Atonement

Preaching and Worship Resources about Atonement

Atonement is an event or process that makes up for sin, typically through a sacrifice of something valuable by the sinner. Israel sacrificed food, oil, wine, and especially animals. The gospel's central claim is that Jesus Christ's sacrificial death has overwhelmed and replaced the older forms of sacrifice. He is now "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Christ's atonement may be expressed as expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, or redemption (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013], 902 - 903). A couple of texts suggest that Jesus's atoning sacrifice is also an instructive example for the rest of us to follow. Our own atonement for sins against each other may include reparation, apology, repentance, and penance (Richard Swinburne, "The Christian Scheme of Salvation." In A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology, ed. Oliver Crisp [London: T&T Clark, 2009], 358), but seldom involves a surrogate. Theological discussions of atonement are often difficult, and they typically leave lingering mysteries.

In Scripture

"[The suffering servant] was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isa. 53:5 - 6, 12).

"While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, `Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, `Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matt. 26:26 - 28).

"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

"[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, `Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29).

"`No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again'" (John 10:18).

"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith" (Rom 3:23 - 25).

"If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life" (Rom. 5:10).

"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 Cor. 5:21).

"He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17).

"[Christ] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. . . . He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb. 9:12, 26 - 28).

"You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18 - 19).

"To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps" (1 Pet. 2:21).

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Pet. 2:24).

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1 - 2).

"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another" (1 John 3:16).

"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

Points to Ponder

God does not tolerate human sin: Central to the biblical understanding of sin and atonement is that God typically does not — will not — simply tolerate human sin. When someone sins, someone must pay. It's instructive in this respect to note that the fall into sin described in Genesis 3 is followed immediately by the story in Genesis 4 of Cain and Abel bringing offerings to the Lord.

Offerings are sacrifices: In making an offering a believer recognizes that all belongs to God, that the offering is a return of God's gifts, and that it signifies love and devotion to God. That an offering is costly makes it a sacrifice. Because animals were more valuable than cereal, oil, or wine, offering them was a bigger sacrifice for their owner. Therefore, in Old Testament rituals, animals were the usual sacrifice. Because blood was thought to be the most obvious symbol of their life, the Old Testament sacrifices of animals often involve manipulation of their blood.

Leviticus 4 - 6 describe sin and guilt offerings. Those involve the burning of an animal carcass in a prescribed way, and they achieve atonement for the sinners who bring the offering.

Modern readers of Leviticus may find all the prescriptions for sacrifice bewildering. Why are they so elaborate and detailed? Why are they so important to God? Why did they require an army of priests with exact roles to play? Why is blood spilled, daubed, flung, sprinkled? The world of sacrifice seems to be a world apart from ours.

The sacrifice of a single victim is radical: That's why the New Testament claim that atonement now depends on the sacrifice of a single victim is radical. In some ways the change is a remarkable simplification — one victim, one cross-shaped altar, one sacrifice, one death. Yet the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is profound because the one who sacrifices himself is not just an animal, but a man, and not just a man, but also the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. For the first time in sacred history there is a self-sacrificing death inside of God. Two days later, for the first time in sacred history there is a resurrection inside God.

Jesus Christ's death is an expiation of human sin. He took human sin upon himself, suffered the penalty of it in an infinitely painful death, and so removed it from sinners. One horrifying verse (2 Cor. 5:21) states that he became sin for us. This is St. Paul's way of trying to state Jesus's total identification with the massed sin of the world's sinners — all the cruelty, indifference to cruelty, abuse, injustice, betrayal, abandonment, murder. To take all this into himself, to absorb it, amounted to far worse suffering than crucifixion itself. At his lowest, Jesus felt abandoned: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). The Father whose major biblical promise is "I will be with you" seemed absent from Jesus.

Jesus's death is also a propitiation of God's wrath against sin. God is indignant over sin and sinners. Recall how the prophets describe God's wrath against injustice to "the quartet of the vulnerable": widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. God's indignation is real emotion. Jesus himself blazed against injustice and especially against hypocrisy. His death inside God is the triune God's own move to dissipate his own righteous anger. Dropping his rightful anger is God's first move in forgiving sinners, and God does this over and over in the history of redemption: "He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency" (Mic. 7:18).

