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The Atonement | The Work of Christ and Salvation

As taught by Timothy O'Day.

In this equipping time lesson, we learn why Jesus had to die.

The Atonement

February 18, 2024

Lesson 3 of Systematic 3

When we take up the topic of the person of Christ, we are asking the question, “Who is Jesus?” And our answer last week was “God the Son Incarnate.” He is one person who possesses the divine nature and a human nature. It is not only passages in the New Testament that lead us to this conclusion but the context of the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole. That’s what we saw last week, anyway.

When we take up the topic of the atonement, we are asking two additional questions, “Why did Jesus have to die?” And, “For whom did Jesus die?” We need to look at the New Testament to answer these questions, but again, we will see that Jesus’s death doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. It is surrounded by context. We have to understand this context to make sense of the cross. 

This is not merely an academic question. Before I came to faith in Christ, people told me that Jesus loved me and died for me, but that didn’t make sense to me. I was confused as to why Jesus had to die in order to show me his love. I could not connect how Jesus actually died for me. It was as if someone was saying that Carl loved me so much that he spent all of his money to name a star after me. That is sweet, but I don’t really care, and it seems unnecessary. 

What I needed to understand was the context of the Bible. The Bible is God’s authoritative interpretation of the world and reality. It doesn’t just tell us about events, situations, or facts—it tells us the God given—thus authoritative and true—interpretation of those events, situations, and facts. In order to answer the question, “Why did Jesus die?” We should not immediately jump to the theories but look at the biblical context that will help us evaluate those theories. Let’s do that now. 

Biblical Context for Understanding the Atonement

The Bible is about God, so it should come as no surprise that the most important context to understand in order to rightly conceive of the atonement is that of God himself. For our purposes this morning, what is essential to grasp about God for understanding the atonement is that he is good, trustworthy, and just. 

God is Perfect, Righteous, Good, and Just

Through all that the Bible says about God, it becomes clear that God is not simply a bigger, stronger, smarter, more powerful, more mature version of you. He is other. 

He is perfect in his nature (Deuteronomy 32:4), and in his ways (Psalm 18:30), which means that he is perfectly holy, righteous, and good (Isaiah 6). It is important to note that he is not perfectly holy, righteous, and good because he conforms to some outside standard. God is the standard. Things are good when they conform to his goodness, which is why when he spoke and things came to be, he was able to look out and say, “It is good.” 

In the beginning, God created all that is created—meaning that he is the only uncreated one. When he spoke, things came into existence, showing that his power is beyond compare. And as the creator of all things, he owns and has rights over all things (Psalm 24)

Humanity is Under Sin

The Bible is also clear that humanity is under sin. After creation, God created Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26) and gave them authority over all of creation. This was not an independent authority, but an authority derived from himself. That is to say, they are not equals with God, but under him. This is seen in the fact that God provides all that they need for life (Gen 2), gives them instruction on how to understand the world around them (Gen 1:26-28), and calls them to obey his instructions (Gen 2:17). 

But, if you have read the Bible, you know that they do not stay under his good, loving, and personal authority. Satan enters Eden in the form of a serpent, tempts Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, and she complies—thus acting as if God were a wicked liar instead of the good creator. 

This subverts the order of creation. At first, God rightly ruled and all creation was in joyful submission to him




But when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, all was turned over because they obeyed the voice of a creature rather than the creator, thus saying that creation had the authority to instruct them and they had the authority to reject God. 




And scripture testifies that sin did not just pop onto the scene and then leave. Later in Genesis 6 sin becomes so prevalent that God must wipe out creation with a flood, sparing only one family, Noah’s, through the Ark. God then makes a covenant in Genesis 9 not to wipe out the earth again even as sin grows, but instead he will sustain it. All people are born in sin because all humanity has Adam as the covenant head before God. 

God Must Punish Sin

God, who is loving, good, faithful, and just, must punish sin. God is not like a man that he would change. He is perfect and will always remain so. God says in Malachi 3:6, “I, the LORD, do not change.” 

