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 himself, as well as us, into the morass of sin, guilt, and condemnation. Although Adam broke the covenant of works, its inexorable demands and inflexible penalty remain in force. Jesus Christ would come as the second Adam to accomplish what the first Adam did not: to obey perfectly and to pay the penalty for the sins of His people. It was God’s eternal purpose to save us in this manner, and it was worked out in an eternal transaction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in prospect of the incarnation of the Son. This transaction established the terms and conditions that Christ would accomplish in purchasing the salvation of His people.
We may summarize the entirety of Christ’s work under the concept of obedience. He became the God-man in order to fulfill the stewardship entrusted to Him from eternity, accomplishing the terms and satisfying the punishment 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 obeying God perfectly. His active 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.
His passive obedience refers to His work of suffering for the sins of His people. The phrase does not mean that He was passive in His obedience. He actively offered up His body and soul as the sacrifice for the sins of His people. The term atonement describes Christ’s passive obedience. I will consider the nature of the atonement under four headings: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.
Expiation describes Christ’s work as a substitutionary sacrifice by which He cleanses us from the guilt and defilement of sin. John called Him the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; see also Rev. 5:9). This terminology points to the Old Testament sacrificial system. The Old Testament sacrifices served as types of the atoning work of Christ. The two key components of the sacrificial system were representation and imputation.
The idea of representation is 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 the people confessed that it was they who deserved to die; the animals were slain in their place.
The notion of imputation is also illustrated on the Day of Atonement. The priest placed his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed the sins of the people. Then the live goat was led away into 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 that the guilt of the sins of the people had been removed from them “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 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 the Son of God became a man. Jesus Christ, being a man, is the suitable substitute. Moreover, He is also the only sufficient substitute. For the death of a mere man could not satisfy an eternal, infinite guilt. Thus, being the God-man, He made infinite and eternal satisfaction (see The Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 38–40). As the Savior, Christ was appointed by the Father to be the vicarious sacrifice of His people. He took our place; He was our representative. Moreover, God imputed the guilt of our sin to the Lord Jesus Christ. He became guilty in our place.
Today, the concept of substitutionary sacrifice is denied by many liberals and evangelicals. Liberals deny the substitutionary atonement because they reject the Gospel. Evangelicals deny it because it cannot be divorced from particular redemption. These people offer a number of competing theories. Two of the more popular are the “moral influence theory” and the “governmental theory.” The “moral influence theory” states that Christ’s death was not expiation, but a suffering with mankind in order to manifest God’s love. The sinner — seeing God’s love — will be awakened (influenced) to love God. Of course, this theory does not deal with the guilt of sin, and, therefore, it does not properly demonstrate the extent of God’s love.
The “governmental theory” states that God’s moral government demanded the death of Christ to show God’s displeasure with sin. Although Christ did not suffer the penalty of the Law, God accepted His suffering as a substitute for that penalty. This theory also fails to deal with the guilt of sin, and it fails to demonstrate how God’s moral government is vindicated by the death of Christ who had no guilt of His own.
The second concept of the atonement is propitiation. To propitiate someone is to remove his anger by satisfying justice. This concept is closely related to the expiatory 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 dislike the concept of propitiation, because it suggests to them a God who has uncontrollable fury, and thus they believe it is inconsistent with God’s love.
God’s wrath, however, is not uncontrollable fury; it is His settled, holy disposition toward sinners. His justice demands their execution. As objects of wrath, God hates His enemies 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 objects of His wrath (Eph. 2:3) so much that He gave His own Son to be the sacrifice for their sins.
The third concept of the atonement is reconciliation. The meaning of this concept lies close to the biblical idea of propitiation. The sinner is alienated from God, who looks upon Him as an enemy (Isa. 59:2). Reconciliation is God’s provision for the removal of that alienation and the reestablishment of peace, friendship, and fellowship.
Paul explains reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:18–19: “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.” Paul views reconciliation as having been accomplished by the finished work of Christ. Because of that work, God does not count trespasses against those reconciled to Him. The main idea of reconciliation is that God’s enmity toward us is 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. Note, for example, Christ’s use of the term in Matthew 5:23–24. Here we see that the one to whom the worshiper is to be reconciled is the one whom he has offended. Thus it is not our enmity against God that is dealt with in the work of reconciliation, but God’s against us. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, God declares that this reconciliation has been fully accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.
The fourth concept of the atonement is redemption. Redemption views the atonement from the perspective of a payment made to God. The idea of redemption is to salvage, or deliver, by payment. Jesus says in Matthew 20:28 that He came to give His life a ransom, and Paul in Acts 20:28 refers to the redeemed church.
In the Old Testament, two ideas were attached to the idea of 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. Paul applies this to Christ in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Christ paid this ransom to God. The early church father, Origen, developed the theory that Christ paid the ransom to Satan. Thus the theory is called the “ransom theory”; Christ satisfied the claims that Satan had against sinners. John, however, makes it clear in Revelation that Christ paid the ransom to God: “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break is seals; for Thou was slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9 KJV).
The second aspect of redemption is the restoration of inheritance. In Leviticus 25:25, a kinsman-redeemer could pay off a family debt, restore the land, and provide an heir (for example, what Boaz did for Ruth). In Galatians, 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” (Gal. 4:5, 7). Adam not only plunged us into the morass of guilt and corruption, he lost also the family farm. He blew our inheritance as the sons of God. Christ paid off 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 atoning work, He accomplished four things: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Through His work He fully accomplished salvation.
Let us praise God for the complete salvation and marvel at the wise love that planned and accomplished it. What an amazing love! The love God bestowed on us in eternity, the suffering and death of our Savior. What profound wisdom! Only divine wisdom could have concocted a plan for the salvation of sinners that enabled God to be just while justifying sinners (Rom. 3:24–26).