It’s Covered: Understanding the Atonement

Today we continue our Growing in Grace discipleship course with topic #3, which is atonement, one of the most central themes—and most important subjects—in the entire Bible. The two memory passages which speak to this topic are Romans 5:8 and 1 Peter 3:18.

  • Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
  • 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

Listenn to the message here:


While George Washington was in his first term as president, he borrowed a book from the New York Society Library entitled, The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel.

In 2010, the book was discovered by the staff at Mount Vernon, Washington’s ancestral home. Apparently, he never returned it. After checking with the New York Library, Mark Bartlett, the head librarian, confirmed that, 221 years later, the book was still overdue, having incurred a late fee of $300,000. Quite a debt for an overdue book.

Yes, the library forgave the debt.

Although we may not have run up such an impressive late fee for an overdue book, we understand what it is to be in debt. Whether it is credit card debt, college tuition, a car payment, or a mortgage. We know what it means to owe.

We also know that not all debts are financial.

When someone commits a crime and is sentenced to prison, we say that they are “paying their debt to society.”  They are serving a sentence that the law demands.

While teaching his disciples how to pray in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed them and instructs us to ask the Father to “forgive us our debts.”

While some traditional renderings of that passage use the word “trespasses,” the best translation is debts—”forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

What kind of debts are these that need forgiven?

Rather than think of these debts in financial terms, we should think of them in criminal terms. In the same way that a criminal is sentenced to “pay his debt to society” in prison, we have a debt to pay before God.

Although the debt to God is not financial, Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18 where he uses money to illustrate the magnitude of our sin debt. Jesus uses that parable to show us that the debt we owe couldn’t be paid off even if we lived 20,000 lifetimes. In fact, part of the problem is that, the longer we live, the more debt we accrue.

This is why, from beginning to end, the Scriptures help us understand not only the problem of our debt, but the solution to our debt.

The solution to our debt problem is found in understanding the word atonement, which is one of the most central and important concepts in all of Scripture.

As we seek to reckon with the biblical doctrine of atonement, we are going to ask four questions.

 

What is the meaning of atonement?

When we look at the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated atonement, kippur, which means “to wipe out,” “to erase,” “to cover,” and “to remove.”[1] Jews still celebrate Yom Kippur each September. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement, a day that was established for the Israelites in Leviticus 16 as the Israelites were on their journey from Egypt to the promised land in Canaan.[2]  On that day, the high priest would make blood sacrifices for the people to represent the severity of sin and necessity of justice. Verse 34 of Leviticus 16 summaries the of the day by stating, “‘This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.’

And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses.”

And it was done. Through the sacrifices, by the payment of the sin debt, the sins of the people were considered covered, wiped out, erased, and removed.

In a judicial setting, a fine is atoned when it gets paid and is removed from the books.

In relational terms, when atonement takes place, two alienated parties are reconciled. The result of reconciliation is peace between the two parties—peace as if the offense had never taken place.

While the concept of atonement is rooted in the Jewish sacrificial system that was practiced in the Old Testament, the English word atonement comes from a combination of Anglo-Saxon words which mean literally “at-one-ment,” or “to make at one,” emphasizing not just the act of atonement, but the purpose and result of atonement, which is reconciliation.  Thus, the word atonement literally means “at one ment.” Atonement—the way God has established for reconciliation.

Therefore, we understand atonement as the process that secures forgiveness, where a debt that prevents peace is erased as if it had never existed. In other words, the debt is paid in full.

When we study the concept of atonement in the Bible, we discover that the primary relational estrangement in need of reconciliation is between human beings and God. It is our alienation with God that leads to alienation with each other.

Have you noticed that it doesn’t take much for us to turn on each other? Even on those whom we profess to love. In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul tells us that love is patient and kind, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Meaning that true love truly forgives.

But if you are like me, you probably do keep a record of wrongs. Storing up a memory of offenses that we can use one day as ammunition against someone else. The reality is, we typically do not forgive very easily or very thoroughly.

But this is what atonement does. As an act of love, it takes the initiative to create peace by paying down a debt so that there is no more tension or fear or contempt left in the relationship. With the offense erased as if it never occured, there can be peace. Peace with God and peace with each other.

This is the reason the apostle Paul often opened his letters with the salutation, “Grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus.” For it is through the atoning, reconciling grace of God in Jesus that we have peace with God.

 

How is atonement accomplished?

In both of our memory verses, Paul and Peter tell us that atonement was accomplished through the death of Jesus. According to New Testament authors, his death “is seen as the fulfillment of all that was prefigured by the Old Testament sacrificial system”[3]—a system that, as we noted in the Day of Atonement, required the shedding of blood in order to pay the debt required to fulfill justice and have peace with God.

