The word “atonement” occurs only once in the English New Testament (Rom 5:11), and a more accurate word there would be “reconciliation” (JND, ESV). The atonement refers to the sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross that provides God with a means to offer forgiveness and salvation to guilty sinners.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the atonement by Christ; it is inextricably linked with the other truths discussed in this issue of the magazine. The virgin birth, incarnation, deity and perfectly sinless character of our Lord Jesus Christ provide the atonement with its essential properties and incalculable value. The resurrection and ascension are founded upon the atonement and give it heaven’s validation. The present and future ministries of Christ would be valueless, indeed non-existent, without the atonement.
When considering the atonement, it is important to differentiate between the fact and theories of the atonement. The fact of the atonement is a singular truth presented by God; men’s theories about it are many. The fact of the atonement is, indeed, right at the heart of divine truth. An inaccurate grasp of its truth will impact, in corresponding measure, every other truth regarding the person of Christ. It would be impossible to fully explain the atonement in a single article, so we will examine the main points of the doctrine under a number of questions.
Why the Atonement?
The answer is in the events of Genesis 3, as explained in Romans 5:12: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men.” Adam’s sin plunged the world into sin, death and condemnation; that is the plight of all his descendants. Humanity is condemned before God, with an inherited sin nature that inevitably results in sin, and from those sinful actions comes the penalty of death and judgment. Romans 5 describes the situation: “By one man’s offence death reigned by one” (v17), and “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (v19).
The affront to God’s throne by Adam’s transgression resulted in mankind’s separation from God. Having sinned, Adam could do nothing to effect reconciliation between himself and God, who is holy and righteous. In that hopeless situation, God provided the remedy: coats of skins to clothe Adam and Eve in their fallen state. It was gracious and loving of God to provide a remedy, but does that suggest His love, mercy and grace took precedence over His holiness, justice and righteousness? Not at all. Every attribute of God worked in divine harmony in the garden in a way that foreshadows the greater provision which He, in mercy and grace, would righteously make by the death of His Son. Mercy and grace did not oppose the requirements of justice, nor did justice hinder the exercise of mercy and grace. Every attribute of deity combined in the death of Christ to provide a necessary and effective atonement for a fallen world.
What Is the Atonement?
The atonement is the means provided by God to deal with the problem created by sin. That problem is multi-faceted, and among other things declares man to be “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), defiled in his nature (v3), “children of wrath” (v3), at a distance from God (v13), following “the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires … of the mind” (v3), etc. For God to offer forgiveness to sinners, His justice must be satisfied. That satisfaction must include exacting the penalty of death for sin. The atonement by Christ provided propitiation (to appease God), in an atoning sacrifice that satisfied God’s justice, and expiation (taking away sins). The object of propitiation is God; the object of expiation is impurity/sin. Propitiation and expiation are two components of the atonement: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jn 2:2), and “now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26). At Calvary, the full requirements of divine justice were met, and thereby God can righteously offer a pardon and forgiveness to every sinner.
The atonement by Christ at Calvary was not the enduring of the identical penalty due to the sinner, but was a divine provision of far greater measure than the punishment which all the sins of all humanity demanded. That provision righteously answered every demand of heaven’s justice in a manner and to an extent that far exceeds what the actual execution of the punishment for sin would have been if exacted upon the sinner. If Christ endured the sufferings due to sinners, however many they be, it would not be an atonement but merely enduring the penalty for their sins and nothing more. His atonement was far greater in measure than, and of a different kind to, the penalty demanded by the sins of mankind. If Christ suffered the identical penalty due to mankind’s sins, then the remission of the penalty upon believing is not as a result of grace and mercy but is an obligation. When Christ “died for our sins” (1Co 15:3), His sacrifice supplied a righteous basis of unlimited value upon which God can offer and dispense pardon to any believing sinner.
The atonement is not the same as reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, pardon or justification, but is the basis upon which these blessings can be freely offered. As a result of the atonement God can extend all these blessings and be merciful to the sinner in an honourable way. In summary, then, the atonement contains two elements: firstly, a sacrifice that satisfied God in relation to sin and, secondly, a provision of such measure in the sacrifice which enables God to offer forgiveness to every sinner. The message of the Scriptures is that God, out of His great love, has provided the means of atonement for sin through the death of His Son: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Joh 3:16).
When Was the Atonement?
The atonement by Christ was restricted to the hours of His suffering upon the cross. The spotless life of Christ was a necessary prerequisite to the atonement, and the resurrection and ascension were a necessary validation of the atonement, but the atonement itself was completed entirely upon the cross when the Saviour said, “Finished.” That means whatever was completed on the cross stands complete for all eternity and cannot be supplemented in any way thereafter. Whoever was included in the provision of atonement upon the cross remains so eternally. It is for this reason that John Owen’s trilemma of “all the sins of all men” or “all the sins of some men” or “some of the sins of all men” is a false argument. It is based upon an unscriptural commercial view of the atonement that argues for the execution of judgment for a specific quantity of sins and sinners. Christ’s death is never viewed that way in the Scriptures.
What Is the Result of the Atonement?
Christ’s atonement was a substitutionary sacrifice which made the salvation of all men possible by removing every obstacle that hindered God’s offering a pardon, and doing so in a manner that honoured His Law. God has the means whereby He can genuinely offer salvation to every sinner, and bring repentant sinners into relationship with Himself by averting the penalty for their sins. This is described in Romans 3:26: “that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Whether or not any sinner is saved makes no difference to the expedient that has been provided by Christ’s atonement. If a sinner is saved, it is because obstacles to their salvation have been removed by God; if a sinner perishes, it is not because of an obstacle on God’s part. When a sinner perishes, it is entirely due to his unbelief. God declares Himself willing and ready to save any sinner; He is “God our Saviour, Who will have all men to be saved” (1Ti 2:3-4).
Christ’s atonement is the means by which God dispenses salvation, and also the means by which the sinner obtains salvation. The gospel message is for “every creature” (Mar 16:15) because salvation blessings are available to every creature. However, not every person will be saved. The blessings available through Christ’s atonement are dispensed upon the exercise of faith. Christ is the sacrifice for sin, the benefits of which are presented by God, and sinners obtain the remission of the penalty for their sins when they believe in Him (Rom 3:24-25). At conversion, the sinner receives the blessings that flow from the atonement Christ made upon the cross – pardon, forgiveness, eternal life, reconciliation, redemption, sanctification, and the assurance of heaven for eternity.
For Whom Is the Atonement?
Acres of paper and gallons of ink have been used over the centuries in disagreements about the answer to this question, so one paragraph is unlikely to settle the debate. However, it is important to notice that:
There is not one passage of Scripture which states that Christ died only for some sinners.
The Scriptures state that the death of Christ was for all men (e.g., Isa 53:6; Joh 1:29; 2Co 5:15; 1Ti 2:6; Titus 2:11-14; 1Jn 2:2).
The gospel message of forgiveness is for all people (Luk 2:10; Mar 16:15).
Since the message of the gospel is for the whole world and urges those who hear it to repent of their sins and believe its message, there must be a real possibility for everyone to avail of the blessings of the atonement for it to be a genuine offer made in good faith.
Christ died for sinners (Rom 5:6,8) and for the sins of every sinner (1Jn 2:2).
 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.