Now we consider the work of Christ, and His atonement—the cross of Christ. The universal symbol of our faith from the first century onwards has been a symbol of execution-the cross. It is in the cross that all of our hopes and comfort, in life and death, are to be found.
As Paul said 1 And I, when I came to you, brothers,a did not come proclaiming to you the testimonyb of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor. 2:2)
We have looked at who Jesus is, and now it is time to look at what He did; the person and work of Christ can be distinguished, but not separated.
Definition—"the atonement is the work that Christ did in His life and death to earn our salvation.” (Wayne Grudem) Usually we think only of the cross but I will explain later why the entire 33 years or so of Christ’s life should be considered as part of this event known as the atonement.
For first 1,000 years of Church, there was no clear explanation of the atonement. Many saw it primarily as a ransom paid to the Satan…and to make matters worse, it was thought of as being done via trickery…like a mouse-trap! I was taught this in grade school. Anselm the archbishop of Canterbury (c 1,000-1,100 AD), wrote a short book entitled: Cur Deus Homo? Why the God man? Monumental work which I recently re-read. Why did God take on human nature, why become incarnate, why the cross and atonement? To satisfy the demands of Gods justice. He does this in the form of a dialogue with Boso. Seeing the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice to satisfy the demands of God’s justice and his holy wrath by means of substitution; from then on that became dominant view of atonement.
Why didn’t God just forgive us and get it done with? As He told us to forgive others, why didn’t God just do what He told us to do, and just forgive us? As it has been said: “It is the purpose of divinity to forgive—that’s His job.” Really?
Frist, we are supplied with the answer of Anslem. He wrote: if anyone imagines that God simply forgives us as we forgive others, that person has ‘not yet considered the seriousness of sin—heavy a weight sin is.’ And he supplied the second answer as well: you have not yet considered the majesty/justice of God. When we have deficient views of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, then we will have deficient views of the atonement and its necessity. We are not God, and so, as we shall see, when we sin we sin against Him and the His laws. Therefore to expect the Creator to act like a creature we are doing violence to this vital distinction…as well as His righteous nature. He always does what is right and fair—always.
The crucial question is not just why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how He finds it possible to do so at all. As one man put it: “forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God is the profoundest of problems.” There is a collision between divine perfection and human rebellion; between God as He is and us as we are. The real problem is this: God is holy and we are not. Something radical had to happen, IF He was to forgive us.
Deficient views of the cross, which abound today amongst theologians and laity alike, stem from either a shallow view of God’s holiness and/or shallow views of the gravity of sin…sinfulness of sin.
Cause of atonement—usually we think of the mercy, grace and love of God. John 3:16 true. But as Anselm reminds us, the primary cause of the cross is God’s justice. His righteousness. We must not be selfish and think first of us—God is concerned for the His own glory above all else. His love is holy love. How can God save us in a manner consistent with and true to His internal character which cannot bear to even look upon sin? Yes God is love but it is a holy love. But before we move on we must ask the painful question: would God have been unfair, unjust in damning all sinners to eternity in hell? The only acceptable answer is: no, God would have been just in damning all of us. That is what we deserve. He did not save lost angels, who are rational beings as we are. After years of knowing the Lord, I think it is good to remind ourselves of this very basic fact, lest we unconsciously drift into entitlement mode of thinking.
In this regard, there are three views of atonement: it was not necessary, it was hypothetically necessary, it was absolutely necessary. The first is the view of liberals and other unbelievers. Others say that once Christ freely and graciously decided to save us, He could have chosen other means, but once He chose this route He was bound to it. Lastly, and what I am convinced the bible teaches, is the absolute necessity of the cross. Once God did freely and graciously decide to save us, there was no other way. The Gethsemane prayer-Matt. 26:30, the words of Christ about the necessity of the Christ to suffer—Lk 24, Romans 3:26, need to become man—Heb. 2:17; and the Temple patterned after heavenly sanctuary-Heb. 9:23—all point to absolute necessity of atonement.
To bring home nature of this problem more clearly, I want us to see sin from three perspectives, but before we do that, notice how often righteousness of God is mentioned. God ALWAYS does what is right and just. On the cross, God’s infinite justice and righteousness was satisfied. On the cross He bore the judgement we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross justice and mercy kiss.
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,e as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
(thematic statement of Romans—v. 17)
God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…..on and on for 3 chapters!
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26, emphasis added)
Paul had spent 3 chapters relentlessly driving home the wrath of God against God hating sinners, and now He is anxious to show how He has gloriously forgiven us in way consistent with His holy wrath. If modern man, including theologians detest anything, it is the need to assuage God’s wrath. They are blind and lost in arrogance, for this is clear on every page of scripture. Penal substitution challenges any/all human pride, which is why it is detested so fiercely.
Now, to express this need for an atonement more clearly let me take just three of the many images of sin in scripture. Sin as: a crime…a crime of cosmic treason; sin considered as an unpayable debt; sin as enmity requiring reconciliation.
To the extent that we understand the gravity, seriousness of sin-sin’s sinfulness, to that extent we will understand, appreciate, and stand in awe of God’s tender love, mercy, and grace to hell-deserving sinners.
Here is a fuller list we shall address as we move along: we are alienated from God/reconciled; under God’s holy wrath/through propitiation God’s wrath is satisfied/quenched; we are enslaved/we are set free through redemption; we are guilty and condemned/pardoned and counted as righteous through justification; we are under control of dreadful enemies/God delivers and rescues us so that we are triumphant in Christ.
