The Atonement

by Elmer Towns
 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that ' is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past. Romans 3:24, 25



     Among the various religions of the world, Christianity stands unique in the doctrine of the atonement. No other religion or religious movement apart from Christianity can guarantee personal salvation to its followers. For the Christian, his relationship with God is not based upon his continuing works or efforts, but rather upon the finished work of Christ on the cross. This doctrine, called "the atonement," forms the heart of Christianity. Toward the end of his life, Thomas, Earl of Kinnoul, wrote of the atonement:

     I have always considered the atonement to be characteristic of the gospel, as a system of religion. Strip it of that doctrine, and you reduce it to a scheme of morality, excellent indeed, and such as the world never saw, but to man, in the present state of his faculties, absolutely impracticable. The atonement of Christ, and the truths immediately connected with that fundamental principle, provide a remedy for all the wants and weaknesses of our nature. They who strive to remove those precious doctrines from the Word of God, do an irreparable injury to the grand and beautiful system of religion which it contains, as well as to the comforts and hopes of man. For my own part, I am now an old man, and have experienced the infirmities of advanced years. Of late, in the course of severe and dangerous illness, I have been repeatedly brought to the gates of death. My time in this world cannot now be long; but, with truth I can declare that, in the midst of all my part afflictions, my heart was supported and comforted by a firm reliance upon the merits and atonement of my Saviour, and now, in the prospect of entering upon an eternal world, this is the only foundation of my confidence and hope.

     The Bible teaches that Jesus loved the world and died for it. This does not mean everyone will be saved. The universal scope of the gospel is possible because of the nature of Christ's death. The results of his death are called the atonement, and some have applied the word to mean "God atonement with man." The word "atonement"—kaphar (Lev. 16:6)-in the Old Testament meant "to cover." "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). The atonement of the Old Testament only covered sins until the blood of Christ cleanses the sinner from sin's defilement. "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past" (Rom. 3:25).

     However, modern use of the word "atonement" has a broad sense, including substitution, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. These four terms will be studied in their progressive nature so you can see the scope of the death of Christ.


     The Bible teaches that the atonement was substitutionary in nature. In the Old Testament, God required the sacrifice of lambs and other types of animals as a substitute for the sins of the people. Each year on the day of Atonement the high priest would place his hands upon the head of two goats, identifying the nation with the animals. Symbolically, the animals bore the sins of Israel. One of the two goats was then offered in a sacrifice for the sins of the nation. The second goat was led out into the wilderness, illustrating how God h, had separated the sins of the people from himself. All this was typical of another "day of atonement" when Christ would die as our substitute.

     In Washington D.C., a group of men and women meet as our representatives. In a democracy, where the people rule, these people are elected to office to represent us as our substitutes in the decision-making process of government. They do not represent Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, but all the people in their district. Even if we voted for the opposing candidate or failed to vote at all, our senator or representative is still our representative, acting on our behalf as our substitute.

     Substitution for Christians. On the cross of Calvary, God placed our sin upon Christ and accepted him in our place as he provided for our atonement. "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul reminded the Romans “that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). The Bible teaches that Christ was the Christian's substitute at Calvary.

     The full meaning of the substitutionary death is understood by examining the two Greek words translated "for" as they are used in the phrase "Christ died for our sins." The first Greek word, anti, is usually translated "instead of," as "Christ died instead of us for our sins." The second preposition, huper, is sometimes used when the sufferings and death , of Christ are spoken of "in behalf of" our sins.

     Christ died (anti) for our sins is found in Matthew 20:28, and Mark 10:45. Christ died (huper) in my behalf is found in John 10:11, 15; 11:50; Romans 5:8; 8:32; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 2:20; 3:13; Titus 2:4. The theologian Shedd makes a significant observation:

     The. . . preposition (anti) excludes the idea of benefit or advantage, and specifies only the idea of substitution. The former (huper) may include both ideas. Whenever the sacred writer would express both together and at once, he selects the preposition huper. In so doing, he teaches both that Christ died in the sinner's place, and for the sinner's. benefit (Dogmatic Theology, p. 382).

     Substitute for the church. Christ also gave himself for the church. In doing so, he portrayed one aspect of a man's responsibility in the home. Paul told the Ephesian men, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25). In one sense, the church is the corporate body of believers, and when Christ suffered for all, he suffered for the church.

     Substitute adequate for every person. The blood of Jesus Christ was enough for the sins of every man. The Bible talks of seeing Jesus "who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man" (Heb. 2:9). This word "taste" means to "partake fully; not just sip." There is not a man who has ever lived on the face of the earth who was beyond the hope of salvation. No man has to suffer for his own sins, because Jesus has already died in his place. In that sense, the Bible teaches that he died for everyone.


     The word "redemption" means "to purchase." When Jesus (lied for our sins, he paid the price that satisfied the demands of God's holiness. The price of this redemption was the blood of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). In explaining redemption to the Galatians, the apostle Paul used three different words which shed better light on our redemption.

     Agorazo—“To purchase in the market." This term, used in Galatians 3:10, was a term used to describe the act of purchasing a slave in the marketplace. This word agorazo means Christ paid the redemption price of his blood which was sufficient to purchase every person in the market that was "sold under sin." But only for those who believe in Christ will his blood become efficient to save. Peter speaks of false teachers who surely are not saved because they ". . . privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 2:1).

     Ekagorazo—“To purchase and take home." The second word used by Paul is a variation of the first. Ek is added, which means "out." These slaves were purchased and brought out of the slave market. The master took the slave home with him. Christ paid the price with his blood and took us "slaves to sin," out of the marketplace, no longer for sale. Using this word for Christians, Paul writes, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal. 3:13).

