The English term ‘atonement’ has been around quite awhile, entering the world during the Middle English era (12th-15th centuries). The English Reformation employed it widely, and ‘atonement’ has been a staple theological term ever since. A compound word, at-one-ment, means simply to “make amends.” Interestingly, the term graces the Old Testament but not the New. However, atonement is certainly a New Testament concept.
Ever since Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, man has been born as a sinner, living in direct opposition to the holy and righteous God. Man has declared war on the Almighty, and the Lord is justly offended. Fallen man desperately needs to make amends to God for his sin, but sinful, finite man can never do enough to make things right with an infinitely holy God.
This is not to say that people do not try any number of things to atone for their sins. We “turn over a new leaf” and “straighten up and fly right,” or “do penance” thinking that will fix things with God. But we underestimate God and overestimate ourselves. Even if we could completely reform ourselves, how can we ever right all our past wrongs? There is just no way sinful man can make at-one-ment with the holy God.
Only God can make the way.
Therefore, in the Old Testament, we first see the concept of ‘atonement.’ But that atonement was never complete. Again and again, year after year, God’s people offered sacrifices to atone for their sins. Oh, they longed for someone to come and make atonement once and for all, but no one did—until Jesus. It is through Jesus that we have a once for all at-one-ment with God.
But how? Two words: Jesus’ death.
As strange as it may sound, Jesus came into the world so that he could die. His perfect, sinless life amazes us to this very day! His spellbinding teaching fascinated his disciples. His healings thrilled the hurting. His miracles captured the multitudes. But for all that, Jesus came from heaven to earth to atone for our sins through his death.
But you may ask again, just HOW did Jesus’ death atone for our sins? First of all, Jesus is the 2nd Adam who, unlike the 1st Adam, never sinned. Secondly, as the perfect God-man he could represent us before God (vicarious substitution) to take the punishment for our sins (penal satisfaction) and die in our place. Granted, those are fancy words we don’t use everyday, but it comes down to this: When Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” he was suffering the righteous judgment of God that should rightly fall on us. And when Jesus said, “It is finished,” his atonement was completed, never to be repeated.
Yes, Jesus took our place and suffered God’s wrath for our sins. Even more, Jesus gave us his righteousness to make us acceptable to God. Martin Luther calls it the “wonderful exchange.” Jesus traded his righteousness for our sin! The apostle Paul describes the “wonderful exchange” thus: “He (God) made him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Have you been at war with God? Do you long for peace with him? Would you like to have your sins atoned for and stand perfectly righteous before God? Join the countless number who have received this wonderful exchange for the past two millennia. What are you waiting for? God cannot and will not reject anyone who repents of their sins and turns to Christ in faith.
Jesus, thank you for suffering God’s righteous judgment in my place. Jesus, I give you my sin and take your righteousness. I am yours. And you are mine. Forever and ever. Amen.