First, let us see that sin is a crime. As our Creator, God has the absolute right to impose obligations upon us. Most companies will not employ someone who has been convicted of a felony. Yet, we are all guilty of a felonious assault on the Holy One—cosmic treason. Treason on human level is considered a capital crime, but we have committed treason on a cosmic scale. One sin is enough to send us to hell for eternity because of the infinite dignity of the Person whom we have offended. Treason against one’s country is bad enough, but we have committed treason against the King and Lawgiver of the cosmos.We are criminals in God’s sight in desperate need of being declared not guilty/justified.
We live in a culture in which folks say: everyone deserves a second chance. That is fine on horizontal level, even if we grant that for arguments sake before God, how long ago did you use up your second chance?! All spiritual Benedict Arnolds—treason. God almighty sees our sin as cosmic treason because we have conspired and rebelled against His Lawful authority over us, and sought autonomy—seeking to throw off His control, we’ve broken His holy law—which is a mortal sin in His eyes. In a sense, all sin is mortal sin. None of this ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. What we may consider peccadillos (little sins) are crimes against the Holy God of law and the holy law of God. Lawbreaking is a crime. We are to love God with all of our being, and nobody has done that for five seconds. So unclean has this crime made us that the OT says it vomits people out of the land—it gags on our depravity.
Regarding our status as guilty criminals before God, He justifies us in Christ—declaring us not guilty and forgiving our crimes and counting us as righteous in God’s eyes. Our most urgent need is to be justified because our most fundamental problem is objective guilt before God’s law.
2. Sin as enmity. Eph, 2—by nature children of wrath, and Romans 5 sees us as at enmity with God--enemies, and that goes both ways. We are not just indifferent to God, but unbelievers hate God. And God is infinitely angry with sinners. The notion of reconciliation assumes what? That there is estrangement. If husband and wife seek counseling and mediation for reconciliation, that assumes hostility. I’m sure you have heard of Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That is true…most certainly so. But I also know that it is also true that when Jesus came to His own, it was “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” Such is the intensity of our hostility to God that a sinless God/man was murdered because we were traumatized by His holiness.
Folks say that essence of hell is the absence of God—they wish. The essence of hell will be the stern presence of God as judge. The wrath of the Lamb. I cannot bear to think of this. Have you ever been bopping along and suddenly an awful possibility popped into your mind? Perhaps you are driving down the road to work and cannot remember if you turned the stove off? In a flash, your peace goes to utter panic in a second, and actually feel the horror in your stomach. I sometimes think of unbelievers standing before the throne of God, loved ones, and the sinking, nauseating feeling that they will certainly feel as they face a horror of unspeakable magnitude for eternity. I have almost vomited myself thinking of this and how it grips my heart with anguish, as when Paul spoke in Romans 9…wishing to be damned himself if it would save his beloved countrymen.
Yes God is loving but He also is holy and wrathful. The first fruit of justification is peace with God-Rom. 5:1. The atonement brings reconciliation.
3. Sin as a debt. There is a difference between a monetary debt and a moral debt. If I owe you 10,000 dollars, then I may get a loan and pay bank back through a loan program. Speaking of debt, on human level many people live under crushing weight of monetary weight indebtedness due to various reasons.
However, if I owe you 10 million dollars tomorrow, there is no way I can pay you back—crushing weight. I don’t know the President or Bill Gates. I suppose it is hypothetically possible, but not probable. With God how much is our indebtedness? Infinite. That is purpose of the parables Jesus taught regarding repaying debt. It is infinite debt. After all that God has done for us. And the bible speaks of this as wracking up an unpayable moral indebtedness.
What can you or I do to repay this debt? What moral merit can you claim for yourself? If you have sinned but once, you have wracked up an infinite debt before your infinitely holy God. He does not grade on a curve. Unlike Islam which says that we shall go to heaven if the scales of justice, indicates that our good deeds outweigh our bad. If that is so, then why did Jesus die the horrific death He did? But the most common notion of salvation or justification is justification by death. All we have to do is die and the loving arms of God will bring us home. This is terrible demonic lie.
God is called our surety and we are redeemed by the precious blood of the Lamb (1 Peter 1:18-19). 18knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. Freed from all moral/spiritual debt. Biblically, this is called redemption/ransom.
The cross answers the need for God to satisfy His justice.
1. Do you see your sins as a crime—as an act of cosmic treason? Which the cross satisfied…
2. Do you see your sins as a debt…a debt which you absolutely owe but absolutely cannot pay? That the cross satisfied.
3. Do you see you your sins as enmity, which required reconciliation, which only the cross could satisfy?
I beg of you to examine your heart to make sure you are truly ‘in the faith…in Jesus.’
If folks en masse saw God’s burning holiness and their sinfulness, they would be kicking down the doors to the churches and crying out in anguish: what must I do to be saved!
What agonizes my heart are the vast number of people who say that they do not need a savior—no need of the cross. Indifferent. Dear friends, since God is utterly holy and we are unholy, then our most profound need is for a savior—the cross. Amen.
Rom. 3:23—admit you are sinner “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Rom. 6:23—admit that you deserve eternal death, but God has provided forgiveness based on finished work of Christ on the Cross. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 5:8) 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Rom. 10:9-10 9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved
Repent of your sin and believe in Jesus as your savior and Lord…and you will be saved and have eternal life.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.