As the Christian faith spreads across the world it encounters various cults and heretical sects that wish to wed itself to the Gospel. During Roman times, every kaleidoscopic and far-fetched gnostic belief under the sun attached itself to Jesus. Today we have Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormon missionaries, and Muslim sheiks doing the same thing, presenting their own unique version of Jesus.
Simply believing in Jesus as the Messiah is no longer the adequate creed it once was, for there are many jesuses in the age in which we live. “Believing in Jesus” can mean many things to many people. Christians are thus compelled to defend the precise meaning of words and concepts found in the Bible, especially those related to Christ’s work on the cross.
A Christian declares,”Jesus died for me.” What does this mean?
“Jesus died for me” is a familiar testimonial that has necessarily evolved, for the reasons stated above, into a complicated and precise academic treatise. It is articulated by theologians and seminarians (wishing to graduate and become ordained ministers) as “Jesus Christ’s death is a propitious and vicarious penal substitution atonement for His elect people. “
THE DEATH OF CHRIST
The death of Christ is a necessary condition to His resurrection, which is the crowning proof of Jesus’s claim to be God. Skeptics and critics, with Muslims being the primary unbelievers, challenge the reality of His death. But the overwhelming historical and factual evidence is that Jesus died on the cross, was buried in the grave, and rose again on the third day. Muslims who wish to debate the death of Christ should leave a comment so that a discussion can be arranged under a separate post.
The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would die. Psalm 22 describes the crucifixion with great precision, as does Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12. In the book of Daniel it is said that the Messiah would be “cut off.”
Jesus Himself predicted his death and resurrection many times in the New Testament. In fact He claimed to have power over His own life: “… I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again…” In Matthew 12:40 He says of His burial, “… just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth…” He “…must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…” In a confrontation with Jewish authorities, Jesus said, “…Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews take Jesus’s statement literally and responded, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body, not the physical temple. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
There are also several non-Christian accounts from the first and second centuries who recorded the death of Jesus as an indisputable fact. Among these are the Talmud as well as the Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus.
The earliest Christian writers after the time of Christ affirm Jesus’s death on the cross. Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John wrote, “…our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for our sins suffered unto death…” A friend of Polycarp, Ignatius, said, “… and [Jesus] really suffered and died, and rose again…otherwise all His apostles who suffered for this belief were in vain.” Justin Martyr noted that the Jews of his day believed that “…Jesus [was] a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified…”
To sum up this section: Jesus suffered at the hands of Romans, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and rose again in a glorified body just as the Scripture declare.
HIS DEATH IS A PROPITIATION
Propitiation is not a term invented by the modern theologians. Its origin is in the Bible. ἱλάσκομαι is used four times in the New Testament to describe the concept that God’s righteous and holy demands were met by the sacrifice of Christ’s body on the cross. Additionally, the notion of propitiation is impressed across every page of Bible, Old Testament and New.
The word carries the concept that justice has been satisfied. The whippings and other unspeakable tortures placed upon Christ’s body by the Roman soldiers are sufficient to the extent that no additional punishment is necessary. Justice has been served. God’s anger has been appeased.
WARNING! GRAPHIC VIDEO!
SCRIPTURE CITED IN THIS VIDEO IS FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT BOOK OF ISAIAH
(ISAIAH WAS A JEWISH PROPHET WHO LIVED 750 YEARS BEFORE CHRIST’S BIRTH)
After making a terrifying, yet truthful, case that you and I and everyone who has ever lived, are guilty of sin and thus deserve our punishment, the Apostle Paul says “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith …”
Paul states that Jesus is our perfect and complete sin-bearer. Those who belong to Christ have their penalty reconciled because the whipped and bloody back of Jesus was given over to meet the full weight of perfect justice; therefore the wrath of God and the demands of His law are settled.
In the book of Hebrews it is written, “…He [Jesus] gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people…” Jesus became human so that He could bear the sin burden of His people in His own body. Christ is the faithful high priest who intercedes on behalf of the people of God. The wrath of God is no longer directed toward them since any retribution that was due was placed upon the sinless High Priest, who is Jesus Christ.
The Apostle John employed the term on two occasions. First “…I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world…” and then “…By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins…” Jesus is the expiatory victim: the one who makes amends, redeems, pays, makes reparation and makes the wrongs right. Jesus is our Mediator to God; we need Jesus to stand between us and the Holy Judge and no one else. He is our eternal sacrifice, the Living One. Some may be inclined to suppose that Jesus’s blood has lost its redeeming value since the time it was first shed on Calvary. They would be wrong. And damned.
In non-Christian religions, the idea is that man must appease a just and holy God by various gifts or sacrifices. But man is utterly incapable of satisfying God’s justice except by spending eternity in hell.
HIS DEATH IS VICARIOUS
The Bible teaches that Christ’s death was our substitute. What this means is that while on the cross He occupied the place of His people.
The word “vicarious” comes from the Latin vicarius meaning “one in place of another.”
