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Atonement: A Biblical-Theological Perspective

What Did God Do To Sin and Death through Jesus Christ?



"He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."
Romans 4:25


Atonement means reconciliation (at-one-ment). It is God's work whereby he provides the basis for and accomplishes the goal of reconciliation between himself and sinful humanity. Reconciliation is God's re-creative (redemptive) act whereby his original intention of communion between himself and his creatures is fulfilled.

God created the human community in order to share the loving fellowship of his own triune community (Father, Son and Spirit). By creation God invited others into the fellowship of his own life. In much the same way that parents bear children in order to express and share their love, so God himself created out of his self-giving and other-centered love. God created others to share what he already possessed--the fellowship of a loving community (John 17:24-26).

But sin alienates God and humanity. God's holy communion cannot embrace ungodliness any more than light can embrace darkness. There is no darkness in God, and there is no communion with sin in his light. Light must dispel darkness because they cannot coexist at the same time and in the same place. Therefore, sin separates God and humanity (Isaiah 59:2). The holiness of God's community is at stake. The holy God cannot dwell among the wicked (Psalm 5:4). Thus, God excluded his original children from the Garden (Genesis 3:23-24), excluded wicked Israel from his presence (2 Kings 17:22-23), and will one day banish the ungodly from his eternal communion (Revelation 21:6-8).

Yet, just as parents yearn for their children, so God yearns for his people. Even when Israel was a rebellious child, God compassionately yearned for their fellowship (Jeremiah 31:20; Hosea 11:8). Even when Israel was an unfaithful wife and had sold herself into prostitution, God pursued her as a husband yearns for reconciliation with his beloved (Hosea 1-3). Even while we were yet enemies, God demonstrated his love for us in that Christ died in order to restore fellowship with his people (Romans 5:6-11). In Jesus Christ God first loved us before we loved him (1 John 4:7-12).

The holy God, then, takes the initiative in reconciliation. God invites us into his fellowship and seeks a renewed communion (1 John 1:3). The holy God wants to dwell with his people. In Israel, he gave them his holy presence as he dwelled among them in the tabernacle (Leviticus 26:11-12). In the church, he gives them his holy presence as he dwells in them through his Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19-20). In the new heaven and new earth God will fully dwell among his redeemed people (Revelation 21:3-4).

But how can the holy God dwell among unholy people? Must he not exclude unholy people from his presence? Can he commune with ungodliness? Can God tolerate evil in his presence and deny his own integrity?

Atonement means that God makes a "holy place" for himself by removing sin from his people so that he dwells among them in his transforming, life-giving presence. Atonement accomplishes a reconciliation between God and his people so that they dwell together in a loving, holy fellowship.

God accomplished this mighty act of atonement through Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession, as Paul records it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, is (1) that Christ died for our sins, (2) that he was buried, (3) that he was raised on the third day, and (4) that he appeared to Cephas. The gospel, in its most basic form, is proclaimed in those four facts. Jesus really died (as his burial verifies) and he was really raised (as his appearance to Cephas verifies). But these are not mere facts--they have meaning. They accomplished something. The death and resurrection of Jesus are God's mighty act whereby he reconciled the world to himself (Romans 5:9-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). God removed sin and offered his life-giving presence through the gospel. God destroyed both sin and death through Jesus Christ.

Christ Died For Our Sin


Paul's summary of the gospel essentially locates the importance of Christ's death in the idea that Christ died "for our sins" (cf. Galatians 1:4). In other places, Paul summarizes this divine work as Christ's death "for us" (cf. Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 2:20; 3:13). The mystery of the atoning function of Christ's death lies behind these two ideas, that is, that Christ died (1) for sin and (2) for us.

This is not simply Paul's version of the mystery, but it is the witness of the whole New Testament. Peter writes that "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous" (1 Peter 3:18; cf. 2:24). The writer of Hebrews talks about the expiatory significance of Christ's death ("to take away the sins of my people," Hebrews 9:28; cf. 2:17; 7:27; 10:12) but also its substitutionary character ("he might taste death for everyone," Hebrews 2:9). John also testifies that Jesus's death was "for our sins" (1 John 2:2; 4:10) as well as "for us" (1 John 3:16). Matthew records the teaching of Jesus that his death was both "for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28) and "for many" (Matthew 20:28).

