The doctrine of the atonement is challenging to study. It interconnects with several key doctrines: the nature of God, the Law, the human condition, the person of Jesus Christ, and the Old Testament sacrificial system.
I will not discuss the atonement comprehensively. I will just highlight 4 distinct aspects of the atonement that are important as it relates to the Christian gospel. To begin, let’s first summarize several wrong views of the atonement.
Wrong Views of the Atonement
You should be aware that not everyone agrees on what exactly Christ did in earning our salvation. I list below some of the more prominent false views.
- Ransom to Satan Theory: Christ paid a ransom to Satan because we are held captive by him. This view is false; Christ did not need to pay Satan anything.
- Moral Influence Theory: Christ’s death was not necessary to atone for sin. Christ needed to die to demonstrate God’s love in such a way as to softened our hearts to cause us to repent. This view is false; Christ did need to pay a penalty for our sins.
- Example (Sicilian) Theory: Christ’s death was not necessary to atone for sin. Christ died only to give us an example of obedience to inspire us to reform and live as Christ lived. This view is also false.
- Governmental Theory: Christ upheld the principle of government in God’s law by making a token payment for sin through His death. God accepted the token payment of Christ, set aside the requirement of the law, and was able to forgive us because the principle of His government had been upheld. This view is false because it denies the face that God did require a payment for sin.
- Commercial (Satisfaction) Theory: Sin robbed God’s honor. Christ’s death brought honor back to God; Christ received a reward, which was the forgiveness of our sins. This view is false. God’s justice is at stake, not just His honor.
Definition of Atonement
The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation. The love and the justice of God were the ultimate cause of the atonement.
It was not absolutely necessary for God to save people. God did not spare the angels when they sinned. (2 Peter 2:4) As a consequence of God’s decision to save some people, however, the atonement was absolutely necessary. This is called the “consequent absolute necessity” view.
Christ atonement required two components. (1) Christ actively obeyed the requirements of the law in our place as our representative. (2) Christ took upon himself all the sufferings necessary to pay the penalty for our sins.
Christ’s death was “penal.” He bore the penalty when he died. Christ’s death was substitutionary. He was a substitute for us when he died. Christ’s atonement was “vicarious” because he stood in our place and represented us.
Four Distinct Aspects of the Atonement
Sinners deserve to die. Death is the penalty of sin. Christ died as a sacrifice for us to pay for the penalty of death.
“For then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26)
Sinners deserve to bear God’s wrath. Christ died as a propitiation for our sins to remove us from God’s wrath.
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Sinners are separated from God by our sins. Christ provides reconciliation and brings us back into fellowship with God. He overcomes our separation from God.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19)
“And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled bin his body of flesh by his death, cin order to present you holy and blameless and dabove reproach before him.” (Colossians 1:20-22)
Sinners are in bondage to sin. We need someone to provide redemption and redeem us out of bondage. A ransom is the price paid to redeem someone from bondage or captivity. Christ’s death was a price paid. The result is that we were redeemed from bondage.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
“And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)
Sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation and redemption summarize the work of Christ in our salvation. He lived the perfect life for your sake. He suffered and died to pay a penalty as your substitute. You are declared righteous at the moment of saving faith. Christ’s saving work is complete, and it is secure.
Your salvation costs you nothing, but it costed Christ everything. This is the meaning of Christ’s atonement. “Amazing love, how can it be. That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”