In this article and in some further articles, I look at the doctrine of atonement as developed in church history. Church history is not our final guide, but we are not the first one who read and study the Scriptures and we can learn from the wisdom and insight former generations. In the second part I summarize the message of the New Testament on the cross of Christ; a message that is the cornerstone of the Christian faith.
The Early Church
Whenever the New Testament addresses the atonement, God is identified as its subject. The initiative for the atonement proceeded from God; He reconciles men with Himself, and not vice-versa. He gave His Son as a propitiation for sin. Thus humanity is confronted with the imperative to embrace, by faith, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, so that we may truly enjoy the friendship of God. This does not mean, however, that we bring about such atonement. The Bible teaches us that this is neither possible nor required. It is precisely for that reason that God, in His one-sided love, sent His Son.
What is the essential meaning of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ? What does it really mean for enemies to be reconciled with God through Christ’s blood? What exactly necessitates atoning? To answer these questions, we will first of all consider how Christ’s death on the cross has been analyzed during the course of church history. This does not mean that insights gleaned from church history ought to be viewed as normative; such insights need to be evaluated in light of Scripture. This is precisely what is meant by the Reformation principle, Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture alone. We need to recognize, however, that we are not the first individuals to read and study the Scriptures. We may benefit from the insights regarding Scripture that have been formulated during the course of church history.
The Christian authors who date from the period immediately following the decease of the apostles are known as the apostolic fathers. Clement of Rome was one of them, and around 96 A.D. he wrote his first letter to the congregation of Corinth. Here we read, “Moved by His love toward us, Jesus Christ shed His blood for us according to the will of God, giving His flesh for our flesh and His life for our life.” One generation later, the church father Irenaeus placed Adam and Christ in opposition to each other. His thinking regarding this is known as “recapitulation.” As the Head of the new humanity, Christ gathers together all things unto Himself. Irenaeus posited that Christ, as the Son of God, has become man in order to comprehend the development of man within Himself and thereby provide salvation for us, “so that what we have lost in Adam, namely the image and likeness of God, may be received again in Christ Jesus.” It is the testimony of Irenaeus that “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has reconciled us to God by His death.”
In the Nicene Creed, we read, “Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven…and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried.” At the third ecumenical council, held in 431 A.D. in Ephesus, Christ was referred to as “the High Priest and Apostle of our profession” (Heb. 3:1) who has given Himself for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God and the Father for a sweet-smelling savor (Eph. 5:2). For Augustine, Christ is simultaneously Mediator, Propitiator, Savior, Healer, Shepherd, Sacrifice, and Priest. Christ took upon Himself our guilt and thereby finished the transgression (Dan. 9:24).
The early church unmistakably made the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death her point of departure. When considering the meaning of the atonement, man was viewed as a captive of the devil and death who was set free and delivered. The emphasis was upon redemption from the consequences of sin; the meaning of Christ’s death in relation to God’s justice and to sin itself was not well thought out. We may assume that, in the early church, the experience of the atonement was much richer than the formulations whereby this experience was described. Be that as it may, the central meaning of the atonement was repeatedly set before the church by way of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
The Middle Ages: Anselm of Canterbury and Abaelard
Any study of the meaning of the atonement will focus on the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109). Anselm articulated his thoughts in the book Cur Deus Homo (“Why God became man”). The book is a dialogue between Anselm and his gifted pupil, Boso. Anselm wished to establish the fundamental necessity of the atonement. Starting with the testimony of Scripture regarding the justice of God and the seriousness of sin, he demonstrates, apart from Scripture (remoto Christo), that God can only forgive sin through the sacrifice of Christ. Anselm makes clear that it is unthinkable that God could overlook the impugning of His justice by sin. Anselm responds to one of Boso’s objections to the arguments he is developing, saying, “You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.” God’s honor has been maligned by sin. That leaves two options: either sin is punished, or God’s honor is vindicated. The latter was accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice. Christ became man in order that God’s justice could be magnified. In this context, Anselm uses the word satisfaction. By His death on the cross, Christ has satisfied what the honor of God requires.
