The atonement of Christ on the cross is central to the message of Christianity.
To atone for something is to make amends or to make satisfaction for a wrong. This is exactly what we see on the cross – it is through the blood of Christ that the holy God and sinful man are brought together peaceably. By nature we’re at odds with God because of sin, and at the center of our message we find blood. The blood of Christ, which is able to bring sinners like us who were once far away from God, near to Him. This is why Christianity is seen as a religion with a central message of redemption and reconciliation. By the blood of Christ we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. So we see at a very basic level that any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement is a false form of Christianity.
Even from the earliest chapters and books of the Bible we see atonement as central to those who would do life with God. In Eden, after the fall of man, for the first time in history God made atonement for His people by shedding the blood of an animal and using it’s skin to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel offer sacrifices in Genesis 4, Noah offered sacrifices to God in Genesis 8, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all do the same thing each time God meets them or blesses them. We see many other offerings in Genesis, but when Israel gets into slavery in Egypt and when God calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and say ‘Let My people go’ in behalf of God it is here where we see the doctrine of atonement coming into view clearly.
After 9 plagues completely devastate the Egyptians, God brings a dreadful decree to close out His assault on Egypt. He tells Moses of His plans and Moses tells Pharaoh in Exodus 11:4-6, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die…there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.’ Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence and God gives Him further directions in chapter 12, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months…On the 10th day of this month every man shall take a lamb for his household and on the 14th day of the month you shall kill the lamb at twilight. Then take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house…the blood shall be a sign for you…and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.’
It was the blood that saved Israel from death, it was the blood that secured their redemption from Egypt. Paul picks up this theme in 1 Cor. 5 where he calls Christ our Passover Lamb. The parallel is clear is it not? Just as the blood of the lamb secured Israel’s redemption from Pharaoh and Egypt and sent them on their way to the promise land, so too, it is now the blood of Christ, our Passover Lamb, that secures our redemption from Satan, sin, and death and sends us on our way to the greater Canaan. It was the blood of the lamb that atoned for Israel, it is the blood of the Lamb of God that atones for us.
From this point on, we see God instituting His Law, which has many prescriptions in it for various offerings and sacrifices intended to atone for the sin of the people. This Law is then what all of the Old Testament prophets courageously and consistently called God’s people back to. Therefore, atonement has always been central to the people of God, and when we come over into the New Testament we find that all the sacrificial atoning work of God culminates in one act of atonement, the cross of our Lord Jesus.
Let me show you this in six ways:
1) The Atonement is a Secured Redemption
Hebrews 9:11-12, ‘But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’ This puts on display what we’ve seen already – in the Old Testament the high priest once a year would enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people by the means of the blood of goats and calves, but Jesus, our true High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people once for all time, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood. What was the result? The result was not that redemption was now possible, no, the result was that by doing this Jesus secured an eternal redemption. In 9:15-22 the author of Hebrews goes onto say that the only people who benefit from this atoning work are ‘those who are called.’
2) The Atonement was Accomplished
Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.’ In this passage Paul speaks of Christ’s work with such confidence that he uses the past tense for all of his main verbs, speaking that even glorification is already accomplished for God’s people through the work of God’s Son. This is why Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ in John 19:30.
3) The Atonement is for the Church/Sheep
Ephesians 5:25-27, ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’ In these verses who is it that Christ loved? Who is it that Christ gave Himself up for? Who is it that Jesus cleansed by the water of the Word? Who is it that He’ll one day present to Himself in splendor by His atoning work? His Church. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church, only the Church. John 10:11 also, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays His life down (for who??) the sheep.’ After saying this to the crowds Jesus a bit further on in 10:26 tells many who are listening to Him that they ‘are not among His sheep.’ Acts 20:28, ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (who?) the Church of God, which He obtained (how?) with His own blood.’
4) The Atonement Redeemed a People for Christ’s own Possession
Titus 2:14 speaks of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ‘who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.’ Christ gave Himself to redeem a people, a particular people, for His own possession. John 11:51-52 speaks of this by saying the cross gathered into one people the children of God who were scattered abroad. Matthew 1:21 too, ‘Mary will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Here we see Jesus’ name is connected with His mission. Why did He come? To save His people, from their sins.
5) The Atonement is Not for All but ‘Many’
Matthew 20:26-28, ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’ Isaiah 53:11, ‘Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.’
6) The Atonement Purchased a Global People
Rev. 5:9-10, ‘And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed (purchased – NIV) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a Kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ See here again, the cross didn’t make salvation possible for people, a specific, a definite people were purchased on the cross.
Again, any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement or seeks to lesson Christ’s atonement by saying it wasn’t intended to purchase a select few but merely make salvation possible is in error. On the other hand, any representation of Christianity that makes much of this atonement and glories in the six items above is true, good, and beautiful.
Give your lives to churches that glory in the centrality of the atonement.