The Atonement: God’s Design

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ATONEMENT: (noun)

reparation for a wrong or injury

reparation or expiation for sin

the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ

 

No excuse. None has an excuse. The world’s view, false religions view, or “karma” : you get what you deserve.

Christianity: Jesus got what you deserve.

 

There is no sin or transgression, pain or sorrow, which is outside of the healing power of His, Jesus Christ the Lord’s atonement. No transgression exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Jesus Christ the Lord. None have any excuse. Jesus Christ the Lord took upon Himself on the cross the sins, the pain, the sorrows, the transgressions of any and all who will turn to Him in faith, believe and become one of His, become one of His true disciples.

 

The Atonement: God’s Design

 

By Ian Hamilton, Editor and Trustee of the Banner of Truth, Inverness, Scotland

Reprinted from the December 2018 Banner of Truth

The Banner of Truth

 

 

The atonement accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross is the glory and centerpiece of the Christian Faith. God’s Son had come into the world, so he told us himself, to give his life a ransom for many.

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:45 — English Standard Version

Paul confirmed to Timothy that Christ Jesus gave himself ‘a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:6, Greek: antilutron huper panton).

who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:6 — English Standard Version

Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14). He wrote to the church in Corinth, ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). The cross, that is the sin-bearing, sin-atoning, wrath-quenching, death-defeating, Satan-conquering work of Christ, was God’s ordained way to reconcile judgment-deserving sinners to himself, rescuing them from the ‘wages of sin’ which is eternal death (Romans 6:23). He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:24 — English Standard Version

This much every Bible-believing Christian believes and unceasingly blesses God for the love which spared not only his Son but gave him up for us all.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:32 — English Standard Version

But throughout the history of the church, Bible-believing Christians have differed in answering the question, For whom did Christ die? Many Christians maintain that Christ died for everyone, the finally saved and the finally unsaved. Other Christians are equally persuaded that Christ died not for everyone but for a definite number given to him by his Father, God’s elect. Both groups of Christians want to be faithful to God’s word. Both groups want to honour what Christ did on the cross.

I should make it clear at the outset that I am writing as someone committed to what is often called ‘limited atonement’, that Christ died to save and reconcile to God a multitude no man can number, a multitude given to him by his Father, of whom he will lose not one. (Actually every Christian believes in a limited atonement. We either believe its intended design is limited, or that the number of people ultimately saved by Christ’s atonement is limited.) Why do I hold this conviction? I could point you to a number, a large number, of texts which specifically speak of the Lord Jesus giving his life for a specific group and number of people. However, my conviction regarding the specific extent of Christ’s atonement rests not on isolated texts, but, above all, on the nature of his death on the cross. Put simply, did Jesus Christ come to make atonement for sin, or did he come to  make atonement for sin possible? By his sinless life and sin-atoning death, did Jesus make salvation potential and possible for everyone, or did he actually make atonement for sin, securing salvation for those he came to save?

The answer to our question will be found by asking three related questions: Who was Jesus Christ? What did his death actually accomplish? How was the Holy Trinity involved in the work of salvation?

Christ our covenant head

It may seem too obvious to ask the question, Who was Jesus Christ? every Christian knows he was, and is the Son of God, the eternal Word made flesh. This is undeniably true. But the NT in particular highlights another significant truth about the God-man: his representative nature. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul sees humankind represented by ‘two Heads’, Adam and Christ. By Adam’s sin, all sinned. By Christ’s obedience, many are made righteous. How could that be possible? Because God had constituted Adam and Christ ‘representative’ or ‘covenant heads’. In their persons and in their actions they would act for everyone they represented. When Adam fell, everyone whom he represented fell in him. in his representative headship Adam represented the whole of humankind. In his perfect obedience, even unto death, Christ represented, not the whole of humankind, but everyone who would ever believe in him. Paul understood this foundational Biblical truth in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

Unless you are a universalist and believe in the salvation of the whole of humanity, denying in the process the Bible’s teaching on hell, the ‘all’ who are made alive in Christ are the ‘all’ of whom Christ is Head.

