The doctrine of atonement is among the most important doctrines from Scripture. At the same time, it is one of the most ignored and one of most abused doctrines because we humans find it offense. It offends us on a personal level because we do not think that we are wretched sinners in need of radical salvation. And we are offended at the violence of our salvation thinking that God has done something wrong or, we misunderstand what God has done. Certainly the Father did not require the Son to die on our behalf!
When we do not understand the basic nature of God, we are inclined to make statements like the Father killed the son. In the nature of the Trinity, it is not just the Father who sends the Son, it is also the Son and the Holy Spirit who sends the Son. There can be no division of intent within the Trinity, one God in three Persons.
I believe that this great event was planned before the foundations of the world. It is intended to totally, and irrevocably save us from the conviction and judgment brought on us by our sin. We often think of sin as stealing a candy bar or supplies from work. But the nature of our sin is really at the core of what we are. Our sin, at its root, is the breaking the Law of God and the rejection of his character, His sovereignty over all creation, and his nature in whose image we are made. In other words, we are rebels. The atonement was forensic (it has the nature of legal courtroom justice), penal and substitutionary. The entire Old Testament lays out both our problem and God’s unfathomable solution. It was a solution that no man could undertake, only God become flesh.
I have had a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad year, to quote a children’s book. I have walked in terrible darkness and I dare say, depression and if I lived by my feelings I would have lost all hope and lived in a kind of despair that would have led to death. But Scripture and doctrine have been like flickers of light reminding me of the objective truth of who God is and what he has done in Christ. Now, Resurrection Sunday has come upon me out of the dark clouds, and I am reminded once again of the glory of God. While the heart gives us motivation, the head reminds us of the objective truth of God and it must over rule our hearts. Knowledge of God and the discipline of study and understanding God’s Word objectively causes us to grow and prepares us for those days of darkness. The difficult doctrine of the atonement can and will bring comfort those who seek to understand it.
I have noticed a greater number of writers who are trying to deny the reality of the atonement as penal substitution. One writer called it God killing the Son and said of penal substitutionary atonement, “Matter of fact, this is a scarily similar method commonly used by abusive people, or cult leaders, to manipulate their counterparts (or victims) into staying with them and/or joining alongside them.” He says that God came to die with the oppressed (not for sinners). He is concerned with social justice and uses Marxist analysis to give the reader the “real” meaning of atonement. This view is seen as cruel, and evidence of an evil God.
Many theologians of the 50s and 60s were offended by the idea that God’s righteous wrath had to be satisfied (so does the Law). And many views came close to Abelard’s moral influence theory. These are all subjective views that the cross brings about positive results through symbolism or God’s self-identification with the oppressed. But in none of these views is anything changed and it assumes that the total wreck of the human soul needs no change. It denies the extent of the depravity of humanity and is basically Pelagian in nature. It would be as if I was drowning in a lake and someone runs off the end of a pier, shouting I love you, and then too drowns. Nothing objective is accomplished. No one is saved.
Something happened on the cross. It was the place where God’s judgment and our penalty were paid for my God himself. It was divine, it was cruel, it was unimaginable that the One who knew no sin became sin for us. The price and penalty of the broken Law were paid. It was an act of propitiation and expiation. It was restoration and the act of creating something new. It was an objective accomplishment and whether or not someone becomes a beneficiary of the cross, something objective was accomplished there and it will stand for all eternity.
It may very well be that the atonement is the forgotten doctrine of our age. We forget it at our peril. It is a corrective to so much of the syncretistic, new age Christianity that circulates today which never acknowledges our sin problem and God’s unfathomable grace that saves us. Jesus, the sinless one, did not come to die with us, but for us. His accomplishment on the cross will stand for eternity. And those who come to him by faith are irrevocably, and eternally justified by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, God in the flesh. We stand before God, redeemed because of this act of sacrifice on the cross. The atonement gives us true freedom and it gives us hope
It is Easter and I think it is a good idea in all of our busyness that we stop and meditate on the unfathomable, the death of Christ on the cross, his burial, and his glorious resurrection. We see in it, the forgiveness of our sin, the correction of the human condition, and the glory of our future resurrection.