But what does it mean to say that "Christ died for sin" and "for us"? If this is the most basic Christian confession, why are so many Christians ambiguous in their understanding and inapt in their articulation of its fundamental meaning? What does it mean to confess that "Christ died for our sins"? I think four points summarize the meaning of this confession.

First, God himself removed sin from his people through Jesus Christ. This is the most basic idea of atonement. The death of Jesus removed sin. It took away sin. It expiated sin. As a result of his death, sin no longer exists as a barrier between God and humanity. The wall that separated them was broken down at the cross. God reconciled himself to sinful humanity by removing the sin.

This was the function of the Levitical sacrifices. They removed sin from the presence of God's people and created a "holy place" where God could dwell among them. The "blood of the covenant" cleansed and sanctified the people, the tabernacle, the altar and the scroll. The law required "that nearly everything be cleansed with blood" (Hebrews 9:22). Through sacrifice, through the removal of sin, God made "holy space" for himself so that he could dwell among his people in a holy communion.

This was also the function of the death of Jesus. Since sin has been removed through Jesus, God has created a holy place in our hearts through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. We are now God's holy temple in which he dwells through his Spirit (Ephesians 2:18-22). We are God's saints, his holy ones. God lives within his holy people instead of merely in a holy temple. Indeed, the Levitical sacrifices were inadequate for God's ultimate purpose. They were provisional and patterned after God's own design in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:1-10:18). In the eternal mind of God sin is only removed through the expiatory work of Jesus (Hebrews 9:15) though provisionally given to God's people under the old covenant.

But in what sense did the death of Christ remove sin? Paul offers several metaphors for this work. One is a commercial. God canceled the debt of sin. He nailed the debt to the cross. Paul writes that our certificate of indebtedness, our "I owe you," was canceled at the cross. It was nailed to the cross. By whatever means, God forgave our debt at the cross and removed sin from our account. The ransom was paid and we were freed from indebtedness.

Another metaphor is legal in character. God no longer charges us with sin. The indictment has been revoked and we have been declared not guilty. God reconciled himself to the world by "not counting men's sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). In Jesus Christ God no longer "imputes" sin and, therefore, there is no "condemnation" for those who are in him (Romans 8:1).

Yet, how can the holy God remove the sin of a depraved people? How can God declare the guilty "not guilty"? How can God forgive a debt that is justly owed? God removes sin, but on what basis? We need to say more.

Second, God identified himself with sinners in Jesus Christ. God did not keep his distance from his fallen, sinful people. Rather, he came near. He joined them in their fallenness and identified himself with sinners. The holy God entered the fallen world and shared the shame, pain and death of this world.

God's first act of identification was the incarnation itself. God joined us in our fallenness by sharing our flesh, our sickness, our fatigue, our hunger and our death. God became a slave for our sakes by becoming one of us. Jesus Christ "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited," rather "he humbled himself" by "being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:6-8; NRSV). God did not send a sympathy card, but he came to sit with us on the mourner's bench in order to groan with us in our shame and pain.

Jesus identified with sinners when he was baptized. Jesus underwent a rite designed for those who (a) repent of sin; (b) confess their sin; and (c) are immersed for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4-5). The righteous one submitted to a ritual designed for sinners. The righteous one joined sinners in an act of humility and submission. Jesus identified himself with sinners.

The cross, however, is the moment of God's ultimate self-humiliation. There Jesus was "numbered among the transgressors" (Luke 22:37). There Jesus "became sin" for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). There "he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8). There he became a "curse" for us (Galatians 3:13). There he "bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2:24). There to one who knew no sin became one with sin as he died "for us."

But what does it mean for Christ to identify with sinners? How does he become "sin" for us? How does this remove sin? We need to say more.

Third, God substituted himself for sinners in Jesus Christ. The cross is not fundamentally a human sacrifice. It is God in the flesh sacrificing himself for humanity. God himself takes upon himself the substitutionary role. This is not a human substitute, but rather one of the triune community represents the Godhead in this act of self-humiliation and offer himself for sinners. The triune community itself experiences the hideousness of sin through the Godforsakenness of the crucified one. The triune community offered its own life, community and fellowship for the sake of reconciliation with the world they loved.