Jesus’ covenant identity as the appointed Head of God’s elect means but one thing — in the life he lived and in the death he died, he represented the people he came to save. The angel’s declaration to Joseph put it simply and gloriously: ‘He will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Thomas Goodwin the English Puritan put the matter memorably” ‘The whole of humanity is either tied to Adam’s or Christ’s apron strings.”

Whose apron strings are you tied to?

Romans 5:12-21 — English Standard Version

Death in Adam, Life in Christ

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Definite atonement

Alongside his representative or covenantal identify, it is the nature of Christ’s work on the cross that insists he died not for everyone everywhere, but for a definite and defined company of men, women, boys and girls. The Scriptures nowhere explain Christ’s death in terms of potentiality. God’s Son was not sent to make salvation possible, but to accomplish and secure salvation. Salvation is not completed when I believe; it was completed on Calvary’s bloody cross. Faith is not insignificant, but it not my faith that saves me. My faith receives the finished work of Christ, or better, receives Christ as the accomplisher of God’s salvation. This is the uniform teaching of the Bible. Reflect on these verses: Hebrews 1:3, ‘When he had made purification for sins…’; ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21); ‘The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53-:6 — the whole chapter is worthy of careful reading): ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The cry of triumph, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), signaled the perfection, not the potential, of Jesus’ sin-atoning death.

The teaching of these verses is not that the Lord Jesus removed the sin that separates us all from God, placing everyone in a state of ‘salvability’. But his life and death, our Saviour actually saved sinners. Let me say again, our faith (and it is our faith) does not complete or add in any way to the salvation achieved by the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is a receptive grace; it receives, it does not create. Horatius Bonar put it memorably:

Upon a life I did not live,

A death I did not die;

Another’s life, Another’s death,

                    I stake my whole eternity.

Christ offered to all

None of this means that we are not to preach the gospel to everyone without exception. God commands everyone everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30). In this open-hearted appeal, Jesus is not defining conditions for coming to him, but stressing that everyone, no matter who or what they are, can come to him. We are not in a position to reconcile the truth of Christ making propitiation only for God’s elect, with the no less Biblical truth that we are to call, appeal to, and compel as we are able, the whole world to come to Christ and be saved. No more can we fathom the two foundational truths of the Christian faith, the Threeness and Oneness of God, and the mystery of the hypostatic union of the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Christians are not rationalists, for ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’ (Romans 11:33-36). On the cross, our Saviour achieved, accomplished once and for all, the work of salvation. That salvation, or better, the Saviour himself, we are commanded to hold out and offer to everyone in the world, without exception. We do not offer Christ to awakened sinners, convicted sinners, burdened sinners; we offer Christ, in God’s name, to all sinners (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 — English Standard Version

The Holy Trinity

One final question needs to be answered: What was the involvement of the Holy Trinity in Christ’s saving work? This is a huge problem for Christians who deny definite or limited atonement. if the Father sent his Son to save everyone, why did the Son not save everyone? If the Son gave himself on the cross to save everyone, why doe the Holy Spirit not bring everyone savingly to Christ? Are we to posit some kind of internal disjunction within the Holy Trinity? Never! Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God and always act in complete and perfect harmony. If the Holy spirit does not apply Christ’s salvation to everyone it is only because this was not the will of the Father, not the intention of the Saviour. If you are tempted to reply, ‘But it is our unbelief that resists the Spirit, refuses the salvation won by the Saviour and frustrates the will of the Father’, you forget two things: Nothing and no one can frustrate God’s will, and unbelief was a sin Christ aid the price for on his cross.

However, just as the Bible speaks more about the duty and necessity of faith than the grace of faith, so we must speak more about the glory and grace of the atonement than its divine design to save the elect — this was the apostolic method in preaching and teaching. Too often Reformed Christians have been more concerned to contend for the truth of limited atonement than to be known as men (usually men sadly) who glory in the cross of Christ and who speak of the atonement out of lives captivated by the wonder and inexplicable grace of that atonement. ‘We preach Christ crucified’ ought and must be the defining mark of a gospel minister. May it be so, for God’s glory, our people’s blessedness, and our own usefulness.

Isaiah 53 — English Standard Version

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with  grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

 

 

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