The Perfection of the Atonement
A New Teaching Article On The Day of Atonement
In the movie Seven Pounds, Will Smith plays a guilt stricken man who is driven to self-sacrifice on behalf of seven others. After surviving an automobile accident that he caused while text messaging, in which he killed seven others including his fiancée, Mr. Thomas (Will Smith) sets out on a path to redeem himself by giving his life to save others. By the end of the movie he will have made compensation for seven lives that would otherwise be lost. It’s a story of sacrifice, paying the ultimate price, so that others may have life. A very moving film. We rejoice at this kind of courage and love, a love that is given for the benefit of others.
Hebrews 2:17 talks of a similar, yet infinitely different and greater, sacrifice. This sacrifice is infinitely different because not just any person could perform this act of amendment, save only the Son of God, who was eternally transformed to be like those whom He’d redeem. This sacrifice is infinitely greater because He actually made right an infinite evil that was only justly punishable by eternal death. Jesus Christ was made like His brothers in order to atone for their sins. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17 ESV). This is making something right that can never be duplicated.
“To atone” means “to amend” or “to reconcile.” Jesus Christ has reconciled Christians back to God by means of His accomplishment in life and death. He obeyed the law so that we didn’t have to (His life). He paid the penalty of sin by dying on a cross so that we could live (His death). So the atonement is what Christ accomplished on our behalf to earn our salvation.
The problem with Will Smith’s act of sacrifice is he was driven by guilt and shame. This burden induced him to act self-sacrificially. This, among many other things, was done with wrong motives; and no matter how loving it may seem to us, God is able to judge the intentions of the heart and see aright (Heb. 4:12).
We will briefly discuss the perfection of the atonement. How is the atonement that Christ earned for fallen humans so perfect? What makes it so? Why couldn’t Buddha or Confucius do the same thing for the sins of people? The four points below are taken from John Murray’s book Redemption Accomplished and Applied.1
The first aspect to the perfection of Christ’s work is its historic-objectivity. Christ becoming man is an historical event that was given at the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4-5). The accomplishment of His work, although determined in eternity past, was executed in history, a specific time that was carefully selected by the God of history. To deny the historicity of the gospel is to deny the gospel (1 Cor. 15:17).
And since it is historic, it is outside of us: it’s objective. The finished work on the cross was accomplished independently of us; we did nothing to benefit or promote its success. Although the truth and power of His work is realized to each individual personally, the glory of God is only comprehended when we understand Christ’s work to achieve its end by God alone.
The second significant feature of its perfection is the atonement’s finality. As John Murray writes, “The atonement is a completed work, never repeated and unrepeatable.”2 For instance, we read in Hebrews that Christ “has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb. 7:27 ESV). He is the ultimate sacrifice that justifies the sins of the people who have been sanctified in Him through His death; no other sacrifice is needed.
The application is huge for believers. We no longer have to look for ways to repeat it. This means we no longer need to load ourselves with guilt when we sin. Knowing the Christ has completely paid the price once and for all, frees us to live in God’s freedom of shamelessness. The opposite is also true. We no longer have to load ourselves with good works to perform when we sin. It is very easy to think we need to pray more, read more, and fast more when we mess up in order to gain God’s favor. In Christ, we already have it.
The third vital truth is the uniqueness of the atonement. Only the self-sacrificial love of the God-man can atone for sins. The love of Buddha falls infinitely short when meant to make amends for an infinite evil. Another way of speaking about His sacrificial love is to say that it’s vicarious, and Horace Bushnell gives a great lesson on vicarious love: “Love is a principle essentially vicarious in its own nature...identifying the subject with others, so as to suffer their adversities and pains, and taking on itself the burden of their evils.”3 Only the unique Son of God can truly identify with our pain in such a way that He is able to have a remedy for our suffering.
The fourth significant reality is its intrinsic efficacy. Jesus paid the ultimate price so that not only the demands of justice were satisfied before God but also His demands for holiness. The atonement is—in itself—completely sufficient for our redemption. The inherent worth in the person and work of Christ makes its accomplishment completely able to meets its goal.
With such a perfect atonement we our called to live a resurrected life in Christ. “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:10-11 ESV). Because Christ’s death conquered sin, once for all, we must live our lives as dead to sin. One way to live dead to sin is by mortifying the sin that remains (Col. 3:5). This means that we replace our selfish lives with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col. 3:12). By contemplating the perfect work of Christ on the cross, while allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, we will be motivated to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
Murray, J. (1955). Redemption Accomplished and Applied . Grand Rapids: Wm. B Erdmans Publishing Company.
Murray, J. (1955). Redemption Accomplished and Applied . Grand Rapids: Wm. B Erdmans Publishing Company, p. 53.
Quoted in Murray, J. (1955). Redemption Accomplished and Applied . Grand Rapids: Wm. B Erdmans Publishing Company, p. 55.
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