God acts against sin in Jesus Christ. He punishes sin. But he does so within his own life rather than externalizing that punishment by tormenting sinners. God himself experiences the torment of the sin rather than inflicting that torment on us. The Lord of glory cried, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). The triune community suffered within itself rather than inflicting that suffering upon humanity. The triune community internalized the horror and punishment of sin rather than punishing humanity with eternal wrath. God saved us from the "wrath to come" by experiencing that wrath himself in his own triune life through Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:10). This is the love of God that sent his Son into the world as a "propitiation" for sin (1 John 4:10).

The cross is the moment of God's self-substitution. God substitutes himself in such a way that it is just for God to "justify the ungodly" and "not impute sin" to sinners. God substituted himself in that he experienced and internalized within himself the wrath that was due to us. Jesus Christ experienced the curse we deserved, paid the debt we owed, and suffered the eschatological death we earned.

But why did God substitute himself? Why did he not just "forgive" without substitution? Why did anyone have to "pay"? We need to say more.

Fourth, God satisfied himself in Jesus Christ. We do not satisfy God. We do not life up to his holiness and emulate his character. We are unworthy servants even if we are obedient. We cannot deal with our sin or make up for our mistakes. We cannot pay the ransom for our own iniquities. Only God could pay it.

To whom or what did God pay it? Some believe that he paid it to Satan as if God owed Satan something. Some believe that he paid it to some principle to which he was obligated as if there is a principle of justice that stands above God to which he must submit. God does not satisfy a law higher than himself. God is not subservient to some higher principle. On the contrary, God's character is the highest principle in the universe. He owes nothing to no one (Job 41:11; Romans 11: 35).

Instead, God acts consistently with his own character. God does not deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). God must act in character and with integrity. This is the ground of God's own faithfulness. He must be faithful to himself. He could not do otherwise and remain who he is. So God determined to redeem sinful humanity but he decided to do so in a way consistent with his character. Therefore, out of his mercy and because of his great love, God determined he would justify the ungodly, but in a just way. Because he loved his creation and yearned for their fellowship, he determined to satisfy himself in the light of his own holiness.

The cross is the moment of God's self-satisfaction. God purposed to set forth Jesus Christ as the means of averting his just wrath. The first chapters of Romans are replete with references to God's wrath and just condemnation (1:18, 32; 2:2, 3, 5, 8, 12, 25; 3:8-10, 19-20, 23). God's solution is to demonstrate his righteousness by a propitiation so that he could remain righteous and at the same time declare believers righteous. The clear implication of Romans 3:25-26 is that God could not have been just in declaring the ungodly righteous if Jesus had not been offered as a propitiation. God's own self-satisfaction was necessary if God was to remain both just and justifier. God's work in Christ is a divine self-propitiation whereby the triune community absorbs the eschatological wrath due us. Because of this self-propitiation God may now justify the ungodly (Roman 4:5).

This understanding of the atonement has been criticized as unintelligible to the modern mind. It appears to value human sacrifice and thus sounds rather mythological and hideous. But the principle of inner moral conflict whereby one sacrifices himself in self-giving love rather than compromising his own principles is still valued. We see it in parents who are torn apart with conflicting emotions when their children go astray. They long to forgive, but not in such a way that condones or encourages the wrongdoing. True forgiveness is costly. It cost God something. God decided to deal with sin by taking it up into his own life where he destroyed its power. God offers himself as a substitute in order that his holiness might meet his love for the sake of his people. The triune community sacrificed its own unbroken bliss so that others might join their communion. I am not sure we can say much more.

Ultimately, the mystery of the atonement lies beyond the images and metaphors Scripture offers. The mysterious reality which lies behind the fact that "God was in Christ reconciling the world" (2 Corinthians 5:18) and "God made Christ to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21) is beyond our finite minds. We will spend eternity not only worshipping God and the Lamb, but exploring the mystery which inspires our worship. The atonement is more than an example or a martyrdom. Christ died for sin. He did something to sin. He removed it, canceled it and destroyed it. We will never fathom the mystery of that relationship, but it speaks volumes about who God is (a holy love that cannot deny himself), what he has done (humbled himself) and how he has loved us (substituted himself).

