By Dr. Paul Knudtson
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The term “atonement” describes the theological significance of Christ’s death in bringing about our salvation. Throughout history theologians (such as Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard) have developed various ways of explaining the atonement, ways that have emphasized differing New Testament images regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. On the basis of various scriptural passages, these theologians have described how Christ’s death on the cross has brought about victory over the devil, deliverance from death, the forgiveness of sins, rescue from God’s wrath for sin, and the transformation of God’s enemies into friends. Many scriptural texts regarding the significance of Christ’s death in brief, terse language, so that various theologians sought to flesh out or explain these passages in greater detail. For example, since Mark’s statement that Christ (“the Son of Man”) gave “his life as a ransom” (10:45) is exceedingly brief, theologians speculated regarding who was paid this ransom (God or the devil?), what were humans ransomed from, and exactly what sort of transaction was made that brought about this liberation. Without engaging such detailed and sometimes fanciful theories of theological explanation or speculation here, we can consider what the New Testament itself says regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. A survey of such passages will illustrate the wide spectrum of ways in which Christ’s death has benefitted us.
Christ’s death means:
- Victory over the devil: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities (likely referring to evil powers in league with the devil) and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]” (Colossians 2:15).
- The defeat of death: Besides the verses just quoted from Hebrews 2, a somewhat enigmatic passage from Matthew describes how the dead were raised at the moment of Jesus’s death, indicating that the defeat of death is part of what God accomplished through the death of his Son. When Jesus dies, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:52)
- The forgiveness of sins: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). When Jesus institutes the Lord’s supper, he reinterprets the wine from the Passover meal in terms of the shedding of his blood. Concerning the wine Jesus says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:29). This suggests (or means) that Christ’s shed blood on the cross provides for the forgiveness of our sins.
- Deliverance from slavery to sin: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-19). “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
- Deliverance from the wrath of God: “Much more surely, then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)
- Transformation from enemies of God to the friends of God: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10) “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:18). “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him”(Colossians 1:21-22).
- The knowledge of God’s love toward us: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The atoning effect of Christ’s death is sometimes stated without an explicit explanation of what this effect may be. For example, Romans 3:25 refers to Christ as the one “God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood . . . .” Interestingly, though, the Greek term for “sacrifice of atonement” here (hilasterion) is the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the “mercy seat” in the temple. As the Old testament explains, once a year on the Day of Atonement animal blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on top of the arc of the covenant in the Jerusalem temple in order to make atonement for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). According to Paul in Romans 3, the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross has become, as it were, a new day of atonement, (Rom. 3:25), presumably indicating that Christ’s blood is the means by which our sins are atoned for. Leviticus says this of the Day of Atonement: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD” (16:30). Now Christ’s death makes it possible for us to be cleansed of all our sins.
Meditation: Which aspect of the New Testament explanation of the atonement most appeals to you, and why? Which passage of scripture do you wish to especially focus on today as you meditate on the meaning of Christ’s passion?
Prayer: Thank you, O God, for the salvation you have accomplished through the death of your Son upon the cross. Help me today to grain new insight into the meaning of his death in my own life. Amen.