The Atonement and God
We must not think for a minute that God does not need to be appeased. Don’t be tricked into thinking that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) means that God is not angry with sinners. The Bible says that unbelievers are storing up for themselves wrath, indignation, tribulation, and distress on Judgment Day (Rom. 2:8-9). Those who disobey are under God’s wrath (John 3:36). God has indignation every day (Ps. 7:11). The Scriptures even go so far as to say that God hates sinners (Ps. 5:5-6; 11:5-6). The Bible speaks of God’s wrath frequently. According to Leon Morris, there are 20 different Hebrew words used to describe God’s wrath in the Old Testament, and over 580 references to it. Every single human being has broken God’s Law (Rom. 3:10-18) and has become His enemy (Rom. 5:10; Jas. 4:4).
Two major terms used in the Bible to describe the atonement as it pertains to God are propitiation and reconciliation.
Propitiation is not a very common word anymore. It simply means to appease, to conciliate, or to placate. When one is propitiated, it means that the anger felt toward the offending party is laid aside and the relationship is restored. For example, the word is used in a non-religious for Jacob seeking to appease Esau (who was angry after Jacob stole his blessing [Gen. 27:41]) with a large gift of livestock (Gen. 32:20).
So at the cross, Jesus propitiated God (Rom. 3:25-26). Jesus saves us from the wrath to come (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thes. 1:10; 5:9). How did He go about this? Romans 3:25 says that God set forth Christ to be a propitiation. He did this to display His own righteousness because, from the look of it, He does not punish sin. The message of salvation, that a sinner can be made right with God, seems completely unjust. For a judge to overlook an offense and declare a guilty man to be just is an abomination (Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:22-23). God even says that He will never acquit the guilty (Ex. 23:7). But how then do we explain the fact that God forgave David’s adultery and murder? It seems as though God is turning a blind eye to his offense. God can be accused of sweeping our sins under the rug. Yet this is not so, for in the gospel God does not forget about our sins. In the gospel our sins truly have been punished! Thus on the cross the wrath due us was poured out on Jesus. God can overlook sins because on the cross God was not overlooking our sins as He punished Christ.
Then there is reconciliation. We were reconciled while enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). The Bible says that we were alienated from God before we were reconciled (Col. 1:21-22). In one place, Paul defines his preaching as “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). As an ambassador for Christ, he pleas with people: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
This reconciliation between God and man was accomplished through Jesus’ death (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:22). How did the cross accomplish this restoration of a broken relationship? By removing everything that got in between us! Our iniquities have made a separation between us and God (Isa. 59:2). In Christ’s death, He became sin for us, although He himself was perfect (2 Cor. 5:21). Again, all of the wrath and punishment due our sin was placed on Him. Now, being reconciled our sins are no longer counted against us (2 Cor. 5:19).
Many people see this reconciliation as only man removing his anger toward God. However, consider an example of reconciliation between two men. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says that if you are about to give a gift at the alter and remember that your brother has something against you, then go and be reconciled to him. Who is the offended party in this story? It is your brother! Who is the one being reconciled to? Again, your brother. Thus when one man is reconciled to another the one reconciled with is the one who is angry and has something against the other. Thus when we preach “Be reconciled to God,” it is clear that God is the offended party!
In neither case are we saying that Jesus turned God’s hate into love. Nor was there a tension between the Father and the Son. It was not the loving Son trying to persuade the reluctant Father to love us. For God’s love is what initiated salvation! God out of love sent Christ! “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
The Atonement and Man
Man needs to be saved. One major term for God’s act of saving man is Redemption. Redemption means to buy something back at a price. In a non-religious sense, it was used in ancient Israel to describe a kinsman-redeemer. When somebody was too poor and had to sell his home, or become another’s slave to pay off his debt, a close family member could redeem them and pay the debt themselves. This is what Christ does in the gospel.
From what do we need to be redeemed? Three things: We need to be redeemed from the Law, from the curse of the Law, and from sin.
First, Jesus redeems us from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13). What is the curse of the Law? It is the punishment for anybody who does not obey every single command of God’s Law (Gal. 3:10). This curse is described as various physical trial in the OT, but turning to the NT we discover that ultimately the curse is hell. Christ frees us from the curse due us for our sins by “becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). This means that Christ took upon Himself the guilt due us, was cursed by God and punished as a criminal, and hanged on a tree.
Second, Jesus redeems us from the Law. Every human being is under God’s Law. The demands of the Law is perfection, and as we just saw, a curse is given to any who disobey even once. “Do this and live; disobey and die” is its grasp on our souls. Life under the Law is put in bad light, being equated to slavery (Gal. 4). Freedom from the Law comes because Christ Himself was “born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). All who believe are freed from the Law (Rom. 7:1-4) because He Himself fulfilled every command perfectly. This record of perfect obedience is then placed on our account and we are therefore justified (declared righteous) in God’s court (Rom. 5:15-19; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil 3:9).
Third, Jesus redeems us from our sins. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7). Christ has “redeemed us from every lawless deed” (Titus 2:14). He “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5).
The way Christ redeems us from our sins is by bearing in Himself the punishment we deserve for our sins. In Isaiah 53 we are told that the Suffering Servant will bear His people’s sins. Turning to the New Testament, we read that Jesus died to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:28, see also 1 Pet. 2:24). Where there is sin there is guilt. Therefore, when Christ bears our sins, it means that He is bearing the guilt for those sins upon His own shoulders. The connection between “bearing sin” and “bearing guilt” is found in many Scriptures (Lev. 5:17; 19:8; 22:9; 24:15-16; Num. 9:13; 14:34; 18:22). It is clear when we view the cross in light of Old Testament sacrifices that the guilt of our sin was placed on Him.