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Atonement 101

The first concept we need to get our arms around is "substitutionary atonement."

That phrase is repeated often, but most explanations are not very clear. The Bible's explanation is simple and beautiful.

What is atonement?

Atonement is like debt payment. Though most Christians like to talk about debt forgiveness, what God does is more like debt payment.

If you are in debt, and can't pay, you have 2 choices: get someone else to pay, or get the bank or other person that is owed to forgive the debt.

The way God forgives our debts, is by arranging for their payment -- by applying the value of his Son's sacrifice on their behalf. In this way, the Bible teaches that God "can be just -- and yet the justifier of those who come to Him by Jesus."

The Bible is clear that certain conditions must be met before he will apply Jesus' blood to any individual person. The first condition that must be met is that they admit they owe the money, so to speak. We must acknowledge that there is a right and a wrong, and that we are hopelessly guilty of wrong.

The second requirement is that we accept Christ as the payment for us. You might say Christ is the only "money" that God accepts.

The third requirement is stated in many places, perhaps clearest in 1 John. If we are going to come to God through Christ, we must continue at the beginning, and throughout our lives, to strive diligently to be righteous in our thoughts and actions. This is not to say we will be righteous. We won't. We will never even come close to being viewed as righteous by God. Christ is our righteousness. Still, the paradox of 1 John is that we cannot claim to be in the light if we do not seek the light.

Bottom line: Atonement is the process of being made right with God, by the process of having one righteous person (Christ) pay for the sins of each of us.

What is the penalty of sin?

Lots of the confusion in Christian circles comes from disagreeing about the penalty. We submit that if you carefully read the Bible, the penalty is clear: death. "The wages (payment) of sin is death." (Romans 6:23)

What is death? The opposite of life -- an unconscious state in which all activity has ceased. The Bible talks about 2 deaths, really. The first death is called "sleep", because an awakening or resurrection for all is promised. The second death is also the end of life, but it is permanent. There is no resurrection from the "second death".

The question of penalty is important, because whoever redeems the world must pay the price that justice calls for. If justice calls for an eternity of torture, than suffering on the cross wasn't enough. The redeemer would need to pay the full price, and the full price according to the eternal torment view would be endless, conscious suffering in hell.

But if the penalty of sin is simply death, then the death of the innocent man Christ Jesus fully settles that account.

What was the exchange?

Now that we know the penalty, it's easy to piece together what the "exchange" or ransom was: a perfect human life for a perfect human life. Christ paid the full price. He died as a substitute for the man who brought death into the world. That gives him the right to bring life to who? The same folks who died in Adam.

The Common View- Augustine's view

Augustine confused the world with his messed-up logic. He focused on pain, and said essentially that the wages of sin is pain. He said that because God is infinite, every sin against his laws causes him infinite pain. Therefore, in Augustines view, every sin against God deserves to be paid for with infinite suffering -- eternal torment. Once he had swallowed this pill, he convinced himself that the redeemer of the human race had to be God, reasoning that only an infinite God can atone for an infinite amount of sin.

There's no doubt that millions of good people have accepted these ideas, and earnestly believed them. But like other popular ideas such as the flat earth or the divine right of kings, these views will die away.

These ideas, while they seem to support the need for a church that claims to be doing God's work of bringing the entire world to Christ, actually innoculate the world against the true message of God's love.
Augustine's notion, which became church dogma a thousand years ago and is the commonly held belief of most institutional churches today, results in a very sub-Biblical concept of God, and it results in a "redeemer" who actually fails to accomplish his stated goals. Oh, it sounds impressive -- a God-man who can deliver you from eternal hell -- but the real result is a failure of the plan (remember -- the birth of Jesus was supposed to be good news of great joy which will come to all people!)

The powerful motions of sin

Most people are prevented from accepting Christ as savior by simple circumstances. They are aborted while a fetus, or they are stillborn, or they die in infancy, or they are born with mental defects, or their parents are atheists, or they are born into a Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Pagan family, or their dad is a Pastor who is unloving and hypocrical at home and they grow up resenting Christianity, or they are exposed to pornography and sexual abuse from the time they are toddlers, or they were born addicted to drugs or damaged by alcohol, etc.

Are we exaggerating? Or is it not true that 2 out of 3 people grow up without any clear presentation of what Peter called "the only name given among men, whereby we must be saved." And is it not true that of the 1/3 born in so-called "Christian countries", the vast majority grow up in damaged surroundings, surrounded by many false ideas and seductive temptations to sin?

The Bible says that God wills that all mankind will be saved, and come to an accurate knowledge of the truth. We are not Universalists, but we believe precisely what that verse says.

Jesus said, "My flesh I give for the life of the world." We believe that means the world will gain life.

Paul said that Jesus was indeed "a ransom for all", to be "testified in due time."

We believe that "all" means "all", and that "in due time" means that when God is ready to do the testifying to all, it will happen.

Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world

John said in his first epistle that Christ died, not for our sins only, (the sins of believers who follow Christ), but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)

That's what true atonement is: the entire world being reconciled to God through a legal payment of their sins.

That means the penalty of their sins is paid, and Jesus does more than open the door for us to walk through. He dies "the Just for the Unjust, to BRING us to God." (1 Peter 3:18) In many cases, the amazing grace of Christ will drag us, kicking and screaming, to the point where we learn our need of Him and listen to the message of God's love.

If we're going to believe the Bible is true, we've got to believe that it means exactly what it says. The sins of the whole world includes the sins of Nero, and Hitler, and Stalin, and Saddam. If Christ's tremendous Passion -- "the travail of His soul" (Isaiah 53:11) -- satisfied Him, it must be because there is a way for that painful death to compensate for all the sins of the world.

So if you love Jesus but think millions and billions of people will die without Him -- please keep reading. We want to help you see that the Bible has better news than that. And if you think "die" means "keep on living in hell" -- keep on reading. We believe the Bible will convince you otherwise.