The Atonement in Evangelical Thought: Part I

The New-Look in Neo-Evangelicalism

     Enemies of the Word of God tend to develop their theories along lines of general fashion. One generation chooses to challenge the Sonship of Christ whereas another generation fixes its doubting gaze on the work of the Spirit. In one age it is fashionable to be social-minded, another age chooses to be ascetic and turn its back on the world with all its responsibilities. Modern critics have become more sophisticated and analytical and, professing to be within the church rather than without, they are focusing their gaze on the very centre of our faith and salvation. This is the Work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, otherwise known as the Atonement. Traditionally it has been different views of church order and the sacraments or ordinances which have separated true evangelicals from one another: a fact that has not prevented them experiencing real fellowship in the Lord. Today rifts between the brethren are growing deeper as modern highly influential Neo-evangelicals maintain that he alone preaches the atoning blood of Christ who teaches it as a mere provision of God which gains its efficacy through reception. In other words, God’s provision in the atonement does not secure salvation but the approbation of it by the human agent. Now the tragic situation has arisen where those who were once rightly considered heretics in the churches are usurping the mantel of orthodoxy and proclaiming that holders of traditional views of the Atonement are Hyper-Calvinists and Antinomians and thus criminals in God’s eyes and unworthy of being given the right hand of fellowship. It is thus of the utmost importance that we consider this fundamental doctrine of our faith, the Atonement, in order to see if our feet really stand on the Rock of Ages who is faith’s only foundation.

Finding the Right Word for the Right Doctrine

     When William Tindale began work on his translation of the Bible around 1525, he found the English language at times most inappropriate for the task. There was very little of what might be called the language of Zion in English as the current Bible was in the Latin words of the Vulgate, of which many monks and priests were as ignorant as the common people. As it was deemed an evil thing by the Roman Catholic hierarchy for the common people to have the Bible in their own language, any words to do with Scriptural doctrines were highly Latinized and tainted with Roman superstition. Wycliffe’s translation had had a limited circulation since the late 14th century but that work had received the full enmity of the Roman Church. Archbishop Arundel had declared Wycliffe to be a child of the devil and the offspring of Anti-Christ who ‘crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.` In 1408 a general excommunication against readers of Wycliffe’s Bible and against would-be translators of the Bible into English was proclaimed. By 1525, however, the English language was establishing itself as a language of poetry and prose and had changed radically during the previous hundred years.  Wycliffe’s language had become archaic and, as it was a mere translation of the Vulgate, it still contained Romanizing elements which dimmed the full meaning of Scripture.

     Tindale, working from the original languages found it particularly difficult to translate words to do with atonement, reconciliation, propitiation, expiation and justification which are all closely linked in meaning. Perhaps his eagerness to make the translation really English caused him to reject Latin words which could have been employed usefully. Tindale looked for words which expressed matters of fact rather than use the current literary English vocabulary of fable, fantasy and fairy story. He could therefore say:

‘I had no man to counterfet neither was holpe with englysshe of eny that had interpreted the same or soche lyke things in the scripture before tyme.’

     Though one initial problem for Tindale was the paucity of good Middle English words suitable for depicting doctrine, an equal problem was the flood of new words coming into the language to supplement them. As Latin words vied with French, Scandinavian and Saxon words, a whole host of synonyms emerged, many of these quickly taking on new meanings. Our modern English language has to struggle even harder with this problem today as we can often find a large number of words to translate a Hebrew or Greek word but even then, the exact meaning of the original may not be given or understood absolutely correctly. It may surprise readers to find that one single Hebrew root word kipper (rpk) with its derivations, Greek equivalents and word-families (????????? and ??????????) may be translated by either ‘atonement’, ‘cover’, ‘mercy’, ‘grace’, ‘pardon’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘satisfaction’ and even, and perhaps especially, ‘ransom’. Theologians are sometimes at loggerheads over the meaning of the words ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’ but these words must be added to the same list.

God provides an at-one-ment with Himself

     The first synonym mentioned above, atonement, is of particular interest as it was coined by Tindale himself to help get over translation difficulties. His God-led understanding of the words kipper (rpk) and hilasterion (??????????) was that they pointed to God’s initiative in Salvation, to a full and entire work of the triune God in making a total satisfaction for sin by providing a complete substitution, which was a once-and-for-all act procuring everlasting salvation for the repentant sinner. The Roman Catholic Church viewed the atonement as reconciliation being made to God for man’s guilt or original sin but not for the penalty of sin which had to be worked off by works of special merit and penance. This left the reconciled without true union with Christ and with Christ’s work only half done. This error led Tindale to realise that the entire Biblical teaching was concerned with man becoming fully accepted in the Beloved, and thus becoming one with God. Christ’s reconciling death, he therefore saw, was an at-one-ment with God and promptly used the word to express both the Old and New Testament words to do with a man becoming right with God through an expiatory sacrifice at God’s initiative.