Christ Was Raised for Our Life


While we often describe the death of Christ as "for us," we rarely say this about his resurrection. We more readily speak of rising "with Christ"--and this is the more dominant language of the New Testament (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:14; Romans 6:5-8; Colossians 2:12; 3:1). However, it is also appropriate to say that Christ was raised "for us." Jesus was raised for "our justification" (Romans 4:25) and so that we might be saved by "his life" (Romans 5:10). In much the same way that Christ died for us, he was also raised for us. Indeed, Paul explicitly says this in 2 Corinthians 5:15 (NRSV): "And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them."

Just as with the death of Christ "for us," so we must ask what it means to say that Christ was raised for us and for our life. But before we can answer that question, we must address what the resurrection meant to Jesus himself. Then we can apply it's meaning to us.

On the cross Christ experienced the Godforsakenness of the sin he bore. Through that suffering the Son of God experienced shame and condemnation. Jesus suffered on a "tree" and therefore suffered the curse of God. Consequently, the cross was a stumbling block for the Jews because the cross represented the curse of God (1 Corinthians 1:23). God's Messiah could not hang on a "tree." The Messiah was a conquering hero, not a crucified servant. Rather than "Jesus is Messiah" unbelieving Jews would say "Jesus is cursed." While the cross in our post-Christian culture is an object of love, gratitude and appreciation, to the culture of the first century it was an object of horror, curse and humiliation.

The preaching in Acts, however, accentuates the importance of the resurrection in this context. While the Jewish leaders crucified Jesus, "God raised him from the dead" (Acts 2:23-24; 3:14-15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:26-31). If Jesus' life had ended on that tree, he would have been an accursed servant. But the resurrection of Jesus is the justification of the accursed one. When God raised Jesus from the dead he reversed the curse and vindicated his just one. God reversed the judgment of death. The "mystery of godliness," according to 1 Timothy 3:16, is that God appeared in the flesh (incarnation and death), but was "vindicated by the Spirit" (resurrection).

Death did not win. Satan was defeated. God's anointed one was not left in Hades, but God raised him from the dead and proclaimed him Lord (Acts 2:24-28). The accursed one was justified. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims God's victory over sin and death. The resurrection of Jesus destroys death.

He was, in fact, raised "for our justification" (Romans 4:25). His victory is our victory. His resurrection is our resurrection. His justification is our justification. There are at least three ways in which this is true.

First, our resurrection with Jesus is the presence of God's transforming Spirit. Since Christ died to sin and we are dead to sin in him, we are now alive to God. Paul writes: "count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11). The life we now life is not our own--it is the resurrected life of Jesus. We have been crucified with Jesus, and we have been raised with him. So the life we now live is his (Galatians 2:20). We live in the power of the life-giving Spirit who has given us "new life" in Christ.

The presence of the Spirit is God's gift by which he transforms us into the image of his Son. The work of the Spirit is sanctification (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). God's Holy Spirit empowers our sanctification (Ephesians 3:16-17). By the presence of his Spirit, God transforms us "into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). God calls us to live holy lives and he gives us his Holy Spirit as a transforming power.

This power is the vigor of a resurrected life that is lived out in the present as we anticipate the fullness of that power in the resurrection of the body. Paul raises this point in Romans 8:10-11: "But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you." Thus, the present experience of the transforming power of the Spirit by the fruit he bears in us is but a foretaste of our full redemption by the power of the Spirit in the resurrection.

Consequently, the sanctified life we now live is by the power of the life-giving Spirit who gave life to the dead body of Jesus Christ. We called to be holy, then, because God has given us the power to be holy.

