The doctrine of the atonement lies at the heart of the gospel. We cannot in any way, conceive of the gospel, without this truth. Dr Alan Cairns in his Dictionary of Theological Terms defined the atonement as follows:

“The satisfaction of divine justice by the Lord Jesus Christ in His active  and passive obedience (i.e. His life and death) which procures for His  people a perfect salvation.”

The word “atonement” is rooted in Old Testament Theology and the Hebrew word kaphar, which literally means to cover over. This word is usually translated “to make atonement”. The English word “atonement” appears only once in the New Testament, Romans 5:11, where the word means “reconciliation”. Therefore the atonement was God’s way of reconciling man to himself, covering the sin of man, through the offering of a sacrifice. New Testament words like hilkoshamai (Romans 3:25) signify that God was propitiated through the offering of Christ His son as a perfect sacrifice. The atonement was the only means whereby God could be propitiated, his wrath could be appeased, by the offering of Christ.

While the doctrine of the atonement is taught throughout the scriptures ( the Hebrew ceremonies and the theology of Paul especially) the purpose of this study is to demonstrate that Jesus Christ himself taught this doctrine, during the course of his earthly ministry. Liberal Protestant theologians have long argued that the idea of Christ dying a substitutionary death originated with the Apostle Paul and that this was not the intention of Jesus at all. They have called the Church to focus upon what Jesus said in relation to love and forgiveness and to be cautious about the arguments of Paul. This has been one of the reasons why the emphasis upon the blood of Christ and the necessity of His death has become neglected in Protestant circles. Interestingly enough Islam views the life of Christ from the same perspective.

It is clear that Christ himself believed that He died for the sins of His people. This was His purpose in coming into the world of men. Therefore we shall examine the Atonement according Jesus Christ Himself.

1: The Demand for the Atonement

Jesus taught that it was absolutely necessary for Him to die because of the enormity of the sin which inflicts humanity.

  • Darkness (John 8:12). A state of isolation from God.

  • Trespass (Mark 11:25). A violation of God’s law.

  • Debt (Matthew 6:12). A state of guilt; deserving to be punished.

  • Lie (John 8:44). A condition whereby one is running contrary to truth and living in deception.

Christ described those who live in this state as being the “servants of sin” (John 8:34) for whom there would be just recompense – “Ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:21). Indeed in that memorable passage in John 3 Christ affirmed that without the “only begotten son” man would not only perish but the wrath of God continually abides upon him (3:16 and 3:36).

Therefore from the teaching of Jesus Christ it is perfectly clear that mankind needed to be reconciled with God. The theological history of the Hebrew people pointed to this reconciliation being only effected through a propitiatory sacrifice. His listeners could conceive of no other way whereby atonement could be achieved. 

2: The Decision for the Atonement

Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology identified two causes of the atonement;

 (a) – The Good Pleasure of God and (b) – The Love and Justice of God combined. 

It was out of a gracious desire to forgive sin and redeem mankind that God sent His Son into the world. Therefore a decision was made by the Triune Godhead to bring man to God.

The operative word in the ministry of Jesus Christ, in this respect is “sent”. When commissioning the disciples he linked their commission with His own:

“He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (Matthew 10:40). 

In Luke 4:18, at the outset of His earthly ministry He described himself as one anointed and sent. In John 3:17 he specifically states that God sent His Son into the world for the salvation for that world. His great desire was to finish the work of the one that sent Him,  this was His meat , His food (John 4:34). Everlasting life is the glorious end result of Christ coming into the world of mankind (John 5:24). This word sent signifies that Christ came for a purpose; that purpose was the redemption of mankind, through the offering of Himself.

This is particularly evident when we consider the cross itself. The penultimate cry from the place of crucifixion was “It is finished” (John 19:30). What was finished? It can be none other than the work which Jesus was given to do. This was His meat. The procurement of everlasting life through sacrifice, an offering for sin. This work was only completed when He died. This was borne out by the mysterious rending of the temple veil, a fact which Matthew, Mark and Luke attest. The veil which once hid the Holy Place where the High Priest alone could enter every year carrying the blood to make atonement for Israel was now obsolete. A greater and final work of atonement was now complete. The work that Jesus came to do was an atoning work. The purpose of his ministry bears this out.

3: The Desire for the Atonement

It is also evident from the ministry of Jesus Christ, that he wanted to die for the sins of the world. He was no unwilling victim being forced and pressurised into this offering. As the Son of God He agreed with and was willingly submissive to the will of His Father.

Christ taught that He came into the world as a consequence of a covenant that He made with His Father. In John 6:37 he declared:

“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me and him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out”. 

Therefore a people were given to the Son by the Father, and Christ, in order to redeem those people Christ came to claim them by the offering of Himself. In the same chapter he declared that those given Him by the Father would never be lost and would be raised at the last day (John 6:39-40).

This concept of the covenant is especially important because Christ did what Adam failed to do. As our representative in Eden Adam failed the test and brought sin and death to humanity. But Christ as the Second Adam fulfilled the covenant in redeeming a ruined race. Adam came and brought life, but Christ comes and brings abundant life, everlasting life through the blood of the shepherd who laid down His life (John 10:1-11). Who else can the Shepherd be who died for our sins, but Christ Himself, who willingly came as the offering?

Our Lord in one particular parable spoke of His desire to die in order that atonement might be effected. This is the one that concerns the householder who gave his well-beloved, his only Son to claim the vineyard back from the unscrupulous husbandmen (Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12). Even the religious establishment knew that Jesus was referring to Himself because they made a more determined effort to capture him from this moment. This was one of His clearest statements of intention, that He would die at the hands of the Jews, as part of the purpose for which He was sent.

In other places he spoke plainly about His death, so plainly, it seems that the disciples refused to believe because they knew the enormity of what He was saying (Matthew 16:21, Luke 9:22). He came for a great purpose and He embraced this purpose, because it was only through His death atonement could be effected.

In Gethsemane he spoke of the cup. This was the wrath of God which He must consume. In the the garden he expressed the horror, His pain as the cup was presented yet He was wholly submissive (Matthew 26:42). What else could the cup have been other than the wrath which was our portion, which He must consume for us? Why must He partake of this cup? Because this was the reason why He was sent into the world of men. To take the place of the guilty, to be the substitute, to offer Himself vicariously. Never once did he shrink from His blessed purpose. He delighted to do the will of His Father.

Our final group of references takes us beyond the crucifixion and the resurrection to the conversations which our Lord had with his followers. On the Emmaus Road he explained the necessity of His sufferings:

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). 

On that memorable journey he opened up the scriptures showing from the Old Testament (Luke 24:27) that He must die. According to Himself, Jesus sufferings were a part of the eternal plan, as was revealed in the Old Testament scriptures. Therefore all of the Hebrew references to the Messiah and His death (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53 for example) express the purpose of Christ and His desire to come to procure salvation for His people. Prior to His ascension he addressed His disciples with similar language linking His sufferings with remission of sin and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the New Testament age:

“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).

As we stand and gaze at Jesus Christ, as we hear His sacred words we must confess with the Samaritans of Sychar:

“Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (John 4:42)

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