In Ligonier’s 2016 West Coast Conference, Derek Thomas preached on the subject — How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home.

Where does #NeverTrump go in a Trump presidency? – Denny Burk, a #NeverTrump supporter, links to Dan McLaughlin’s article at The National Review, as he asks and answers the following question: “Where Does Never Trump Go in a Trump Presidency?

Since 1918, Rieger family members carry family pocket Bible to war, in military service for decades – An interesting article about a family Bible.  

John MacArthur on Submission in an Age of Rebellion – Wise words from John MacArthur.

The Church of C. S. Lewis and the Dogma that Makes the Difference – Trevin Wax reflects on his trip to England.

The Truth Divides – In this excerpt from a questions and answers event, R.C. Sproul reminds us that the truth of God divides.

Post-Election Thoughts and an Ecclesiastical Text Video – James White talks politics – after the election.

$5 Friday: Moses, Assurance, & Apologetics – Always worthy of your attention on Friday is Ligonier’s $5 Friday deals.

Theology Word of the Week:  Atonement

Atonement. The centrality of the atonement to Christianity has influenced our language, giving us the word ‘crucial’ which means literally ‘pertaining to a cross’. When we say that anything is crucial we are saying that it is as central to that to which we apply it as the cross is to Christianity. What Christ did on the cross is the heart of the Christian faith. The atonement is critical; it is the central doctrine of Christianity. That does not mean that other doctrines (e.g. the incarnation) may be neglected. Each of the great Christian doctrines is important and has its place. But we must not minimize the centrality of the atonement.

The need for atonement arises from the universal sinfulness of mankind and our inability to deal with the problem posed by our sin. That all are sinners is clear from specific expressions in Scripture (e.g. 1 Ki. 8:46; Ps. 14:3; Rom. 3:23), but perhaps more important is the whole thrust of the Bible. It is clear throughout Scripture that we do not measure up to the standards God lays down. Further, this is serious, for ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23). The Bible makes it plain that sin excludes from the blessing of God (Is. 59:2; Hab. 1:13), and Jesus specifically said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven (Mk. 3:29). The sinner is in a desperate situation.

But God in his love and mercy has always made provision. The OT tells of a complicated system of sacrifices which God gave Israel so that atonement might be made (Lv. 17:11). The killing of animals had no intrinsic worth that availed to do away with sin (Heb. 10:4). The sacrifices availed because God chose that they should. It is the love of God, and not the blood of goats and calves, that puts sin away. And, of course, God looks for right dispositions in his worshippers, such as repentance (1 Ki. 8:47; Ezk. 18:30–31).

New Testament Teaching

The word ‘atonement’ is rare in the NT; it occurs once in av(kjv), at Rom. 5:11, and not at all in many translations. But the idea is there throughout. God sent his Son to redeem (Gal. 4:4–5), and throughout the NT it is clear that it is what God has done in Christ that enables sinners to approach him and enter into his blessing now and in the hereafter.

Christ’s atoning work is viewed from a number of angles. Thus sinners are slaves to their sin (Jn. 8:34), but Christ has set them free (Gal. 5:1). They were caught up in the sin of Adam: ‘in Adam all die’ (1 Cor. 15:22). But Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3) and the effects of Adam’s sin have been nullified (Rom. 5:12–21). Sinners are subject to judgment, both a judgment in the here and now (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) and a judgment at the end of the age (Rom. 2:16), but there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). We are captive to the law of sin (Rom. 7:23), while from another angle no-one will be justified by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20). But we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us in bondage (Rom. 7:4). That the wrath of God is exercised towards sinners is in much modern theology an industriously evaded doctrine, but it is plain in the NT (Lk. 3:7; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 2:5; etc.). But there is also the clear teaching that Christ has turned that wrath away from sinners (1 Thes. 1:10; 5:9). This is the meaning of propitiation too (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2). Death is another tyrant (Rom. 6:23) from which Christ has freed us (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:52–57). The flesh is evil (Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 2:3), but it has been crucified in those who are Christ’s (Gal. 5:24). There is a futility about much of life in this world, but Christians are delivered from it (Rom. 8:20–23); their lives are not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58; Phil. 2:16). The ‘world’ is hostile to Christ (Jn. 7:7; 15:18), but he has overcome it (Jn. 16:33). The plight of sinners is many-sided, but view it how you will, Christ has saved his people by his atoning death.

The NT writers use a number of vivid word-pictures to bring out what Christ has done for us. Thus his work may be seen as a process of redemption (Gal. 3:13), the payment of a ransom (Mk. 10:45), which points to the setting of sinners free from slavery or a death sentence. It is the offering of a sacrifice (Eph. 5:2), which must have been a vivid image to people accustomed to offering animals on altars in their worship. The frequent references to Christ’s blood also point of course to the sacrifices. Sometimes there is a reference to a particular sacrifice, such as the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), the sin offering (Rom. 8:3), or the Day of Atonement (Heb. 9:7, 11–12), but more usually it is left general. Christ is said to have borne the curse (Gal. 3:13), and to have died ‘in the place of’ sinners (Mk. 10:45). His work is seen as effecting justification (Rom. 4:25), or as bringing in the new covenant promised long before by Jeremiah (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 8). He can be said to have nailed to the cross ‘the bond which stood against us with its legal demands’ (Col. 2:14).

