The Death of Christ
The Atonement and our Salvation
By Edward J. Malcolm
The doctrine of Justification by Faith is, without question, the central doctrine of the Christian church. Martin Luther was perfectly correct in stating that it is the mark of a standing or a falling church. But if Justification by Faith is the central, or first, doctrine of the church, the second is the doctrine of the Atonement. Were it not for the Atonement it would not be possible for us to be justified. And since Easter is (hopefully) still fresh in our minds, now seems a good time to reflect a little on the Atonement, and consider some of the benefits we are brought by it.
We shall by no means cover every aspect of this great doctrine, nor shall we look at all the errors that have been and are perpetrated in connection with it. Instead we shall look at three areas that are central to the Atonement, all of which are subject to some misunderstanding today. We shall consider
1. The Necessity of the Atonement
2. The Effect of the Atonement
3. The Extent of the Atonement
However, we must first define what we mean by the Doctrine of the Atonement.
The Bible teaches that Christ obeyed and suffered in our place, to satisfy the demands of divine justice, and so remove an obstacle from God in order that pardon for the guilty may be granted. Let us consider this briefly.
The Bible is saying that God would be unable to pardon any guilty sinner unless Jesus Christ had first suffered in the place of that sinner to take on Himself the wrath of God toward that sinner. So we are looking, as we do in the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, at a law-court scene. God the Father has two roles; He is both Judge and Plaintiff. God the Son has two roles; He is both Advocate and Substitute. The individual sinner has one role to play; he is the accused who has been found guilty. So, in the Doctrine of the Atonement we enter the court after judgment has been declared. The sinner has been found guilty, and the Judge has declared the sentence of death against the one who has wronged Him. However the Advocate offers up Himself to bear the penalty of sin, owed by the guilty party. He will suffer in his place. He will satisfy the demands of divine justice in a way that allows God to show mercy without being inconsistent in His nature. For God could not remain true to His nature and forgive sinners unless the penalty for sin were paid, as is shown in Exodus 23:7, For [God] will not justify the wicked; and Exodus 34:7, [God] that will by no means clear the guilty. For God has said The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Unless He can find a Substitute to die in the place of the soul that sinned, that soul must pay what God demands. He has found a Substitute in Jesus Christ, Who willingly lays down His life for His friends (John 15:13).
1. The Necessity of the Atonement
By this we mean that the only way open to God to be reconciled to sinners was by the sacrificial and substitutionary death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We see this in the Old Testament in Genesis 15. Here God made a covenant with Abraham. Abram took no actual part in ratifying the covenant; it was God alone, as represented by a smoking furnace and burning lamp, who passed between the divided sacrifice. Abram was asleep, so it was God alone who promised blessing on Abram and his seed through faith (Galatians 3:14), if the covenant were kept, God taking on Himself alone the responsibility of repairing the covenant if its terms were broken.
We see this most clearly in various things said by the Lord Jesus. He said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Ought not Christ to have suffered these things? (Luke 24:26). He prayed in the Garden before His arrest, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me (Matthew 26:39). Even Caiaphas the high priest gave unwitting support, saying …it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people (John 11:50).
So the teaching of the Lord Jesus is that He had to die. Why?
From the beginning God made it plain to man that the penalty of sin is death (Genesis 2:16, 17). This is repeated in various places in the Old Testament. From the beginning God made it plain that the only satisfaction for sin is through the shedding of blood. Thus Abel sacrificed of the firstlings of his flock, and God provided skins of animals, as the first blood sacrifice to cover the sins of man (Genesis 4:4 said in Hebrews 11:4 to be a more excellent sacrifice, and Genesis 3:21).
Space forbids us going into the Mosaic Law and Abraham’s life further, but the only way to propitiate the wrath of God is by blood atonement, for without shedding of blood is no remission (Hebrews 9:22).
However the matter does not end there, for animal sacrifices never actually atoned for a single sin! For in Hebrews 10:11 it speaks of offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. Rather the offering of animals was a type and shadow of what was to come, a figure for the time then present, (Hebrews 9:9) that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience, concluding in verse 14 How much more shall the blood of Christ … purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? He is the One they point to.
Now, why should God fill the Old Testament with instructions concerning the sacrificing of animals to atone for sin, if it bore no relation to the reality? If He were actually planning to deal with sin by a completely different method, what would these instructions teach anybody? Therefore the fact this was God’s appointed means under the Old Covenant tells us that it was His appointed means under the New, though in an effective manner.