     Lutroo—“To purchase and give freedom." Normally when a master purchased a slave, he required the slave to serve him. Occasionally an owner might buy the freedom of a slave. The master would pay the redemption price, but he would give the slave his liberty. Sometimes the slave was made a member of the family. The term Lutroo used to describe this practice was also used by Paul to describe our redemption. Jesus came "that he might redeem us from all iniquity" (Titus 2:14). We have been purchased by Christ and in one sense we are slaves, but in another perspective, we have been elevated into the family. We have been given liberty to live as sons, not servants. With this gift comes a responsibility to use, not abuse, our liberty. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1).

     The substitutionary atonement of Christ's redemption was sufficient for all. Therefore, the message of redemption is that Jesus Christ has paid the price for all who receive it by faith. When an unsaved person appears before God in judgment, he will be judged on the basis of what he has believed concerning Christ. "He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18). The Lamb's book of life will be opened and those whose names are written there will go into heaven (Rev. 20:12-15). Those who have not believed in Christ will be punished. No one is sent to hell for sin, but for unbelief.


     The third aspect of the work of Christ is satisfaction of the necessary judgment on sin. When Jesus died on the cross, he satisfied the justice and holiness of God. A biblical term meaning satisfaction is used to describe this aspect of the work of Christ. Since the law is an extension of the nature of God, Christ had to satisfy the demands of the law in his death.

     The word "propitiation" (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10) is from hilasterion, "a place of propitiation," or the mercy seat. In the holy of holies in the tabernacle, the mercy seat was the covering on the ark of the covenant. The priest sprinkled blood on the mercy seat on the day of atonement, hence it was symbolically the judgment seat. This was the place where the justice of God was satisfied.

     Satisfying God. Sin is offensive to God because it represents rebellion against himself and a rejection of who he is. As such, the sin of mankind could never be retracted or simply ignored. The nature of God is such that he could not forgive the sinner without a payment or propitiation of satisfaction. The only price worthy had to come from a sinless substitute, "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). God did not save us because of any merit in ourselves but rather because of the merit of Christ our substitute.

     The blood is important to God, not because it is blood but because it represents both life and death. When blood circulated from the heart, it represented life and when it was spilt, it represented death. In Old Testament times, God forbade the eating of blood that men might respect the sanctity of life (Gen. 9:4). When Jesus left the ordinance of the Lord's Supper with his disciples, he provided a symbol to remind all Christians of the sacrifice of his blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Paul asked a carnal church, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). The blood therefore represents the perfect life of Christ given in death for sinners. At the first Passover, God instructed Moses, "And the blood shall be to you for a token , upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon YOU to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt" (Exod. 12:13). The context of the first Passover suggests an Egyptian could have escaped the plague if he had spread the blood upon the doorposts of his house and a Jew would suffer the plague if he did not do as instructed. It was the blood, not the people'', themselves or anything they had done, that satisfied the justice and holiness of God.

     Satisfying the law. While most Christians tend to think of the law as something evil, the New Testament teaches that "the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (Rom. 7:12). As such, the demands of the law needed to be satisfied because man had broken them in every part.

     When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, he violated the . "law of God" he had received. As the law is an extension of the nature of God, the head of the human race offended the moral nature of God. The law could not be ignored, overlooked, or changed any easier than God could be ignored, overlooked, or changed. The demand of all the law was upon every man, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10).

     Jesus perfectly kept the law, hence he could say, "Think not I am come to destroy the law ... but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). Therefore when he died on Calvary, he "abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in the ordinances; to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace" (Eph. 2:15). In another place the propitiation of the law is described as, "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Col. 2:14).

     The demands of the justice of God have been met and the broken law, no longer is a moral judge to condemn mankind. Christ has satisfied the justice of God and paid the penalty for broken law. Now, persons do not go to hell because God is angry at them or because they broke God's law. People go to hell because they have not received the provision of salvation.


     In this act of reconciliation, Christ brought all into a favorable light of God's mercy. On the cross, Christ was bringing together two enemies and making them friends. "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). This work of reconciliation was accomplished by destroying the cause of the enmity between God and man and changing man himself.

     Removing the enmity. Jesus came and died "that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby" (Eph. 2:16). That enmity which formed "the middle wall of partition between us" (Eph. 2:14) was the law (Eph. 2:15). Christ abolished this in his flesh when he died. The first step in bringing together two enemies is to remove the reason for the strife between them.

     In Christ. The second step is for a mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) to present two enemies to each other in a positive light. Because of the cross, the unsaved man can meet God, not as a judge, but as a Savior. God looks at Christians as having been "crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). When God saves a man, he saves him "in Christ." Essentially, Christ presents us to God as "savable sinners."


     When Jesus died on the cross, he accomplished a work to insure salvation for all who believe on his name. As we understand the atonement and work of Christ on the cross, we come to appreciate more fully what Jesus did for each of us and the world. To say that "Christ died for all" or "for the world" must not be taken to mean that all are saved. Christ's atoning work provided the basis of our reconciliation and believing faith is the condition for receiving the benefits of his work on our belief. The fact that some die without Christ to. day is contrary to the will of God (2 Pet. 3:9). "Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4). When we understand the nature of the atonement, we should be active in spreading the gospel to everyone because God has "committed unto us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19).


     Monday: Hebrews 9:1-15

     Tuesday: Romans 3:21-31

     Wednesday: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

     Thursday: Galatians 3:13-4:5

     Friday: 1 John 1:5-2:6

     Saturday: Hebrews 2:5-18

     Sunday: Romans 5:1-11


Taken from: What The Faith Is All About by Elmer Towns