The seriousness of sin requires a serious solution.
by Clinton Arnold
There are many biblical words that form our vocabulary of salvation. These words describe the many facets of Jesus’ accomplishment for us in His life, death, resurrection, and His ongoing ministry in our lives. So far, we’ve delved into the meanings of justification, imputation, and sanctification. In this article, we will look at three words that speak to the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death on the cross: atonement, propitiation, and substitution.
Had sin never entered the world, there would be no need for a sacrifice. But the Bible states clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro. 3:23) and that “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Ro. 3:10). Our sin creates a serious dilemma. God is perfectly righteous. It is His nature to hate sin ( Jer. 44:4, Hab. 1:13) and to punish it (Ro. 1:18, 2:5-9). What hope have we, who regularly invite His indignation and anger by our wrongdoing, for relationship with such a God? Yet our hearts yearn for that relationship. God’s solution to this dilemma is sacrifice.
Early in the Old Testament, we are introduced to our first sacrifice-related word, atonement. The context is animal sacrifice.
After sin entered the picture in Genesis, God established an entire system of animal sacrifices to cover human sin and make possible a relationship with Him. For instance, when someone sinned by disobeying God’s law, that individual would bring a bull (or other animal) to the priest. The guilty person would then confess his sin, and the priest would cut the throat of the animal. As blood gushed from the mortal wound, the priest would apply the blood to various parts of the altar. Leviticus 4:26 tells us that “in this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin, and he will be forgiven” (emphasis mine).
Atonement is the act of making amends for a wrong that was done, thus restoring a relationship that was broken. The animal’s blood made up for the sin that was committed, making harmony with God possible once again . . . until the next sin. You see, the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were only a stopgap measure. The book of Hebrews teaches that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). This does not mean that the Old Testament sacrificial system was a waste; it had a purpose. Animal sacrifice demonstrated the seriousness with which God regarded sin: An innocent victim had to suffer, bleed, and die. These sacrifices also pointed to a future sacrifice that would effectively resolve the problem of our sin and ultimately bring to an end God’s righteous wrath.
This once-and-for-all sacrifice is clearly described in two key passages that introduce our next word, propitiation:
God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:25 (ESV)
In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. —1 John. 4:10 (ESV)
The term propitiation derives from a Latin word (propitio) that means “to appease.” Although some may find it distasteful to think of God becoming angry and pouring out wrath against sin, this is precisely what the Bible says is the case (Ro. 1:18, 2:5). We must never forget that “the wages of sin is death” (Ro. 6:23). But Jesus propitiated, or appeased, God’s wrath for our sin by absorb- ing it Himself through His painful death on a cross. That ultimate sacrifice satisfied God’s justice, and He has turned away from His anger toward those who accept the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice.
This leads us to our final word: substitution. You see, we are the guilty parties who should have hung on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. And indeed, our deaths would have satisfied the need for justice: The guilty would have been punished. But God’s love also needed to be satisfied. His love was compelled to extend forgiveness and make possible an eternal relationship between humans and their Creator. Only a sinless substitute, Jesus the Son of God, could accomplish that.
The Apostle Paul explains it this way:
God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. —2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)
Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice fulfills a prophecy that Isaiah uttered some 800 years earlier: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6).
Theologians have often referred to this as Jesus’ “vicarious” suffering; that is, He suffered in our place. As our substitute, He took the punishment that we deserved.
We worship a God who is completely just and yet abounding in love. He holds these in perfect balance. Because of our sin, it would appear that His love would need to give way to His justice. Yet in His infinite wisdom and extraordinary love, God made a way to give expression to both of these attributes. He executed His wrath against His own Son so that we could be brought back into a relationship with our Creator.
There is no act of sacrifice that can rival the sacrifice of God’s Son. There is no gift that can rival the gifts of atonement, propitiation, and substitution.
CLINTON E. ARNOLD is chairman of the Department for the New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Copyright © Discipleship Journal. Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © Sept/Oct. 2006, Issue 155, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com