The idea of atonement or propitiation has been viewed with scorn by many in the past. Still today the suggestion that Christ’s death is to be understood in terms of an atonement is mocked and ridiculed. But we shall never appreciate the nature and depths of the suffering of Christ until we get to grips with the concept of atonement. Only to the degree that we understand the atonement of the cross will we be able to echo the words of Isaac Watts:
Thus might I hide my blushing face,
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
It is only by seeing something of the infinite depths of the atonement that we shall be moved in the depths of our own hearts and begin to appreciate what the Son accomplished when he died on the cross.
The meaning of ‘atonement’
What does the word ‘atonement’ mean? If we consult a dictionary, we find that ‘to atone’ means to reconcile or pacify. A problem may have arisen between two people, for example. One of them has been offended by the other and needs to be reconciled. How can that be done? The best explanation is by illustration —we can think of it in terms of paying compensation or damages.
Imagine a car accident. A driver under the influence of alcohol cannot control his car, and an accident occurs. He is not hurt himself, but the driver of the second car is very seriously injured, his car is a write-off, and he is unable to work for a long time. The case is brought to court; the drunk driver is found guilty, and the second driver claims damages. The judge now has to decide how much the guilty person should pay for sufficient reparation to be made, and he appoints a sum. Notice the four elements in this simple illustration: the offence (namely, the accident), the transgressor or offender (the drunken driver), the person who has been offended, and the price or compensation that must be paid. This is exactly what we find in the Scriptures. Let’s consider these four elements in our relationship with God.
What’s the offence?
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This is the transgression: sin and rebellion against God. Another word used for this is ‘ungodliness’. Man rejects God; he does not wish God to be part of his life. Perhaps he denies the very existence of God. He blasphemes his name, ignores him, and makes his own idols. And inseparable from this ungodliness is unrighteousness: that is, his sins against his fellow creatures.
Who is the offender?
All have sinned. We are all in the same boat here. In Romans, Paul takes the first two-and-a-half chapters to prove that both Jews and Gentiles are transgressors. He brought his argument to the point where ‘every mouth is stopped’ (Rom. 3:19). In the judgement of God, everybody is guilty. We are all, without exception, offenders.
Who has been offended?
In the illustration this was perfectly clear: it is the person who was seriously injured and lost money because he could not work. He was angry with the one who caused the accident, and compensation was needed to appease that anger. So it is with God. The main problem with sin, as we have seen, is that ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (Romans 1:18). This does not mean that God loses his temper. It rather describes that constant and resolute rejection by God of anything that is contrary to his nature and will.
What is the atonement?
In the illustration, it is the cheque that is paid, making reparation to the one who is offended. What is the atonement of the Scriptures? It is Jesus Christ. He is the one who satisfies the wrath of the Father.
How long did it take to atone?
It took time to drink the dregs of that cup to the bitter end. How much time? Let me change the illustration and speak of computers. You know how you can download a computer programme or file. At the beginning of the download, a message appears on the screen, saying, for example, ‘8 minutes remaining’. You know to the second how long you will have to wait for the process to be completed.
When Christ’s sufferings on the cross began, how many minutes lay ahead of him? Have you thought of that before? Would one minute be sufficient to download all that wrath? Would five minutes be necessary in order to receive the full wrath of the Father? One thing Jesus Christ knew: his suffering would not last forever; he knew he would go to the Father; he knew the end of the story. But he did not know how long he would have to endure, how long would be the darkness before him. Did he know that it would take three hours? Why were three hours necessary? Would not two hours be sufficient? On the cross, Jesus Christ bears the punishment of sin, minute after minute after minute. The first hour passes, and he remains there still, groaning in spirit. The second hour passes, and then the third, and Jesus cries out, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ He is quoting from Psalm 22.
What do we find in that psalm? Does it only give expression to a sense of God having departed? No, there are other aspects too, expressions of prayer and of the hope of salvation. The psalm that begins with the cry,
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, And from the words of my groaning?’
proceeds with the words,
‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue clings to my jaws;
You have brought me to the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me;
The assembly of the wicked has enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones. They look and stare at me.
They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far from me; O my strength, hasten to help me!
Deliver me from the sword…’
(Psalm 22:1-2, 15-20)
So, after three hours, Christ is calling on his Father to release him! And his prayer was answered immediately. Within seconds of that cry came another, ‘It is finished’. Why? Because the Father responded to his Son’s cry, ‘Why have you forsaken me? Why is this continuing?’ Suddenly the Father declares, ‘I am satisfied!’ And the moment he heard that declaration, the Son knew that all was accomplished.
Jonathan Evans (1749-1809) wrote:
Finished all the types and shadows
Of the ceremonial law,
Finished all that God had promised:
Death and hell no more shall awe.
‘It is finished!’
Saints the dying words record.
There was no need to suffer further. The work was finished. Atonement for sin had been made. He could now say, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ The God-Man proceeds to his rest, to wait three days until the glorious day of his presentation to the world as the victorious One — the One who fulfilled all the demands of the Law. And his triumphant resurrection on the morning of the third day proclaimed his victory.
In Romans 3:19, God’s law accuses every man of his sin so that God stops every mouth. Silence is also the only appropriate response as we think of the atonement of Calvary and the suffering on the cross that brings all the blessings of heaven to the believer. As William Williams Pantycelyn confessed in a Welsh hymn:
Rich blessings upon blessings, The fruits of Calvary,
Sweet Eshcol grapes unnumbered, Maturing on that tree;
As all of these surround me, How infinite their sum!
I find myself, amongst them, In deepest awe, struck dumb.
This article has been adapted from a sermon by Gwynn Williams, published in The Glory of the Cross by Bryntirion Press. The Evangelical Movement of Wales is currently producing books by Gwynn Williams free of charge. For more details, please see the website. www.emw.org.uk/what-we-do/resourcing-publications/bryntirion-press-english/free-books/