Eternal Judgment: 3 – Atonement Is The Answer


Suggested Pre-Reading: Eternal Judgment: 2


Atonement is the answer to the question, “How are sinners made righteous outside of the law?”

But what is atonement?

It is the means by which sins are forgiven by God. As we seek to understand this, we do well to turn to the Old Testament and its description of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Aaron shall enter the holy place with this: with a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments shall be next to his body, and he shall be girded with the linen sash and attired with the linen turban (these are holy garments). Then he shall bathe his body in water and put them on. He shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household. He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat. (Leviticus 16: 3 – 10)

This description of Yom Kippur can be summarized as follows:

Element Purpose
Bull Sin Offering For the High Priest
Goat 1 Sin Offering For the People
Goat 2 Bears the sins of the people and is released to the wilderness

Note how God did not ask the sinners to sacrifice themselves or to bear their own sins for atonement. Rather, God prescribed the bull and goats to deal with the sins of the people. This is the heart of Biblical atonement – it occurs by means of a substitute. Substitutionary atonement is what keeps the forgiveness of sins distinct from law-keeping. You can never atone for your own sins by obeying God’s law, because God requires a substitute for atonement.

Moving from the Old Testament to the New, the author of Hebrews explains how Jesus is the ultimate substitute.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9: 11 – 14)

For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Hebrews 9: 24 – 26)

For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10: 1 – 4)

In order to prove Christ’s atonement as greater than even Yom Kippur, the author of Hebrews makes an a fortiori argument. He agrees with the established fact that in the days of Moses God ordained atonement through sinful priests and animals. He then proceeds to argue that if atonement could come through weak vessels, such as a sinful high priest and mere animals, how much more so could God ordain atonement through the sinless and spotless Messiah, as part of the New Covenant.

This idea of the Messiah as an atoning substitute is not unique to the book of Hebrews, or even the New Testament. It was prophesied hundreds of years in advance by the prophet Isaiah.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities…

But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.

But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering…

My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities…

Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors

(excerpts from Isaiah 53)

Note how the prophet says Messiah will “justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities”. When atonement happens, the sinner is made righteous in God’s sight. The person who was once separated from God is now reconciled and brought near to God. Theologians call this the Great Exchange – Jesus takes our sins and He gives us His right-standing before God.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5: 21)

This law-gospel binary is essential for all to understand. The law is not the gospel and the gospel is not the law. Our righteousness before God comes not through our own ability to keep God’s law and make up for sins committed, but by having our sins placed on the ordained substitute for atonement. In the days of Moses, it was animals – bulls and goats. In our day, the appointed substitute is Jesus of Nazareth. He went to the cross and shed His blood so that our sins could be atoned for and forgiven once-for-all.

Atonement is why righteousness is outside of the law, and why the gospel is actually good news. There is nothing we can do to pay for our sins, because Jesus has paid it all.

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