For Anselm, the atonement does not bring about a change in man; rather, God, who initially was wrathful toward man, looks down in favor upon him by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ. Anselm highlighted that God is not only the subject of the atonement, but also its object. The atonement not only proceeds from God, but it also focuses upon Him. The doctrine of the atonement as articulated by Anselm reveals a much deeper insight into the meaning of the crucifixion and blood of Christ. Anselm not only confessed that Christ suffered vicariously, but he also connects the sacrifice of Christ not only with the consequences of sin, but also with sin itself, as well as with the honor of God as it has been impugned by sin.
Peter Abaelard (1079–1142), a younger contemporary of Anselm, handled the doctrine of the atonement in an entirely different fashion. Abaelard was far less impressed by the gravity of sin than Anselm; he defined sin as only evil committed voluntarily by man. The concept of hereditary sin was not entirely denied, but it was seriously weakened. Abaelard also spoke of the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, but without any attempt to understand its meaning.
The subjective meaning of the atonement was of central importance for him. He considered the essential meaning of the sacrifice of Christ not to be the satisfaction of God’s impugned justice, but rather the moral renewal of the sinner. The purpose of Christ’s sacrifice was to incite love for God in man. Contrary to Anselm, Abaelard viewed man rather than God as the object of the atonement. He viewed the atonement as bringing about a change in man’s disposition and not as having any connection to a change of God’s disposition toward man. Thus, whereas Anselm’s teaching regarding the atonement is objective, Abaelard’s teaching is subjective.
The Reformers, Faustus Socinus, and John Owen
When considering the doctrine of the atonement, there are no essential differences between Rome and the Reformation. The Reformation did not wish to break with the Catholic Church, but instead wanted to rid the church of its deficiencies. Initially, the Church of the Reformation did not consider itself a new church, but a reformed Catholic Church. In conformity to what the Catholic Church had taught, the Reformation confessed the living God to be the triune God, Jesus Christ to be God and man in one Person, and the death of Christ to be vicarious.
In developing the doctrine of the atonement, the Reformers followed in the footsteps of Anselm. Having said that, however, there are several differences as we flesh out this doctrine. For Anselm, there was the choice between sin being punished and the vindication of God’s honor. The Reformers posited that Christ satisfied the claims of God’s justice by bearing the punishment for sin vicariously. He took upon Himself the curse of the law and, as the representative of His people, was summoned before the justice of God so that they could be acquitted. God does indeed punish sin, but He has done so in Christ. Thus the claims of God’s holy justice have been fully satisfied. The Reformers emphatically appealed to the Scriptures. In distinction from Anselm, they did not speak of the atonement divorced from the actual Person of Christ. This will become evident when we compare Lord’s Days 5 and 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism with Cur Deus Homo.
The Reformers established an intimate connection between the doctrine of the atonement and the doctrine of justification. They taught that the blood of Christ is the only foundation for our salvation, and that it is only by faith that we are partakers of this. Only when we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, who vicariously made satisfaction for us, can we stand before God. In his exposition of Psalm 22, Luther states, “This is the mystery that is so rich in its divine grace for sinners, whereby through a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but rather Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ is ours and no longer Christ’s. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness so that He could clothe and fill us with it, and He took our unrighteousnesses upon Himself so that He could deliver us from them…. And in the same manner that He was sorrowful, suffered, and was crushed because of our sins, in like manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”
In a letter to George Spalatin (1484 –1545), Luther wrote, “Teach Christ and Him crucified. Learn to pray to Him and say, despairing of yourself, ‘Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness, but I am Thy sin. Thou hast taken upon Thyself what is mine, and hast given me what is Thine. Thou hast taken upon Thyself that which was not Thine, and given me what I was not.” Calvin testified, “Our acquittal is in this that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God (Isa. 53:12). We must specially remember this substitution in order that we may not be all our lives in trepidation and anxiety, as if the just vengeance which the Son of God transferred to Himself, were still impending over us.”
