The Atonement – What It Is
The atonement is the work of God, in Jesus, to reconcile humanity and himself and to conquer sin and death forever. The atonement makes it possible for humankind to know God, and to experience life as he intended it; free of sin and the fear of death. Atonement was completed in the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
Many Christians, particularly in the West, will readily respond to the question, “Why did Jesus die on a cross?” with the answer, “to save us from our sins.” But there is a more accurately nuanced and truthful answer to this question. It has two parts. The first important distinction is found in Paul’s description of sin in Romans 6 and 7.
Paul does not refer to sins (plural) as the list of wrong-doings we commit on a daily basis, but instead he refers to sin (singular) as the degenerate spiritual power that is killing the world, killing us, keeping us from God, and enslaving us to the before mentioned list of wrong-doings. That sin – the enslaving, life-stealing, death causing force in our world – is the sin the atonement addresses. It is that definition of sin that Jesus addresses on the cross and by the resurrection.
The second distinction is this: saving us from sin is what Jesus accomplished by dying a brutal death on a Roman cross in 33 A.D., but it is not why he died on that cross.
The reason he willingly sacrificed himself on the cross was to reconcile us and God: us and himself. Sin, caused by our willful rebellion against God, is not what kills us; it’s the separation it causes between us and God, us and one another, us and all of God’s creation. Sin breaks the intimate bond between Creator and the created. That disunion with our perfect and loving creator is what wreaks havoc in our world, in our lives, and in our eternal relationship with Him. And for as long as we’ve been trying, we’ve never been able to mend the break on our own. But something had to be done.
God – in his overwhelming love and unmerited favor toward us – initiates and completes the work. God bridges the gap. God invites us home and pays for the ticket. That act of grace was Jesus, living the perfect life we could never live, dying the death we all deserve, and conquering the enemy we can’t defeat – all so we can be reconciled to God. That work – that great act – is the atonement; the defeat of sin and death that grants reconciliation to our Creator.
The Atonement – Why It Matters
Atonement allows us to experience life without fear of death.
I have a friend who is a laboratory biologist at the UCLA medical center in Southern California, and for the last several years he and a team of scientists and doctors have been working feverishly to find a cure for cancer. There are thousands like him in the U.S. and thousands more around the world who have devoted their lives to defeating cancer, in all its many forms, once and for all. Despite the daunting task, my friend frequently and optimistically declares, “We’re going to find the cure. I know it.” I hope he’s right.
Since the Garden of Eden, when God told Adam and Eve that their rebellion brought death into the world, mankind has been fighting the certainty of death by trying to cure disease, end pain, and live long, healthy lives. What’s the root of this pursuit? A deep desire for immortality. We all want to live forever; to never die. The Bible says, “God has planted eternity in the human heart.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Living without death was God’s idea and his original intention for humanity.
But for the sake of love, God granted freedom and choice, making rebellion a real possibility. That rebellion has made death a reality.
That rebellion has also torn the world at its seams, threatening to ruin virtually everything we hold dear. Does that sound extreme? Maybe a little dramatic? I challenge you to flip on your TV and pick a news channel. Countries are in civil war, terrorism is alive and well, inner-city violence has ruined city-centers, greed destroys people and makes businesses king, governments oppress the weak, and people fight. The cleanest places on earth are only the ones we haven’t touched yet – the rest is permanently marked by our destruction and over-use. Sin kills everything it touches. Including you.
Yet when we look around us there is also beauty – unspeakable beauty – in the smiles of our friends, voices of our children, love of our families, and grandeur of creation. We can still see glimpses of the way things are supposed to be.
When we see it, it resonates with us. It gives joy and provides hope. While God, in his unrestrained generosity, has prevented the world from being completely destroyed by sin, the atonement makes full restoration and the end of death more than just a hope.
Jesus’ perfect, powerful, and inspiring life demonstrated the beauty and power of a life lived without the cancer of sin.
Jesus’ life was so grand, so mysterious, so powerful, so captivating that he (regardless of what you believe about him) is the most well-known and revered person on the planet. This man Jesus who lived the life we all secretly want to live, and actually conquered the death we all secretly fear. His tragic death was shocking, but it was the preamble to the final act we all hoped for and needed. His death, unlike our own, didn’t last. He was so powerful, so good, that even death couldn’t hold him, and his resurrection to new life conquered it forever. And he’s so loving that he’s offered the same to us.
This is why the atonement matters. We might cure cancer one day. I pray that we do. But even so, something else will end up killing us. As long as the power of sin is a reality, death will be our final enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), unless we know someone who can help us defeat it.
That person is Jesus Christ. His atoning life, death, and resurrection gives us the power to live lives apart from sin’s darkness, inside God’s light, and to live fearlessly knowing that death may still claim our bodies but it will never end our life.
The Atonement: Scripture Verses
Here are some key scripture passages about the atonement of Christ.
The Atonement: Read About It
Want to learn more? Here are some recommended book titles about the atonement of Christ.
- Recovering the Scandal of the Cross – Mark D. Baker, Joel B. Green
- Christus Victor – Gustaf Aulen
- Theology for the Community of God – Stanley Green
- Christology – Gerald O’Collins
- The Nature of Atonement: Four Views – James Beilby, Paul R. Eddy, Thomas R. Schreiner, Gregory A. Boyd
Read an earlier post in this series here.