The Atonement: An Eternal Perspective and a Historical Work
In John 10:17–18, Jesus teaches the relation between God’s eternal decree to save and Christ’s work on earth: ‘For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.’1
By the phrase ‘I lay down My life’, Jesus refers to his work of substitutionary atonement (see John 10:15). In verse 18 he asserts that by his voluntary death he is accomplishing the commandment of the Father and enjoys the Father’s favour; the Father has a complacent love for Christ the Mediator, delighting in him and his faithfulness. This assertion moves the discussion of the atonement back into the triune eternal council.
The Eternal Plan
The Bible teaches that God had eternally determined to save a people and that he chose a specific people to that end. Consider, for example, Paul’s glorious declaration in Ephesians 1:4-5, ‘He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.’ This remarkable expression of God’s love, however, must overcome the obstacle of God’s justice. For how can a holy, just God save a sinful people? He has declared that the soul that sins must die, and he abominates those who justify the wicked (Ezek. 18:4; Prov. 17:15). How then is God to save a people whom he ought to condemn?
The answer to the dilemma, which of course is no dilemma for God, is to save them by a covenant mediator. Note in Ephesians that God chose us in Christ Jesus (1:4, 5). God never loved his people apart from Christ Jesus. In fact, it was God’s eternal plan to redeem us through his Son. He chose us in him.
God has always dealt with the human race through a covenant head. Adam represented us in the garden. If he had obeyed, he would have merited (by covenant appointment) life for himself and the entirety of his posterity. In his rebellion, he plunged us, as well as himself, into the morass of sin, guilt, condemnation, and death. Though Adam broke the Covenant of Works, its inexorable demands and inflexible penalty remain in force. Christ would come as the second Adam to accomplish what the first Adam failed to do: to obey perfectly and to pay the penalty of sin.
It was God’s eternal purpose to save us in this manner. It was worked out in an eternal transaction between God the Father and God the Son in prospect of his incarnation. This transaction established the terms and conditions to be accomplished by Christ in purchasing the salvation of his people.
The Father covenanted to prepare a body and soul for the Son, to bestow on him the three-fold office necessary to accomplish this work, to anoint him with the Spirit, to uphold him in all his work, and to accept his work for his people. The Spirit agreed to equip the Son incarnate with all gifts, graces, and powers necessary to accomplish his ministry, to sustain him in His suffering, and to be bestowed by him on his people. God the Father promised the Son that he would see the salvation of his elect. He would invest him with honour and power, and would make him judge of heaven and earth.
In this eternal transaction Christ assented to the conditions and assumed them with full joy, agreeing to be Covenant Head, Mediator, and Surety; he united the two natures in his person, and agreed to be the second Adam in order to fulfil the demands of the Covenant of Works. For this reason he is called the Servant of Jehovah, whose chief delight was to do the will of the Father (Isa. 42:1–9; 49:5–7; 52:13–53:12). He accepted the promises and strengthened himself by them (Heb. 12:2).
The entirety of Christ’s work may be summarized under the concept of obedience. He became the God-man in order to fulfil the stewardship entrusted to him from eternity, to accomplish the terms, and to bear the punishments of the broken covenant.
Traditionally, his obedience is described under two headings: active obedience and passive obedience. In his active obedience he fulfilled the terms of the covenant by perfectly obeying God. From his submission to his parents (Luke 2:51), to his baptism (Matt. 3:15), to his mediatorial submission to God’s law (Matt. 5:17), to his resisting temptation (Matt. 4:1–11), and to his submission to trial and suffering (Heb. 5:8), he perfectly obeyed his Father. His obedience was essential to his work as mediator and covenant head. Paul summarizes the importance of Christ’s obedience and relates it to our justification in Romans 5:19, ‘For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous.’
His passive obedience refers to his work of suffering for the sins of his people. The phrase does not mean that his will was passive in his obedience. He actively offered up his body and soul as the sacrifice for the sins of his people, submitting to the Father’s will in his suffering (2 Cor. 5:21). Scripture describes Christ’s passive obedience in four distinct categories.
Christ’s Expiation of Our Sins
Expiation describes Christ’s work as a substitutionary sacrifice, by which he cleanses us from the guilt and the defilement of sin. John calls him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). John sees him in Revelation 5 as a Lamb slain. This terminology directs our attention to the Old Testament sacrificial system.
The sacrifices, in their entirety and multiplicity, served as types of the atoning work of Christ. The two key components of the sacrificial system were representation and imputation. These two aspects are illustrated in the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement. Annually on that day the high priest entered the holy of holies with sin offerings for himself and for the people (Lev. 16:11, 15). In these transactions the priest and people confessed that it was they who deserved to die; the animals were slain in their place.
The second aspect is imputation. The term means to place upon. We practise imputation today when we electronically transfer money from one account to another. This transaction was an essential part of the Day of Atonement:
When he finishes atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. And the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness (Lev. 16:20–22).
In this ceremonial act the sins of the people were imputed to the goat. It was led into the wilderness to depict the fact that the guilt of the sins of the people had been removed from them, ‘As far as the east is from the west’ (Psa. 103:12).
Now, for someone to be a fit substitute, an appropriate relationship must exist between the substitute and that for which it is substituted. The blood of bulls and goats could not atone for man’s sin – the substitute for a human being had to be a man. It was for this reason that the Son of God became a man.