In the sixteenth century, the doctrine of the atonement, as it was confessed by the Reformers in conformity with Anselm, was criticized by Faustus Socinus (1539–1604). Socinus held that a virtuous walk of life and love for our neighbor constituted the meaning of the Christian faith. The doctrine of faith had to be reduced to a minimum. Christ was to be viewed as an example and teacher of a certain lifestyle, not as the Savior who vicariously took upon Himself the guilt of sinners. Socinus accused the Reformers of carelessly adopting the concepts of “satisfaction” and “merit” from Rome in order to explain the significance of the work of Christ. Socinus emphatically opposed the idea that guilt is transferrable. He was of the opinion that the forgiveness of sins excludes the necessity of the atonement. Whoever forgives relinquishes his righteous claims and will forego punishment.
For Socinus, God’s love is evident in the fact that this is precisely what He did. God pardons sin upon the basis of our contrition and our intent to improve our lives. Socinus referenced the parable of the prodigal son; his argument was that we do not encounter a mediator in this parable. The thinking of Abaelard resurfaced with Socinus in a more radical form. Socinus’s insights were incorporated into the rational forms of theology centuries after him. For example, the view of the suffering and death of Christ as articulated by Socinus is commonplace in modern theology.
In the sixteenth century, Calvin opposed the views of Socinus. During the seventeenth century, John Owen (1616–1683) opposed Socinian theologians in England. Both Calvin and Owen emphasized that God’s grace and love do indeed exclude our merits, but this is not true for the merits of Christ. God’s love never functions at the expense of His justice. In His love, God Himself has paved a way of atonement in which His justice is fully vindicated. God was under no obligation to do this, but He purposed this in His sovereign mercy. Regarding the argument that there is no mediator in the parable of the prodigal son, a few comments are in order. The parable teaches us that there is mercy with God and does not directly address the basis for the forgiveness of sin. It is, however, of paramount importance to understand that the Lord Jesus Christ told this parable in response to the criticism of the Pharisees that He received sinners and ate with them. The Father displays His good pleasure toward sinners in His Son. Not only did He make known the way of atonement and redemption through His teaching, but He ultimately suffered and died Himself so that He could remove sin and make atonement for man’s guilt.
Three Approaches in the History of the Christian Church
Upon scanning the entire history of the Christian church, we can distinguish three approaches to interpreting the crucifixion of Christ. Sometimes the entire focus is upon the effect of Christ’s crucifixion upon mankind. The cross will then exclusively be designated as a revelation of God’s love. From this vantage point, the cross shows us how much God hates sin and spurs us on toward contrition and returning to God. Secondly, the cross of Christ has been understood as the victory over the powers of the devil and sin. The cross delivers man from sinful and demonic forces. And finally, the death on the cross is portrayed as the way whereby the wrath of God toward the sins of mankind is quenched. Only when we discuss the cross from this final vantage point will we do justice to what the Bible tells us about the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. Only then will it become completely clear why Christ had to come to earth in order to redeem sinners.
This is not to suggest that the first two viewpoints do not contain elements of truth; they certainly do. Their deficiencies lie not in what they teach, but rather in what they fail to emphasize. The final view, however, principally encompasses also the first two views. Whoever is reconciled to God and delivered from the wrath to come is also delivered from the power of the devil and will mourn his sins. This is clearly stated in the Heidelberg Catechism. In response to Question 1, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” this answer is given: “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.”
God’s Wrath Has Been Quenched
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and man. In order to understand the significance of the work of the Lord Jesus, we must grasp the relationship between God and man. The foundation of this relationship is that God is the Creator and man is His creature. God is the King of His creation, and may justly require man’s obedience. Being King, God is also Judge. He protects those who are oppressed but also punishes the transgressors. The relationship between God and man should be understood as a legal relationship. Since the Fall, man is a transgressor of God’s laws.