The centrality of blood for atonement is reinforced in the New Testament where we see read about the “blood of Christ” in Ephesians 2:13, which also is referred to as the “blood of the covenant” in Matthew 26:28 and the “blood of his cross” in Col 1:20.[4]

While blood isn’t specifically mentioned in our memory verses, it certainly is assumed, as we read in Romans 5:8, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and in 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins… being put to death in the flesh.” With the death of Jesus being crucifixion, his nail pierced body would have shed plenty of blood.

I realize that the necessity of blood as an aspect of divine atonement for sin is unpleasant. Nevertheless, blood is at the very center of the biblical concept of atonement and as such, is at the very heart of Christianity itself. It is essential. A non-negotiable. Take away the blood and all you are left with is religious moralism, whereby Christianity is about being nice verses being forgiven. Then, the church becomes a moral club of self-righteous hypocrites rather than a half-way house for sinners.

In addition to being unpleasant, I think it is fair to admit that the picture of biblical atonement that centers upon a bloody cross seems barbaric.

What has helped me come to grips with the necessity of a death penalty being required to wipe out, erase, cover and remove the offense that my moral record has incurred before the law of God is coming to grips with the severity of the offense.

Some may say, “But to sin is to be human; what’s the big deal? Why can’t God just forgive us without having Jesus die a torturous death of crucifixion? That just seems extreme.”

Let me explain why it is not extreme. In Romans 5:8, Paul uses the word “sinner” to describe our status while Peter uses the designation “unrighteous.” Instead of these terms, the apostles could have used the word criminals.

In Ephesians 2, Paul teaches that human sin is a form of following—obeying—the ways of Satan. Sin is not only wrong, it is cosmic treason.[5]  According to the law of heaven, those who defy the King through the treason of sin are criminals who deserve the death penalty.

This is why atonement requires blood. God can’t just forgive, because he is not only a loving God, he is a just God and must uphold justice by enforcing the demands of his own law.

Even in our own court system, the penalty must fit the crime. This is why the penalty for cosmic treason is death. The Lord told Adam and Eve in the garden that they only had one prohibition. If they transgressed it, they would die. They were given fair warning. The Lord made it clear that the penalty for sin reveals the seriousness of sin.

Such a severe offense requires a severe penalty, which is why there is the necessity of blood for atonement, which was accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus upon a cross, as Paul records in Colossians 2:13-14, “13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

To atone is to cover and remove the debt of an offense so that there can be peace. God the Father secured that peace through the substitutionary death of Jesus on a cross.

By why?

 

What motivated the Father to send the Son to atone for sins?

What I find striking when studying the doctrine of the atonement in the Bible is that atonement is not only the absolute fulfillment of justice, it also is a radical expression of love, as Paul states in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The motivation of the Father to reconcile us to himself was not based on human merit. It is not a reward for good behavior. It was not deserved and could not be earned. The singular, compelling motive for the atonement is stated in that one word: love! Love, which is grace made visible.[6]

Although the theme of love-motivated atonement is so pervasive in the Bible that we could not possibly list all the passages in this message, there is one passage I’d like to cite, which is 1 John 4:9-10, where the apostle writes, “9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

God initiates. He sends. He atones. We do not redeem ourselves. He redeems us, as sinners. This is radical grace.

If you are new to Christianity, does this surprise you? I’m sure for some it does, because the way we typically think about religion is that God makes demands and expects us to fulfill them. If we succeed, he shows us favor and blessing. If we fail, he responds with wrath and cursing.

What is stunning about the message of the Bible is that Jesus was sent to endure the wrath and cursing that our sin deserved so that we could experience the favor and blessing of God, which is purely a gift. This is atonement, where out of his eternal affection, God provides what is required to make peace so that we can know him without fear. Rather, we may know him like a child knows a personal, intimate, caring, strong, and devoted Father.

In Ephesians 1:5-8, the apostle Paul writes, “In love 5 [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us.” (NIV)

Did you notice the beauty contained in those words? In love God predestined or chose us to be his. The goal of his predestinating grace is our adoption, where we know him not primarily as Judge, but as Father. This predestination and adoption is made possible by redemption where through his blood of Jesus we now have the forgiveness of sins.

Instead of the word redemption, Paul could easily have used the word atonement. Yet the word isn’t as important as the concept being communicated, which is reconciliation—a love-motivated reconciliation between God and a sinner, where God makes peace “in accordance with the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

This leads us to ask the final question. A practical question. A personal question.

 

How should I respond to the atonement?

First, just be struck by the beauty.