     Our task is now to view the teaching of the Scriptures on this crucial doctrine and see how it has been assailed by the whims of fashion, rationalism, philosophy and political thought throughout the centuries. Indeed, we find ourselves in the extraordinary situation today where even those who believe they are of the elect, deny the very doctrine and decree which has vouchsafed their election.

God covers the sinner’s shame

     The word-family kipper (rpk) is used in the Old Testament in conjunction with offerings to plead for mercy, to appease God, to grant blood money as an equivalent for physical harm done and to renew and keep up the covenant with God by which He has chosen a special people to serve Him and have fellowship with Him . The root meaning of the word here is ‘to cover’. The sins of the people are covered over and where this is performed in faith to God, He promises to remember these sins no more. Nowhere is this truth so beautifully put as in Ezekiel 16 where the prophet describes the birth of God’s people, born in sin and squalor and virtually thrown away as unwanted, yet covered by God’s own skirt. The cast-away child is washed, cleansed of blood, anointed and clothed in majesty by the grace of God.  Zechariah also tells us of Joshua as a type of the Church whose iniquities are put away and new garments given him. Isaiah saw clearly the atoning work of the Messiah with the eye of faith and could exclaim, ‘I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness’ (61:10). Hence David could say, ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ and go on to say that the Lord is his hiding-place (Psalm 32). Here, again, is a pre-view of the once-and-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ in whom our sinful life is eternally hidden in God and He deals with us as new creatures (Colossians 3:3).

     Perhaps the most significant passage in the Old Testament where the word ‘atonement’ is used is that referring to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). After a proscribed ten days of national preparation the High Priest would enter the holy place  to make a sin offering for himself and his people. After this was completed, the people’s sins were symbolically laid on a scapegoat and sent away ‘by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.’  All this, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, was a shadow or type of things to come. It was a forerunner of the day when the veil of the Temple should be rent for ever and Christ would take up his holy work as the fit man, the God-Man who would bear our sins away in that great and glorious never to be repeated action on the cross. The writer to the Hebrews argues that earthly priests come and go as they must all die but our great High priest has gained for us eternal access to God’s holy abode and ever makes intercession for us there (chap. 7).

God provides a sacrifice for sanctification

      In the Old Testament pre-views of the work of Christ, the ransoming work of sacrificial blood is given pre-eminence. The blood of the sacrificial victim shed is the sign of God’s covenant with man to show that He is ever prepared to grant atonement and forgiveness for His people. The Old Testament saints were ransomed by sacrifices which were mere pointers to the great sacrifice to come which would be absolute and perfect in its power, working from eternity both backwards and forwards in history, covering the sins of the elect in all ages. Thus when Christians worship their Saviour, they draw nigh to ‘Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel (Heb. 12:24). This gives Peter every good reason to write to, ‘the elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ, . . . which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you’ (I. Pet. 1:2-4).’ The whole gospel is reflected in this passage. We see that redemption is for the elect of God, otherwise called the Bride of Christ. We note that the blood of Christ atones for the sins of this elect people and sanctifies them. This gives them hope which has been established through Christ’s own resurrection. Here we also have a clear testimony of the perseverance of the saints which is incorruptibly and eternally vouchsafed.

At-one-ment is a work of the Trinity

     The passage makes it also plain that salvation is a work of the whole Trinity. The Father sets the operation in action, the Spirit separates the elect from the world and Christ provides not only the victim, His obedient self, but He is the Offerer, giving Himself for His Bride. The fact that the entire Trinity was at work in the plan of redemption is very relevant in combating modern views of the atonement which suggest that either God shows two conflicting wills in the atonement, or Christ set his own will against His Father’s in redeeming a people for Himself, or that Christ merely played the hero’s part which was accepted with hindsight by God or that Christ was merely ‘offered’ by the Father as Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac. The emphasis on Christ’s obedience and the blood money (ransom) paid also goes a long way in debunking modern Governmentalists and so-called Evangelical Calvinists who neither see the necessity of a full obedience to the law on Christ’s part nor see the relevance of Christ dying for the elect and for none other. If Christ did not give His uttermost in obedience, utterly fulfilling the law on behalf of His Church, then he could not ‘save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him’ (Heb. 7:25). Such passages as 1 Pet. 1:2-4 and Heb. 7:25 show that everything the whole Trinity decreed and did was entirely successful.