In the first chapters of his epistle to the Romans, Paul explains that the wrath of God therefore rests upon man. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteous-ness of men” (Rom. 1:18). The wrath of God is focused upon both Jews and Gentiles upon those who know the Word of God and also upon those who are only confronted with God’s revelation in creation. The entire world is subject to God’s judgment and is guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). Against this background, the Apostle Paul writes about the LordJesus Christ “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25). The focal point of the atonement is the restoration of the legal relationship between God and man.
What precisely is the meaning of the word hilasterion, used in Romans 3:25, and translated as propitiation? Must this word be understood in terms of the Latin word expiation, or in the sense of propitiation? Expiatio refers to complete erasure, and propitiation means the securing of a favorable disposition. In light of Romans 1:18 and 3:20, we would be understating the case if we were to view the atonement as merely a removal of sin. This is underscored by the first epistle of John, in which the word hilasmos is used. Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins, is our Advocate with the Father. This is also an indication that God is the focal point of the atonement. Further confirmation is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, where we read that Jesus has delivered us from the wrath to come. By virtue of the atoning passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s wrath toward sin has been quenched. God has taken away His wrath; He has turned Himself from the fierceness of His anger (Ps. 85:3).
Whereas in Romans 3:25 the word hilasterion (derived from the sacrificial service) is used, we find the word katallassoo in Romans 5. This word means being brought into a friendship with each other. In Romans 5:10, we read, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” In light of the first chapters of the letter to the Romans, the word enemies must be under¬stood in the context of God’s wrath on man. We can also reference the expression “children of wrath,” found in Ephesians 2:3. That passage does not speak of man being angry toward God, but rather God toward man. When the atonement became a historical fact, God’s enmity toward man was taken away. Rather than His wrath resting upon us, He is now graciously inclined toward us. We are not denying that the man upon whom the wrath of God rests is opposed to God and lives in hostility toward Him; rather, we are emphasizing that when we are reconciled to God, not only is the wrath of God quenched, but our opposition is dismantled. In its place grows love for God. However, before we say the latter, we must always confess the first.
As we focus on the biblical basis for the atonement, I also wish to refer to Romans 8, which begins by declaring that there is no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus. At the end of the chapter, the basis for acquittal and peace is stated: Christ has died and been raised on our behalf, and He intercedes for us. By virtue of the death of Christ, acquittal and love replace condemnation. This shows clearly the vicarious nature of Christ’s suffering and death, and that by His death He has quenched the wrath and anger of God. In 2 Corinthians 5:11, Paul speaks of “the terror of the Lord”; whoever refuses to be persuaded to believe in Christ shall once be stricken by the wrath of God. Quite the words τοῦ κυρίου in the Greek expression τὸν φόβον τοῦ κυρίου are seen as an objective genitive. Then Paul speaks here about the fear directed to God, but I am sure that the context demands a subjective genitive. The fear, terror or awe goes out from the Lord and ought to impress men. Over against the terror of the Lord, Paul displays God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
The atoning passion and death of Christ implies that God’s wrath has been satisfied. Both Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 speak of reconciliation with God in the past tense, for this occurred at the death of Christ on the cross. We may not say, however, that at that moment all hostility toward God vanished in those who were reconciled with God. This does not occur until people have personally been gifted with faith. God’s wrath and hostility toward sinful man have been removed by virtue of Christ’s death. On the basis of the atoning passion and death of Christ, a message goes forth to men—men upon whom the wrath of God abides—that He offers His friendship to them. By faith, we become partakers of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished on Golgotha, and we begin to live as those who are friends of God. Christians live by faith, believing in Him who has loved them and given Himself for them (Gal. 2:20).
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the meaning of Christ’s work is unfolded by referring to the Mosaic sacrificial system, and in a very special way by referring to the great Day of Atonement. By making atonement for sin, Christ was a faithful and compassionate High Priest in things pertaining to God (Heb. 2:17). This again makes it clear that the focus of the atonement is first of all upon God Himself. The epistle to the Hebrews offers serious warnings of the wrath to come. There is only one way to escape: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God, who is a consuming fire, is yet gracious, merciful, and full of compassion. Upon death, judgment will await those who are outside of Christ. However, he who looks to Christ as the sacrifice to take away sin may look forward to eternal salvation (Heb. 9:28).
