demonstration of the love of God in the atoning sacrifice is our assurance that God loves us. When we doubt God’s love—which we do sometimes in tragic circumstances and sometimes because of our own sin—the cross is God’s testimony of his love. He loved us even when we were his enemies. We have no greater confidence than that God loves us because Jesus died for us.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How do we reconcile the wrath of God and the love of God? How does the cross reveal both the wrath and love of God?

2. In Christian theology, the tendency is to exalt the cross above other Christological themes (e.g., incarnation, sinless life, resurrection, second coming)? Do you agree with this tendency? How do these other themes come into play in 1 John? Can we really abstract them from each other or should we see them wholistically as an integrated reality?

3. What are the practical implications of the death of Christ for your life? How should the cross shape our lifestyle?

4. What are the implications of the death of Christ for our assurance of salvation? How does John use this revelation of God to shape community and ground our salvation?


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