There are some who say that God had at His disposal any number of ways of effecting reconciliation. He chose a particular method out of them. The Bible does not speak this way. Some, of Socinian and Arminian convictions, say there is no such ‘justice’ in God which demands satisfaction, and that He could have set aside the Law and its demands, as and when He chose. They say that God could have chosen any substitute or none. This view fails to take account of what the Lord Jesus said Himself about His death. Others have said that God made it the only way, but until that point he could have chosen a different way. While this view exalts the free will of God in salvation, it also fails to take adequate notice of the justice of God, for it denies that God’s justice had to be propitiated. The only consistently Scriptural view is that Christ had to die as a Substitute, and that it had always been so.
Now, if the Atonement is necessary we must expect it to be effective.
2. The Effect of the Atonement
We have seen that the Atonement was necessary – unavoidably so. It would seem strange, then, to think that this unavoidable act might not prove effective. Rather, we must think of the Atonement as a potent act, one actually effecting an outcome. This outcome is twofold, where the two parts add up to the whole.
The first outcome concerns the relationship between God and sinners. The problem is not, as some maintain, that we need to be reconciled to God, but that He needs to be reconciled to us. After all, we have sinned against Him, not He against us. In the Old Testament the tables of the law were kept in the ark of the covenant. This box did not have a lid as such. However, there was the Mercy Seat. This was a board, covered in gold, on which were two cherubim. God was represented as sitting between the cherubim. The Mercy Seat was the place the high priest went to once a year to make the sacrifice for atonement. It acted as a shield, for the law was a silent and impartial witness to the truth of God and the sin of the people. Were God to see the law, as it were, if He were to hear its words, then His justice would demand satisfaction. The Mercy Seat acted as a shield, covering the sins of the people, so that God could instead be propitious. The Puritans often referred to the Lord Jesus as the Mercy Seat, for He has done the same thing by His blood. His blood has covered our sins, so that they are blotted out, no longer visible. Since those sins are no longer visible, God no longer has a case against us. Since the Bible also speaks of the wrath of God being revealed against sinners we must also pay attention to the word ‘propitiation’. By this we understand that the blood of Christ, and His Substitutionary sacrifice, actually stand in the place of the sinner when the wrath of God is poured out. By this means reconciliation takes place, so that God is turned toward those whose sins are covered.
The second, related, outcome, is that sinners are redeemed, Mark 10:45. The atoning death of Christ has actually paid the ransom for sinners. Acts 20:28 speaks of those he hath purchased with his own blood. Jesus Christ has cleared them from the penalty of divine justice, so that nothing more is owing on their part. For this to be true two things are required. First, we need to be in a right standing with God. This is Justification by Faith. Second, we need to be in union with Christ, through regeneration and sanctification. This is all that is included in ‘the new birth’. Both of these come to us through the death of Christ; they are actually ours by his death. Some say that His death opens the way to make it possible for us to receive these things. In fact His death gives us these things as certainties. Colossians 1:13 tells us that we have been translated into the kingdom of his dear Son. In other words, by the death of Jesus Christ all that we lacked to enter into the kingdom has come to us. His death has actually made us the inheritors. The effect is not just the opportunity to enter, but is the actual right to enter the Kingdom.
So the Atonement turns aside the wrath of God, and allows Him to be propitious toward us. It deals with the demands of divine justice, and opens the way for divine mercy. It is not the beginning of divine love, for that was the cause of sending Christ in the first place, John 3:16. Rather it is an expression of divine love.
3. The Extent of the Atonement
Since the Atonement actually achieved something we need to examine the extent to which the results are made available. After all, this potent act has actually granted something to some people. Who are those people? Again we must turn to what the Lord Jesus said.
He said that He lays down His life for His friends, John 11:15. He said that He was sent to none but the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Matthew 15:24. He calls those who labour and are heavy laden, Matthew 11:28. He said, My sheep hear my voice, John 10:27. He is described as saving his people from their sins, Matthew 1:21.
We can also see what the apostles said. One key verse here is I Corinthians 15:22, For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. By Adam came death, and it descended upon all his seed. Any who are not the seed of Adam are not under death. Only Jesus Christ is not of the seed of Adam in this way. By Jesus Christ comes life. All who are of the seed of Christ shall live. Only those who have been given to the Son are His seed, John 17:9ff. These are they whom Paul describes as the elect of God, Colossians 3:12. He says they are ‘predestined’, Ephesians 1:11. Peter uses similar language, I Peter 1:3.