God provides a ransom

     The Bible emphasises time and time again that the atonement was not only a means of releasing man from his sins but it also provided the instrument of this means in terms of ransom. Exodus 21:30-36 tells us that if a man has been gored to death by a dangerous ox, the owner of the ox can escape death by paying a ransom (kõpher). There was, however, no way of ransoming away death itself. Hence we read in Psalm 49:7 that no one can redeem a brother from death, or give God a ransom for him.’ In Numbers 8:19 we find that the Levites are given to Aaron in order to provide a kõpher for the children of Israel. By the time of the prophets, teaching concerning a ransomed New Covenant people had become widespread as revelation progressed. Isaiah could triumphantly say on viewing Christ’s kingdom in chapter 35:10, ‘And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: and they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’ This is echoed by Jeremiah in his account of the calling in of elect Israel in 31:11 and God’s promise to Hosea to ransom His people from the grave, saying, ‘O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction,’ reminding us of I Cor. 15:55, the plague of death being sin which is removed from the redeemed.

     All this, of course, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us in great detail in chapters 7-10, is only a reflection of and pointer to the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). which was outworked in the ‘fullness of time’ at Calvary. Though it happened in time, the Bible teaches that this sacrifice was beyond time, covering the entire history of salvation of the elect from Abel until the gathering in of the saints when Jesus comes in glory.

Christ is our ransom

     In the New Testament the clear testimony is that the ‘Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). Paul, in I Timothy 2:5-6 explains that this is the essential part of Christ’s mediatory work of reconciliation ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for sin, to be testified in due time.’ The last phrase ‘in due time’ is not to be taken in its modern alternative meaning of ‘in time to come’ but in its basic meaning of ‘in the time that was due’ or as Paul puts it in Galatians 4:4, ‘But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.` Again we see emphasised, so strongly, that Christ was not placed above the law as a privileged man but emptied Himself so thoroughly for our sakes that he came under the law to redeem those that were under the law. The modern rejection of the redemption doctrine of salvation by those who say Christ’s high position and dignity were respected too much by His Father to place Him under the law, is poison itself as it could never lift the death penalty from man. The teaching that Christ’s dignified superiority placed Him higher than the law and this dignity was accepted and given us as an ‘as if’ status is good Fullerism but very bad theology. The Biblical way of salvation is that Christ had to become what we were in order to lift us up to be like Him. He voluntarily showed full obedience to the law. No other way was good enough for Him. This transformation was not a mere parable or allegory, nor was it merely judicial but it actually happened for our sakes. We can thus truly say, that we, as the Church of God, have been actually purchased by His blood (Acts 20:28); this means that we have actually been redeemed by His blood (Ephesians 1:7); we have actually been justified by His blood (Rom. 5:9); we are actually sanctified by His blood (Heb. 13:12) because our sins have been actually washed away by His blood (Revelation 1:5). This is all thanks be to God in Christ who actually bought us with a price (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23).

This ransom was actual and not metaphorical

     It is becoming fashionable in so-called ‘Moderate Calvinism’ to question the doctrine of literal redemption, i.e. that Christ was an actual ransom. The Apostle Peter was familiar with such critics and refers to them plainly and damnably in II Peter 2:1 saying, ‘But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false prophets among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.’ In view of the modern Neo-evangelical theory, taken over from Grotian Fuller, that what they call ‘commercial language is at best to be understood metaphorically, we may quote I Peter 1:18-20 for a very matter-of-fact statement, ‘For as much as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world but was manifest in these last times for you.’ Now if Peter had said that God used all the riches, all the gold and silver, at His disposal to save us and gave His last penny to do so, this would be speaking metaphorically. Peter rejects such a symbolic language and comes down to plain facts. Christ was foreordained to be a ransom and a ransom He became. The price was to be paid in blood and, indeed, that is exactly how it was paid. If Christ had not paid the exact price under the obligations freely taken up before time-history began, we would be still in our sins or the slaves of some airy-fairy metaphorical, make-believe alternative.

     This is the faith that was secured for Christ’s redeemed in the Atonement and if these truths are left out of the gospel then, however it is preached, it will not be preached properly. In the next issue, it will be shown how various more or less influential figures in history have challenged the Biblical doctrine of the Atonement and how their heretical views are having repercussions in modern Neo-evangelical preaching today. It is vital for the well-being of our faith that we know the Enemy and the truths that put him to flight.