God, in His holiness, demanded satisfaction for sin. The Lord Jesus died on the cross to quench the wrath of God. The same God demands satisfaction and provides it. The Father sent His Son to be the propitiation for sin; it is not only God-oriented, but it also proceeds from God. We may not make a distinction between the Father and the Son—and even less may we suggest a disparity between the two. God’s love is not the consequence but the fountain of the atonement. His love does not issue forth from the atonement; it precedes it. In His eternal love, God did not spare His Son but surrendered Him so that He could bear the punishment for sin vicariously. Christ gave His life for His sheep, and it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who regenerates them, bestowing the gift of faith and conforming them to Christ.
The great difference between genuine Christianity and other religions consists in this: that any pathway to reconciliation with God originating in man is cut off. In all other religions, man must seek to win God’s favor, or that of other gods. The Christian faith testifies, however, that we have obtained the atonement (Rom. 5:11). “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).
Calvin’s Thoughts on the Atonement
Calvin reflected deeply about how it is possible for the God who approaches us in His mercy to be hostile toward us until we are reconciled with Him in Christ. For Calvin, this was only an apparent contradiction. The Scriptures confront us with our hopelessness outside of Christ in order that we may be led to true faith and genuine humility. Calvin writes, “In short, since our mind cannot lay hold of life through the mercy of God with sufficient eagerness, or receive it with becoming gratitude, unless previously impressed with fear of the divine anger, and dismayed at the thought of eternal death, we are so instructed by divine truth, as to perceive that without Christ God is in a manner hostile to us, and has his arm raised for our destruction. Thus taught, we look to Christ alone for divine favor and paternal love.”
Calvin uses the expression “in a manner” multiple times in his Institutes. God’s wrath is an awe-inspiring reality, which also leaves abundant room for the love of God. Calvin testifies that our reconciliation by the blood of Christ may not be interpreted as if the Son reconciled us with God and only then did God begin to love us, having hated us prior. Rather, we were reconciled with Him because He already loved us— even when, due to our sin, we were still in a hostile relationship with Him. Calvin emphasizes that, on the one hand, reconciliation has been accomplished upon Golgotha, and, on the other hand, we only truly benefit from this atonement upon being united to Christ by faith.
“But because the iniquity, which deserves the indignation of God, remains in us until the death of Christ comes to our aid, and that iniquity is in his sight accursed and condemned, we are not admitted to full and sure communion with God, unless in so far as Christ unites us. And, therefore, if we would indulge the hope of having God placable and propitious to us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone, as it is to him alone it is owing that our sins, which necessarily provoked the wrath of God, are not imputed to us.” Calvin was convinced that no reconciliation could come without satisfaction. No peace can be had apart from the blood of the cross, and there is no other means to bring peace to our hearts except the gospel. The Holy Spirit applies this gospel to the heart, and it thereby becomes “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16).
Karl Barth’s Thoughts Regarding the Atonement
It is characteristic for classic theology to distinguish between creation and redemption. In the theology of Karl Barth, considered now to be the spiritual leader of numerous evangelicals, this distinction vanishes. Barth believes that sin was already incorporated into creation, and that the cross of Christ is God’s eternal “yes” toward creation and humanity. This theology holds no room for the wrath of God as an independent reality; from the beginning, God’s wrath has always functioned under the umbrella of His love. The fact that Barth did not teach universal atonement per se has to do with his belief that theology is of a temporary nature; therefore, absolute assertions must be avoided. However, nowhere does Barth clearly articulate who will be eternally lost. The only conclusion to be drawn from his theology is that he embraces some form of universal atonement.
In Barth’s theology, the necessity of Christ’s incarnation, as well as the distinction between the divine persons, fades away. It is his conviction that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God Himself suffered at the cross. The incarnation was necessary since God the Son could not have suffered in His divine nature. The early church would have therefore confessed correctly that it was the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion that He could not suffer (that is, in His divine nature), and yet He did suffer (that is, in His human nature).
