Atonement has at its very being the essence of something taking the place of something else. In the substitution is found a sense of reconciliation, justification, redemption, and sacrifice. Atonement by its very nature entails Jesus taking our place. He becomes the penal substitution.
A proper understanding of atonement necessarily begins with the Old Testament (OT). Genesis 2:17 shows death is the penalty for disobeying God. This death is put upon all of the descendants of Adam henceforth. As the OT unfolds God gives provisions in the ceremonial laws given via Moses for the atoning of national sins for Israel. Leviticus lays out a process by which animals are killed in sacrificial ceremonies. We understand these sacrifices to be types of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
In the atonement are present different elements that construct our understanding. Since in Genesis 2 death was pronounced as the penalty for sin it must follow that from a spiritual standpoint there is nothing a person can do for himself to atone for his sins. Dead people are incapable of doing anything except be dead. As such, since we cannot make a decision or action towards atonement, God must necessarily choose those that will receive the atonement (Ephesians 1:11-12). Therefore, the atonement should be viewed as being particular – applied to God’s elect.
Being part of God’s elect then entails a relationship with God. This relationship was violated by Adam’s transgression and is carried over to all Adam’s descendants. For God’s elect to enjoy the relationship for which God had created them (Revelation 4:11) God needs to reconcile them to Himself. In fact, this is one of the overarching themes of Paul in his epistles. There is a restoration, if you will, of the intimate friendship between God and His creation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
How then does God affect the atonement? If sin requires death then certain finality must entail. And, if such finality would mean the end of the intended relationships, how can this finality be overcome to sustain that eternally mandated reconciliation? The answer is for a perfect sacrifice to take the place of the sinful creature.
As the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ the Son of God became obedient to the Father. It is the central focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The gospels give the accounts of Jesus interactions with His disciples (Mark 8:31; Matthew 16:21) and how He actually expected to die. Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” In other words, provide atonement. Seeing the obedience of Jesus in being the atonement gives us the proper perspective from which to view atonement. That perspective is Jesus’.
In obedience we see another facet of how atonement is to be understood. Jesus came to be a sacrifice. Sacrifice when seen through the OT Levitical sacrificial system means more than what we call sacrifice today. The Levitical code said a person was to bring an animal to be killed in his stead. Being nomadic agrarians, this meant giving up a part of a family’s livelihood and wealth. Jesus’ sacrifice was a giving up of very real and tangible assets in the Godhead for the reconciliation of God’s elect. Indeed, the book of Hebrews uses as its communicative vehicle the sacrificial system and the priesthood encumbered to it for its execution (Hebrews 9-10).
In this sacrifice was the imputation of sins upon the sacrificed. Just as in the Levitical codes (Leviticus 1:4; 3:2,8 et al.) there is a passing of sin from the worshipper to the sacrificial animal, so there is an imputation or passing of sin from the elect sinner to Jesus Christ. Jesus alone could be that sacrifice as only perfect and blemish free sacrifices were acceptable (Exodus 12:5; 1 Peter 1:19). He sacrificed Himself as the perfect sacrifice as fulfillment of the Levitical sacrificial system, thereby giving of Himself in our place. He died for the sins of the elect – substitution.
As alluded to previously, the sacrifice had a cost associated with it. The sacrifice offered acted as payment of a price – redemption. The price of entering fellowship with God is the death of the sinner. This has clearly been established in Genesis 2-3. Paul says as such in Romans 3:24-25, Ephesians 1:7, and Colossians 1:13-14. By giving of Himself in the person of the Son, God then reestablished, or redeemed the ownership of His fallen creation via the new creation. In effect, He has ownership through creation and then again through redemption.
In order to be worthy of that redemption we as sinners must be made back into a holy state. Through the blood of the sacrifice of Jesus, we have our conscience sprinkled (Hebrews 10:22) and therefore are able to actually be in God’s presence. This concept is one that drove the beginnings of the Reformation when Martin Luther read afresh Romans 1:17. This idea of justification forms a large part of what atonement is about and for. It means in its simplest understanding that the sinner has been acquitted of all sins charged to him.
“To be justified” does not mean to “make” righteous. That implies a state of imperfection and open theistic understanding of how God works. Remembering that God has elected before the foundation of the world those whom will live in Christ Jesus, justification is best understood as a “declaration of righteousness” for the elect (Romans 8:33).
This understanding of justification is warranted as a picture of Jesus Christ. We are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and as such we share in the perfection He alone possesses. The recognition of the elect’s new sinless state replaces the imputed sin with the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is not “just as if I never sinned” for that implies again that God would allow sinners to affect His will. It means that the predestined saints are legally recognized as belonging to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Son of God on the cross.
Atonement then must also be seen as God’s wrath on sinners. The wrath of God is rightfully brought full force on His fallen creation (Romans 3:23-26). This act of judgment is called propitiation. It means that in the place of sinners, Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God. It is God’s perfect holy nature that makes it necessary to remove all sin from His presence. God’s sacrifice turned His anger and wrath from us to His Son. The cross then becomes the symbol of atonement in the death of Jesus Christ on that instrument of pain, death, and destruction.
We see now in the pages of Scripture the sinfulness of even God’s elect. That sinfulness must be dealt with in order to reconcile God’s elect to Himself in fellowship. Reconciliation comes with a price, redemption, to be paid. With redemption comes the declaration of the righteousness of God’s elect by means of justification. By that declaration of justification then comes the propitiation – turning away of God’s wrath. Jesus on the cross accomplishes all facets of atonement. He sacrificed Himself in our place.
“It is finished.” John 19:30