There’s a phrase I heard thirty years ago that I like to use: Those who know all the answers haven’t heard all the questions. It’s a good one to remember when it comes to things we take for granted, sometimes for our entire lives, until someone else brings it up.
And there isn’t anything about Christian theology that is more pivotal— or controversial— than the Atonement.
According to most dictionaries, to atone is to make amends or restitution in order to restore a relationship. In regards to our faith, that’s pretty simple and straightforward: Jesus paid the price to reconcile us to God. But the problem comes in explaining to the lost why it is that only spilled blood can atone for sin. After all, we don’t demand the death penalty for even some pretty serious crimes, and all Adam did was eat some fruit.
This can take us on wide-ranging and deeply philosophical journies into the very nature of God and the question of free will in mankind, but for the purpose of this writing, it’s only necessary to acknowledge that God is infinite and perfect. Everything hinges upon these attributes of God, but rather than try to explain why God is the way He is, we will just take these basic attributes as a given.
Why does God require sacrifice for sin? Because He is both holy and infinite, and thus cannot be in close communion with the impure. That which is impure has nowhere to go (in eternity) to get away from the omnipresent God, but go it must. So the body returns to dust, but what about the spirit? Hence the need for hell (or ultimately, the Lake of Fire), a place of “not God”. Death is necessary because separation is necessary. God is also Love, and a love that is forced in return is unworthy of the One who is Love. So God allows us the freedom to either obey or rebel, to reconcile or remain separated.
This is brought out in Rom. 6:1-5, which explains that in Christ we participated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We died to sin, we died to the world, we died to the deception of the Adversary, and now we live to God. The Spirit is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Eph. 1:14), the promise of an immortal body and direct fellowship with God for eternity. But it could not be forced upon all, though the needed death was suffered for all.
So sin requires separation, and separation from God must be eternal. While the body can literally die, the spirit cannot, so “the second death” is spiritual separation. And since “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27), this life is the only chance to be reconciled. But questions will arise as we examine specific scriptures. Let’s list the scriptures and then address the other big question: substitution.
- 1 Cor. 15:3b, Gal. 1:4a “Christ died on account of our sins …” These passages do not say that Christ died to take sins away, but that sins were the reason for the sacrifice.
- 1 Peter 2:24a “who carried up our sins in his body on the wood …” Christ’s body was the sacrifice on the altar, and like the lamb under Mosaic law, carried our sins away.
- 1 John 2:2a “and he is the atonement concerning our sins …” Jesus is the sacrifice that removes the barrier between God and mankind.
- Mark 10:45 “… to give his life as a ransom for many …” A ransom is money paid to release someone from the captivity of another.
- 1 Tim. 2:5-6, Heb. 9:15 “… mediator of a new covenant… ransom for all people… from sins under the old covenant” Jesus is both Mediator of a contract between God and mankind, and the ransom payment for “all”.
- 2 Tim. 2:26 “… the Adversary, who has laid a trap for them and taken them captive …” The questions “To whom was the ransom paid? Who held us captive?” are answered here.
Notice first of all that Jesus did more than sacrifice; He also mediated a contract and paid a ransom.
Heb. 9:16 tells us that in order for a will to be executed, the testator’s death must be proved. Our inheritance could therefore not be received until the testator, God in human flesh, died. But in what way did we require being ransomed from the devil? I think it is in our being deceived and captive in a world of corruption, such that Jesus “payment” allows us to be freed from those things. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness he offered Him the cities of the world, which had to be his to offer. And 2 Cor. 4:4 tells us that he is “the god of this age”.
But what about the matter of Substitution? How can anyone pay for the crime of another? When the criminal is incapable of paying it.
What if someone under Mosaic law was sorry for a sin but had no sacrifice? They would have to rely on the mercy of someone else to provide it. This is exactly what Jesus did for us. As the sinless human he provided himself as the sacrifice we could not obtain. It is our sin that must die, because it is our sin that is impure. By placing our trust in Jesus, we have His perfection as our sacrifice.
But just as the one with a sacrifice would not be forgiven if they still clung to their sin, so also the one who wants Jesus’ sacrifice but refuses to repent of their sin remains unforgiven. As I’ve said many times, it takes both faith in the risen Jesus and willingness to be reconciled to God in order for anyone to be saved. Being reconciled means being willing to give up anything and everything that displeases God. So we cannot come to God with the intent of demanding we can keep certain sins, nor can we come to Him without the right Sacrifice.
One definition of forgiveness is to suffer an injustice without demanding restitution. And as I’ve said before, only the one who is wronged can forgive. But some object that God did demand restitution, and therefore He could not have forgiven us. But they don’t realize that since God paid His own penalty, then He did in fact suffer without being compensated. That is what made it possible for Him to forgive us. And it had to be this way in order to satisfy His eternal holy nature.
Now we come to the question that naturally follows: what is judgment for? If we have been redeemed and reconciled, and the contract fulfilled, why are we still responsible for our actions, and how could there really be any justice if we weren’t? The lost struggle especially with that one, because they think God gives Christians a license to sin, while well-behaved people who don’t accept Jesus burn in hell.
As Paul so forcefully argued in Romans 6, we died to sin; our relationship with this evil, corrupt world is broken. But for believers, this is a question of lost rewards, not unpaid sins. Since salvation is a gift received by faith alone, and since a gift cannot be an earned wage, then anything scripture says about earned wages cannot be related to salvation, but only rewards (Rom. 11:6). And clearly, from 1 Cor. 3:12-15, we can lose everything yet still be in heaven. There will be justice!
And the inverse is true for the lost. God would not force them to reconcile, because true reconciliation is impossible unless both parties agree to it freely. But though their fate in the Lake of Fire was sealed by refusing to reconcile with God on His terms, Rev. 20:13 tells us that they too will be held accountable for their actions. We can infer that there will be levels of suffering on the basis of how they lived, because otherwise there’d be no need for judging them at all.
I realize this is complicated, but it took the genius of God to accomplish our redemption without violating His nature or our free will. The sacrifice Jesus made, and of course His resurrection from the dead, was an amazing feat that in one stroke fulfilled a Promise, redeemed a people, and defeated an enemy.