The atoning death of Jesus Christ is the greatest gift God has given the human race. It offers forgiveness, freedom and peace with God that cannot be attained or achieved from any other source. It is, therefore, necessary that we understand the truth concerning the atonement for many false teachings abound today, which are based on a distortion of this wonderful act of grace.
Since the Jewish "Day of Atonement" begins this past (Friday) at sunset, and Christ is the fulfillment of this Jewish holy day, this seems an appropriate time to examine this truth. After all, we will not preach the gospel unless we have a Biblical understanding of the atonement.
Understanding the Atonement
Yom Kippur, or "Day of Atonement," is the most holy day of the year on the Jewish calendar. Yom means "day" and Kippur is probably derived from the Hebrew kofer, meaning "ransom." It falls on two of our calendar days because the Jewish day begins and ends at sunset.
It was on this Day of Atonement that the Old Testament high priest went into the holy of holies, and with animal sacrifices, made sacrificial atonement for the sins of the people of Israel (Leviticus 16). Interestingly, there was to be absolutely no work on this Day. This Day was God's idea and God's work, with the high priest being the one carrying out the proceedings.
The Old Testament Day of Atonement was a type and foreshadowing of the atoning death of Jesus Christ, not just for Israel, but for the world. Jesus Himself said in Mark 10:45 that He had come to give His life "a ransom for many." Paul speaks of the death of Christ as a sacrifice, even referring to Him as "our Passover lam." (1 Cor. 5:7).
Chapters 9 and 10 of Hebrews liken the death of the Christ to the Day of Atonement. The writer pictures Jesus as both high priest and sacrifice. Contrasting the power of Christ's offering with the temple offerings that had to be offered year after year, the writer says, "For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy" (Heb. 10:14).
As both fully God and fully human, Christ's death was vicarious and efficacious for the whole world, making it possible for mankind to be reconciled to God. Just like on Israel's Day of Atonement, God did not ask or require our help in Christ's atoning work. We have nothing to add. We can only come to Him and in faith and receive the benefits of the work He has already done.
A Serious Misunderstanding of the Atonement
One serious misunderstanding of the atonement is the idea that its benefits are automatically applied regardless of attitude or behavior. This idea seems to run parallel with the popular teaching that since Christ has paid for my sins, I do not have to confess sins I commit or be watchful concerning sin.
This way of thinking downplays the need for repentance and has been labeled by opponents as "hyper-grace," but is actually based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the atonement.
The reasoning goes something like this. Jesus paid the penalty for all sins that have ever been, or ever will be, committed. Therefore, any sins I have committed in the past, or am committing now or will commit in the future have already been paid for, and borne away, by Christ. I, therefore, do not have to confess sin or be concerned with sin. There is no longer a sin problem for the human race or for me.
The Benefits of the Atonement Must Be Appropriated
For many, this theory has an attractive ring to it, but it is at odds with so many passages of Scripture. For example, Simon the sorcerer, who had been baptized in the great Samaritan revival led by Philip, offered Peter and John money in return for the authority to lay hands on people to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter's answer to him was very telling.
Peter said to Simon, "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could purchase the gift of God with this money!" (Acts 8:20). He went on to say, "Repent of your wickedness, and ask God if perhaps the intention of your heart may be forgiven you" (Acts 8:22).
Simon's request had revealed the awful condition of his heart. Peter said that Simon, even though he had been baptized, was in a state of perishing and he called on Simon to repent of his wickedness and ask God for forgiveness.
Peter obviously did not see the benefits of the atonement being automatically applied in Simon's case. He did not take Simon's sin lightly. There was a need for repentance and contrition of heart on Simon's part if he was going to experience the blessings and benefits of Christ's atoning death.
Yes, the forgiveness and blessings of Christ's atoning death are available to all but must be appropriated by repentance and faith. This is why Paul, when speaking to the Ephesian elders, reminded them how he had testified to both Jews and Greeks, "repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21b).
This is why Paul expressed concern to the Corinthians about un-repented sin in their midst and said he feared that when he would come to them,
"My God will humble me among you, and that I shall mourn for many who have sinned already, who have not repented of uncleanness, sexual immorality, and lasciviousness which they have committed" (2 Cor. 12:21).
No, the atoning merits of Christ's death are not automatically applied across-the-board. The New Testament is filled with passages about the importance of repentance and faith in appropriating the forgiveness and blessings provided through Christ's atoning death. This understanding is vital for another Great Awakening in our land.