Jesus Christ, being a man, is the suitable sacrifice. Moreover, he is also the only sufficient sacrifice. For the death of a mere man could not satisfy infinite wrath nor bring everlasting salvation. Thus, being the God-man, he made infinite and eternal satisfaction (Westminster Larger Catechism 38–40). Christ was the expiatory sacrifice who purged our sins (Heb. 9:14, 28). He was appointed by God to be the vicarious representative of his people. Isaiah 53: 4–10 pictures him as crushed and destroyed for the sins of his people. Moreover, our sin was imputed to him as our representative (Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Christ, the Propitiation for Our Sins
The second concept is propitiation. To propitiate someone is to remove his anger by satisfying justice. The concept is closely related to the sacrificial work of Christ, but has a different end in view. As expiation purges from sin and guilt, propitiation deals with the satisfaction of God’s wrath and justice. Many despise the concept of propitiation, thinking that it suggests a God who has uncontrollable fury, which is inconsistent with God’s love.
Wrath in God, however, is his settled, holy disposition toward sinners. His justice demands their execution. He hates them as well as their sins.
Moreover, there is no disjunction between love and propitiation. John writes, ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). God loved some objects of his wrath (Eph. 2:3) so much that he gave his own Son to be the sacrifice for their sins.
As the Old Testament sacrifices picture the expiatory nature of Christ’s work, they also depict the propitiatory nature of his work. The cover of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Priest sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement, was called the propitiatory seat, signifying that the sacrifice removed God’s wrath.
The New Testament writers describe the atoning work of Christ as propitiation (1 John 1:2, 4; 4:10; Heb. 2:17). In Romans 3:24 and the following verses Paul teaches that God justifies us on the basis of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ:
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus: whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
On the cross of Calvary, Christ bore the full stroke of God’s wrath (Matt. 27:46).
Christ Makes Reconciliation
The third concept is reconciliation. The meaning of this word lies close to the biblical idea of propitiation. The sinner is alienated from God and is looked upon as God’s enemy (Isa. 59:2). Reconciliation is the divine provision for the removal of that alienation and for the reestablishment of harmony, peace, friendship, and fellowship between God and the sinner.
This notion is depicted in the peace offerings of the Old Testament, in which the worshipper ate the flesh of the offering (Lev. 7:15 and the following verses). By this act God demonstrated that the worshipper was in communion with him. Two New Testament passages particularly teach about reconciliation: Romans 5:8–11 and 2 Corinthians 5:18–19. We will look at 2 Corinthians 5:18:
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Paul views reconciliation as accomplished by the finished work of Christ. Because of that work, God does not count trespasses against those reconciled to him. The emphasis here is upon God’s enmity toward us being removed. Even though we are commanded to be reconciled to God, this language always refers to the removal of the enmity of the one to whom we are to be reconciled. Thus it is not our antipathy toward God that is dealt with in the work of reconciliation, but God’s enmity against us. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God declares that this reconciliation has fully been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ Our Redeemer
The fourth concept is redemption. Redemption views the atonement from the perspective of a payment made to God. Redemption views Christ’s work as a ransom by which the bondage of sin is removed and the lost inheritance is restored. Jesus says in Matthew 20:28 that he came to give his life a ransom, and Paul in Acts 20:28 refers to the church purchased (redeemed by the blood of God).
In the Old Testament two basic ideas were attached to the idea of redeem, ransom and redemption. The first is deliverance from punishment.
In Exodus 21:30 the man who was liable to death, because he carelessly allowed his dangerous ox to gore someone to death, could be delivered from the death penalty by paying a ransom: ‘If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him.’ Paul applies this to Christ in Galatians 3:13, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”’
That ransom to God is made clear in Revelation 5:9. ‘Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.’
The second aspect of redemption is the restoration of inheritance. In Leviticus 25:25, a kinsman-redeemer could pay a family debt, restore the land, and raise up an heir (as in the case of Boaz and Ruth). In Galatians 4:5–7 Paul applies redemption to our adoption:
In order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons . . . Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son than an heir through God.
Adam not only plunged us into the morass of guilt and corruption, but he lost also the family farm. Our inheritance as sons of God was forfeited.
Christ paid the debt of our sin so that God could restore the right and privileges of adoption. Christ, therefore, by his active and passive obedience, fulfilled the Father’s commandment. In his suffering he accomplished four things: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Through his work he fully accomplished salvation.
Moreover, in John 10:17–18, Jesus says he also has ‘authority to take it (His life) up again’. The resurrection is the great proof that God has accepted the work of Christ on behalf of sinners. If Christ had remained under the power of death, he would have been rejected by God. His enemies would have been correct. But, on the third day, he was raised. By the resurrection God vindicated his Son; the Father declared that he accepted the Son and his work (Rom. 1:4).
When Christ accomplished redemption he was working out God’s eternal plan of salvation. Thus the work of God could not fail; all whom the Father gave to the Son, the Son redeemed perfectly and fully. Only divine wisdom could have devised a plan for the salvation of sinners that enabled God to be just, while justifying sinners.
This article first appeared in the March 2004 edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine.
What Can We Learn from John Knox? November 24, 2022
If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one. Sometimes he could be severe, and sometimes extreme. Given the days and the harshness of the persecution he witnessed, it would be understandable if these elements had preponderated in his ministry. But […]
Reformed, But Ever Reforming October 31, 2022
It is rather audacious to claim that we are reformed. It can also be misleading when we call ourselves Reformed Churches. For this might imply that we believe that our denominations are truly reformed; or, even worse, that at some point in the past we were or became reformed and that the task of reform […]