In classic Reformed theology, meriting and applying the atonement are two separate matters. The atonement, accomplished once and for all, must personally be applied to those for whom it was made. The preaching of the gospel is used to achieve this through its message of “Be ye reconciled to God.” The blood of Christ is the basis of this atonement, which is secured through Spirit-worked faith. It is Barth’s conviction, however, that the gospel is actually “You are reconciled with God.” The only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that the Christian knows this and the non-Christian does not. It hardly needs to be argued that the gravity of the coming judgment, as well as the necessity of a personal faith, are denied in Barth’s theology. As a guide for our theology Calvin is is far and far to be preferred above Barth.
The Suffering and Dying of the Lord Jesus as the All-sufficient Ground of Salvation
The New Testament presents the Lord Jesus Christ, who vicariously made atonement for sin and was subjected to its punishment, as the representative of all His people. As Adam represented all of humanity in his covenant breach, and we have all sinned in Adam, so the Lord Jesus Christ represented all those whom the Father had given Him. Adam brought sin, death, and the curse into the world. The Lord Jesus Christ, on the contrary, brought life and peace (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:45–49). Because of the vicarious work of Christ, the Father views us as if we had done what Christ did for us.
Substitution and representation are not mutually exclusive, but are complementary to each other. Representation shows the intimate nature of substitution. The idea of recapitulation, which surfaced in church history with Irenaeus, gives expression to the representative nature of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In connection with the doctrine of atonement through satisfaction, as articulated by Anselm and fleshed out by the Reformers, it expresses the riches of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The fact that the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the perfect foundation of salvation is inseparably connected with the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ represented His own vicariously in His passion and death. To safeguard salvation and to guarantee its outcome fully, nothing needs to be added to what the Lord Jesus accomplished. This brings us to the relationship between reconciliation with God and justification by faith in Christ that is highlighted throughout the New Testament (cf. Rom. 3:21–31, 8:28–39; 2 Cor. 5:11–21). The obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only and complete foundation of our justification. Since God did not spare His own Son, all accusations that are leveled against us have been stripped of their legal claims, and nothing can separate us from His love. Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law, and there is therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:1; Gal. 3:13).
It is impossible that one of those for whom the Lord Jesus Christ has shed His blood will go lost. The Lord Jesus stated this very clearly in John 10:28–29: “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” Christ’s work on the cross not only made reconciliation possible, but also accomplished the reality of it.
The latter does not discount that we are only personally reconciled with God when the Holy Spirit bestows the gift of faith upon us; the New Testament never teaches that we are justified by the blood of Christ, but rather that we are justified by faith. Our faith does not complement the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; it is a fruit of it. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10). “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Whoever teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ has died for every human being thereby denies the truths of the New Testament that Christ has sacrificially given Himself for us. It is the language of God’s church to confess that she may thus be completely certain of her eternal salvation. Whoever claims that the efficacy of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ is universal denies its efficacy. In times of need and distress, the only anchor of the Christian is the sacrifice of Christ as the foundation of salvation; nothing more is needed.
This testimony of Scripture regarding the efficacy of Christ’s death is confirmed in the experience of God’s children. August Montague Toplady (1740–1778) expressed it thus:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Since according to God’s purpose Christ atoned our guilt, it would be contradictory to God’s justice if one were to perish for whom Christ has made payment. Payment does not have to be made twice – first by Christ and then again by the one for whom He died. That is the inherent comfort in recon-cilia-tion by way of satisfaction, specifically in regard to the particular nature of the atonement.
That the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect warranty of eternal salvation for all whom the Father has given to Him does not diminish the all-sufficiency of the atonement. The blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is abundantly sufficient to atone for the sins of the entire world. It is therefore not without significance that the Lord Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and the Bread that gives life to the world (cf. John 1:29; 6:33). Whoever hears the gospel does not need to wonder whether there is sufficient latitude in the invitation of the gospel for him to return to the Lord and be reconciled with Him. The Canons of Dort emphasize both the particular nature as well as the all-sufficiency of the atonement. We shortchange the witness of the Bible if we neglect one of these aspects.
