Atonement is precious
I attribute various adjectives to these words associated with the work of the cross. For example, God’s love is “amazing,” grace is “overwhelming” and justification is “humbling.” Perhaps atonement is our most “precious” word in this work of the cross. In its most basic definition it means reparation for a wrong or injury. In a Christ context, this refers to God expiating and propitiating the sins of humanity.
Dr. R.C. Sproul helps us with the definitions: For “the word ‘expiation,’ the prefix ex means ‘out of’ or ‘from,’ so expiation has to do with removing something or taking something away. In biblical terms, it has to do with taking away guilt through the payment of a penalty or the offering of an atonement. By contrast, ‘propitiation’ has to do with the object of the expiation. The prefix pro means ‘for,’ so propitiation brings about a change in God’s attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us. Through the process of propitiation, we are restored into fellowship and favor with Him.”
Simply stated, atonement is the removing of the guilt our sin and appeasing the wrath God has toward us because of that sin. We should pause and consider what this really means, because this is what makes it so precious. Do you recall our discussion about the God-head’s holiness? We are so far from holy! Atonement is where we see love and grace converge in God the Father’s response to the demands of His own holiness. Dr. James MacDonald put it this way, “God’s holiness demanded that sin be paid for, and then His love compelled Him to pay the price Himself.”
Jesus was the only one who could come before God the Father for permanent atonement on behalf of humanity. Why? Because He is the only one who lived who was without original sin and without committing a sin despite the temptations of this fallen world. He was blameless. The Bible book of Revelation in Chapter 5 tell us Jesus became sin for us, as also noted in 2 Corinthians 5:21. He took on our sin, he was not sinful. 1 Peter 2:24 makes this distinction, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.” The Christ was a man like us, but without sin. Hebrews 4:15 declares, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet He did not sin.”
Note the word permanent with atonement in my previous remark. This is key to the new covenant. Under the old covenant, the sacrifices by the Israelites were temporary in their effect. Necessary, yet temporary. This is the reason sacrifices were a regular part of their worship over the course of a year. The sacrifice of an animal and the spilling of its blood, like we saw in Genesis 3 by the God-head himself, covered and provided forgiveness of sin until an Israelite sinned again as they attempted then failed to live up to the standards of the law God the Father gave Moses.
This temporary atonement needed a permanent solution. That solution was the sacrifice of God the Son, because He is blameless.
Jesus alone was qualified to accomplish both, living and dying for humanity. While Aaron, the High Priest, had to get two goats, one to sacrifice for the appeasement of God and another to symbolically show the result of forgiveness as it walked out of the sight of the people, Jesus did both roles.
Jesus appeased God’s wrath and took our sins away, all in one act. Expiation and propitiation in one event. God the Father no longer sees the sin of anyone who is born again, instead He looks with favor.
Our assignment of the adjective “precious” to this act of atonement on the cross is deepened even more when we understand this act results in us becoming His heirs, His children. Not even the sacrifices offered by Aaron could accomplish that for the people of Israel, it comes only in the new covenant. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection wrought the means through which our sins could be removed, the Father’s enmity could become favor and we are adopted into this heavenly family. How precious indeed.
— The Rev. L. Scott Hamby is senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Elkins, and can be reached by calling 304-636-3448.