Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

a. ST006/1 Introduction


The Doctrine of the Atonement.

This doctrine is also spoken of as the Doctrine of the Work of Christ and the fulfilment of the Mediatorial Ministry. It is another of the most important doctrines of the Christian Faith. It is an exceedingly large subject in its scope and recurs again and again in the pages of Scripture in many different forms and viewed from many different angles.

For this reason, it is more necessary than perhaps in any other doctrine, to give full consideration to all that is said in the Bible concerning it, particularly if we are to reach a balanced and correct understanding of the subject.

Probably more books have been written concerning this section of Christian Theology than any other; and in this subject more than any other, leading ideas have been exaggerated and developed to a degree detrimental to a true understanding of the meaning of the Atonement.

Distinction should be made between the fact of the Atonement, i.e. the clear teaching of the Scriptures concerning what it involves and accomplishes, and the mere theories of the Atonement which have been advanced to explain it. It is true that there must be a "theory" of the Atonement in the sense of its "meaning".

No moral fact can be related to human beings without a meaning behind it. This, however, is different from theories which endeavour to explain it. The idea can be likened to that of a complicated machine. We may know the purpose and meaning of the machine and what is necessary for it to work, without necessarily having a correct theory as to the reason why it works in the way it does.

The doctrine of the Atonement is typified in the offices and sacrifices of the old Jewish System, especially as they receive their final fulfilment in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. There were three offices instituted which have a direct relationship to Christ and each of which found its fulfilment in Him.

These three offices are those of Prophet, Priest and King. While in the Old Testament we have Samuel as Prophet and Priest, David as Prophet and King, and Melchizedec as Priest and King, Christ alone unites all three offices in Himself.

It is as the Mediator of the New Covenant that Christ discharges these offices. The New Testament speaks of this mediatorship but our Lord could not assume the work of mediation until He became man (Gal.3:20; I Tim. 2:5).

While it cannot be said that mediatorship is inherent in Christ, simply as the Second Person of the Trinity, we can say that the idea was inherent in His nature as sacrificial love. There are two forms of Covenant in the Scriptures, the Legal and the Evangelical.

The first is based on justice, and, after the Fall of Man, automatically became inoperative there was no hope for man in this direction nor possibility of recovery. Therefore the Evangelical Covenant, the Covenant of Redemption, came into operation and through the certain and sure atoning work of Christ which was yet to come, man could be recovered. This is the "News' or "better" Covenant of Hebrews chapter eight.

The offices of Prophet and King need not concern us a great deal at this stage. As Prophet, Christ is the revealer of divine truth and the prophecy of His coming for this purpose was proclaimed by God to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 & 18. This is referred to in Acts 3:22, "For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you."                                                   

His Kingly Office is not yet finally fulfilled and awaits this fulfilment at His Second Coming and the setting up of His Kingdom. This Kingdom is mentioned repeatedly in connection with the Second Advent. It is therefore the Priestly Office which particularly concerns us in this section.

It is this which fulfils all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. In Hebrews we read that "He offered up Himself" (7:27), and in doing so He became both the Offering and the Offerer. The whole passage from v.24 to v.27 makes clear the connection between the priestly office of the Old Testament and the atoning work of Christ.

It is as our Great High Priest and as the sacrificial offering who bears our sins that our Lord is represented in His work on the cross for us.
This redemption which our Lord accomplished on the cross was the purpose of God from eternity. The absolute decree of man's salvation was virtually accomplished from the beginning.

While the mystery of this redemption was reserved for gradual revelation, it was, in fact, the reality which has underlain all human history.
The Atonement is the work of the Redemptional Trinity. While Christ was the One who actually procured redemption by His death on the cross, all three Persons of the Trinity were united in it.

There is no point where the Oneness of the Three Persons of the Trinity is clearer than here and there is no support for the theory of a covenant of Redemption between the Three Persons. The will of One was the will of All.