While God is perfectly loving and merciful, we must also remember that he is perfectly just. He will not pass over sins and simply pretend like they did not occur. Listen to what he says in Exodus 34:6-7. When God passed before him, he proclaimed his name and said this, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but who will by no means clear the guilty

God promised that death would overcome Adam and Eve when they sinned (Gen 2:17). While they did not die that die, all humanity is now under the penalty of death because of sin. But this physical death is just a sign of the greater eternal and spiritual that awaits all separated by God because of sin. As Romans 6:23 puts it, “The wages of sin is death.” 

And God always keeps his promise. When God promises judgment and actually follows through with it, this is a manifestation of his goodness even if we find it personally unpleasant. In fact, when Israel was exiled from the Promised Land, both Ezra and Daniel confess that God is simply being faithful to his promise, for God had promised to send Israel out of the land if they broke the covenant that he had made with them (New 9:32; Dan 9:13-15). It is God’s faithfulness that also leads them to plead with God to show mercy because he also promised that he would show them mercy if they repented (Deut 30:3)

God’s Promise of Mercy

While man does not deserve it, God in his kindness promises a way of grace and mercy for sinners. It is good for us to pause for a moment and remember that we really do not deserve such a promise, but it came in Genesis 3:15 and developed throughout the rest of the Bible. In that verse, God gave a promise to Adam and Eve that one would come from them who would crush the serpent, thus crushing sin and death. Adam obviously believed this promise, because this is when he named his wife “Eve,” which means life or living. He named her this because he believed that humanity would have life and escape death only by one who would come from her. 

God continues to develop this promise of deliverance through different covenant partners. As we looked at last week, every covenant always has a human partner. This is because God is the one who brings salvation (Jonah 2:9c), but he promises to do so through a human. This is necessary because what humanity needs is a new covenant head, one who will not be like Adam but, instead, will be faithful. We looked at Ezekiel 34 last week and saw how God promised to come himself to shepherd his people, but he also said that he would set up David (though long dead) to be the shepherd. As we look at Jesus, God the Son Incarnate, who is God but is descended by the flesh according to the line of David, makes sense of this prophecy. 

But there is another prophecy that is incredibly pertinent to understanding the atonement, and it is Isaiah 53. That chapter contains a depiction of a servant who will suffer both as God’s people and for God’s people. This servant is “smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4b-5). Again, the end of verse 6 states, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The Lord, speaking of this servant, says in verse 11, “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

This theme of bearing sin is not new or isolated to Isaiah 53. While God will not excuse sin, he repeatedly offers substitutes to bear the sin of his people.

In Exodus 12, God passes over the Israelite houses who sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the animal over the doorpost. While the angel of death visits over homes, those who listen to the Lord, make the sacrifice and trust in the blood are passed over.

Again, after Israel is redeemed out of Egypt and on their way to the Promised Land, the Lord institutes the sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus is an answer to how the people of God can draw near to him even though they are sinners. The answer is substitutionary sacrifice. Animals are given in place of the sinner as a sacrifice because the wages of sin is death. This is most ultimately pictured on the day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. On that day, two goats are offered as a sin offering. One is sacrificed for the sins of the people and the other is banished into the wilderness, symbolizing the reality that sin deserves death and separation from God. But Israel, by God’s instruction, is able to avoid this by placing their guilt on this animal substitute. 

Isaiah 53 is not, then, an image that just jumps on the scene. It is full of meaning because clearly, this man is going forward as a sacrifice who would bear the sins of many and thus bear their penalty. 

Christ is the Answer

As we come to the New Testament, we see that Jesus is the answer to the problem of sin and the promise of mercy.

As we saw last week, Jesus is God the Son incarnate, so he is God himself who has come to shepherd his sheep, but he does so by taking a full human nature to himself. 

Unlike all men before him, he does not sin and is therefore not under the curse. As the sacrifices at the Passover and all other occasions had to be, Jesus was spotless. John the Baptist calls Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1). 

Because he is man and because he is sinless, he really can act as a representative and as a substitute. Romans makes this clear what Jesus does as the God-man.

Romans 1:18 says that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” In short, sin deserves wrath—God’s anger and judgment. 

