by Vijay Chandra
The most important and significant event in history was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Most people know that Jesus was crucified almost 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Many people even have a vague idea regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. They know it has something to do with salvation. But, when people are questioned regarding the biblical theological significance of Jesus’ person and work most display a woeful ignorance of God’s Word. The purpose of this paper is to provide readers with a small primer on the atonement.
The word ‘atonement’ is a theological term that is used to describe the substitutionary act or work of Christ. The word occurs in the KJV in Romans 5:11. It has the basic meaning of ‘reconciliation.’ The word often is used in the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word kipper and kippurim, which means ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation.’ The word atonement encompasses Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of His people. The center of Christ’s work, the main event to which the whole Old Testament pointed and which the whole New Testament expounded was Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, or His blood, or His cross (Rom 3:25, 5:9; 1 Cor. 10:16; Eph.1:7, 2:13, Col.1:20, Heb 11:12, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 7, 8, Rev 1:5).
Many people today regard the idea of the atonement as barbaric and outmoded. They often say: Why would God require or even allow His Son to be tortured and killed in such a bloody humiliating manner? Isn’t God a God of love? Couldn’t He just forgive people’s sins without the awful shedding of blood? A Protestant liberal theologian has even argued that the classic Christian concept of the atonement is nothing short of child abuse. Such comments reveal an ignorance and/or rejection of divine revelation. They also show us that in order to understand the meaning of Christ’s death we also must learn some things regarding God’s nature, sin, man’s estate and so forth. Thus, while on the one hand, the subject of the atonement is simple, it also is very rich and multifaceted.
The Necessity of the Atonement:
When discussing the necessity of the atonement some different aspects of the atonement need to be considered for the sake of clarification.
First, a distinction needs to be made between necessity, as it relates to God’s motive or moving cause to save sinners, and necessity, as it relates to God’s method or means used to achieve salvation. These topics need to be treated separately because they deal with different questions, each of which the Bible answers differently.
Did God because of something within His own nature or something intrinsic to man have to save sinners? Did God’s attributes of love, mercy, and compassion force Him to act? Could God have left the whole human race to perish in their sins if He so desired? The Biblical answer is that God’s decision to save a people for Himself was a free choice that was not determined by any internal or external necessity. Paul says that God’s predestination of the elect to salvation in Christ was ‘according to the good pleasure of His will’ (Eph 1:5, also see in Gal 1:4 and Gal 1:19). All these passages clearly indicate that God’s decision to save sinners was a free sovereign choice.
Note also that the Bible repeatedly speaks of salvation as a ‘free gift’ given by God. This does not mean that achieving redemption was without cost for the Bible says Christians were ‘bought at a price’ (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23), that Christ redeemed the church with His own precious blood (1 Pet 1:19). The free gift passages refer to the fact that God bestows salvation upon the elect freely or voluntarily. God was not obligated to save anyone, but out of his own good pleasure He gave ‘freely.’ Paul says that believers are ‘justified freely by his grace’ (Rom 3:24), that God will ‘freely give us all things’ (Rom 8:32); that the Holy Spirit enables us to ‘know the things that have been freely given to us by God’ (1 Cor 2:12). God’s freeness in giving salvation to the elect is intimately connected with the biblical concept of grace. Grace means that God gives His favor and salvation to those who deserve wrath and hell-fire, to those who hate God and are His enemies. Salvation is never presented in the Scriptures as bestowed because of obligation or debt. Neither a foreseen faith, nor good works, or bloodline, or nationality have anything to do with God’s free choice (Rom 9:18, 4:1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Although the Bible teaches that the moving cause of the atonement was God’s Sovereign good pleasure, this fact does not mean that God’s decision was purely arbitrary. Yes, it was a free act but it was an act rooted in God’s nature. The Bible speaks of the atonement as the provision of God’s love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9, 10, 11). The love of God is the spring from which the atonement flows. Jesus’ death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love. ‘But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). Paul informed us in Romans 8:29 that God’s love preceded election, ‘For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed o the image of His Son’ (the word ‘foreknew’ in this passage is used in the Hebraistic sense of ‘to love beforehand’). The fact that God the Father sent His only begotten Son to die for sinners because he loved them beforehand should spur every Christian not only to wonder and amazement but also a profound adoration, love, and praise toward God. The Father didn’t have to send the Son and the Son didn’t have to humble Himself, but because of their love and mercy toward the elect, Jesus came and died (Psalm 100:4, 5).
