“It is finished,” He cried. This work of Christ on the cross is called by theologians the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement is really at the heart of the gospel and the heart of Christianity itself, and I’d like to examine various aspects of the atonement, and show how each one is important for us in our Christian walk.
A first aspect of the atonement is expiation. This is not a word we hear very often, but expiation refers to the removal of guilt. Because Christ endured the full curse of the law, he has borne our guilt. We have had our guilty sentence removed. He has freed us from the burden that we had earned under the law.
Paul touches on this aspect in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when he says that Christ was made sin for us in order that we might be made the righteousness of God. That is, Christ was treated as sin, he was given what sin deserved, that is death, so that we might instead be given what righteousness deserved, which is life. Isaiah 53 also teaches this: “he has surely borne our griefs and sorrows…upon him was laid the iniquity of us all.” Christ has taken our guilt from us; he has expiated us.
And this is crucial for us in our Christian life. Have you have ever lingered under a sense of looming guilt for your past sins? Have you had thoughts, deep down, that come up and tempt you to believe that God really doesn’t love you? Have you ever felt like God is punishing you for your foolishness, that there is an angry Father keeping you down, holding back his love, because you’re still a sinner–that because you’re still struggling with this sin or that sin, God is punishing you for your rebellion by holding back good things?
Well, the doctrine of expiation reminds us that our guilt has been removed. All of it. Christ has removed it completely by bearing it in his body on the cross. You’re not being punished again for sins that have already been removed, for guilt that has already been dealt with. You’re free in Christ.
God is not punishing you for something in your past. Indeed, if Christ has truly expiated our guilt on the cross, if he has truly removed our guilt and curse from sin, then God would be unjust to punish you again for something that has been removed. God cannot condemn you with the law once you have been declared not-guilty. Divine double jeopardy is impossible. Once the Son frees you from guilt, you are free indeed.
Remember your freedom from guilt the next time your feelings start to condemn you. Tell yourself again that you have been declared not guilty in Christ. Speak to yourself from Scripture, and ignore false feelings that try to put again upon you the yoke of the curse that was the result of the law. The doctrine of expiation ought to help us every day. It should help us to sleep at night. It should help us when our feelings condemn us. It should help us when the world would try to declare us guilty. Christ has cleared us from the sentence of guilt that we so rightfully earned.
Second, another aspect of the atonement is propitiation. Propitiation is another word that we don’t hear often these days. It is very much related to expiation; indeed, we might call it the other side of the same coin. If expiation was concerned with us and our guilt, then propitiation is concerned with God and his righteousness. Propitiation means the absorption or the appeasement of God’s wrath toward sin. Christ has taken the full weight of divine wrath that was earned by us because of our sin.
We see this idea throughout the Bible. For example, Isaiah 53 again says:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
The apostle Paul does something similar in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, where he says Jesus “delivers us from the wrath to come.”
John uses the exact word “propitiation” in his first letter. 1 John 2 says that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 4:10 likewise says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Christ has taken the wrath that was earned by God’s people and absorbed it in his body. He felt the punishment that we deserved. He suffered that we might be free.
This is a doctrine that the world hates. They hate it because it assumes that there is an absolutely holy God who judges sin. They hate it because the doctrine assumes that they will be punished; indeed, they will feel wrath from God because of sin.
This doctrine is important for us to know because we can be tempted by Satan to believe that God is not happy with us. Our feelings and the lies of this world can lead us to believe that the bow of God’s wrath is still aimed at us, that we really have not been forgiven, and that can lead us to cower and fear. We can come to doubt our own salvation, and doubt the very goodness of God himself. But knowing that Christ has truly propitiated for the sins of his people means that we can rest in God’s goodness shown toward us. We must remind ourselves that God’s wrath is not aimed at us, even when we suffer or are afflicted. Even when times get tough, this is not the wrath of an angry God punishing you for sins, this is the tender guidance of a faithful Father who is seeking your good, even through the trials.