But Romans 3:21-23 says that Jesus was put forth as a wrath bearer to satiate and absorb the wrath of God.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and all short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God our forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because, in his divine forbearance, he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the unjustified of the one who has faith in Jesus.” 

This means that Jesus put forth to absorb God’s wrath—that’s what propitiation means. To propitiate means to satisfy, appease, and thus remove wrath. Jesus suffered in the place of his people so they would not face God’s wrath.

Romans 4:25 says something similar. Speaking of Christ, Paul writes, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” That is to say, Jesus was delivered over to death because of our sins, meaning that he bore the penalty of sin for his people. 

Again, Romans 5:8-10 continues this thread. There we read, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” 

Christ died for us—that is, in the place of his people. His shed blood, his death, is what leads to justification. Jesus saves us from the wrath of God by suffering the penalty for sin in our place. 

Romans 8:1-3 also lays out this dynamic. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…” 

There is no condemnation for those who have faith in Jesus because Christ sets them free from sin and death because Jesus was condemned in your place. He is the substitute who bears the penalty. 

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The context of the Bible leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Christ had to die to bear the penalty of sin for his people. This view is called penal substitutionary atonement. Here is a helpful definition of this view:

“God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.”

All other views of the atonement do not fit the context and evidence of the Bible. While they do grasp an aspect of the Bible’s teaching, these other views only make sense when paired or corrected by penal substitutionary atonement. 

What are these other views? 

Incomplete Views of the Atonement

First, there is the ransom theory of the atonement. This view states that Christ had to die as a ransom to Satan to redeem people for God. One of the major flaws of this view is that it really has textual support since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not Scripture. 

Perhaps you could point to Mark 10:45 where Jesus says, “For even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. But even this verse does not support the view that Satan was owed a ransom. 

A ransom is typically thought of as freeing those who are captured against their will and help even though they want to leave. Scripture depicts us much differently than this, though. Before coming to Christ, Ephesians 2:3 speaks of people as living “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind…” In short, we are willing rebels who do not ask to be ransomed. Sinners have a severe case of Stockholm syndrome. 

The ransom that Christ pays is to free those whom the Father had given him, but this price is not paid to Satan; it is paid to God himself, for he is the offended party and the one who must be satisfied. Thus, for the ransom theory to make sense penal substitution must be added. 

Second, Christus Victor is a popular atonement explanation. This view states that in death, Christ triumphed over earthly and spiritual powers. He had to die, then, in order to defeat these powers. The power that Satan has over humanity is that man is really guilty of sin. Satan and evil powers can accuse people of sin and be right. Judgment is what people deserve. 

1 John 3:8b says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” speaking of sin at work in the Christian's life. 

Thus, this view would say that Jesus had to die in order to free you from the devil’s accusations and to free you from the power of sin.  But we need to ask how Christ’s death actually frees from such things. The answer is penal substitution. Through his death on the cross, the guilt and power of sin are removed because Jesus has borne the penalty of sin in himself. 1 Peter 2:24 states it well, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” 

Christ is victorious over earthly and spiritual powers through the cross, but this is so only because Jesus has acted as a penal substitute. 

Third, the example theory states that Jesus died in order to set an example of how humans are to love one another. This view completely sets aside the weight of biblical evidence that sin separates us from God and that we cannot save ourselves by anything that we do. 

It does, however, pick up on the reality that Christians are to look at Christ as an example. In Philippians 2, we are to consider Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. In 1 Peter 4:1, we are called to consider the suffering of Christ and arm ourselves with the same way of thinking. 

But Jesus can only be your example in a meaningful sense after he is your Savior. You need him to act as your substitute so that you can be truly reconciled to God. If this does not happen, then walking like him will be meaningless and ultimately impossible without the gift of His Spirit.

Conclusion: No other way

All of this makes Peter’s words in Acts 4:12 full of meaning. When asked why the apostles kept preaching Christ, Peter responds, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The reason there is no other is because Jesus is utterly unique in his person and work. He is God the Son incarnate, who in the place of sinners suffered death, punishment, and the curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin. By bearing the wrath of God, he ransoms a people for himself, giving victory over sin and death, and restores the image of God to all who believe by giving them the Spirit so that they too might become sons of God and children of righteousness. 


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