Especially important in some recent discussions is the Pauline concept of reconciliation. This is used in a small number of passages (Rom. 5:10–11; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20–22), but it is implicit in many others, for example, those that speak of peace being made between God and man. It is certainly an important concept and it is significant that Paul can see the death of Christ as doing away with the hostility that sin aroused and effecting a far-reaching reconciliation. This is a significant aspect of the atonement, though it should not be held in such a way as to minimize the variety of other ways of looking at it.

Historical theology

In the early church there was emphasis on the fact that Christ saves us, but few asked how he did so. Some early theologians, however, thought that sinners go to hell because they belong to Satan. In this situation God offered Christ to the evil one as a ransom in exchange for sinners. Satan eagerly accepted the offer realizing that he was getting far more than he was giving up, but when he got Christ down into hell he found that he could not hold him. On the third day Christ rose triumphant and Satan was left with neither his original prisoners nor the ransom price. Only a little thought was needed to see that on this view God deceived Satan, but that did not worry the fathers. For them it simply showed that God was wiser than Satan, and they developed the theory with illustrations from catching fish and trapping mice. This bordered on the grotesque and the view faded in the light of better ways of looking at what Christ did. But in modern times G. Aulén has revived the view, pointing out that, for all its absurdities, it enshrines an important truth, that in his death Christ won the victory over all the forces of evil. A place must surely be found for this in any adequate theory of atonement.

Anselm worked out a theory of satisfaction. He pointed out that a king is in a very different position from a private citizen. He may be ready to overlook an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but as supreme in the kingdom he cannot. Proper satisfaction must be rendered for all that harms the kingdom. Anselm saw God as a great king and he thought it was not proper for him to overlook any evil done in his kingdom. But sin against God is so serious that man is quite unable to provide the required satisfaction. That ought to be provided by one who is man and can be provided only by one who is God. Thus it was necessary for God to become man. This interesting theory is generally held to owe too much to the ideas current in Anselm’s day. We no longer see medieval ideas about satisfaction as valid. And Anselm did not allow for the fact that a king may in fact exercise his prerogative of mercy without doing damage to his kingdom. But at least he took sin much more seriously than did his predecessors, and no-one can think about the atonement since his day without giving thought to just ‘how heavy a weight sin is’.

The Reformers took over some of Anselm’s views, but for his thought that sin outraged the majesty of God they substituted the idea that sin is a breaking of his law. The essence of the atonement, they thought, is that Christ took our penalty upon him. He stood in the place of sinners and since he bore their punishment it no longer falls on them. Opponents point out that this does not take account of the fact that, while penalties like fines may indeed be transferred, penalties like imprisonment or execution may not be. Further, sin is not something that can be transferred from one person to another. Such criticisms have weight, but we must bear in mind that the Reformers were not thinking of an external, mechanical process. There is a twofold identification: Christ is one with the Father (‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’, 2 Cor. 5:19, av(kjv), and he is one with the sinners he saves (they are ‘in Christ’). The view protects an important scriptural truth, that God saves in a way that is right. Due penalty is not overlooked in the process whereby Christ delivers us. Many modern views seem to boil down to the conviction that God is stronger than evil; in the end might is right. It is, of course, true that God is stronger than evil and this is a precious truth. But it is also true that God is concerned for what is right, even in the process whereby he saves people who are in the wrong.

Abelard enunciated the subjective view of the atonement, a view that has been widely popular in modern times. The cross shows us how greatly God loves us and this causes us to respond with an answering love. We turn away from the sin that injured Christ so sorely and live new lives. There are various forms of the theory but they have in common that the essence of atonement is its effect on sinners. There is certainly truth in this. When we see what Christ has done in dying for us, we are moved to repentance and love and faith. But to say that this is all that happens is quite erroneous. It overlooks most of the scriptural evidence and leaves us in the uncertain position of being required to work out our own salvation by the way we respond to Christ’s example.

There are other ways of looking at it. In modern times some have given emphasis to the concept of sacrifice, others draw attention to Jesus’ abandonment by the Father (Mk. 15:34). But no theory has won universal acceptance and it is probable that none ever will. Christ’s atoning work is so complex and our minds are so small. We cannot take it all in. We need the positive contributions of all the theories, for each draws attention to some aspect of what Christ has done for us. And though in the end we cannot understand it all, we can thankfully accept ‘so great salvation’. [1]

  1. Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 54–56.