In this final article of the Atonement series we shall look at the subject overall, seeking with our limited perception to comprehend the greatness of the Divine wisdom, the enormity of His love, the wonder of the Son of God on the earth, living among mankind and raising to an altogether new standard the behaviour of mankind. The totality of his sinlessness, the wonder of his obedience unto death, his unwavering love for his brethren and the Father’s powerful response to save him out of death – all these are unique features in the greatest gift, so far, toward men. We joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement!

It is a moving consideration that the only people who had immediate revelation concerning the coming of the Son of God were two women in the hill country of Judah, Elisabeth, the mother of John Baptist, and Mary, the mother of the Lord. The Judean hills have steep and twisted valleys, passing through harsh country, so unlike the deep, rich, plains of more fertile areas in Israel. Yet here they were conferring together in their lowly and isolated hill country, holding between them the greatest secret God had ever made known to mankind. It was 4,000 years after Adam and Eve had broken the law of God, partaken of the forbidden fruit and set in tow all the consequences of sin. The greatest message for men was next announced to lowly shepherds minding their flocks by night in the fields of Bethlehem: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord”.

From the outset he was designated “Christ” and “Lord” even though the attainment of those titles would bring his life into labour and suffering. He was born into a sinful world that was much the same as it had been, in this regard, for 4,000 years and would continue so in the 2,000 years to come. The work was before him! We do not have difficulty comprehending the Bible’s assessment of man as we are daily appalled by the “filthy conversation of the wicked”. It is in man to sin and practice only magnifies it. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). A universal flood did not change this fact, for as the waters abated the description was the same: “for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21). From Noah’s day to our latter days the condition has been the same. Men were born, lived and died in sin, a never-ending pageant.

The fall of man

Yet God had “made man upright”, all things were “very good” in the beginning (Eccl 7:29; Gen 1:31). Sin had disturbed the balance of man and with every generation he mirrored the carnal thinking of the serpent from whom came the original temptation. What was once external to man was now internal, a rebellious nature characterized by “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”, not “of the Father but of the world” (1 John 2:16). The sentence of death had been passed upon Adam and all his descendants inherited this mortality that came by sin (Gen 3:19).

In this hopeless bind what was to happen? The flood of Noah’s day did not break the chain of sin nor did the calling of Abraham’s natural family, for even the chosen people rebelled against their God and went after the gods of the heathen and their sensual religious practices.

The Law of Moses

In all this time Yahweh was not inactive in the matter of redemption. Whilst the law of mortality held sway over man, because of sin, yet His purpose was shining through His actions and words. Moses was given the Law. In its many statutes, commandments and sacrifices, it made clear God’s principles for redemption even if the definition of His purpose was not always manifest. The stark lesson of the animal sacrifices was that death was the wages of sin. This was especially declared on the 14th day of the 7th month, the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest, his family and all of Israel sought forgiveness, “an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year” (Lev 16:34). In many injunctions for this day God brought home the sinfulness of sin: “on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before Yahweh” (v30). This elaborate procedure drove home the principle of this special day, expressed so memorably in these words, “This is it that Yahweh spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified”. In the New Testament this principle is spoken of as a “declaration of the righteousness of God” (Lev 10:3;16:1–2; Rom 3:26). So the Old and New Covenants are one in the key principle of Atonement, a fact confirmed in both our Statement of Faith and the Cooper-Carter Addendum.

The provisions of the Law of Moses also implied that reconciliation (or atonement) with God would be found through both the death and resurrection of a Saviour. The sin offering for the people was in the form of two goats, one that was slain and the blood sprinkled upon the mercy seat and the other, the “scapegoat”, let free, to go as far as possible into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people upon his head. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us”! (Psa 103:12). So the Law pointed to the death and resurrection of the Lord. But it was a far cry from the reality. How could the death of a goat possibly remove sins? How could the faithful Israelites believe that it was the long flight of the scapegoat into a distant part of the wilderness that really took away their sins? The worshipper had to be uncomfortable with this as the requirement for the forgiveness of sins! What about his mind toward God, his heart of repentance, his faith in the grace and mercy of God? Could the death of an animal remove sin? It wasn’t the goat or the bullock that had sinned; it had nothing to do with the sin of the worshipper. It was simply “not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4). How could the faithful Israelite be happy in his conscience with such obviously ceremonial enactments (Heb 9:9;10:2,22).

The Law may point to better things ahead but it was in itself but a shadow of the Christ-substance that was to come.

Sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh

It is here that the wonder of the Atonement soars into great heights. God had waited 4,000 years before the revelation of His Son. The early expression “the seed of the woman” implied that the Saviour was not to come by the will of ‘man’ (John 1:13). The covenant to David said specifically that God would be his Father (2 Sam 7:14). The Psalms and Isaiah had their famous prophecies concerning a Son and Saviour direct from God (Psa 2:7; 89:26–27; Isa 7:14; 9:6; 11:1; 49:1,5). Yet there were no spectators, no anticipating crowd, no human choir to celebrate the arrival of the Son of God in little Bethlehem on that silent night. Mary gave birth to the Saviour of the world in the manger, the lowliest place on earth, even though her Son was “Christ the Lord”! The very circumstance was a sign in itself: any man could feel a common lowliness of mind with this Saviour.

We just stand in awe at the workings of the Almighty. None of us could have imagined it to be like this. Despite His omnipotence He was providing for the weak, the despised, the humble among mankind. A multitude of the heavenly host ignited in praise of God in the nearby countryside where there was no-one but a few poor shepherds to record the scene and message. Heaven was stirred but the earth knew almost nothing of the coming of the Son of God. This was how “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the Law”! Everything was on time and appropriate to his destiny. It was all miraculously unique and wonderful.

The Lord never veered from his Father’s pleasure from birth in Bethlehem to death on Golgotha. He was indisputably human, born of a woman, carrying all the burden of inheritance from Adam and yet without blemish! He lived as a mortal for 33 years but was sinless to his last breath. Obviously his inheritance from God was of immense significance. By daily morning instruction He fed His beloved Son with the mind of the Spirit, giving him strength and encouragement for the fierce battles that lay ahead (Isa 50:4–11). His temptations were historic as he endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, resisting their evil even unto blood, striving against sin. In that lay the whole focus of his life. Jesus expressed it this way, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished” (Luke 12:50). The battle was always there, right up to Gethsemane and to the cross, where with “crying and tears he cried unto him that was able to save him out of death”! This was no automat of righteousness. Here was no ceremony, no “act”, no legal fiction! This was the triumph of righteousness, the death of sin, the glory of obedience, the absolute victory over the adversary. For what the law could not do in its weakness through the flesh, God did sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in its own arena, the flesh (Rom 8:3). The “strong man” was defeated and his house broken up! (Matt 12:29).

God so loved the world

In seeking to present a balanced view of the atoning work of the Lord it is essential to stress the motive of God in the salvation of man. The reconciliation of man to God was not just a matter of follow the rules and all will fall into place. The price paid by the Father was enormous. He had only one Son, the only-begotten, and He gave him for the redemption of man. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Consider the programme that He planned for His Son, down to despising and shame and spitting, the focus of envy, bitterness and lies to loneliness and desertion, to scourging and a crown of thorns, to crucifixion with nails struck through hands and feet, to exhaustion and finally death. Could any human father write a schedule for his son with any one of those grievous inflictions. Could we? What kind of cause would ever move us to even contemplate a future like that for any of our children, whatever their naughtiness?

Yet God’s Son was “without spot”, “holy, harmless”, “separate from sinners” (Heb 9:14;7:26). Twice the voice from heaven had declared the Father’s profound love for His Son. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17; Luke 9:35). It is not surprising therefore that when that Son in crucial distress cried out to his Father, “the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth” (Psa 18:5–7). The Son’s relationship to His Father was a filial love beyond our comprehension. Here are his amazing words: “But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly” (Psa 22:9–10). He was not a “child of wrath”: there was no estrangement, no expiation needed for his nature, no restraint of fellowship because the Son was “in fashion as a man”. Rather there was an intimate mutual love beyond any other. Father and Son were one (John 10:30).

Why then did God set such a terrible schedule for His Son? The answer is that “God so loved the world”. “God is love”, writes the apostle John, and He wanted desperately the redemption of men and women to whom it would be His pleasure to give the Kingdom. The enormity of what He did in Christ teaches us the greatness of His love toward us. Do we feel unworthy, perhaps embarrassed as the recipients of such a unique love from the Creator? Who are we to receive such grace?

It is not an easy thing to comprehend the love of God. The apostle Paul went down on his knees to pray that God might enable the Ephesian brethren to “know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge”. This statement is something of an enigma, yet it is in contemplation of these wonderful things that we see in greater clarity the balance of the Atonement. It is vastly more than a set of rules, more than doctrinal levers and pullies, more than appeasement for a legal alienation because of our sinful nature. It’s a great work of the Father’s grace and truth and must remain at that level in our thoughts. The “truth” is the sinfulness of man and the tragedy of sin; the righteousness of God must therefore be vindicated in the Atonement. The world must see this if man is to be saved. Those who accept baptism into the Lord Jesus Christ endorse his manner of life in their daily walk and with him “die daily”! The “grace” of the Father is the forgiveness of our sins if we have faith in the blood of His Son, which is to say that we believe in the principles of his death and resurrection. Despite our miserable failures and frequent transgressions the Father will grant us that forgiveness. All we have to do is respond in faith and loving obedience.

“For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:14–15).

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).