The Death of the Lord Jesus Christ Is the Fountain from which Proceeds a Holy Walk with God
The Lord Jesus Christ came to this world to save sinners from their sins. His death on the cross is not only the basis for the forgiveness of sins, but also the fountain from which proceeds the renewal of life; it empowers us to break with sin and live a holy life before God. The connection between the crucifixion of Christ and a holy walk before God is articulated in various passages of the New Testament. For example, in 2 Corinthians 5:15, the Apostle Paul states, “The love of Christ constrains us.” He then proceeds to explain that if Christ died as one on behalf of all, they have all died with Him. He died so that they would no longer live unto themselves, but for Him who “died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
The love of the Lord Jesus Christ, who vicariously surrendered Himself to be nailed to the cross, is the fountain from which proceeds our love toward Him. The Apostle John wrote in his first letter, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Paul wrote to the Galatians that the world was crucified unto him and he unto the world through the cross (Gal. 6:14). Since the cross of Christ had become the governing principle of his life, the world was no longer attractive to him, and he was no longer attractive to the world.
It is an essential component of the Christian life that we serve God voluntarily and wholeheartedly. Such readiness to serve proceeds from the fact that the love of Christ toward us, unveiled in His passion and death, has renewed our lives. The inseparable connection between the atoning work of Christ and the holy walk of the Christian is also formulated in Colossians 1:21–22: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” The way Paul connects the cross of Christ and the holy walk of the Christian is yet another confirmation of the internal efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ.
It is inconceivable that those for whom Christ has died would not also tangibly begin to live a holy life. His death is the sole and complete foundation of both the forgiveness of sins and a holy walk with God. The stripes that Christ received on the cross are the cure for our sinful walk and existence. Christ has borne our sins so that we would die to sin and learn to live righteously (1 Peter 2:24). He who knows that his sins have been pardoned for Christ’s sake will desire to be conformed to Christ. We can only live a holy life before God if we have tasted the love of Christ. Only he who is in Christ will be a new creature. Living a holy life before God is a daily struggle; as we endeavor to do this, we will be opposed by the world, the devil, and our own sinful existence.
Meditating upon the passion and death of Christ and looking to Him who is seated at the right hand of the Father are divinely ordained means to mortify sin and live a holy life. It is how we can be connected to the fountain of a truly holy life, Christ Himself. Not only has He been given unto us to be our wisdom, righteousness, and redemption, but also our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30).
The Death of the Lord Jesus Christ Yields a Victory over the Powers of Darkness
Since the Fall of Adam, Satan can be called the prince of this world. The world is full of demons; this is often recognized and felt more in other cultures than in our Western culture. But no one will be able to deny that there are numerous powers who seek to influence our lives. However, the Bible sets before us the Lord Jesus Christ as the conqueror of all demonic powers. By His death, the Lord Jesus Christ has “spoiled principalities and powers; he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15).
The life of those who live without God is dominated by evil forces and demons. The cross of Christ not only quenches the wrath of God toward sin and gives us strength to live a holy life before God, but it also makes possible the conquering of principalities and demons. Through the cross, you will become a liberated person, delivered from uncertainty, fear, and bondage.
The same Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross is also the conqueror. Whoever belongs to Him need not be fearful of any of the powers of this world. It is the privilege of a Christian to know that in Christ he is more than a conqueror; nothing can separate him from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38–39). In contrast to the fear, uncertainty, and bondage of man apart from Christ stands the joy, certainty, and freedom of the Christian.
Reconciled with God through Christ, a Christian serves God with love, freedom, and joy. In union with Christ, he knows he is truly free. The fact that Jesus Christ is the Conqueror is also expressed in His name of “Lord.” There is not a power in the world that either could or can stand before Him. Knowing that we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of lords, causes us to be of good cheer.