Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How Does the Atonement Work?

Back in the 1500's, William Tyndale coined the word atonement in an effort to more fully translate the biblical concept of an expiating sacrifice which had a propitiating effect. Getting right with God, it seemed to him, had two parts: 1) dealing justly with sin, and 2) restoring fellowship with God. To actually effect reconciliation, both parts had to be in place. Unfortunately for the sinner, accomplishing the first part would render him or her lost for eternity, thus making the second part moot.

The solution, born in God's grace, was the notion of vicarious sacrifice. By identifying with the sacrifice [see also Leviticus 4], the penitent could acknowledge and embrace the just retribution against his or her sin, while living on to experience reconciliation with God. God and the sinner would be seeing sin the same way, and God and vicariously punished sinner could be at one again. Atonement is about being on track with God, after the just dust of punishment has settled.

Sin is untenable if you think about it--withstanding an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnitemporal God just doesn't have a future! For God to allow sin to continue, sin would have to be part of who he was. Since he cannot cease being what he is, sin must be eradicated. That is, really, what death is: the quashing of sin (the Lake of Fire is the logical and ultimate conclusion to the problem of sin among spiritually eternal beings). From God's perspective, then, sin has already been dealt with, for all sinners die and then face the Lake of Fire.

From our perspective, that's not pleasant news at all. There is in the human soul a bit of Adam and Eve cowering in the bushes with the foreboding knowledge that our dying and death is the result of being rebels at odds with God. We're in a quandary: we don't want to die, but at the same time, we want to do what we want to do, even if God doesn't like it. Even if God waved a magic wand over us and returned us to life, without a change of heart we'd be dead again in a heartbeat!

So, to take care of sin, we first must repudiate it. Then its effects must be reversed and our consciences cleansed of the memory. Only then could we be emboldened enough to come out from behind the bushes and meet our Maker face to face. Then we'd have to go on with him, if he'd have us, walking trustingly, always in agreement with him.

If such an atonement is to take place, God must take the initiative, for we have no power or standing to do so. His heart must make a way to reach past the wall of sin and death and bring home the prodigals who would want to come home. In doing so, he'd have to retain the perfection of his justness (Godhood) while simultaneously justifying sinners who are not just. Substitution is the only avenue.

That which isn't guilty, must willingly adopt our sin as his own and take the heat for it, literally. Thereby, the cathartic that frees the penitent to stand unashamed in the presence of the holy God would be provided. This was accomplished in Christ Jesus. The sinless Son of God, became a man, offered himself in our place, to be our sin and to suffer our death.

The punishment of God against us was fully poured out on Jesus Christ. He died in our sin, forsaken by the Holy God. However, since he was faithful to God's will unto death, he rose from the dead on the third day, victor over our sin and death. By such, he became the means by which we can stand assured before and reconciled to God. Those that trust in this atonement made by Christ are, by the means of it, made one with God.


  1. The second part you describe:
    2) restoring fellowship with God, seems to be the most overlooked aspect of the atonement. I have noticed it has been replaced with the little understood concept of “being saved”. However in most instances an actual nuts and bolts definition of “being saved” is lacking.
    Most people tend to look at it as being saved from hell (or more accurately becoming SAFE from hell – there is a significant difference. “Safe” tends to indicate a finality that can not be compromised).
    I see your second point better describes the intended result of the atonement – the restoration of fellowship with God. Everything else (those things that we generally call “salvation”) are merely the added benefits of that restored relationship with God and they are benefits that are conditional upon faithfully maintaining that relationship.

  2. Onesimus,
    I like your understanding of the subject. I'm often heard to say salvation isn't about a ticket out of hell, but an entry into heaven. Folk have no trouble wanting to get out of hell, wanting to hang out with God tends to be another story. If one doesn't enjoy God now, what do they think they'd do with eternity anyhow?

  3. So, you're saying God's way of eradicating sin is by torturing billions of people for all eternity??? That, making people suffer the worst sort of pain is how ya set the universe free of sins, maybe including the sin of CAUSING OTHER PEOPLE TO SUFFER???

    Dude! That's just twisted!

    And guess what? This idea of Hell is completely contradictory to what Jesus originally taught about God's nature!

    I've actually written an entire book on this topic--Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

  4. Rick,
    Dude, you're out to lunch! You have no basis in ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, or the writings of early church fathers to make your claims. Which would lead me to the conclusion that you make them because you don't like the concept of hell. That doesn't make it not so!

    Jesus clearly taught there was an eternal, fiery hell: Matthew 5:21ff, 10:26ff, 18:7ff; Mark 9:42ff; Luke 12:4ff, 16:19ff.

    We can do nothing but accept it as fact if we understand Christ to be God, the Son, incapable of deceit or lie.


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