God does not fly off the handle. God does not hold grudges against you. God does not say that he forgives you and then pour out his judgement upon you. God is steady and unrelenting in his wrath against sin, but that wrath is not aimed at you because it has been assuaged by the work of the Son in your place. Trust that God is a good and loving Father to you, and that he has no hint of wrath stored up for you, only goodness and love.
A third aspect of the atonement is reconciliation. This is a word that is much more familiar to us. On the cross, Christ has brought reconciliation between us and God. He has brought former enemies together and made them friends. This is really what the word atonement means. Atonement comes from an old English word that literally meant to be made “at one,” to be united, to be reconciled. We were at war with God. We were hated enemies, seditious traitors, having no hope of even coming into his presence to talk about peace. We were outside of the realm of his grace, and branded as enemies of the state. But Christ on the cross has made a way for us to be reunited with our God.
Romans 5:10-11 speaks of this reconciliation: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Similarly, Colossians 1:19-20 speaks of this work of reconciliation: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
God has made a way for us to have peace with God through the work of Christ on the cross. If you believe, you are no longer God’s enemy, but God’s friend. He no longer has ill-will toward you, but only blessings. He no longer feels hostility toward you, but only feels charity. No more enmity, only amity.
Believer, rest in the reconciliation that Christ has provided for you. Consider the great blessing this is for us; that we have been brought near to God. We’ve been made friends with him, and friends don’t mistreat one another. Friends look out for each other’s best interests. Friends defend one another. Friends provide for each other’s needs. This is what God does for us. He doesn’t mistreat us. He looks out for our best interests. He defends us. And he provides for our needs. Praise God and thank him for the reconciliation that he has provided for us in Christ.
A fourth aspect of the atonement is satisfaction. When we hear that word now we usually think of something like happiness, or gratification. Like, “he smiled with satisfaction when he was finished mowing the grass.” But the word has a much stronger meaning. It usually refers to the payment of a debt. Indeed, the Greek word used here for “it is finished” is actually a transactional term. In that day, when you’d finish paying off a debt, they’d give you something like a receipt that said tetelestai across the top of it: “It is finished.” The debt has been paid in full.
That’s what Christ has done for us. In our sinful rebellion, we had robbed God of what was due to him. The service and obedience, the allegiance and faithfulness that should have been given to him, was taken away and given to another, the God of this world, Satan. We robbed God of the glory that ought to have been given to him. And that made us debtors to him. We owed him a debt we could never repay. But Christ on the cross made up for the debt that we owed. He makes the payment of his very own life to pay our debt in full.
Colossians 2:13-14 says: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Christ has canceled our record of debt. He has removed our file from the divine claims department, and stamped “paid in full” across our records. We don’t owe a single penny. You’ve been vouched for, you’ve been covered. Christ has completely removed our debt.
Believer, have you considered the debt that Christ has paid on your behalf? Do you praise the Son for his willingness to take on your foolish balances? Meditate on what the Son has removed from you. Contemplate the gift of the Son and his sacrifice. Thank God that the debt has been removed, because none of us could ever have removed it on our own. None of us had the means to pay for it. Indeed, the Bible says that none of us even had the inclination to remove the debt, if it weren’t for the work of the Holy Spirit. We were, prior to Christ, sprinting down the path toward hell, running up an even higher tab with each sin, sinking ourselves deeper and deeper into divine debt. But God, being rich in mercy, because he loved us, showed us the great debt that we owed him. He pulled us out of the mire of sinful debt, he nailed our invoice for sins on the cross, and he placed us back on a right standing at the cost of his very own Son.
That is the love of the Father. Not merely that he would be willing to buy his own enemies out of a debtor’s prison, but that he would do it even at the great cost of his very own Son’s life. Believer, don’t take for granted the great work of God on your behalf. Don’t neglect so great a salvation and spoil it on the sinful temptations of this world. Don’t rack up again a debt of foolishness that will bring nothing but suffering to you and dishonor to the Father. Walk in the path of faithfulness, and honor the One to whom we owe a debt that we could never afford. Rest in the work of satisfaction that the son has done on our behalf.