A second distinction that needs to be made is between a hypothetical necessity and an absolute necessity. Some of the early reformers (Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli) held that the atonement was necessary only in the sense that God sovereignly decreed to save sinners by Christ’s death. In other words, the sacrifice of Christ had to take place because God predestined it, not because it was the only method that did not contradict God’s moral perfection. If God had wanted to, He could have decreed other methods of securing the salvation of the elect. It is important to understand the difference between a hypothetical and absolute necessity because many passages which point to an absolute necessity could also be used to support a hypothetical or relative necessity viewpoint. For example, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as You Will” (Matt 26:39; Mk 8:31, Luke 9:22, 17:25, John 3:14, 12:34, 20:9, Acts 17:3). If God has decreed that something take place in history, it must take place.
Having considered the moving cause of the atonement and the hypothetical necessity viewpoint, let us turn our attention to the biblical evidence for the absolute necessity understanding of the atonement.
This doctrine is vital for a number of reasons:
First, it refutes the popular modern day notion that there are many different paths that lead to God and eternal life. This doctrine proves that only the sinless blood of Christ can remove the guilt of sin and consequently God’s wrath against the sinner.
Second, it tells us a lot about the God who is—the God with whom we all have to deal. The God of the Bible is not promiscuous or sloppy regarding ethics. Jehovah Is infinitely holy and righteous and thus cannot dwell or have fellowship with any person who has the guilt of sin.
Third, it teaches us that sin is exceedingly wicked and evil. Sin (the transgression of God’s holy law) is not a light thing. It is a deadly, soul-damning, God-hating, death-loving act. This thought of committing sin against a God of infinite holiness should make us tremble with fear. Sin is the reason that the spotless, harmless, undefiled Son of God had to die to accomplish redemption. Because of sin, the only sinless, good man who ever lived was humiliated, abandoned, tortured and publicly executed as a criminal.
Fourth, as noted above, it teaches us that God’s love of the elect is totally amazing. Although God was not obligated to save anyone, He out of His love, mercy, and kindness decided to save a people from every nation even though this redemption could only be achieved at the ultimate cost of the suffering and blood of the Lord of glory (Rev 5:9, 1 Cor 2:8).
There are four major reasons why the atonement was necessary, most of which are intimately connected with God’s nature or character.
Although the God of the Bible is totally sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing and infinite in perfection, there are certain things that God cannot do. For example, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Heb 6:18) or tempt man to sin (James 1:13). Jehovah can do anything except violate His own nature. In other words “He cannot deny Himself”(2 Tim 2:13). Therefore, when God determined to save a people from the guilt of sin, He could only choose a course of action consistent with His own character (in particular His moral character). The apostle Paul put it this way, God’s method of salvation had to demonstrate “His righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The attributes of God that directly lead to the necessity of the atonement are God’s righteousness, justness, and holiness.
God’s Righteousness and Justice:
Many people who object to the biblical doctrine of the atonement do so because they do not understand who God is. They reason within themselves; ‘Why doesn’t God simply forgive and forget? Wouldn’t God forgive people as long as they say sorry and endeavor to be a better person? Isn’t the idea that only the death and shed blood of Christ can remove sin extreme and fanatical? ’ The reason God cannot simply let sin slide or sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist is that He is righteous and just. “The LORD is righteous, He is in her mindset, He will do no unrighteousness” (Zech 3:5). “Righteousness and Justice are the foundation of Your throne” (Ps 89:14). “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He”(Dt 32:4). When the Bible speaks of God’s ethical perfection and justice, it does not refer to a standard or realm of ideals outside of God but to God’s very being itself. “God is light and in Him is no standard or realm of ideals outside of God but to God’s very being itself.” God is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Therefore, Abraham, who knew God’s character, could ask Jehovah, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Gen 18:25). Likewise, the apostle Paul could say, “Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” (Rom 9:14). God can only do what is right. Because of His nature, He can only do what is just.
