The death of the Lord Jesus Christ challenges the thinking of all when they approach the waters of baptism. Why did God arrange the salvation of man in this way? Was there not another way that would not require the death of a sinless man, an “altogether lovely one”? If the principle of his death could be accepted without him actually dying, then could not his death have been avoided? And why should it be crucifixion, so cruel and protracted, so shameful and humiliating?

For many enquiring minds there came some real relief when Paul’s third chapter of Romans was read. By common consent Romans is the epistle that presents the principles of the atoning work of Christ, and chapter 3 is the core of the argument. In presenting “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, the apostle comes to the pith of the crucifixion of Christ when he writes, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God.” Then to impress us, the apostle repeats it, “To declare, I say at this time, his righteousness”. When we follow the argument we can’t help but feel that here is the answer we were looking for. Why was salvation through a crucified Saviour? That the righteousness of God may be upheld! That God may be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (“just” and “righteous” are cognate words, v26).

Crucifixion is such a stark and eloquent repudiation of the lusts of the flesh that nothing is left to contend against the will of God and He alone is exalted. Only a perfectly obedient man could still make this statement; in fact his perfect obedience lay in doing so.

Faith in His Blood

When the believer comes to baptism and contemplates the setting forth of Christ, he is required to have “faith in his blood” (v25), that is, he believes or accepts what God has done in Christ, in the death of Christ, and he endorses the mind of God and the obedience unto death of His Son. It speaks to him of the righteousness and honour of God and he marvels at the obedience of the Son in so totally accepting the will of God. “Not my will but thine be done” is the teaching of the cross. And the believer accepts this: he has “faith in his blood”, believing in all that the death and crucifixion of Christ is portraying before his eyes. “It is the Spirit that makes alive, the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63).

This essential teaching is eloquently expressed—

  • in the Addendum of our Unity Agreement:

“In his death he voluntarily declared God’s righteousness; God was honoured and the flesh shown to be by Divine appointment rightly related to death”

  • and in the Statement of Faith by these words: “… the condemnation of sin in the flesh, through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all, as a propitiation to declare the righteousness of God, as a basis for the remission of sins” (clause 12).

Thus in Christ, both in his life and in his death, are confirmed the words of Moses, “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” (Lev 10:3; 16:1–2). Here is a foundation principle of the Atonement, attested and affirmed in Old and New Testaments.

The Love of God our Saviour

In a typical discussion on the Atonement, when the above principle was being advocated with some vehemence by one brother, another responded, “No. You have it wrong. The main principle for which Christ was sent was for the forgiveness of sins, for the salvation of man. That is the fundamental reason for which Christ was sent into the world.”

Well then, was Christ sent into the world to declare the righteousness of God, or to show the mercy and love of God our Saviour? It is an interesting exercise in self-examination to ask what comes more into one’s expressions when speaking about these things. What do I emphasise most?

We have seen the prime teaching of the apostle on the righteousness and holiness of God. We should never demean that principle in the Atonement. Yet in Romans, only two chapters further on, the apostle speaks of “the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts”, of “God commending His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:5,8). He writes of a God of such kindness “that all things work together for good to them that love God”; of those whom He did foreknow being “predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:28–29). This is love that nothing can separate us from, not even death or life or angels or powers! (v38–39). “The kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared toward men” and before, and independently of our “works of righteousness”, he saved us by the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:4–5). “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). And of Christ it says he “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). All of these passages have to do with the motive of the Father in sending His Son. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:17). And so the list of passages goes on.

Righteousness and Peace Have Kissed Each Other

Without any question then, the love of God is a prime motivating power in our salvation. The grandeur and depth of the thoughts expressed in these passages are beyond us to comprehend academically, but they warm our hearts with gratitude and thanksgiving. The challenge is to bring together the principles of the righteousness of God as the Supreme Being and Lord of all life, and His love, compassion and forgiveness. Possibly we have by nature a greater proclivity towards one side of the picture or the other, or it may be that the instruction we have received has emphasised one aspect more than the other. Here is a very important illustration of the balanced character of God. When speaking of “his salvation” the psalmist makes these comments: “I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly. Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:8–10).

These verses are so relevant to our subject. The psalmist teaches that in all His work of salvation Yahweh will be perfectly balanced. There is mercy and peace and there is righteousness and truth! There is the upholding of principle and there is plenteous mercy. There is the righteousness of God and there is the love of God. “… And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Herein is the challenge to us in our ecclesial discussions and our personal perceptions. We must seek to keep all the picture together. If we are given to emphasise the righteousness and dignity of God, then we must learn to give the love and mercy of the Father its proper place, in our speaking, our writing, our general teaching. Imbalance either way provokes dissension. If we are always on one side and rarely ever heard to emphasise the other, then we may disturb the minds of those who hear. A teacher multiplies himself for good or evil in those that hear him. A persistent appeal of the apostle Paul was to seek wisdom in order to discern the “things that differ” (Phil 1:10; Col 1:9; Eph 3:18–19).

Scriptural Balance Needed

The subject of the Atonement brings so many principles together. It brings God and man together in Christ, who is both Son of God and Son of Man. There is the need for a balance of discernment in order to keep the fulcrum in the right place. Our ecclesias rejoice when that balance of grace and truth is preserved in our assemblies. God is honoured and men and women are encouraged. The subject of God’s salvation is pleasant and appealing. Avoid correcting an imbalance by emphasising only the opposite; rather present the balanced, whole view and our ecclesias will respond with delight in the subject.

The Atonement is the Father’s master plan for the reconciliation of man. May we learn it, preserve it, delight in it and keep the balance of grace and truth.

“That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21).