The Nature of Christ's Atoning Death
We must realize that the atonement of Jesus Christ was not a commercial transaction in which He paid the aggregate penalty for every single sin that ever was, or ever will be, committed. If this were the case, there would be no mercy or forgiveness on God's part. God would be like an ice-cold businessman who demands exact payment for every debt and obligation.
If such were the case, the sinner would be in the position of being able to demand his/her salvation from God since the precise debt for any sins they have committed, or ever will commit, has been paid. Salvation would not be a gift from God but something He owes and must give to every person regardless of their attitude, because the precise debt has been paid.
Instead, however, God is presented in Scripture as a merciful and caring being, willing to forgive those who come to Him in reverence and faith. The word "forgive" means "to remit" or "to cancel" or "to write off." Because of what Christ has done, God is willing to "remit" or "write off" our sins when we put our faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning work through the cross.
We, therefore, should not think of the Atonement in terms of a quantitative payment for every individual sin. We should, instead, think of the atonement in terms of "quality." It was the quality of the sacrifice—Jesus Christ being God incarnate—that made His sacrifice acceptable in the sight of God and the basis for God to offer amnesty and pardon to a race of rebels, if they will only come to Him in repentance and faith.
The death of Christ on the cross was a public demonstration of God's love for humanity and a public showing of His willingness to grant forgiveness and new life to those who will come to Him in repentance and faith. It also, however, showed the terribleness of sin and provided satisfaction for the just nature of a holy God who cannot wink at sin.
Let's Take a Lesson from History
On the Old Testament Day of Atonement, the people were instructed to "afflict their souls." In other words, they were to examine themselves and repent of wrong and sinful attitudes and behavior. But is such an approach appropriate for a New Testament believer?
In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 Paul cautions the Corinthian believers about taking communion in an "unworthy manner," that is, with unconfessed sin in their lives. Communion is a celebration of Christ's atoning death and sin is not to be treated in a light, trivial manner by those who participate. Paul then instructed, "Let a man [person] examine himself, and so eat .. . In verses 31-32, he says, "But if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged we are chastened by the Lord that we may not be condemned with the world.
As New Covenant believers with the indwelling Holy Spirit, we judge ourselves by opening our hearts to the Lord and inviting Him to show us anything in our lives that is displeasing to Him. As He brings attitudes and behavior to our attention, we then acknowledge, or confess, our sins before the Lord as we are instructed to do in I John 1:9, a passage and letter written to believers. The results of such repentance and confession can be astounding.
This was the experience of a church, described by Charles Finney, that led to great revival. Through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, the leaders of this church came to realize that in seeking numbers and recognition from the culture and community leaders, they had compromised their commitment to Christ. They, therefore, formulated a public statement concerning their "backsliding and want of a Christian spirit."
It was submitted to the congregation for their approval and then read before the congregation. As the confession was being read publicly, the entire congregation stood to its feet with many of its members weeping. Finney said that, from that moment on, the revival went forward in great power, and the opposition, which had been bitter, was silenced.
A Biblical Example of Repentance
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to reveal the merciful, forgiving heart of God. However, the parable also reveals the attitude of heart in which the wayward son or daughter must return to the Father.
After coming to the end of himself in the pigpen, the prodigal departed for home with a different attitude. He determined that on arriving home, he would say to the Father, " "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants" (Luke 15:18-19).
The prodigal was not perfect. He probably smelled like a pigpen. He probably had pig manure on his shoes and straw in his hair. But he had left the pig pen with a changed attitude and was headed in the right direction, back to the Father's house. That is a picture of true repentance.
When the Father saw him afar off, He ran and fell on his neck weeping. He then brought him into the house, completely restored him to his place in the family, and initiated a time of rejoicing for his safe return.
Appropriate the Atonement Blessings Today
God rejoices today when erring sinners return to Him in faith and sincerity of heart. If you have never appropriated the wonderful forgiveness and blessings of Christ's atonement, I urge you to do so today. Come to Him now in faith and sincerity of heart. He will receive you with open arms.
If you are a believer, I urge you to invite the Holy Spirit to search your heart for any attitudes or any compromise with the world that are displeasing to Him. As He brings these sins and weights to our minds and we confess them before Him with contrition of heart, I am convinced that we will see a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our lives, our churches, our nation and the world.
Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, Bible teacher and ordained minister with a vision for another Great Spiritual Awakening in America and around the world. His latest book, Pilgrims and Patriots, documents how America was birthed out of prayer and the First Great Awakening. To schedule him to speak at your church, conference or college, send an email to [email protected] and visit his website at eddiehyatt.com.
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