One of the most beautiful acts of human generosity is organ donation. Those on a donor list know what it means when they get notified, especially those needing heart transplants. If a heart is available, it means that someone has just died in order that the organ recipient may live, with the donor’s heart beating within the recipient pumping the fluid of life—blood—throughout their body. The only way to receive the new heart that will sustain life is if the donor dies.

The same is true with the gospel.[7] Jesus was born with a donor card. Not just to donate his heart, but his entire life—his whole body—was being donated as a sacrifice of atonement.

Second, receive Jesus as your heart donor, believing that he has atoned for your sin. As you look to Jesus and believe, the Father wants you to be absolutely convinced, without any doubt that the alienation caused by sin has been removed. There is no more wrath, no more penalty, nothing left to fear.

As Peter says, Jesus died to “bring us to God,” whereby we are welcomed by the Father, no longer as criminals to be judged, but as children to be loved. This is what it means to have peace with God.

Third, let your life as a disciple of Jesus be motivated by the same love that has saved you.

What we discover in the gospel is that it is this love of God for sinners that compels our love for him, the kind of love that is tangible, active, and visible. The love that shows the practical devotion of obedience to God in response to the radical devotion unto death shown to us by Jesus.

We do not obey God in order to be loved and accepted. We obey because we have been loved and are already accepted! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “Christ’s love compels us.” Not guilt or fear or duty and obligation. But love.

Atoning love is compelling and empowering. Even as the Father was motivated by love, so are we.

 

No Spot Remains

Having lived in eleven different homes since Kristy and I were married twenty-five years ago, I have painted more walls than I care to remember.

And I do not enjoy it. I can roll the large spaces, but when it comes to detail brush work of painting trim, you are liable to hear a preacher cuss.

The home that I most remember painting was our seventh, in Tupelo, Mississippi. After I had finished the bedrooms and the hallways, I began to conquer the den, which had a lot of trim.

Eventually, I completed the room and put away all my painting materials—the paint cans, the brushes, the rollers, the drop-cloth, and the ladder. Later, as I walked back through the den to enjoy my success, I noticed something up in the corner, just above the grandfather clock.

I had missed a spot. Since it was mostly hidden behind the clock, most folks probably wouldn’t notice unless I showed them.

But every time I walked through that room, my eyes were drawn to the one spot on the wall that wasn’t covered.

I don’t know why I never got the painting supplies back out to finish the job. I don’t know why I couldn’t just overlook the unfinished spot behind the clock.

But every time I walked through that room I felt defeated.

I wonder if you might feel that way. Not about a uncovered spot on the wall, but about your sin. There is something that is not covered. Not atoned. It is that spot to which your eyes of your heart are continually drawn. Someone else may not even know about it or see it. But you see it, and it haunts you with guilt and shame and prevents peace between you and God.

You know, since I missed painting that spot back in Tupelo I’ve always preferred to hire painters.

In the gospel, we get to hire Jesus, not to cover our walls, but to cover our sin—to atone completely.

When Peter says that “Jesus suffered for sins once for all,” he meant that atonement is complete. There is nothing for us to cover ourselves. He is the one who, with his blood, has “wiped out,” “erased,” “removed, and “covered,” the spot, the sin that has caused the alienation between me and God the Father. And between you and the Father.

So, don’t let your eyes look for a spot on the wall that no longer exists. Instead, look to the place where the spot was covered, where through the cross by the blood of Jesus, it has been atoned—wiped out and erased as if it were never there.

 


[1] Robert W. Lyon and Peter Toon, “Atonement,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 231–232.

[2] “Perhaps the heart of the Old Testament teaching on atonement is found in Leviticus 16, where the regulations for the Day of Atonement occur. Five characteristics relating to the ritual of the Day of Atonement are worthy of note because they are generally true of atonement as it is found throughout Scripture: (1) the sovereignty of God in atonement; (2) the purpose and result of making atonement; (3) the two goats emphasize two different things, and the burning another, about the removal of sin; (4) that Aaron had to make special sacrifice for himself; (5) the comprehensive quality of the act.” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s.v. atonement).

[3] Robert W. Lyon and Peter Toon, “Atonement,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 232.

[4] Robert W. Lyon and Peter Toon, “Atonement,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 232.

[5] Thanks to the late Dr. R.C. Sproul for this vivid phrase.

[6] I think it is important to note that Augustine, writing on the atonement of Jesus, said, “The cross did not sure the love of God; the love of God secured the cross of Christ.”

[7] Toward the concept of the willing, voluntary aspect of atonement, in Philippians 2:8, Paul writes, “[Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Also, John 10:11, 17-18a, “11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

 

 

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