The argument is straightforward. Given that the Atonement was necessary it has to be effective. Given that Scripture teaches it is effective that effect has to be realised. Given that it is only realised in some, the extent of the Atonement must be limited to a group, for whom Christ died, whom Scripture calls ‘the elect.’
Some object to this teaching. There are some who say that the death of Christ atones for all sin. They say that Christ died for everybody. They take such texts as I John 2:2, that speak of Christ’s dying for the sins of the whole world, and they expect as wide an application of the benefit as they find in those words.
But we have to ask a question here. If Christ truly died for the sins of the whole world, why is not the whole world saved? All are agreed that countless millions go to their deaths never having trusted in Christ as their Saviour. All who hold to this view and who are evangelicals all readily admit that unless a person comes to faith there will be no salvation. So in what sense did Christ die for them?
The answer lies in a correct understanding of the expression, ‘the whole world.’ There are really only two ways of understanding it. We must either take it as a circular expression, or as a linear.
If it is a circular expression then John is saying that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all around, Christian and non-Christian. He is speaking to a group he refers to as ‘you’, 1:3, and he speaks from a group known as ‘we’, 1:1ff. In 2:2 he links the two groups together, making an ‘us’ or ‘our’ group. He then contrasts this group, which we understand to be all Christian believers, with ‘the whole world.’ So the circular expression refers to all living at the time of John, and, subsequently, living at every time in which this epistle is read.
This cannot be the meaning. It cannot be the meaning because John has said, 1:7, that ‘the blood of Jesus cleanseth us from all sin.’ There the ‘us’ refers to the two groups combined, to the body of Christians. There is no suggestion here that Christ died for any but the Christians. Furthermore John is contrasting those who sin, and who confess their sin, and who seek not to sin, with those who sin, and do not recognise the fact, and so do not confess it, and never seek to not sin. One is a description of Christians, for whom Christ’s blood was shed; the other is a description of the ungodly who have no interest in the fact that the Son of God died.
If it is a linear expression then John is saying that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all Christians living at that time, and also of all true believers who ever have lived and who ever will live. So rather than seeking the interpretation by looking around us we should seek it by looking forward and backward, along a line. Thus Abel, Seth, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on, to name but a fraction of the Old Testament saints, find Christ to be the the propitiation for their sins. Similarly all who live between John’s writing and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ have the blood of Christ as the propitiation for their sins.
This, I believe is the correct interpretation of this phrase. It fits all other passages of Scripture that speak of the way of salvation without being ‘repugnant’ (to quote Article XX) to any part of Scripture. This is vital. After all, who among those on the broad way that leads to destruction can be seen as benficiaries of the atoning work of Christ?
Those who wish to look for a ‘universal atonement’ must say that the death of Christ achieved less in the unbeliever that in the believer. They must say, as some have, that God appointed all men to salvation, provided they repent and believe. In order that some do God then sends His Spirit to those He would have saved. Thus grace is universal in that all could, theoretically, come to salvation, but is particular in that God must still chose whom He will save. This view was first proposed by Amyraldus, a French Protestant theologian, in 1634. The result of this was that the Edict of Nantes, which granted toleration to the Protestants of Catholic France, was revoked. The reason? This theology was seen as being fully compatible with Rome’s Pelagian teaching. It is interesting to note that all those countries that took in large numbers of Huguenot refugees absorbed, to some measure, this error. England took many refugees, and this form of universal atonement was to become something of a feature in Anglican Protestantism in later years. (See Marcus L. Loane John Charles Ryle p 57).
The consequences of this view are divided between believers and unbelievers. For believers we have assurance of salvation by this doctrine, for it teaches us that all things necessary to our salvation come to us as a direct result of the death of Jesus Christ. He has bought for us an inheritance that is incorruptible, and that none can take from us. Therefore we need never fear for our souls.
This is not to teach that we can live as we please. Such should be our awareness of the sinfulness of sin, seeing that the only way it could be dealt with was by the death of Jesus Christ, we should flee all sin. We should hate it as God hates it, so far as we are able to. This doctrine should encourage and promote holy living.
This doctrine should also encourage preaching, and witness to unbelievers. Since Christ has done all that is required, and since He gives to His people all they need for salvation, we need to be sure that all know this. The fact that Christ has done all does not take away from human responsibility; we must still repent, Mark 1:15. Since Christ has done all, those who seek salvation may be told that they can and must leave their efforts, and may receive all they need. It should encourage them to come, and us to preach. It should be for us a cause of everlasting praise and thanksgiving to God, as we see the extent of His love for us, that He sent His only begotten Son, that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.