Chapter 17: The Atonement Through Christ

There is one part of Christ’s priestly work that calls for further consideration, namely, the atonement.

1. The Moving Cause and Necessity of the Atonement. It is sometimes represented as if the moving cause of the atonement lay in Christ’s sympathy for sinners. God in His anger, it is said, was bent on the sinner’s destruction, but the loving Christ steps in between and saves the sinner. Christ receives all the glory, and the Father is robbed of His honor. The Bible teaches us that the atonement finds its moving cause in the good pleasure of God, Isaiah 53:10; Luke 2:14; Ephesians 1:6-9; Colossians 1:19, 20. It is best to say that the atonement is rooted in the love and justice of God: love offered sinners a way of escape, and justice demanded that the requirements of the law should be met, John 3:16; Romans 3:24-26. Some deny the necessity of the atonement, and hold that God could have pardoned the sinner without receiving any satisfaction. The Bible teaches however, that a righteous and holy God cannot simply overlook sin, but reacts against it, Exodus 20:5; 23:7; Psalm 5:5, 6; Nahum 1:2; Romans 1:18, 32. Moreover, He had pronounced the sentence of death upon the sinner, Genesis 3:3; Romans 6:23.

2. The Nature of the Atonement. The following particulars should be noted here:

a. It served to render satisfaction to God. It is often said that the atonement served primarily, if not exclusively, to influence the sinner, to awaken repentance in his heart, and thus to bring him back to God. But this is clearly wrong, for if a person offends another, amends should be made, not to the offender, but to the offended party. This means that the primary purpose of the atonement was to reconcile God to the sinner. The reconciliation of the sinner to God may be regarded as its secondary purpose.

b. It was a vicarious atonement. God might have demanded a personal atonement of the sinner, but the latter would not have been able to render it. In view of this fact God graciously ordained that Christ should take the place of man as his vicar or substitute. Christ as our vicar atoned for the sin of mankind by bearing the penalty of sin and meeting the demands of the law, and thus wrought an eternal redemption for man. For that reason we speak of the atonement as a vicarious atonement. The offended party Himself made provision for the atonement in this case. The Old Testament sacrifices prefigured the atoning work of Christ, Leviticus 1:4; 4:20, 31, 35; 5:10, 16; 6:7; 17:11. We are taught that our sins were laid upon Christ, Isaiah 53:6, He bore them, John 1:29, Hebrews 9:28, and gave His life for sinners, Mark 10:45; Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 3:18.

c. It included Christ’s active and passive obedience. It is customary to distinguish a twofold obedience of Christ. His active obedience consists in all that He did to observe the law in behalf of sinners, as a condition for obtaining eternal life; and His passive obedience in all that He suffered in paying the penalty of sin and discharging the debt of His people. But while we distinguish these two, we should never separate them. Christ was active also in His suffering, and passive also in His submission to the law. Scripture teaches us that He paid the penalty of the law, Isaiah 53:8; Romans 4:25; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24, and merited eternal life for the sinner, Romans 8:4; 10:4; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 4:4-7. 3. The Extent of the Atonement. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Arminians of every description regard the atonement of Christ as universal. This does not mean that in their estimation all men will be saved, but merely that Christ suffered and died for the purpose of saving all without any exception. They admit that the intended effect is not achieved. Christ did not actually save, but made salvation possible for all. Their actual redemption is dependent on their own choice. Reformed Churches on the other hand believe in a limited atonement. Christ suffered and died for the purpose of saving only the elect, and that purpose is actually accomplished. Christ not merely made salvation possible but really saves to the uttermost every one of those for whom he laid down His life, Luke 19:10; Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 1:7. The Bible indicates that Christ laid down His life for His people. Matthew 1:21, for His sheep, John 10:11, 15, for the Church, Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27, or for the elect, Romans 8:82-35. If the Bible sometimes says that Christ died for the world, John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 4:14, or for all, 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9, this evidently means that He died for people of all nations of the world, or (in some instances) for all kinds or classes of people.


To Memorize:

Passages bearing on:

a. The cause of the atonement.

  • But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. (Isaiah 53:10)
  • For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:19-20)

b. Vicarious atonement.

  • All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53:6)
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
  • He made Him who knew no sin [to be] sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
  • …and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)

c. Active obedience and the gift of eternal life.

  • But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit [it] at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. (Matthew 3:15)
  • “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17)
  • But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
  • …and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:28)
  • “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
  • “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:26-28)
  • “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20:28)


For Further Study:

a. What is the difference between atonement and reconciliation?
b. How do the following passages prove the vicarious nature of Old Testament sacrifices? Leviticus 1:4; 3:2; 4:15; 16:21, 22.

  • ‘He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. (Leviticus 1:4)
  • ‘He shall lay his hand on the head of his offering and slay it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall sprinkle the blood around on the altar. (Leviticus 3:2)
  • ‘Then the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be slain before the LORD. (Leviticus 4:15)
  • “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who [stands] in readiness.  “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

c. Does John 17:9 teach us anything respecting the extent of the atonement?

  • “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; (John 17:9)


Questions for Review:

  1. What was the moving cause of the atonement?
  2. Why was the atonement necessary?
  3. What was the primary purpose of the atonement?
  4. What is the difference between personal and vicarious atonement?
  5. How was Christ’s vicarious atonement prefigured in the Old Testament?
  6. What Scripture proof is there for it?
  7. What is the difference between the active and passive obedience of Christ?
  8. What did each one of these effect?
  9. What difference of opinion is there respecting the extent of the atonement?
  10. What is meant by universal atonement, and who teach it?
  11. What is limited atonement, and what Scripture proof is there for it?
  12. What objections are raised against this, and how can they be answered?



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