God’s nature demands that sin be punished. If God refused to give sin its full measure of punishment then he could not claim to be perfectly just. God’s infinite holiness, justice, and righteousness of necessity demand the infliction of punishment on the sinner himself or on an appropriate substitute. The Bible contains many passages that declare that God has to punish sin. We read of this in the following Scripture texts (Ex 23:7, 34:7, Num 14:18, Nah 1:3, Psalm 5:4, 5, 6, Nah 1:2, Rom 1:18). Paul argues in Romans 3:25, 26, that it was necessary that Christ should be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin, in order that God might be just while justifying the sinner. The important thing was that the justice of God should be maintained.
A common objection against the biblical teaching that God must punish sin is that it makes God less charitable than many people who are willing to forgive offenses without any sort of satisfaction. While it is true that many people can and do forgive personal offenses against them, the comparison between God and a private individual is totally illegitimate. God is the Creator, Sovereign Lord over all, Supreme Lawgiver and Judge of all men. Therefore, He must maintain His veracity, law, and justice. A private individual does not have to contradict his own nature, law, and justice to forgive an offense. The Bible repeatedly affirms that as the Supreme Judge over the whole earth, God will only render just judgment. “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render each one according to his deeds” (Rom 2:5, 6. cf. Rev 20:12).
GOD IS HOLY:
Another aspect of God’s character that necessitates the atonement is His holiness. The nature of God is perfect and complete holiness. This is not optional or arbitrary; it is the way God is by nature. He has always been absolutely holy. Nothing more need or can be said. It is useless to ask, Why is God holy? He simply is. Being contrary to God’s nature, sin is repulsive to Him. He is allergic to sin, so to speak. He cannot look upon it. He is compelled to turn away from it. His infinite holiness causes Him to hate sin with perfect hatred. God is so holy that before sinful men and women can come into his presence and have fellowship with Him the guilt of their sin must be removed and they must be clothed with perfect righteousness.
The attribute of God that is emphasized by Scripture above all other attributes (including love) is Holiness. God’s holiness refers to His absolute distinctiveness from all His creatures (His creatures are not holy or perfect but in deep sin) and to His glorious exalted existence above His creation in infinite majesty as well as His infinite moral purity. The God of the Bible is not like the pagan deities who fornicate, get drunk and commit sexual acts with other goddesses and give birth like in Hindu and other eastern religions (Rev 4:8, Isaiah 6:3). ‘Who is like You, O LORD among the gods, Who is like You, glorious in holiness.’ (Ex 15:11).
God demands a perfect holiness in people not arbitrarily but because His own perfect holiness requires it. To the Israelite, He said, ‘you shall be holy; For I Am holy’ (Lev 11:44). Because God is holy, he hates sin and cannot dwell with sinners. ‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wickedness’ (Hab 1:13, Psalm 5:4, 5). Unlike other religions, the God of the Bible cannot be compared with the other gods (man-made gods, deities) or to gods of stone, wood, etc.). He is the HOLY ONE.
When God created Adam and Eve, He made them in His own image (Gen 1:27). Before they ate the forbidden fruit and fell into sin, they were holy and righteous. They were without any ethical spot or blemish. What happened to Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God’s command and sinned against Him? They were cast out of God’s presence. Why? Because a thrice holy God cannot have fellowship with people who are not holy! God is so infinitely holy that every sin that an individual commits merits death: physical, spiritual and eternal. God had warned Adam that the day that he disobeyed Him, he would certainly die (Gen 2:17). God’s holiness of intrinsic necessity set up a separation between Jehovah and all sinners (Isaiah 59:1, 2).
Once we understand the holiness of God then we can understand the severe penalty that sin deserves. When God demands that ‘the soul who sins must die’ (Ezekiel 18:4), He is not setting forth an arbitrary penalty but is penalizing sinners exactly as His holy and righteous nature require as we see from the following Scriptures: Rom 1:32, Ps 5:5, 7:11, Rom 6:23). ‘Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death’ (James 1:15). ‘The soul who sins must die’ (Ezekiel 18:4).