The theology of the Bible is a theology of Redemption and this is the reason for there being so much reference to the subordination of the Son to the Father and the procession of the Spirit from the Father to the Son. But behind all the teaching of the Redemptional Trinity lies the undoubted truth of the Essential Trinity which was dealt with in the previous volume (Section III, pp.107-112).

DR.Pope says, "In the mystery of the internal relations there was the eternal possibility of the Absolute Trinity becoming the Redemptional: there is no deeper and more adorable secret in the Christian Faith than this. The Father could send the Son, while the Son could give Himself; and the Holy Ghost, neither the Sender nor the Incarnate Sent, could in His distinct Personality rest upon the Son made flesh, and be the Minister to Him Who ministered to us. (Compendium of Christian Theology Vol. II p.103).

The doctrine of the Atonement is likewise interrelated with the other doctrines of the Christian Faith, e.g. those of sin and the nature of God, and cannot be understood apart from them. No doctrine in our Faith can possibly stand alone; it must always be related to the system as a whole.

As we think of the nature of God and of sin, so will our approach to the subject of the Atonement be affected. In view of this and also what has been said above, there is therefore no subject, probably, where clear, careful thinking and a reverent approach is more necessary.

The actual word "atonement" only occurs once in our Authorized Version of the New Testament (Rom.5:11), and not at all in the Revised Version or the Revised Standard Version, where the word is rendered "reconciliation". The original Greek word is used more often (katallage) and in other places is usually translated "reconciliation."

The word in Theology has a far wider meaning than the actual word used in Romans and it will be of assistance to our thinking to explain the meaning of this word as far as Theology is concerned, and also of three other words used quite commonly in theological works.


The word is used to cover the whole field of our Lord's sacrificial ministry with special emphasis on the virtue of the sacrifice by which the reconciliation is effected. This is more the meaning of the word in the Old Testament where it is used quite frequently.

(b). Satisfaction

This word was more common in the Middle Ages and in the days of the Reformation and immediately after, but is very little used now. The word is used to express the relation which the work of Christ has to the demands of law and justice. The atoning work of Christ satisfied the demands of the righteousness and justice of God so that He could at one and the same time be both just and able to justify the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. There have been variyng conceptions in theology concerning the character and degree of this satisfaction and these will be dealt with in our study.

(c). Expiation

This expression has to do with sin and the sinner and not so much with the claims of the law. It refers to the doing away with guilt and the cancelling of the obligation to punishment.


Like "Satisfaction" this word has to do again with God, His honour and holiness. It refers to the appeasement of God's wrath against sin and the allaying of His displeasure. The idea of propitiation has been discounted by many as being out of tune with God's character and nature. This is not really so, but the matter will be explained further as we proceed.

In dealing with the subject we shall think,

  1. Firstly, the Necessity of the Atonement.
  2. Secondly, the Scriptural Teaching as found both in the Old and New Testaments.
  3. Thirdly, we shall consider the various theories held concerning the Atonement and we shall conclude with a summary of the essential elements necessary to any true theory and with some remarks about the Extent and Benefits of the Atonement.

At this point two definitions and a brief statement as to what we mean when we speak of the Atonement will be introduced to serve as a basis for study. Dr.Watson defines the Atonement as follows:- "The satisfaction offered to divine justice by the death of Christ for the sins of mankind, by virtue of which all true penitents who believe in Christ are personally reconciled to God, are freed from the penalty of their sins and entitled to eternal life."

Dr. Summers gives a fuller definition - "The Atonement is the satisfaction made to God for the sins of all mankind, original and actual, by the mediation of Christ, and especially by His passion and death, so that pardon might be granted to all, while the divine perfections are kept in harmony, the authority of the Sovereign upheld, and the strongest motives are brought to bear upon sinners to lead them to repentance, to faith in Christ, the necessary conditions of pardon, and to a life of obedience, by the gracious aid of the Holy Spirit." (Sys. Theol. I 258-259).

The Atonement, therefore, is the means whereby God, in accordance with His own nature and attributes, made it possible for man's sin to be pardoned and cleansed away and man to be brought into full fellowship with God.

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