What on earth is the atonement? Christians tend to talk about it in hushed tones, as if it is a divine mystery (spoiler: it is), while somehow failing to ever really talk about what they are referring to or what it actually is. Merriam Webster defines the word simply as “reparation for an offense or injury”, while giving satisfaction as a synonym. While this is certainly true, when we refer to the atonement as Christians, we refer to so much more. We speak of the atonement, referring to a particular historical event which has changed all of history. In doing this however, we incorporate the theological and historical significance of atonement as a cleansing from sins and the way to become right with God. Let me explain what I mean by this.
The idea of becoming right with God is closely related to the problem of sin. As Christians, we believe that sin is what separates us from God, and that we need to be saved from our sin. Under the Old Testament’s sacrificial system, God’s people became right with him by following his laws, including the laws governing sacrifices (found mostly in Leviticus —totally ok to skip when you’re reading through the Bible). The long and short of the sacrificial system was that when a person did something wrong, the penalty was death, but God allowed them to kill a spotless (read blameless) animal in their place, and see that sacrifice as having paid for (or atoned for) their sins. This was all well and fine, except that it required a sacrifice each and every time they sinned! Additionally, as we learn in Hebrews 5, even the high priest of Israel, who was responsible for offering sacrifices on behalf of all of Israel was weak, and had to offer sacrifices for his own sins.
Clearly, there was always supposed to be something more. As early as Genesis 3:15 we see a promise from God for someone who would eventually establish dominion over Satan and the evil he represents (we call this particular verse the Protevangelium, which means first gospel). Throughout the Bible, most scholars argue, the message of this coming triumph over sin is the uniting theme and greater narrative which lends relevance to its message.
With this in mind, it makes sense that the climax of the scriptural account would be the coming and life of that person who would establish dominion over sin, and we see this throughout the Hebrew Bible (much of which we call the Old Testament today). That is, the authors of those texts, especially the prophets spoke frequently about who he would be, how he would come and what he would do.
Even with all this preparation though, they did not recognize him when he was born as a child and when he was presented to them as the son of God!
- They expected a strong and powerful king who would free them from bondage and oppression.
- They expected one who would defeat their enemies and restore them to their former position of privilege and power.
- They expected a charismatic leader who would strike down evildoers and forever alter humanity and its dealings with God.
They got a humble, unremarkable God-man who gave himself as the atoning sacrifice for all of humanity.
- He is strong and powerful to free humanity from the bondage and oppression of sin and death, having defeated death.
- He defeated death and hell to restore those who have faith into a position of right standing with God for all of eternity.
- He humbled himself to death on a cross, and in doing so he struck down evil and allowed evildoers to come to repentance and be forever changed in their dealings with a holy God.
I am speaking of the man Jesus Christ, of course. In becoming a man, he subjected himself to every temptation we face (and according to Hebrews 4:15, did so without sinning). Because he did not sin, he was able to take upon himself the burden of our sins, to become sin on our behalf, according to 2 Corinthians 5:17. This means that in him, we can find forgiveness from our sins, new life, and reconciliation with God.
This is what we refer to when we speak of the atonement. It is the divine act of reconciliation between God and man, initiated and completed by God, who is the only innocent one in the transaction. We bring to him our evil and guilt, and he offers us the purity and sinless perfection of his only son. This transactional language carries with it the idea of debt and repayment. Simply put, sin (which, according to Romans 3:23 we are all guilty of) puts us in a position of debt to a holy God, who is also a righteous judge. As such, he cannot simply absolve us of our sin, it must be payed for. This is where the repayment of Christ’s atonement comes into play. He payed for our sin and took the punishment for it upon himself, crediting us with his own righteousness. This transaction takes place by God’s grace, through our faith, according to Ephesians 2:8-10.
Has the atonement changed your life? If it has not yet, I encourage you to carefully consider everything I’ve presented here, and recognize that it is simply one aspect of the glorious story of how God has reached out to humanity to bring them into reconciliation with himself. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions. If I can make anything more clear, I will do so.