Atonement as at-ONE-ment: Atonement contains the word "one" and so may be partitioned as at-ONE-ment. It's a chief ingredient in the reconciliation of God and sinful humanity. In the mystery of God's grace, Jesus's atoning sacrifice brings God and former enemies of God together. Here we can see one of the great meanings of holy communion. It's a re-enactment of Jesus's atoning death, so bread is broken and wine is poured out. These become for believers the body and blood of Christ. Holy communion nourishes the faith of believers, enabling us in the sacrament to feast on Christ, who is given for us. And, like all sacraments, holy communion is a binder: It binds believers to God and to one another.

Jesus's death achieves the redemption of sinners. Finally, Jesus's death achieves the redemption of sinners. It's as if we sinners have gotten ourselves sold into slavery, and Jesus's death is the price of our redemption. Or it's as if sinners have gotten themselves into a terrible debt, and Jesus's death gets them out of it. It's a kind of ransom. These are all metaphors. In fact, the Bible is chock-full of metaphors for salvation: The lost are found, strangers become citizens, and those who were far away return home.

Jesus Christ came to put right what we human beings had put wrong by our sin. The Scriptures use a riot of terms and images to describe the force of Jesus's work, but one way or another they all say that Jesus Christ came to put right what we human beings had put wrong by our sin. We could say Jesus Christ entered the world to offer the penance we refuse. Sinners should do penance for their sins. It's not that Jesus confessed his own sins, of which there weren't any. It's that he acted like a repentant sinner. He got himself baptized, like every sinner. He absorbed accusations. He accepted rebuke without protest. He endured gossip about his choice of friends and his eating and drinking habits. Especially near the end of his life on Earth, Jesus endured the kind of mockery that shreds a person's dignity. And then, at the end, he died slowly on an instrument the Romans had adopted to kill their enemies after first humiliating them. So on Good Friday, Christians observe the death of a perfect penitent, one who stood under the misery of the world's sin, who absorbed evil without passing it on, and who therefore cut the terrible lines of lawlessness and revenge that have looped down the centuries from the time of Cain and Lamech.

That was Friday. But "the third day he rose again from the dead" in the central event of the Christian religion and of all human history. Christians who make this confession are talking not about the resurrection of faith in the disciples, or of hope in the women at the tomb, or of tulips in the spring. They are confessing the real resurrection of a horribly dead Jesus.

Our own human attempts at atonement for our sins are spotty. We may apologize to each other and amend our lives to show real repentance. Some of the time we can repair or partly repair the damage we do to each other. Or we may accept a penalty for damage we can't repair — a fine, for example, or a jail term. But we often offend and don't do anything about it. Apology and amendment scuff our pride, so we avoid them. Some of the time we offend without even noticing that we have. And, of course, there are plenty of offenses — child abuse, for example — for which there isn't any adequate atonement by mere human beings.

Our need to atone is great, but our ability to atone is meager. For some offenses, we may seek reparation through a surrogate — paying a fine, for example. But plenty of offenses require us to do the work ourselves, from apology to amendment of our lives to going to jail. Here we may find ourselves in a familiar bind: Our need to atone is great, but our ability to atone is meager.

Why do human beings so badly need atonement? Hence, we need the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Over centuries, Christians have pondered the atonement. Why do human beings so badly need atonement? Why couldn't God have avoided the painful death of Christ and just declared a general amnesty for sinners? What, exactly, did Jesus's death do within the life of God? Was Jesus's death the only option available to God? If so, why? If not, why did God choose this way — the way of cross and resurrection? Is atonement best thought of as an act of redemption from bondage, victory over evil powers, payment of what is owed (to whom?), satisfaction of the demands of justice, or an example for us humans to follow? And how, exactly, do the life, death, and resurrection of Christ benefit us? After all, we are personal, moral agents distinct from him.

Theological discussions of atonement are often difficult and leave lingering mysteries. Fortunately for us sinners, we don't have to understand atonement all the way through in order for it to work.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.