Salvation: The Concept of Atonement

Some explain the concept of atonement by saying that sin separates us from God, and what Jesus did on the cross caused us to be at-one with him again. Atonement is at-one-ment. This is fairly accurate, but it fails to really answer the above questions of why and how that is true. To get to those answers, readers must look to the Old Testament.

There is a formula that is repeated almost verbatim 12 times in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. It goes something like this: “the sinner shall offer the sacrifice to the LORD, and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.”[1] This formula reveals four parties involved in the practice of atonement as described in the Mosaic law:

  1. First, there was the offended party – the Lord himself. If God could not be affected by our actions, the atonement would not be necessary. But his righteousness is deeply affected by our acts of unrighteousness.
  2. Second, there was the offending party – the sinner. Whether those sins were deliberate or done out of ignorance was not the point. The point was that something had been done or left undone that offended God’s holiness.
  3. Third, there was the innocent sacrifice. A highly valuable animal was killed in order to reconcile the two above parties – to make them one again. There was a price to pay to restore the relationship between the sinner and his God. There was a price for forgiveness.
  4. Fourth, there was the qualified priest. Priests serve as mediators between the two parties. The priest has responsibilities toward both parties. He represents them. He follows the rules set by the offended party (God) that will allow him (God) to forgive the offenses. The priest does not forgive the sins, but he does make it possible for God to do so. The Mosaic law provided for means for priests to be cleansed, so that they could qualify to serve in this vital function for their brothers and sisters.

Why?

The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was offered up on the cross once and for all to bear all the world’s sins.[2] The Mosaic ritual of atonement was an analogy pointing to this great event. It taught us that an individual’s sins are – first and foremost – committed against God himself. To really understand the need for the cross, we must look at the problem of sin from God’s perspective.

It is entirely human to speculate about other scenarios where the problem of sin could be dealt with in other manners. But those who think of such things must realize that their own concepts of fairness and justice (and even mercy and grace) are products of their limited knowledge and experience. God is the only one who is the truly offended party, so only he can decide on the proper remedy for the offense. Only he knows what can reconcile him to a sinner permanently.

The best that the theologian can do in answering “why the cross?” is to see the correlations between the analogy and the event it predicted. So, it helps to recognize these correlations.

  1. The cross was a God-thing. It was the destiny that Jesus was born to, the destination he was driven to. The Via Dolorosa was the path that God had ordained for Jesus to take from the very beginning. Jesus said that when he would be lifted up onto the cross that it would draw all people to himself.[3] He could not pray for God to rescue him from that hour of trial, because it was the purpose for which he had come.[4]
  2. Jesus took sin upon himself at the cross, and bore the full punishment for it. Paul told the Corinthians that “for our sake (God) made (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin.”[5] Jesus took the place of every sinner who ever lived and suffered as our representative. When the Father looked down at his own Son on the cross he saw not the sinners, but their sacrifices.
  3. The Son of God on the cross was the most precious and valuable sacrifice ever offered. If there were ever a man or woman who was completely sinless from the womb, and who lived a life exemplary beyond measure, then that person would have qualified for the cross. But humanity never produced such a saint. So, God in his grace stepped forward and provided the sacrifice himself. God became flesh,[6] so that he could sacrifice his own flesh.[7]
  4. As fully human and completely sinless, Christ also qualified to offer himself.[8] He served both as sacrifice and as priest.[9] He “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins”[10] – which was himself. The offering was accepted, and need never be repeated. Christ, “by a single offering … has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”[11]

How?

Through time, people have speculated as to how Christ’s death atoned for the sins of others.[12] Some have even misinterpreted Scripture itself and held to ideas which fail to represent what it says about the cross.

For example, the Bible speaks of Christ’s death as a ransom paid.[13] Some have concluded that Christ had to die as payment to Satan to purchase back believers from the hell they deserved. This work has already shown that the only thing God owes Satan is destruction in hell.[14]

The Bible presents Christ as the example for believers to follow.[15] Some have included that Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate example that believers should follow in obedience to God’s will, no matter what. But a careful examination of all the example texts will show that nowhere is the believer called on to die in the same way that Christ did. We are take up our crosses (not his cross) and follow him.

The real message of the cross is that by dying for us, Christ did something that we needed, but that we could not do for ourselves. Peter says “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”[16] Christ’s death on the cross made our sanctification possible. It was more than an example. Without Christ’s death, no one could ever follow his example.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)

References

[1] Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18: 6:7; 19:22; Numbers 15:25, 28.

[2] Romans 6:10; Hebrews 9:28.

[3] John 12:32.

[4] John 12:27.

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[6] John 1:14.

[7] John 10:18.

[8] Hebrews 7:27.

[9] Hebrews 3:1, 14, 15; 5:5, 6, 10; 6:20; 7:3, 24, 26-28.

[10] Hebrews 10:12.

[11] Hebrews 10:14.

[12] For a more complete treatment of false theories of the atonement, see the Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1989).

[13] Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 Peter 1:18; Revelation 5:9.

[14] see chapter 44.

[15] John 13:15; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Peter 2:21.

[16] 1 Peter 2:24.

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