The Atonement – Part One

As we study the history of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we find numerous passages mentioning atonement for sin.[1]  God required that the Israelites make a blood sacrifice in order to atone for their sins.  These sacrifices had to meet different criteria based on the different types of sin; they called for a male animal and unblemished (ie. Lev. 4:3).  In the same way, Christ becomes the ultimate sacrifice atoning for the sins of the world:  “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19)[2].  Wayne Grudem defines the atonement of Christ as “…the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.”[3]

Since the early years of the church, theologians have been discussing the meaning of the work of the cross.  Many theories have emerged in regards to its purpose and what it accomplishes; some true, and some false to the point of heresy.  For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the three of the most commonly held views: The Christus Victor[4] View, the Moral Government View, and the Penal Substitution View.  Although all three make very strong arguments I will make the case for the Penal Substitution View as the most biblically supported view of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The death of Christ on the cross is the center of evangelism.  His blood paid the price for our sins so that we could have salvation, by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ.  In other words, the atonement of Christ is the reconciliation of God and humanity through the sacrificial death of the Son.

In order to begin discussing the doctrine of the atonement, we must begin by looking into what this doctrine actually addresses.  According to Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy, the atonement addresses the following questions: “Why did Jesus have to die?  What did his death accomplish?  How did it accomplish this?  What relationship does Jesus’ death have with his life, on the one hand, and his resurrection on the other?”[5]  To answer these questions we must understand who God is, who we are, and what the cross means.

Throughout the Scriptures we can find an extensive list of the characteristics (or attributes) of God.  For the sake of brevity, we will focus on two of them: God is love and God is just.  1 John 5:16 states that “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  A much more familiar passage that speaks of God’s love is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Because of God’s incredible love for us, He set apart the Son to be sacrificed for our sins.  God’s holiness does not allow him to look upon sin, and humanity being stained by sin is eternally separated from God.  Christ being God, being perfect, laid down his life for us on the cross to bridge that gap, so that we could be reconciled with the Father and enjoy his fellowship.

God’s righteousness could not allow for sins to be simply forgiven, a penalty had to be paid.  The apostle Paul explains this in Romans 3:23-26: …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as 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.  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.

God’s perfect love and justice called for the atonement, “…without the love of God, he would never have taken any steps to redeem us, yet without the justice of God, the specific requirement that Christ should earn our salvation by dying for our sins would not have been met.”[6]  The Westminster Confession of Faith states that from the beginning God ruled that Christ would die for his elect (Gal 3:8; 1 Pet. 1:2, 19-20; Rom. 8:30), and in time “…rise for their justification: (Gal 4:4; 1 Tim. 2:6; Rom. 4:25).”[7]  This justification, however will only take place once the Holy Spirit calls them to Christ (Col. 1:21-22; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:4-7).[8]

                [1] See Exodus 29:36; 30:10; Leviticus 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30; 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10; 23:27; Nehemiah 10:33 as some examples of such passages.

                [2] All Scripture references taken from the ESV Study Bible.

                [3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 568.

                [4] Latin for “Christ is Victor.”

                [5] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 113.

                [6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569.

                [7] The Westminster Confession of Faith (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1996), Libronix Digital Libray System (accessed December 16 2010).

                [8] The Westminster.

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About Bárbara

I am a Christ follower, wife, mother, missionary, and Online Instructor for LU Online teaching Introduction to Missions. My family and I serve at Living Bread Ministries; planting churches among the desperately poor in South America. I have an MA in Intercultural Studies from LBTS. My passion is to see the Lord Jesus worshiped among the poor and needy and to see lives transformed by the power of the Gospel.
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