The Atonement: What and Why?

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

What exactly is meant by the word atonement? Atonement, of and by Jesus Christ, is the act by which God and man are brought together into a reconciled relationship. When once man was God’s enemy (Romans 5:10a), by virtue of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, sinless life and death, burial and resurrection, the sinner is now justified by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 5:10b-11).

The term “atonement” originates from the Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning “making at one,” or “at-one-ment.” It sets forth the biblical truth that sinners are spiritually separated or alienated from God and that this alienation must be overcome if sinners are to be delivered from the penalty, power and eventual presence of sin. Atonement is synonymous with other biblical words such as reconciliation and forgiveness.

As one commentator explains, “The idea of atonement is one of the fundamental concepts of Scripture. God is seen as taking the initiative in man’s salvation; thus atonement is the work of God. For the sinner, who cannot know God, who cannot bridge the gap between himself and God, a “new and living way” is opened up by God.”

Why do sinners need an atonement from God in the first place? The prevailing cultural perspective is that mankind is basically good, so why the need for such a doctrine like atonement? The Bible says the need for an atonement is two-fold.

First, atonement from and by God is necessary because of man’s sinfulness. Fallen man is a radical sinner. In other words, the sinner is totally depraved. This does not mean that every sinner is as bad as they could possibly be, but rather that sin has affected every part of the soul: intellect, emotions and will.

The prophet Isaiah stated, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). According to the Prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). David wrote, “There is none that does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3).

The Apostle Paul described sin’s effects preceded by the sinner’s disobedience and idolatry (Rom 1:18–32). Following a summation of man’s inability to come to God (Romans 3:10-20), the apostle concluded that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Additionally. Paul described men as enemies of God (Romans 5:10), “hostile to God” (Rom 8:7), as “estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Colossians 1:21). Furthermore, sinners are dead in their trespasses and sins and objects of God’s just and righteous wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Second, atonement from and by God is necessary because of God’s holiness. When the Prophet Isaiah saw the holy God in the temple, he was undone because of his own sinfulness (Isaiah 6:1–5). When Isaiah saw God for who He truly was, holy, holy, holy, then Isaiah saw himself for who he really was: sinful.

Not only is man terribly sinful, but God is fearfully holy. Consequently, man dreads God and can do nothing to change this situation. He is lost, helpless, standing under the awful judgment of God. He cannot justify himself before God and cannot merit God’s love. Therefore, the reality of atonement rests entirely with God. This is the sinner’s only hope: that God, by His grace and grace alone, provides a solution to the problem between sinful man and the holy, biblical God.

As we will see next time, the nature of that atonement, as proclaimed and illustrated in biblical history, affirms both the holy nature of God and the sinful nature of man.

Has God brought you to the biblical understanding of how truly sinful you are and how truly holy He is? If so, rejoice that He has made you His child. If not, then repent of your sins today and receive forgiveness from the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May God’s truth and grace reside here.

Soli deo Gloria!



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