Cross and Atonement - A Theological Perspective
Dr. Domenic Marbaniang
“Atonement,” in biblical terms, means bringing God and man at-one-ment. Sin is an infinitely unscalable wall that separates man from God. But, on the cross of Christ, this wall is broken and man is brought into an acceptable relationship with God.
In the Bible, terms such as “propitiation” (appeasement of God), “expiation” (removal of sins), “redemption” (buying out with a price), “substitution” (taking the sinner’s place), “reconciliation” (making peace between God and man), and “covering” explain the meaning of atonement. The central message is that we were enemies of God because of our sins, but Jesus, taking our place as our substitute on the Cross, covered us by coming between us and God, and took the flames of God’s justified wrath on His own body, thus putting an end to our sins and redeeming us from the condemnation and curse of the Law, as a result of which we are now reconciled to God and have peace with God. Therefore, Christ is called the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Some important facts about the atonement of Christ are:
1. Christ’s Atonement is God-Ordained. Christ did not die by the will of man but by the will of God. His atonement was pre-ordained. Therefore, Christ is called the Lamb foreordained and slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8; 1Pe 1:20).
2. Christ’s Atonement is Personal. Christ died for each individual in a very personal sense; so that one can say, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
3. Christ’s Atonement is Cosmic. Christ did not die just for me, but the sins of the whole world. “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jo 2:2).
4. Christ’s Atonement is Invaluable. Neither work of merit normaterial offering could atone for the sins of the world. Christ sacrificed Himself and shed His blood as the price of our redemption on the cross. “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold…but with the precious blood of Christ” (1Pe 1:18-19).
5. Christ’s Atonement is Unlimited. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world; He paid the price of redemption for every individual human being. In that sense, His atonement is limitless and impartial. However, every individual has the freedom to choose either to enter through the strait gate or walk in the wide way towards destruction (Heb 10:26-29).
6. Christ’s Atonement is Final. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the only one and final atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. The cross is the only hope of salvation (Heb.10:12, 26)
“Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).
7. Christ’s Atonement is Timelessly Effective. Christ’s atonement, though it took place in time, transcends time and is effective to save people who died in time past before the coming of Christ as well as save people who are now living 2000 years after the death and resurrection of Christ.
“Moreover, brethren … all our fathers… drank of that spiritual Rock that followedthem, and that Rock was Christ” (1Co 10:1-4).
“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, "In you all the nations shall be blessed" (Gal 3:7-8).
In the Old Testament, people offered animal sacrifices to make atonement with God. The Bible mentions sacrifices as existing from the very beginning of human history. In fact, when Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves after having fallen into sin, we read that God “made tunics of skin, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). Obviously, an animal was killed in order to provide a covering for them. It signifies that man’s sin and shame cannot be covered by any work of man but only by God’s own work of eternal sacrifice.Then, we see that Abel offered a sacrifice by faith and God was pleased with his sacrifice (Heb.11:4; Gen.4:4).
However, it is in the Law of Moses that we begin to get a very detailed understanding of sacrificial atonement. A number of sacrifices such as the Passover Lamb (Exo. 12), the Sin and Guilt Offerings (Lev. 4, 6), and the Red Heifer Offering (Num.19) point to and find fulfillment in the Atoning Sacrifice of Christ (1Cor.5:7; 2Cor.5:21; Heb.13:12). Of these, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) sacrifices have been specifically referred to in Hebrews 9.
The Day of Atonement Sacrifices
The OT law prescribed observance of the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month. The following are some significant features of this feast:
1. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could the High Priest enter into the Most Holy Place, entry to which is barred throughout the rest of the year (Lev.16:2).
2. The High Priest could only enter into the Most Holy Place, within the veil, with the blood of atonement on this day (Lev.16:3).
3. The High Priest had to first offer a sin offering for himself before he could offer a sin offering to a tone for the sins of the people.
Jesus, the true and real High Priest, our Mediator, became our atoning sacrifice on the cross, thus putting an end to the sacrificial rituals of the Old Testament. Unlike the High Priests in the Aaronic line, Jesus was sinless and eternal; therefore, the atonement that He made is eternal and unending and doesn’t require any other sacrifice anymore. Also, unlike the priests of the Old Testament, He did not enter any manmade building with the blood of animals, but entered the true Most Holy Place in heaven with His own blood procuring eternal redemption for us. In His body on the cross, the veil between God and man was torn and now we have access to the Holiest Place.
“Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing….But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:6-12)
“Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh…” (Heb.10:19, 20)
There are some who ask, “Why doesn’t God just forgive? Why does He require a sacrifice, and that of His own Son?” The idea of sacrifice is quite repulsive to many, though it is quite obvious that nothing is free in our universe, and something is always lost to gain something else. This happens every time someone is eating or someone is working or producing something. The idea of paying the price cannot be removed from the moral and judicial scene as well. Just imagine the scenario when judicial courts start pardoning criminals whenever they say “I am sorry”. Obviously, the very ones who ask “Why doesn’t God just forgive?” would be on the streets accusingthe judicial systems of irrationality and corruption. But, how is it that one can expect free pardon, without any payment of price, from the Judge of the Universe?
