(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Atonement from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
The AtonementThe atonement is, perhaps, the most important of Christian doctrines. Without the atonement, there would be no hope, nor forgiveness, and in fact no Christians. The atonement means that our sins have been paid for and we are, as a consequence, saved. It does not merely represent potential salvation (It is ready) but accomplished salvation for all Christians (It is finished). Regardless of how the atonement was realized, it is clear that a representative was needed, since every person sins and is need of redemption yet every person also lacks the ability to make amends on his own.
The idea of atonement appears first in the Old Testament, as a foreshadowing of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. We encounter it at the mercy seat of the tabernacle, where the blood of a sacrificed animal was, once a year, sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The high priest made this sacrifice on behalf of the people by entering the Holy of Holies. Through this sacrifice, Israel was in some sense made acceptable to God. However, this sacrifice did not directly accomplish forgiveness of their sins.
The bible tells us two important facts about blood. The first is that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Heb 9:22)Why is the shedding of blood necessary? I don’t know. Scripture presents it as a fact without really saying why. This appears to be a case where we can’t handle the truth. We have vague (and most likely correct) notions that it is connected to God’s holiness and his justice, but that’s about all we can even speculate about. Somehow, for reasons not made explicit, God requires blood to be shed in order for sins to be forgiven.
The second important fact about blood is that it is impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10-4)This is why we say the Old Testament sacrifices, though pleasing to God and beneficial to the Jews, nevertheless did not (directly) result in the forgiveness of sins—although sometimes it is said that the sins were “covered”, as if they were put on layaway awaiting a future payment. In fact, we should be precise and say that sins were forgiven when the Jews faithfully offered sacrifices, but it was not the blood of the animal that brought forgiveness, but the future shedding of Christ’s blood. Further signifying that the Old Testament sacrifices were, in terms of the animal blood they shed, were ultimately ineffectual was the fact that they were repeated over and over, whereas Christ’s sacrifice was once-for-all.
John the Baptist was possibly the first Jew to understand that this, when he said of Jesus: “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the word.” (John 1:29) John, I believe, recognized something about Jesus, prior to Jesus’ public ministry, something that the apostles never saw nor accepted even after spending three years under Christ’s constant teaching: Jesus was a lamb, and as a lamb he would be sacrificed, but in this case the sacrifice would be effectual. Our sins, past present and future, would be forgiven as a result.
The fact that none (save perhaps John the Baptist) recognized the inevitability of Christ’s sacrifice is the most poignant aspect of his death. He went to the cross, alone, suffering for a people who did not even know he was suffering for them, who viewed his crucifixion as a total defeat rather than a somber yet unequivocal victory over death. Even after his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, when he meets two disciples who fail to recognize him, we see in the account in Luke 24 that they were clueless as to the redemptive significance of the resurrection and had no concept of the atonement. Christ has to teach them, from Old Testament prophecy, the significance of his suffering and the empty tomb.
Did God Die?Did God actually die at Calvary? This is somewhat of a trick question but the technical answer is no. To understand, we must consider the mystery of the incarnation. The God-man Jesus is a person who is fully man and fully God. A single person with two natures, one human one divine, that are distinct not separate—indeed they are inseparable. The two natures, human and divine, are united. The divine nature, being God, is both eternal and immutable. It therefore could not die. It that sense, God did not die. The human nature, being finite and mutable, dies and was later resurrected. Both natures, being united, suffered. The suffering of the human nature is easy for us to grasp—we can at least imagine the pain of the crucifixion. The suffering of the divine nature is beyond our comprehension. Still, the divine nature did not cease while the body was entombed.
So Jesus the God-man died in the only nature for which that was possible. The divine nature, though not dying, by virtual of being inseparable, experienced that death. The atonement has infinite redemptive value (exactly why is again, somewhat unfathomable) because the human nature that died was both sinless and indissolubly united with a divine nature. This is perfectly represented by a remarkable statement of Christ’s divinity by the apostle Paul—so clear is it in proclaiming Christ’s divinity that I am sorry I left it out of the lesson on the divinity of Christ:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)There is no doubt that Paul is referring to Christ, at the same time the blood is described as the blood of God.