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The Central and Essential Elements of Atonement

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

(from The Doctrine of the Atonement)

The New Testament teaches that Jesus died for our sins (Matt. 20:28). Because of our sins we were all abiding under the righteous condemnation of God

(Rom. 3:23). All men are sinners by nature as well as by choice. Because God is holy He must punish sin with the punishment it deserves (Matt. 16:27). The punishment for sin is “death” (Rom. 6:23). This includes spiritual death, physical death, suffering in Hades after physical death and, finally, eternal death.

Spiritual death involves alienation from God and from all that the life and nature of God produces – holiness, righteousness, peace, life, joy and blessing (Eph. 2:1-3). Physical death involves the separation of spirit and body and the dissolution of the body into the earth (1 Cor. 15:22). After death, suffering in Hades is not the final destiny of the lost. It is a temporary place of suffering, where the lost await their resurrection and final judgment by God. It is, nevertheless, a place of extreme suffering and torment (Luke 16:19-31). Finally, eternal death, or the “second death,” is the final and ultimate punishment for sin, and consists in the everlasting conscious punishment of the lost (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:11-15).

All men have sinned, so all men deserve to be punished by God eternally (Luke 3:17). God is perfect in holiness and justice, and He will not tolerate sin, which is a violation of His own nature. God’s holy law was broken by Adam, and by all men; and justice demands punishment. We had to die.

But because of His great love for us, Jesus came to die for us on the Cross (Matt. 20:28). He died in our place (2 Cor. 5:14). His death was “vicarious.” For divine justice to be satisfied, God demanded a death (Heb. 9:22). Our sins had to be punished before we could be accepted by God and restored to fellowship with Him. Jesus bore the punishment of our sins, in our place, and thereby set us free from that punishment (John 11:50; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 3:18). In the words of the great theologian, Augustus Strong, “the atonement is … a satisfaction of the ethical demand of the divine nature, by the substitution of Christ’s penal sufferings for the punishment of the guilty.”[1]

Because He bore the punishment of our sins in our place, throughout history it has occasionally been suggested that Jesus must have borne our spiritual and eternal deaths, as well as our physical death, in order to redeem us from them. Some have proposed the idea that a mere physical death on Jesus’ part would not have been sufficient to pay the full penalty for our sins.

Nevertheless, the clear teaching of the New Testament is that Jesus’ physical death did, in fact, redeem us. The Bible nowhere teaches that Jesus died spiritually, or eternally, to redeem us. On the contrary, the Bible everywhere teaches that Jesus died physically and that His physical death redeemed us. Over 60 times in the New Testament it is stated that Jesus died physically and that His physical death on the Cross redeemed us.[2] Those New Testament Scriptures plus numerous passages in the Old Testament, including the entire Levitical system of sacrifice, as well as millions upon millions of “acted out” types of Jesus’ death in Israel’s history, all teach just one thing – the life of the flesh is in the blood, and it is the shed blood that makes an atonement for sin (Lev. 17:11).

This raises the question of how it was that Jesus’ physical death paid the full penalty for our sins, which included spiritual as well as eternal death. The answer to that question is found in the Person of the Lord Jesus. Jesus was fully man and fully God. He was the God-man. Thus His physical death possessed infinite value (Acts 20:28; Heb. 9:13-15). “In Jesus Christ, deity and humanity were eternally united in a single personality. There was such a perfect union of the two natures in one Person that whatever could be said of either nature, could properly be said of the Person. Consequently, Jesus’ physical death possessed infinite merit.”[3]

Jesus did not die a spiritual death. He only died physically, but His deity conferred infinite value to that physical death. Because He was man, Jesus could die; because He was God, His physical death had infinite worth. Jesus’ physical death was given as a sufficient sacrifice to God in the place of the eternal sufferings of the sinner.

Thus the central and essential elements of the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement are:

  1. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to God to pay the penalty for man’s sins.
  2. Jesus only died physically. He did not die spiritually. His physical death was sufficient to pay the full penalty for our sins.
  3. The efficacy of Jesus’ physical death lay in the fact of His deity.

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[1] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1979), 752.

[2] Malcolm Webber, The Blood of God (Kimmell, Indiana: Pioneer Books, 1992), 70.

[3] Ibid., 74.

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