I received an email from a woman recently who expressed a struggle that I think you’ll agree is common to our fallen human condition. Here’s what she said:
I’ve gone through many battles trying to be good enough, trying to earn God’s grace and walking on eggshells, thinking God was going to throw me overboard if I did something wrong.
How many of you would be honest enough to say you have experienced something of that same battle in your own life? Let me see some hands . . . quite a few in this room.
Most world religions attempt to deal with issues of sin, guilt, alienation from God by telling us what we must do for God in order to earn His favor. Christianity, on the other hand—and uniquely Christianity—deals with those issues by telling us what God has done for us to provide forgiveness for our sins and to make it possible for sinful humans to be reconciled to Himself.
God’s answer, and the only answer for our failure and sin and guilt is not in trying harder, but it’s found in the atoning work of Christ on the cross. This session on the atoning work of Christ is where everything else we’ve seen thus far about the Lord Jesus over the past several weeks comes together. This is where it all culminates. This is the crux of His life.
Do you know what that word crux means? It means “cross.” This is the crux of it all. This is why He came to earth. This is the only way that sinful humans can ever have any hope of drawing near to a holy God.
This—the atoning work of Christ—is what makes Him truly incomparable, for as Oswald Sanders points out in the book, The Incomparable Christ, unlike every other human being, “The death of our Lord was not an incident in His life, but the very purpose of it.” This is what makes Christianity not just another “religion,” but “the truth”—the truth.
Now, the word atonement is an important one. It’s the central message of the Bible, and it’s one of the most important words in the whole Bible. The word could be understood just by breaking it apart and pronouncing it a little differently. Atonement. Take it apart and say, “at-one-ment”. . .being in harmony with God. Atonement . . . “at-one-ment” is how sinful humans can be reconciled to a holy God. It requires first that reparation be made for our sin against Him.
In the Hebrew language, the word that is translated atonement, kaphar, the primary meaning of that root word is “to cover.” You may be more familiar with the verb form of that word, kippur—Yom Kippur, to cover, the day of atonement. This word group is used approximately 150 times in the Old Testament, and it’s linked with two things: first, forgiveness of sin; and second, reconciliation to God.
Atonement is the story of how God has provided a way for estranged mankind to be forgiven of their sins and to be reconciled to Himself. Some of you have heard this a gazillion times before, and you may have lost the wonder, as I confess is often true of myself. I want to suggest that you ask God to help you hear it today with fresh ears, as if you’d never heard this story before.
For others, as we talk about atonement, this is a theological concept that you’ve never grasped, and you’ve certainly never been grasped by it. I want to say that today could be the day that you are reconciled to God as you realize that Christ atoned for your sins by His death on the cross.
Let me just summarize that old, old story of Jesus and His love that I love to tell. Here’s a summary of it:
- God created us to enjoy intimate relationship and fellowship with Him.
- We disobeyed Him. We chose to go our own independent way and to rebel against His Word, His will, and His way.
- “The wages of sin is death” is eternal separation from God with whom we were created to have intimate, eternal fellowship. Now we’re separated, access to Him was cut off. He is too holy to look on sin. You see this pictured in the Old Testament temple where anyone who entered the Holiest Place, the Holy of Holies, where the Shekinah glory, the presence of God dwelled. What would happen to that person? He would be struck dead! “The wages of sin is death”—no communion with God, no fellowship with God (Romans 6:23). There’s a barrier; there’s a wall. If you feel like you can’t get close to God, it’s because you can’t! And you can’t because you’re a sinner; you’re a rebel—same for me. But that’s not the end of the story, thank God.
- God loves us. He wants us to be reconciled, to fellowship with Himself. But His holiness and His justice require that sin be paid for. He cannot violate His holy character. So, in eternity past, before man ever sinned (Get that!), God devised a plan to restore us to Himself, while at the same time satisfying His righteous wrath against sin. That plan required the shedding of blood.
There are four important words involved in the whole concept of atonement. I want to give you those words, and I hope you remember them. Don’t forget them. Jot it down. Meditate on them. Here are the four words: sin, sacrifice, substitute, and satisfaction. In case you didn’t get that: sin, sacrifice, substitute, and satisfaction.
Going back to the Old Testament, the old covenant, God instituted the offering of sacrifices for sin. When the people sinned, they brought an animal—a lamb, a bull, a goat—they brought the animal to the priest. That innocent animal was killed—not for its own sin. The animal didn’t sin; the people sinned. When they sinned, they brought this innocent animal, and the innocent animal was killed and sacrificed as a substitute in place of the sinner who was offering the lamb, the sinner who deserved to die. The sinner didn’t die; the lamb died. So God’s righteous justice and wrath were satisfied . . . sin, sacrifice, substitute and satisfaction. The sinner was forgiven and reconciled to God and to the covenant community— at-one-ment—atonement.
There are many passages in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Leviticus, that show this progression. Let me read one passage from Leviticus, chapter 4, beginning in verse 27:
If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed. And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering [He’s identifying himself with the animal] and kill the sin offering. [The animal is killed symbolically in place of the sinner who deserves to die.]
And the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. And the priest shall make atonement for him [at-one-ment] and he shall be forgiven [reconciled] (vv. 27-31).
In Leviticus chapter 16, we see that once every year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Israelites celebrated Yom Kippur. Remember that word kippur—to cover? It was the Day of Atonement. On that very special day, the high priest took the blood of sacrificial animals into the Holiest Place of the temple and sprinkled it on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant—the place where the majestic holy presence of God dwelt. He first took blood to cover his own sin, and then blood to cover and pay on behalf of the people and their sin.Leviticus 16:30 says,
On this day [Yom Kippur—the Day of Covering] shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.