The Requirement of a Perfect Righteousness
Thus far we have seen that because God is holy and just, His nature requires that sin be punished with death (spiritual, physical and eternal). Therefore, to be saved we need a substitute who can pay the penalty in our place (Christ is the sinless God-man who could fulfill the necessary requirements to be that perfect substitute). However, the Bible teaches that having the guilt of our sins removed is not enough to gain eternal life with God. Jehovah also requires a positive righteousness. God requires a life lived in perpetual righteousness; a life lived in perfect obedience to His law before eternal life is bestowed. Money wrote ‘In order to gain the blessing of God your obedience must be  personal: ‘If you listen to the commandments’ (Dt 11:26);  perfect: ‘what does the LORD your GOD require from you but to fear the LORD your GOD, to walk in all His ways and love Him and to serve the LORD your GOD with all your heart and with all your soul’ (Dt 10:12).  perpetual: ‘Oh, that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always’ (Dt 5:29, James 2:10).
The biblical teaching that God requires a perfect, personal and perpetual obedience to His law before eternal life is attained is taught by the covenant of works made with Adam. After God created Adam, he told him not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). If Adam obeyed he would live. That is, he would gain access to the tree of life. In Rev 22:14, the right to the tree of life and entrance into the heavenly city are linked. If Adam had met God’s condition of perfect obedience, his reward would have been life everlasting in God’s presence. Adam, however, failed, his own act of disobedience caused him to be ejected from Eden to prevent access to the tree of life.
Our problem is not just that we have the guilt of sin but also that we lack a perfect righteousness (Rom 2:13, 3:23, Jn 8:46). The author of Hebrews says that Jesus was ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’ (Heb 4:15). Paul says, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). The apostle John writes, ‘In Him there is no sin’ (1 John 3:5). Peter says that Jesus committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22); that Christ was ‘as a lamb without blemish and without spot’ (1Peter 1:19). Christ is the way, the truth, and the life to heaven: besides Himself, there is no way to heaven or to eternal life. Good works will not save us.
The teaching of the Gospel
When the New Testament epistles explain the death of Christ, they do so in terms of necessity. For example, the authors of Hebrews says that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Heb 9:22). If the method of salvation depended solely upon God’s arbitrary decision then the shedding of the blood would not be necessary. The author of Hebrews speaking under divine inspiration not only says that the blood is necessary but only one type of blood will do—the blood of Christ. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb 10:4, 11, 12, 14). If God could simply by divine fiat pardon sin then the central message of Hebrews 9 and 10 would be totally untrue. Furthermore, the Bible says that Christ appeased the wrath of God (Rom 3:25). If God could have appeased His own wrath by a mere act of volition (without first demanding any satisfaction) then all the passages which speak of Christ propitiating God’s wrath would be not only unnecessary but would be purely for dramatic effect as in a stage play and nothing more. The very idea that God would send His Son to the cross for any other reason than necessity not only is a denial of God’s wisdom but also borders on blasphemy. Paul did not for a moment entertain such thinking: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sin” (Eph 1:7). Christ made peace through His blood of the cross (Col 1:20).
When we examine the Biblical teaching regarding God’s moral attributes, His law with eternal penal sanctions, the nature of sin and man’s predicament as guilty before God, the need of perfect righteousness for eternal life, and so on, everything points to only one conclusion. Christ’s sinless life and sacrificial death was the only way that sinners could be saved (John 14:6). ‘I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved’ (John 10:9). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said regarding ‘Jesus Christ of Nazareth,’ ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
The issue of the necessity of the atonement is a life and death, heaven and hell matter. Now we should have an understanding of who God really is, why he hates sin and why sin must be punished, how God’s love and mercy sent His only Son to the cross and, why there is no other way to be saved other than Christ’s life and blood. Are you going to trust in Christ alone for your salvation or will you continue on the path of iniquity and destruction? 2 Thessalonians 1:8, 9 says: ‘When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.’