This is being written to comply with a specific request that a layman discuss the meaning of the Atonement in terms a layman can understand. Definitions will be limited to terms that are more or less familiar to laymen, and discussion will be kept within the framework of the teachings of the Bible.
On the legal level, atonement means a satisfactory reparation for an offense or injury. Unjust as some awards may be, payment for injury to persons and property resulting from an automobile accident carries with it the implication of atonement to the one injured.
In the realm of theology, the Atonement means “at-one-ment” between God and man which is made possible by Christ’s death on the cross for our sins and by all of the implications of that death.
Let it be said at the outset that no one definition of the Atonement can possibly cover all of the marvelous implications of this wonderful act of God’s love for sinful man. Nor can it cover all that is involved in Christ’s coming into the world, living, dying, and being raised again.
Our concern is therefore with some of the immediate and eternal effects which the Atonement has on those who believe in Christ as the Son of God and as Saviour from sin, and who make him the Lord of life.
The need for the atonement goes back to the basic problem of sin.
Sin is described as “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” It is a universal disease affecting all men everywhere. Our newspapers recount multiplied acts of overt sin. Our world unrest is due to the failure of men to keep God’s holy laws. Our own hearts convict us of sins of thought, word, and deed—sins of commission and of omission. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and we see evidence of this on every hand every day,
The effect of sin is separation from God—spiritual death.
Man’s need for the Atonement can only be understood in the light of God’s holiness. Because of that holiness, it is impossible for sinful man to have fellowship with God, for there exists between unregenerate man and this holy God a gulf of separation across which no man could pass and live.
The atonement of Christ, designed in the counsels of eternity and carried out on the Cross of Calvary, is God’s marvelous way of combining in one glorious act his holiness, righteousness, and justice with his love, mercy, and forgiveness. It is the bridging of a chasm.
Here we have the eternal Son of God, also the perfect Son of Man, becoming the one person who has ever lived who could take on himself the guilt, the penalty, and all of the implications of sin and its effects now and for eternity, and make it possible for the believer to be transformed into a righteous person in God’s sight.
These are not my ideas, nor could any man think up, much less make effective, such a remedy for mankind.
These truths are so clearly taught in the Bible that to evade them requires an act of rejection and repudiation of words capable of no other honest interpretation.
The first objection usually raised is that this makes God a vengeful being, full of hate and only requited by the sacrifice of his Son. Actually, the very opposite is the case. It is because he loves so very much that he has provided a way of escape for the sinner.
The actual stumbling block is man’s unwillingness to admit the awfulness of sin on the one hand and the holiness of God on the other. Admit these two truths and all of the other implications of the Atonement fall into a glorious and perfect pattern.
Another objection frequently expressed by humanists and others who reject clear biblical teaching is that this, in their opinion, makes of God a bloody tyrant, willing to forgive only on the basis of the sufferings of a sacrificial victim. These speak of the doctrine of the blood Atonement as a “slaughterhouse religion.”
But if God loves us enough to send his Son to redeem us, there must have been a valid reason. Certainly it did not lie in the realm of tyranny, but in the light of the magnitude of the offense of sin to be found in all human hearts and in the magnitude of the atoning sacrifice necessary to cleanse from that sin.
Who is man that he should argue with God? Who is the creature that he should debate with the Creator over his sinfulness? Who is man that he should question the God-designed and given method whereby he may be freed from the guilt and penalty of that sin?
Not long ago, the writer thoughtlessly went into the offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Washington to buy a Southern Railway ticket. There was nothing arbitrary or unreasonable in my being informed that they did not sell tickets for the Southern Railway.
God is neither arbitrary nor unreasonable in requiring that man shall accept redemption for his sins through the means and on the terms he has provided. Someday those who have willfully rejected his loving way of salvation, purchased at such terrific cost, will experience more than a mere sense of embarrassment.
In the Atonement Christ has done something for us which we could not do for ourselves. Salvation becomes a matter of receiving, not achieving; of accepting God’s gracious gift by faith, not going about to earn something which can never be earned.
The result: one of the marvels of the Atonement is that our sins are imputed to Christ—he has become sin in our stead. He has borne the penalty and guilt. At the same time, his glorious righteousness is imputed to us so that we become righteous in God’s sight. Impossible? No. Unbelievable? Not when viewed in the light of God’s love. Unacceptable? Only to those who reject it—and who are thereby lost.
“And He personally bore our sins in His own body on the Cross, so that we might be dead to sin and be alive for all that is good. It was the suffering that He bore that has healed you” (1 Pet. 2:24, Phillips).
“For I passed on to you Corinthians first of all the message I had myself received—that Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures said He would; that He was buried and rose again on the third day, again as the Scriptures foretold” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4, Phillips).
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the danger in rejecting God’s provision: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy [common] thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
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