Whew! Clean, reconciled, restored. But there’s a problem. All those things that we just read about—Yom Kippur, the blood, the animals, the altar, the temple, the Holy Place—all these things were only types and pictures and symbols. They were shadows of a greater reality. They represented and foreshadowed full atonement which was yet to come.
Let me read to you from Hebrews chapter 10. By the way, Hebrews (which I’ve just been through in my quiet time again) makes so much more sense when you read it against the backdrop of the kinds of things we just read in the book of Leviticus.
Hebrews 10, beginning in verse 1, says:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. [There’s a limitation to those sacrifices.] Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices [these animal sacrifices—all this blood being spilt again and again and again, year after year in these sacrifices] there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (vv. 1-4).
These Old Testament sacrifices could not cleanse guilty consciences. They could not make people right with God. They merely pointed to a future, coming sacrifice, a Savior, a Messiah who would save God’s people from their sin. So day after day, year after year, as the Israelites laid their hands on those sacrificial animals, they were doing two things.
They were identifying themselves and their sin with that animal—that lamb, that bull, that goat that was dying in their place; and they were expressing faith in the complete provision that God would one day make through the sacrifice of the Messiah, God’s own Son.
So against that backdrop of those sacrificial offerings that could not permanently forgive a person or clear their conscience from the weight and guilt of sin, then you come to that amazing day when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming to him at the Jordan and says, “Behold [Look!] the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
What did we just read? It was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. They were just marking time, pointing to this ultimate sacrifice. But now comes this ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus was the Lamb of God without blemish. He lived a holy, sinless life. And then one day He was arrested; He was tried as a law-breaker, a criminal, a sinner. He was condemned to die, and it was necessary that it should be so, as He was taking the sinner’s place.
Hebrews 9 says it this way:
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. . . . He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (vv. 12, 26).
Could I hear some hallelujahs? Thank you.
The sinless Lamb of God died as our substitute, in our place, and made atonement for our sins. There’s so many Scriptures, Old and New Testament that make the point that Christ’s death . . . He was not a martyr; He was not just dying to show us how to die . . . as I heard that gobble-de-gook in a church one day. I thought I was going to pass out hearing this lesson about how Jesus died to show us all how, when it’s our time to die. I went home; I sat down at my piano, and I played and sang all stanzas of “Lift High the Cross.” It’s all about Him dying as our substitute, in our place.
Listen to these verses:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; [that’s sin] and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Galatians 2, verse 20, talks about “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me”—two of the most precious words in all of God’s Word.
1 Peter 2:22, 24:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Praise God! He perfectly obeyed the law of God that we had broken. At the cross He took the punishment that we deserved. The Righteous One suffered for the unrighteous ones, in our place, for us . . . for you . . . for me.
John Stott says it this way:
The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be.
We’ve talked about the Day of Atonement. The Passover was another really important annual observance in the Old Testament. That was the day, as you remember, where sacrificial lambs were killed and blood was shed so that God would pass over the sins of His people when He saw the blood of the sacrificial lamb sprinkled on the doorposts. During Passover week, Jerusalem would be filled with the bleating of hundreds of thousands of lambs being offered up as sacrifices.
The Lord Jesus—the Lamb of God—was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover, at the very same hour that those sacrificial Passover lambs were being slaughtered, and their bleating heard all throughout Jerusalem. The blood of those sacrificed animals was carried away by water through a deep gully or deep channel in the ground.
Someone just sent me a picture of this. It’s called the blood channel, and that blood and water drained down from the temple into the Kidron Valley. I’m reminded that:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.1
I received a letter recently from a woman who said:
When I first came to prison as a 27-year-old, I was certain that God would never forgive a murderer like me. Only through the grace of God did I hear the truth that sets me free to trust Jesus’ blood as a payment for my lifetime as a sinner.
That, my friends, is the gospel. That’s the atonement—at-one-ment. He died for us.
I’ve introduced you over these days to my friend from the 1800s, F. W. Krummacher, who’s written this wonderful book called, The Suffering Savior. If you want to get a copy of it, you can contact our ministry. Let me just read to you what he has to say about the atonement. He says:
Our hell is extinguished in Jesus’ wounds; our curse is consumed in Jesus’ soul; our guilt is purged away in Jesus’ blood. The sword of the wrath of a holy God was necessarily unsheathed against us . . . not a single individual would have escaped the sword, if the Son of God had not endured the stroke and taken upon Himself the payment of our debts.
Nothing more nor less befell Him than what was destined to be endured by us on account of our sins. What an unspeakable gift do we therefore possess in the bleeding Lamb! Would too much honour be done Him if our whole lives were one continued adoration of His Name?
And you see that spirit of worship and gratitude in so many of our particularly older hymns. Let me just read you some stanzas that I think will be familiar to most of you:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.2
And then this:
My sin—oh the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, my sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!3
I believe there’s some listening to my voice today who have, perhaps for the first time, had their eyes opened to the atoning work of Christ and what that means for you. You realized He suffered there in your place. He took your sin on Himself.
Today, as you repent of your sin, and place your faith in Christ and His substitutionary atonement on your behalf, you can be clean. You can be fully forgiven of every sin you’ve committed against a holy God. More than that, you can be reconciled for all eternity to that holy God. Say, “Lord, I believe. I receive.”
And for my Christian friends, oh my prayer is that today there’s been some sense of the wonder restored—fresh wonder.
Amazing love, how can it be,
That Thou my God hast died for me.4
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! What a Savior! Amen.