Understanding views of a central Christian teaching.
In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to keep the Day of Atonement every year on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 16:29, 30; 23:27, 28). On that day, the high priest brought the blood of sacrificed animals into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it seven times on the mercy seat to make atonement for the whole assembly of Israel (vv. 14-17).
The Bible teaches, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls . . .” and “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22). Though animal blood and sacrifices had no intrinsic value in cleansing worshippers of sin under the old covenant, God gave them to Israel as a shadow of the life-giving reality to be revealed in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:1-4).
When Jesus shed His blood and accepted death on the cross, giving His life for us, the sacrificial cleansing of the Day of Atonement — the promise of Scripture — was fulfilled (Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; John 1:29; Romans 5:8-11; 8:3; Hebrews 9:7-12). The atoning death of Christ was represented in nail-pierced hands and feet, a thorned crown on His brow, and a spear-pierced side (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19).
When the New Testament epistles use the expression “the blood of Christ,” they refer to this precious life-giving blood, His substitutionary death and life offered for sinners (1 Corinthians 10:16; Ephesians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:12, 19; 1 John 1:7). This sacrificial gift for us is once and forevermore (Hebrews 7:27; 10:12-14).
For whom did Christ make atonement? How far does it reach?
There are two basic responses. One teaches that the death of Christ was for every human being; hence the view that the atonement is universal. Another view teaches that Christ’s blood covers only those chosen by God for salvation; thus, the atonement is limited. Let’s look at each view a little closer.
Limited. This position emphasizes God’s sovereign choice, that Christ died to save only those the Father God has predestined for eternal life (Ephesians 1:5-7; 2 Timothy 2:10). Therefore, the atoning work of Christ is applied by God’s will to those in whom it is realized.
This limited atonement is circumspect in its reach. The teaching of sovereign grace and choice emerged with Augustine in the fifth century and flowered in the sixteenth with John Calvin and his Reformed heirs.
Universal. Among those who hold that Jesus’ atonement is for all human beings, two groups of thought exist. One minority, known historically as the Universalists, teaches that the atonement is as universal in its effect as it is in its reach. They draw on New Testament passages that speak about God’s universal mercy in Christ, and profess, therefore, that all humans will be saved (Romans 5:18; 11:32).
The second universal group seeks a balance between the two groups above.
The majority opinion holds a position between the extremes of the Calvinists and Universalists by emphasizing God’s sovereign grace and human accountability. It believes that the atonement is universal in reach but not in saving effect. In other words, Christ’s atonement is available for all, but its saving effect takes place in persons as they respond to God’s gift in living faith (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:3-7). Among this group are the Lutherans, Arminians, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and moderate Calvinists.
Sacred Scripture clearly teaches that the atonement of Christ is for “our sins,” yes, but not only for ours “but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Christ became a man to die as a “ransom for all” because it is God’s will that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 6). “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8).
Before the gift of Christ’s atonement, the world was helpless and lost in sin. Now God’s love in Christ has appeared, and the free choice of faith is available to all who respond to the gospel, confessing Jesus as Lord: “those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:24; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
Faith and hope
Our reconciliation to God by Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice is at the very heart of Christianity. The apostle Paul, a defender of atonement in Christ, condensed it like this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
(1 Corinthians 15:3, 4).
Christ died for our sins! This is not dreamy, poetic imagination; it is history. Paul’s crucified and risen Christ is fact, not fiction. This means that we may be redeemed, reconciled, justified, sanctified, and forgiven by the sacrificial atonement of Christ for a future glorification (Romans 8:30). The atonement of Christ has been a basic tenet of church faith from the first century CE down to the teachings of the Church of God (Seventh Day).
The atonement of Christ gives great confidence in our justification, sanctification, and glorification through faith (Romans 3:23-26). Jesus paid the price: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Atonement is the supreme expression of the love of our Father and Jesus, His beloved Son. We must never forget the riches of this grace and the price of our redemption (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 1:18, 19).
Dr. Hector M. Alvarenga pastors the CoG7 Houston Avenue church in Houston, TX. Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.