In the Christian faith, atonement refers to the suffering that Christ endured for our sins, making provision for us to be reconciled to God. We Christians, believers, have now, in this life, received the atonement, which was typified by the sacrifices under the Law and is an earnest of our happiness in heaven.
Since Christ paid the price with his life, God brought us back into his fold (Romans 5:1-2, Ephesians 2:17-19). Other words used to describe atonement are propitiation (1 John 2:1-2, Romans 3:25, 4:10), reparation, amend, forgiveness, expiation, absolution, pardon, etc. We cannot talk about Christ’s atonement without mentioning the implications of its absence. If the atonement never happened, all humanity would be damned to hell due to rebellion, prosecuted, indicted, and condemned forever (Hebrews 9:22). Remember that Jesus said that he has come to set the captives free (Luke 4:18) and that was through his atonement, apart from that again we have no hope.
Why was the Atonement Necessary?
In Genesis 3:6-7, we see the fall of man, which meant all who were born through Adam and Eve’s union would be born in sin and rebellion (1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:12). Since God is holy (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2) and does not delight in sin (Psalm 5:4-5, 34:16), the sinful man deserves punishment and death (Ezekiel 18:20). It is this state of man’s hopelessness that prompted the atonement. A just God cannot overlook sin (Psalm 5:4, Isaiah 59:2). In his justice, he must punish sin with finality (Ezekiel 18:29, John 3:36). Therefore, a way had to be found to pay the penalty for our sins (for he could not accept us into fellowship with himself unless the penalty was paid).
The love of God as a cause of the atonement is seen in the most familiar passage in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In essence, God’s love and justice were the ultimate cause of the atonement. It is not helpful for us to ask which is more important. However, if God had no love for us, he would never have taken any steps to redeem us, and even Christ wouldn’t need to die for our salvation. Both the love and the justice of God were equally important; therefore, the atonement was the answer (Romans 3:21-26).
The Nature of the Atonement
So, how did Christ achieve this work of atonement for us? Well, he did two things.
He obeyed on our behalf
Christ fulfilled all God’s demands without failure, obeying the Law with all its legal requirements (Romans 8:1-4). He fulfilled every demand with more than laser-like precision, just as God wanted (Galatians 4:4-5). Unlike the rest of us (Romans 3:23), Christ lived a perfect life as a man under the Law and the pressures of the flesh, sin, and the Devil (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 1 John 3:5). We cannot obey God to that extent (Romans 3:9-10, 3:23). For this, we ought to ask ourselves whose lifelong record of obedience we would instead rely on for our standing before God: Christ’s or our own?
He suffered for us
On account of sin’s punishment, Christ took in all the wrath of God as he hung on the cross for our sins (Isaiah 53:3-12, Hebrews 2:9-10, 5:8, 1 Peter 2:20-25). God’s wrath was placed upon Christ so that anyone who trusts in him should not need to go through the same (Romans 5:8-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Animal sacrifices could not suffice (Hebrews 9:13). There had to be something more than a dead sheep, oxen, or goat. A perfect sacrifice needed to be offered perfectly for God’s perfect wrath to be perfectly satisfied. As we think about the death of Christ and atonement, we ought to ask ourselves, was it good enough to deserve God’s approval? The resurrection of Christ would tell us yes it was, because it was God who raised him from the dead showing that the atonement of Christ was (Colossians 2:13-14, Romans 1:4, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:17).
The Benefits of the Atonement
What does it mean for us today that Christ delivered us from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13)? Wasn’t there any other way around it other than the atonement?
When we trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross, atonement, we come to know the forgiveness of God (Colossians 1:14, Ephesians 1:7, Titus 2:14). We are forgiven and counted as righteous because of what Christ did (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was necessary and beneficial that all these happened because we received the forgiveness of our sins. How many sins did this act of atonement cover? All our sins were covered, past, present, and future (Colossians 2:13-14). Christ dealt with our former sins at the cross, such as those inherited from the first man, Adam (Colossians 2:13-14). He dealt with our present sins, our daily failures as he lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). Finally, Christ forgave our future sins, those we will commit, because his blood cleared our condemnation (Romans 8:1). Jesus has assured us that he will not cast out those whom the Father gives to him (John 6:37-39, Hebrews 10:14).
We have also received acceptance into the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 1:6, Colossians 1:13, John 1:12). Christ is our beloved, and he has, by his blood, accepted us into his fold. We who were once not a people have now been made a people (1 Peter 2:10, Romans 9:25-26), and that does not refer to Jews alone, but Gentiles as well. We belong to the household of faith, having been grafted through faith in Christ (Romans 11:11-31). That we were the rotten branches, only providing lousy fruit. In Christ, we are grafted into the good tree, and we now bear good fruit. We are accepted as sons (John 1:12), as co-heirs (Romans 8:17), and as co-workers (1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 6:1) with Christ.
Finally, we have the assurance of an eternity with Christ once this life on earth is over. Because of what Christ did on the cross, those who receive and believe in him will have eternal life (John 3:16,1 John 5:11-12, 24). If Christ never died for us, there would be no hope for the sinner, only a fearful expectation of judgment. Praise God for Christ’s atonement and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, that we who were once children of wrath are now children of hope!
Matthew Henry Commentary