The New Testament, written originally in Greek, not Latin, uses two prepositions to carry the identical meaning. The preposition anti, translated “for,” means Christ died “instead of sinners.” In Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 we read “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many…”
… Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God ..
The preposition huper, also translated “for,” means Christ died “in behalf of” or “in place of” sinners: “…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13); “… [Jesus] who gave Himself as a ransom for all … (1Timothy 2:6); “…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); “… For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18).
The Old Testament animal sacrifices pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah:
There are many passages that support this doctrine: Only in Christ the Savior is a man freed from the liability of guilt, sin, and shame. Our right standing before our Judge is established on one thing only: the finished work of Christ crucified who shed His blood so we could live (John 19:30). We are released from our sins by His blood (Revelation 1:5). He has reconciled us in His earthly body through His death (Colossians 1:22). Jesus bore our sins in His own Body on the cross so that by His wounds we are healed (1 Peter 2:24). We are made holy through the offering up of Jesus’ Body as a sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 10:10). Christ appeared once for all to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26). God sent His Son to remove the wrath that we ourselves deserved (1 John 4:10). The penalty of sin that is rightly ours is absolved by grace through faith, not by any righteous deeds of our own (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The sense is that Christ is the Substitute who bears the punishment rightly due sinners. The guilt of the sinner is assigned to Christ in such a way that He represented them when He bore their punishment.
The biblical principle of vicarious atonement represents the highest form of mercy, honor, obedience and love: “…Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends…” (John 15:13), and it is the single most important doctrine when comparing Christian theology with the teaching of other religions. Christians believe that through His death the righteous demands of God have been met by a legal transaction in which Jesus dealt with the sin problem of His people. Cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Islam all teach in one form or another that a personal atonement is necessary to appease God.
HIS DEATH IS A PENAL-SUBSTITUTION
What has been said already may be adequate to explain the doctrine of penal-substitution. I include it again to elaborate more on the topic of guilt, penalty, and atonement. Since it is a theological term frequently used by Christians, I wanted to include it here.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15
A courtroom scene: A number of serious crimes are committed. The guilty ones are located and brought to justice. They are found accountable and do not deny they have done these evil deeds. So massive is the evidence against them that they do not attempt to make an excuse. Instead, they curse the Judge. Now they must pay for their sins. The penalty dictated by law is strictly enforced. They cannot be pardoned.
The penal-substitution view is that Christ’s death is a sacrifice offered in payment of the penalty for our sins. It is accepted by God the Father as replacement of the penalty due to us. But to what degree is the punishment carried out? What boundaries, if any, are established whereas the crime matches the penalty? Our sins are severe and heinous enough that the suitable punishment is scourging with whips. Added to this is thirst, public ridicule, abandonment, thorns placed upon our head, nails driven into our hands and feet. Finally, the sinners are placed in prison where they continue in their sinful nature, cursing God. Here they experience an eternal death in a place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” The prisoners must abandon all hope of ever leaving this dreadful place, just as Dante said.
Jesus would not have suffered as He did, nor to the degree He did, unless there had been an adequate reason for it.
THE WORD ATONEMENT
The word “atonement” is not used, as such, in the New Testament; yet, the idea is presented on every page. In the Old Testament the word occurs frequently.
This term may include a broad range of themes found in the Bible, many aforementioned in this article. It describes the priestly work of Christ, and particularly His death, which makes possible the restoration of fellowship between individual believers and God.
The word “atonement” is often used in reference to the work of Christ. It is considered a “work” because of what it accomplished and that He performed it on behalf of the beneficiaries. Christ’s death did not come upon Him unavoidably or by surprise; rather, it result from a definite choice on His part, when He could have avoided it.
Though Old Testament references to Christ’s death were previously mentioned (above), we will cover it again in more detail. The death of Christ is the subject of many types and prophecies in the Old Testament. We can trace the concept through the whole Bible: the sacrifice of Abel (Genesis 4:4), the ram on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:13), the sacrifices of the patriarchs in general (Genesis 8:20; 12:8; 26:25; 33:20; 35:7), the Passover lamb in Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28), the Levitical sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7), Manoah’s offering (Judges 13:16-19), Elkanah’s yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 1:21), Samuel’s offerings (1 Samuel 7:9f.; 16:2-5), David’s offerings (2 Samuel 6:18), Elijah’s offering (1 Kings 18:38), Hezekiah’s offerings (2 Chronicles 29:21-24), the offerings in the days of Joshua and Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:3-6) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 10:32f.). These all point to the one great offering to be made by Christ.
Furthermore, there are Old Testament prophecies that point forward to the death of Christ. The Psalms predict the betrayal of Christ (Psalm 41:9), the crucifixion and events (Psalm 22:1), and the resurrection (Psalm 16:8-11). Isaiah writes, “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). Daniel indicates that after sixty-nine weeks Messiah will be cut off and have nothing (Daniel 9:26). Zechariah foretells the selling of Christ for thirty pieces of silver and the investment of that sum in a potter’s field (Zechariah 2:12). Zechariah also predicts the striking of the shepherd (13:7) and the opening of a fountain for sin and impurity (13:1). Thus it is clear that the death of Christ is a theme running throughout the Old Testament.