Some think that they can do something, some good work to merit forgiveness and salvation. They imagine that their good work will somehow outweigh the sins they have done. But, this is as irrational as a thief imagining that his crime would be pardoned because of his many charitable and generous deeds. The scales of justice do not measure good deeds against bad deeds; they measure whether an act was a criminal offence or not and whether an accused is guilty of it.
Sacrifice is nothing but the payment of the price of redemption. While, in the Old Testament, people offered animal sacrifices every year, these sacrifices were only symbolic of the price-that only life can atone for life: “from the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man” (Gen 9:5). But, no amount of animal sacrifice could atone for the sins of any individual. “What will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mat 16:26)
Jesus was the one whom the Father sent as atonement for our sins,not just because He was sinless, for even the Father and the Holy Spirit are sinless, but because:
1. All things were created through Him (Jn.1:3); therefore, only through Him could all things also be redeemed (Eph.3:9; Col.1:16; Heb.1:2).
2. He is the heir of all things (created for Him); therefore, He alone had the right to redeem all things (Heb.1:2,3).
3. The old creation was through Him; therefore, its end could also be through Him (1Cor.15:45; Jn.5:22)
4. The old creation was through Him; therefore, the new creation could also be through Him. (Rev.21:5)
5. It is in Him that all things consist (Col.1:17); therefore, it is in Him that all things (in heaven and on earth, not below earth) can be reconciled and gathered together (Eph.1:10).
6. It is by the word of His power that all things are upheld (Heb.1:3; 2Pet.3:7); therefore, it is by the word of His power alone that all things can be preserved for immortality (Jude 1:1).
7. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God; therefore, it is only through Him that humans can obtain adoption, the redemption of the body (Rom.8:15,23,28; Eph.1:5), and inheritance (Heb.9:15); so, that the only begotten Son of God could be the Firstborn among many brethren (Rom.8:29).
The Bible gives us a clear picture of who Jesus is and how His sacrifice was able to procure for us eternal salvation.
A Priest is a legally appointed Mediator who represents man before God; as such, Christ, appointed after the order of Melchizedek as a Priest forever, provides a better sacrifice than the blood of animals that the priests after the Aaronic order presented for centuries before Him. Their sacrifices couldn’t have efficacy since they had to make atonement for their own sins first, then for the sins of the people. In addition, the blood of temporal animals cannot adequately atone for the sins of mankind, because human sinfulness has eternal repercussions. Through the offering of His Body, the High Priest, Jesus Christ, opens up a way for us before God. We now have access to the Father. His appointment was official and His sacrifice without blemish; therefore, it was fully acceptable and satisfactory in the sight of God, and we also in Him.
Jesus Christ is made the surety of the New Covenant by which participants in the Covenant share in the blessings of the Covenant (Hebrews 7:22). Now, a surety is someone who provides a warrant or guarantee for another. Christ by His death and resurrection brought into changelesseffect the New Covenant and made us partakers of His eternal inheritance with the saints.
3. Son of God and Heir of All Things
Since all things were created through Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and in Him all things consist (Colossians 1:16-17), He alone held the prime responsibility for the salvation of all things. They belonged to Him; so, only He had the right to redeem them.
4. Sacrifice through the Eternal Spirit
Since He is God, only He by His infinite virtue could bridge the infinite chasm that sin created between God and man. His sacrifice through the Eternal Spirit made eternal and permanent atonement for mankind (Hebrews 9:14) and a way was open to the Holy of Holies through His flesh so that all who believe in Him could receive the promise of eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15; 10:20). No animal or man could repay the infinite penalty of human sin; but, the Son of God by His divine and endless power, by which He also overcame death and rose to life has eternally atoned for and permanently blotted out all sins of mankind, so that those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
The doctrine of atonement is very central to the Bible. To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in His work of atonement. The reason why the Son of God came to the world was because the world was made through Him – it ultimately belonged to Him. It was lost; yet, it was His. He was willing to leave alone the 99 in order to seek this one that was lost. But the world did not recognize Him, His own didn’t receive Him.The depth of estrangement and contortion was manifest in the kind of death administered: the death of the cross. Yet, the real story is not that the world rejected Him; the real story is that He was willing to let the world reject Him. Divine self-emptying, divine servanthood, and divine crucifixion are powerful themes that shock the philosophy of religion. Nietzsche called the greatest of all sins to be the murder of God (deicide). There was nothing more sinful than that. On the reverse, the greatest of all righteousness fulfilled was in the self-giving of the Son of God. This self-giving brought an end to the history of hostility between man and God. It cancelled all debts. Man had committed the greatest of all crimes, and God had allowed it to be done to Him in the ultimate divine sacrifice. The Cross was where Justice and Love met vis-à-vis. It was where man affirmed his estrangement and God affirmed His belongedness. It was where God accepted man as he was. The one act of righteousness by the Son of God nullified forever the writ of accusation against all humanity. The veil was torn away; the entrance is paved, now the ball is in our court. He has accepted us. Do we receive Him or choose to remain estranged?