A fifth aspect of the atonement is substitution. This aspect has been woven through all the other points thus far, and is really the most marvelous of the aspects of the atonement. Christ stands as a Substitute for those he came to save. The Bible speaks of this in many places. 2 Corinthians 5 tells us that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. 1 Peter 2 says that he himself bore our sins in his body on our behalf. Even at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “this is my body which is broken for you.”
Christ’s work was done in our place. He was willing to give up everything and become nothing so that we might be saved. He stood in our place, even while we were sinners. He was the final Passover lamb that was slain, his blood spreading over his people so that their lives would be protected from the angel of death. He was the scapegoat that was cursed and sent outside the gate so that we might have our sins forgiven. He is our Substitute, that we might be treated not as we deserve, but as he deserved. Praise God for his inconceivable substitution.
A sixth aspect of the atonement is redemption. To redeem something means to buy it back, usually from slavery of some kind. God has worked to free his people from bondage. Christ is our great Emancipator, our great Liberator, who has freed us from the chains of slavery to sin, slavery to the God of this world, and slavery to the cares of this world.
The Bible speaks of this great ransom price that Christ paid on behalf of his people. Matthew 20:28 says that Christ came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. That is, his life was the cost needed to buy back his captured people. Ephesians 1:7 says that we have redemption through his blood. And 1 Peter 1:18-19 says that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” Christ redeemed us, bought us out of slavery, paid the ransom needed for our freedom because he loved us. And the cost of that redemption was his very own life. His blood was the redemption ticket. His pain and suffering was our emancipation proclamation. His life was the cost of our emancipation, and his perfection was the cost of our liberation.
Believer, when you are tempted to sin, remember that that you have been freed from slavery. When the temptation comes and it feels so strong–that sin you’ve struggled with for so long, that you feel powerless to overcome, that feels like it has its tail wrapped around your neck–remind yourself that you have been freed. You’ve been bought out of slavery to that sin. It is no longer your master. Remember that Christ’s work on the cross has liberated you from the power of sin. You don’t have to give in. You don’t have to succumb to the temptation. You’re freed from sin’s dominion. And you’ve been given the Holy Spirit to help you fight. You’re no longer trapped by your flesh; you can battle against it. You’ve been redeemed from the power of sin, and you’ve been liberated from slavery to it. Praise God that he is a redeeming God! Thank him for the redemption we have through Christ Jesus.
A final aspect of Christ’s work on the cross victory. Christ is victorious.
This part of the atonement has been called Christus Victor throughout church history, especially in the early church, and it refers to Christ as the conquering King. Christ has defeated his enemies, subdued the cosmic foes, and succeeded in accomplishing his mission. Christ’s people–indeed all of creation–were under the power of the Evil One. But, because of Christ’s victory, Satan and his powers have been dealt the fatal blow, and it was done in the very way that seemed to be his defeat. The world looked on and saw Jesus hanging and dying on the cross, but the moment of his apparent defeat, was only the beginning of his coronation. His path to the grave was the first step in his victory march to Glory.
Colossians 2 tells us that God has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in Christ.” Christ is the victorious King that has defeated the Villain and saved the hostages.” He is the valiant Knight that slew the Dragon and saved his Bride, the Church. He is the rescuing God that saves a people for himself.
Believer, when you are doing battle against Satan and his temptations, remember these aspects of Christ’s work. Remember that you have been liberated by a victorious King, that you’ve been freed from slavery to sin, that you’ve been forgiven of all your debts, washed of your guilt, and have no wrath looming over you anymore. Preach these truths to yourself when you are weary from battle and tempted to give in to sin. Don’t let the lies of the Evil One distract you by taking away some part of Christ’s atoning work.