The Atonement is a prominent topic in the New Testament. The last week of our Lord’s earthly life occupies about one-fifth of the Gospel narratives. Likewise, the Epistlers are filled with references to it.
The Atonement is the chief purpose of Christmas. Christ did not come primarily to set us an example or to teach us doctrine, but to die for His people. (Mark 10:45; Hebrews 2:9, 14; 9:26; 1 John 3:5). When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph he said, “[Mary] will bear a son; and you will call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.”
The Atonement is the fundamental theme of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel (literally, Good News) consists of the death of Christ for our sins, His burial, and His resurrection. The death of Christ for the sins of His people is good news! This means that man does not need to die for his sins. The Mosaic Law, the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching and example of Christ reveal our need for a Great Savior, but they do not provide the remedy for sin. This remedy is found only in the death of Jesus Christ.
The Atonement is essential to Christianity. Take away the death of Christ as interpreted by the Scriptures and you reduce Christianity to the level of other religions. Though we would still have a higher system of ethics, were we to take away the cross of Christ, we would have no more hope of salvation than false religions. Take away the cross, and the heart of Christianity is gone: “…But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.…” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).
The Atonement is essential to our salvation. The Son of Man must be lifted up if man is to be saved (John 3:14); the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die if it is to bring forth fruit (John 12:24). God cannot pardon sin merely on the ground of the sinner’s repentance. That would be impossible for a righteous God to do. God can pardon only when the penalty is first paid. In order that God might be able to pardon a sinner and to remain righteous at the same time, Christ paid the sinner’s penalty (Romans 3:25). Christ repeatedly said that he must suffer many things, be killed, and be raised the third day (Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 17:25; John 12:32-34). The two men who were in the tomb after Christ had arisen reminded the women who came to anoint the body that Christ said that he must be crucified and arise again (Luke 24:7). Paul sought to prove to the Thessalonians the necessity of Christ’s death (Acts 17:3).
From God’s standpoint, the death of Christ is an absolute necessity if man is to be saved.
The Atonement is of supreme interest in heaven. When Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, they conversed with Christ “of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sang a song of the redemption accomplished through the death of Christ (Revelation 5:8-10). Even the angels around the throne, though not in need of redemption themselves, joined in the song of the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:11). Since those who have the veil of human limitations completely removed from their eyes and have entered into the fuller truths of redemption through the blood of Christ extol Christ’s death above all else, we who are yet in the flesh ought to probe into the full and true meaning of the death.
THE ATONEMENT IS FOR HIS ELECT PEOPLE
You did not choose Me but I chose you … – John 15:16
At last we approach the end of the discussion. Thank you for making it all the way.
Christ’s atoning death is limited to the elect. If God intended to save everyone then no one would be in hell. If the Lord intended to send Christ to the cross to die for the masses, then we must say that God had failed, or that He was unable or unwilling to carry out His plans.
In Matthew we read “ … the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many …” This verse does not say for a few lives, nor does it say for all lives. It says for many lives.
Jesus Himself limited the purpose of His death when He said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” If He laid down His life for the sheep, the atoning character of His work was not for everyone. On another occasion He said to the Pharisees, “You are not my sheep;” and again, “You are of your father the Devil.” Will anyone maintain that He laid down His life for these Pharisees, seeing that He so pointedly excludes them? The angel which appeared to Joseph told him that Mary’s son was to be called Jesus, because His mission in the world was to save His people from their sins. He did not come into the world merely to make salvation possible but actually to save His people, and what He came to do we may confidently expect Him to accomplish.
Since the work of God is never unsuccessful, those who are chosen by the Father, those who are redeemed by the Son, and those who are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, — or in other words, election, redemption and sanctification, — must include the same persons.
Christ declared that the elect and the redeemed were the same people when in the intercessory prayer He said. “… I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word…” and “… 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; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them…” (John 17:6, 9, 10)
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:44
“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep…” (John 10:14, 15). The same teaching is found when we are told to “… feed the Church of the Lord which He purchased with His own blood…” (Acts 20:28). We are told that “… Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it…” (Ephesians 5:25). “He laid down His life for His friends” (John 15:13). Christ died for such as were Paul and John, not for Pharaoh and Judas, who were goats and not sheep. We cannot say that His death was intended for all unless we say that Pharaoh, Judas, etc. were of the sheep, friends, and Church of Christ.
God does not wish for possibilities; He decrees certainties. For example, everyday expressions such as “It rained” are not found in the Bible, for rain does not simply happen; God sends the rain. And so it is with people. Men and women who “come to Christ” will agree that salvation was not an arbitrary decision on their part, though from their perspective it seemed so at the time of their conversion. Everyone who has genuinely experienced the new birth through Jesus Christ will attest, looking back on “their decision,” that it was God who called them; not the other way around.