The atonement of Christ refers to His passive obedience on the cross–He willingly gave His life as a sacrifice for our sin. Our sins were atoned for because of Christ’s work on the cross.
The purpose of the atonement is to provide a way for humans to be reconciled to God. The result of the atonement impacts our earthly life as well as our eternal life.
This article unpacks the purpose and result of the atonement in words any Christian can understand. If you have struggled with any of the following issues, it would serve you well to learn more about the work of Christ on the cross: ongoing sin, unbelief, shame, condemnation, lifelong sin patterns, guilt, fear, easily tempted.
A good homework assignment would be to write out all the verses mentioned in this article and begin memorizing them. If you are discipling someone, make this one of their assignments. Don’t forget the questions at the end.
This article can change your life. Do not slack away from this article because it talks about a theological term–the atonement. Embrace it. Learn what it means and let the work of Christ impact your life.
The Atonement Releases Us from Sin
Everyone has sinned against God, who is just and righteous. A penalty must be paid for our sins. God would no longer be just if He let a rule-breaker off without a penalty being paid.
If someone throws a rock and breaks a window, the cost to repair the window has to be paid by someone. According to James 1:15 we know the penalty for sin is death.
Of course, we know our sin against God is much greater than a broken window. God is perfectly Holy (1 Peter 1:16), pure and hates sin. We get a better understanding of His holiness in Exodus 33:20.
Moses was speaking to God and requested to see God’s face. God said no human could see His face and live. Because God is Holy, He cannot be in the presence of sin–His wrath against sin would destroy anything sinful.
In order for us to be with God, a penalty for our sin must be paid and something has to be done about God’s wrath. Instead of us bearing these penalties, God in His mercy chose to pay the penalty Himself, for those who believe in Christ (Ephesians 1:7).
Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (Hebrews 9:26). While on the cross, God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Christ (1 John 2:2). If we have accepted Christ as our Savior, we no longer have to worry about facing God’s wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
The Atonement Makes Us Righteous
We must be righteous in God’s sight. Before Christ came into the world, the only way for a human to become righteous was to keep all of God’s rules which were laid out in the Old Testament.
You find a summary of the more than 600 laws in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5–the Ten Commandments. These laws must be kept perfectly. If a single law is broken, it would be as if all of the laws were broken (James 2:10).
Since we all have a sinful nature due to being a descendant of Adam (Romans 5:12), we are not able to keep God’s laws perfectly. We are destined to be eternally separated from God.
We were dead in the way we lived (Ephesians 2:1) and deserved God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). But God provided a way for us to be righteous apart from the law (Romans 3:21-25).
If we have faith in Jesus Christ, we are credited with Christ’s life. And since Christ never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), we are credited with living a sin-free life. We have been made righteous (Romans 5:19).
Our sins were atoned for through Christ. Our alliance with Christ leads to righteousness, just like our alliance with Adam lead to death (Romans 5:17).
Christ Is Your Representative
I think it is important to recognize since Christ is our representative, it was necessary for Him to live out His life on earth as a man. He was still fully God, but He set aside His powers and faced life as a man (Philippians 2:7).
It is kind of like Clark Kent/Superman living life on earth. He would still be Superman, but he would live as an ordinary human.
Since Jesus lived a sin-free, righteous life as a human, we will be credited for His life if we believe in Him (Hebrews 4:15). It’s like He takes the life-test for us, scores 100%, and since He did it as a man, God will also give us His score if we put our trust in Him.
Now we have a way to be righteous without having to perfectly keep all the laws. It is by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21). If we believe, God no longer counts our sin against us (2 Corinthians 5:19-21).
Living a Righteously on Earth
While what I’ve written speaks to how we can live with God forever, we would be missing out if we didn’t talk about how the atonement impacts our life on earth. We can live out the atonement before we die and go to heaven.
We are all descendants of Adam and Eve–we are all in Adam’s family. Since Adam is the head of the family, he represents the entire human race. Adam and Eve were created by God and started out living their life righteously while communing with God (inferred from Genesis 3:8).