Second, our resurrection with Jesus transforms our experience of death. Since God has defeated death, we no longer fear its hostile grip. The resurrection has destroyed death so that the keys of Hades are in the hands of Jesus (Revelation 1:18). His resurrection is a revelation of our future resurrection because he is but the "firstfruits" of the harvest to come. The resurrection of Jesus actually belongs to the end of time, but God raised him in the midst of history as a revelation of the end. God raised Jesus in order show us what the end of history is. He gave us the "firstfruits" in order to assure us of the coming harvest in which we will participate. Even though the future has not yet arrived, we know what the end is because of the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel has brought the light of resurrected immortality into the darkness of this fallen world (2 Timothy 1:10).

Consequently, our experience of death is transformed from hopelessness, fear and despair into hope, expectation and anticipation. We no longer fear death though we hate it. We hate it because it is God's enemy, but we do not fear it because God in Christ has conquered it. As the writer of Hebrews writes, Jesus "shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Third, our resurrection with Jesus in our "spiritual" bodies enables full communion with God in the eschaton. Since God has raised Christ with a "spiritual body," we yearn for our spiritual bodies when we will experience the fullness of God's Spirit in the new heaven and new earth. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit is our promise that we will be raised, and the power of the Spirit that now works in us to transform us into his glory will transform our vile bodies into the glorious body of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21). Our present mortal, weak, and fallen bodies will be transformed into immortal, powerful, and glorious bodies. We will have "spiritual bodies," that is, bodies energized and empowered by the full transforming presence of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

The present work of the Spirit which offers us daily renewal (2 Corinthians 4:16) will bear its full fruit in the resurrection when the Spirit will sanctify our whole person (body and soul). The Spirit who now sanctifies us will animate our bodies throughout eternity. The Holy Spirit will complete his work of sanctification through the resurrection and make us holy so we can abide in the presence of God forever by his power and by his holiness. God will fully dwell among his people when they are fully sanctified by his Spirit in the new heaven and new earth. That work is still in process and not yet complete. The indwelling of the Spirit is God's promise that he will complete that work as we continue to trust in him (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5).

Just as the death of Christ is the culmination and representation of all that is fallen about the world, so the resurrection is God's pledge to restore the world to its original goodness. God acted decisively to reverse the effects of Good Friday. The resurrection is God's pledge of eschatological reversal in a new heaven and a new earth. The resurrection is a new day of creation/redemption and signals the defeat of God's enemies, especially the last enemy which is death. It is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Conclusion


The death and resurrection of Jesus are God's two mighty acts of reconciliation. The cross is God's self-humiliating participation in human suffering in order to substitute himself for the sake of his own self-satisfaction. The resurrection is God's justification of Jesus through which we presently experience the power of a sanctified life, live with hope in the face of death and expect our full sanctification by God's Spirit in the eschaton.

In Jesus Christ, God suffered with us and for us. He did not distance himself from our suffering, but joined us in it. He did not succumb to sin, but overcame it in his life and ministry. He did not leave us in our sin, but destroyed it through his death. He did not leave us in our death, but justified us through his resurrection.

Atonement destroys sin and restores life. It cancels the debt of sin and gives back the life that sin stole. In Jesus Christ, God reconciles the world to himself. He fulfills his goal for creation. He again unites with humanity in one community and he will restore the Garden of Eden (Revelation 22:1-6).

Atonement is God's work. The gospel is what God has done in Jesus Christ. We do not "do" the gospel. We believe the gospel, trust the gospel, respond to the gospel and obey the gospel. But the gospel is God's work of atonement whereby he reconciles us through submissive faith. God is the actor, and we are the receiver. God accomplishes redemption, and we accept his gift. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

Just as he created, so has he redeemed. God created out of his self-giving, self-sacrificing love, and so he has also redeemed. God has made atonement and overcome the barrier that separated him from his creatures. His self-humiliating, self-sacrificing, self-substituting love has acted in order to defeat sin and empower our holy, hopeful and immortal lives. In Jesus Christ God atoned for sin and death, and now we are called to receive his gift and emulate the one who loved us.

First appeared in "What Did God Do to Sin and Death Through Jesus Christ?" pp. 53-63, in Theology Matters: Answers for the Church Today, ed. by Gary Holloway, Randall J. Harris, and Mark C. Black (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1998) and as part of a chapter in my Yet Will I Trust Him.




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