Christian Basics

The atonement: Jesus' death for us

[dandelion] Introduction

"The time is fulfilled" is the opening statement of the gospel (the good news from God). It announces that the day of the messiah's coming has arrived. The Old Testament prophets said that the messiah (God's anointed one) would die for his people. As the suffering servant, his death would usher in the new age of the Kingdom. This is exactly what Jesus did.

The meaning of the atonement

The atonement is a technical term used to describe what Jesus actually achieved by dying on the cross. The word means "a making at one" and it describes God's work of making enemies friends. It is used by Christians to describe the work of Jesus in restoring our friendship with God. This he does by dealing with the problem of our sins through his death on the cross.

The great problem posed by the Bible is, how is it possible to be God's friend when we have gone and turned our back on him /ignored him, or even worse, purposely defied him? The Bible calls this rebellion "sin", and no matter how hard we try we seem to keep on sinning. What we need is to be God's friend, but the trouble is our constant sinning makes us his enemy. What will atone for our sin and restore our friendship with God?

In the Old Testament, God revealed the answer to this question in visible pictures. He taught his people that the life of a sinful person is preserved only by the death of a substitute. This was clearly spelt out in the Bible book of Leviticus, chapters 1, 8, and 16. The life of an animal was to be sacrificed to cover sin. This was a very complicated business - each type of sin had a different type of sacrifice. Yet, the point is simple enough: sin is serious; someone has to pay the price; a substitute has to be found; without a substitute a sinner will die and never know God.

When God's people thought they had it all sewn up, God dropped a bombshell. In truth, the blood of bulls and goats could never deal with the problem of sin; only God could solve the problem - he would have to provide the substitute. Isaiah Ch.53 describes the substitute offered by God as "an offering for sin who ... bore the sins of many". Who was he? Of course, we know the secret, it is Jesus, Acts 8:34-35. When John the Baptist saw Jesus he said "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." "God showed his great love for us in that, while we were sinners, Christ died for us", Romans 5:8. In that death Jesus made "one sacrifice for sins for ever" (Hebrews 10:12) and so "purged our sins" (Hebrews 1:3) and thus "we were reconciled to God", Romans 5:10.

So, when Jesus headed for Calvary that Friday morning, he knew what he was on about - he always knew that his day on the cross would come, that he would one day sacrifice his life as a substitute for ours. When he was crucified, he suffered the penalty due our sins. His death was much more than just physical death, it was eternal death; he experienced separation from the Father. The eternal unity of the Father and Son was momentarily broken. God the Father, unable to look on sin, turned his back on his Son. In that horrid moment Jesus cried, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

At the moment of Jesus' death, the Bible tells us that the great curtain in the Temple, the curtain hiding the presence of God from the people, was torn in two. No longer was there a barrier between mankind and God. Jesus' atoning work removed the barrier between God and the apex of His creation. So, we can now be one with our Creator.

The word "atonement" then, is used to describe the work of Jesus in bringing mankind and God together.

Aspects of Jesus' atonement

Jesus' work of "mediation" between God and mankind is as follows. He dies on the cross as a "sacrifice" and "propitiation", and so gains our "redemption" and "justification". With the barrier of sin removed, "reconciliation" is complete. We will now consider the meaning of these key Biblical words:

  1. Mediation

This is a good description of Jesus' atoning work. A mediator is one who intervenes between two parties in order to promote good relations between them. Jesus has intervened between God and mankind to bring about reconciliation. 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24.

  2. Sacrifice

The Bible describes Jesus as a sin offering to God - "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Someone has to pay the price for sin, Jesus does it in our place - he dies for us.

  3. Propitiation

The word means to conciliate - to cause someone to be favorably disposed toward another by turning aside or dealing with their anger. The Bible says that God is angry with us because of our rebellion against him, Psalm 7:11. This anger spells our doom, Romans 1:18. What Jesus did on the cross was to bear the brunt of God's anger in our place. Because of our sin, we were the ones who should have faced God's wrath, but Jesus directed it onto himself. With God's anger spent on Jesus we can now turn to him and live. Although it's hard to imagine God being angry, we must remember that he is a "just" God - a totally pure God. His nature demands that he be angry with sin and his anger is all-consuming. Yet, he is a merciful God and so, just for us, he turns his anger onto himself - onto his Son.

  4. Redemption

This word was first used to describe the liberating of a prisoner or slave by the means of a payment. Jesus liberated mankind from the slavery of sin and death by the payment of his own life. "The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many", Mark 10:45. "You were bought with a price", 1 Corinthians 6:20 - cf., John 8:36, Eph.1:7.

  5. Justification

This is a term which really belongs to a court of law. An accused person is either condemned, or justified: that is to say, the inquiry into their actions shows them either to be guilty of having broken the law, or not guilty. An innocent person is a just person and the judge who proves a person "just" is said to justify him. Our problem is that we are guilty and due for punishment. Jesus stands before the judge and takes the consequences of our sin - he bears our guilt. God the judge then declares us to be free from all the claims of the law, ie., he justifies us. He declares us to be acquitted of all charges against us. In his sight we are guiltless; justified; regarded right with God; it's just-if-I'd never sinned.

The Shorter Catechism defines Justification as "An act of God's free grace (gift) wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed (credited) to us, and received by faith alone."

In summary:

a) It is an act of God's grace freely given.

b) It is a declaration to the sinner that they are no longer under condemnation and are now entitled to receive a new status of righteousness.

c) The basis of justification is not our faith, but Jesus' sacrificial death on our behalf (He died for our sins) associated with his perfect obedience to the law.

d) The righteousness of the justified sinner is:

i] One of status rather than fact, ie., God regards us as perfectly good even though we aren't.

ii] Imputed (credited), ie., the perfect obedience of Jesus is credited to the believer and therefore we are viewed by God as if we had personally done the good that Christ himself did.

e) The necessary response on our part is faith. We must put our trust in Jesus to receive the benefits of his death.

  6. Reconciliation

This is an excellent description of Jesus' atoning work. Mankind is at odds with God, and so God takes the initiative and reconciles us to himself through Jesus' death on the cross, Romans 5:10, 2Corinthians 5:18, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 2:17.

Other ways of interpreting the cross

There have been other ways of interpreting the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. They have all had their following, but the wight of scripture comes down on the side of the atonement.

1. Example. Some have argued that Jesus' sacrifice for humanity had one purpose only, and that was to illustrate the human ideal of self-sacrifice. His death served as an example to us. It is clear that the cross does do this for us, but it is not the end purpose of the cross.

2. Love. Some have suggested that Jesus' act of love for lost humanity had the purpose of prompting love in us and by this means gain our salvation. The idea here is that Jesus' love for us prompts our love for God in return, and this results in our salvation. The cross certainly displays the love of God, and it is true that it prompts love in return, but our love for God is not the means of our salvation.

3. Victory. It is interesting how the church fathers (2nd Century AD) interpreted Jesus' death as a victory over evil. They often imaged Jesus as a worm on a hook. Satan, the fish, takes the bait and is rendered powerless on the cross. The cross certainly serves as a victory over the powers of darkness, but it is in the atoning work of Christ on the cross where Satan comes undone. Sin and death no longer have power over the believer and therefore Satan can no longer hold us prisoner.


Christ's love is demonstrated on the cross. What is your response to his sacrifice on your behalf?



Christian Basics


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