At some point they chose to follow their own desires and disobeyed God (Genesis 3:6), bringing sin into the world. This left them in bondage to Satan and guilty before God.
Because Adam represents us, we all are left in bondage to sin and guilty (Romans 5:12) and are destined for condemnation (Romans 5:18). Even before we were born and did anything wrong, we were sinful (Psalm 51:5). You could say we are guilty by association.
You may ask what does it mean to be in bondage to sin. It means we are all born in and have a tendency to sin.
- We disobey our parents.
- We will cheat if we think we will not get caught.
- We choose to do what we think is right, even if the Bible tells us otherwise.
- We are more focused on ourselves than others.
It does not mean we are as bad as we could be or that we can’t do anything good, but in God’s eyes we cannot do anything that pleases Him. That is why the Bible says we are by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
Without Christ, all humans live lives pleasing to themselves and against God’s desires (2 Peter 3:3). When we put our trust in Jesus Christ and accept Him as our Savior, several things happen.
- We choose to leave our family alliance with Adam for an alliance with Jesus. Think of leaving a club to join another club.
- Our sins are placed on Christ. That is, He is charged with our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- The power of sin over us (also called legal reign) is also placed on Christ.
- We are now in Christ (or in Christ’s club) and Christ represents us.
- Christ goes to the cross and bears the wrath of God, which should have been for us.
- Christ dies, paying our penalty for sin, as described earlier.
- Because Christ died, the power of sin lost all power. Sin is only powerful before someone dies. Because we are in Christ, the same is true for us. We are no longer under the power of sin (Romans 6:8-10) because we died.
- Christ rises (resurrection) to a new life and because He represents us, the same can be said of us (Romans 6:5). This is why you hear the term born again (John 3:3).
- We are in Christ and Christ is in us (John 15:1-5). We are united in such a way to where we are able to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
- After we accept Christ, we are completely forgiven by the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5). We do not have to fear seeing any of God’s wrath and we no longer are under the power of sin. We are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Empowered to Fight Against Sin
We no longer are controlled by our sinful nature, desiring what our old flesh wants. We are in Christ; we live in God, and God lives in us.
God’s Spirit controls us and we desire to do what is right (Romans 8:9-10). While on earth, our Spirit is new and we no longer are controlled by sin.
We are righteous because of our association with Christ. It is more than a label. We have been given new hearts and God’s Spirit moves us to keep God’s laws (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Though we have new a new Spirit, our bodies are still the same bodies we had before we accepted Christ. These bodies age and die.
Because they are weak, they will still sometimes want to do the bad things it did before we were reborn by the Spirit of God (Gal 5:17). We will sin from time to time (1 John 1:8), but when we do, we ask for forgiveness and repent–work to stop sinning (1 John 1:9-10).
Though our sin will displease God, it will not change anything Christ has done for us. God still sees Christ’s righteousness. He will be displeased and may send consequences for our disobedience, but this is because He disciplines those He loves, those who are His children (Hebrews 12:6-7).
The Atonement Makes Us Right with God
Because of the atonement our biggest problem in life–our separation from God–has been resolved. We not only have a relationship with God, we are now brought into His family.
We are heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and called to be His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). We have gone from death into an inheritance which can never perish, spoil, or fade (1 Peter 1:4). If we really understand this, it is truly amazing. I think Rich Mullins captured it well;
Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power, and love
Our God is an awesome God
How Does the Atonement Impact Your Life?
- What are the consequences of being sinful at birth (being in Adam)? Think about what happened to Adam and Eve immediately after disobeying. How does the atonement address those consequences?
- When you think of Christ’s work on the cross, do you remember all aspects of the atonement? What problems arise in your life when you forget to embrace all of Christ’s works?
- How do you approach on-going sin issues? Do you pray for God to remove the temptation and do you remember you are a new creation? How does remembering you have died to sin help in your battle to mortify sin?
- If sin has lost its power over you, but cooperates with your weak body, looking for opportunities, what steps should you take in your battle against sin? Write out a plan. Share your plan with a friend.