Theology Thursday: Understanding the Mosaic of the Atonement
I grew up in St. Louis, MO, and one of my favorite places in the city is the Cathedral Basilica. This massive cathedral holds the largest collection of mosaic art in the entire world. It’s breathtaking! Wall-to-wall, intricate glass pieces line vaulted ceilings and vast archways, creating portraits that depict entire stories. Up close, you can see the individual tessera pieces. Each of them are distinct, yet they’re all connected. And when you step back and look around at the millions mosaic tiles, you see how they fit into the whole picture and understand the stories they tell.
Out of all the doctrines in our Christian faith, understanding the atonement is a lot like looking at a mosaic. The word “atonement” refers to Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross to pay for our sins. Its meaning is so rich and significant that Scripture uses several terms to describe all that Christ accomplished in His death. These words, these “pieces,” portray our salvation in Christ with a different shade or hue. Each of them are distinct yet connected. When we step back to see their place in the whole picture, we understand the story they tell. It’s the story of a God who loved us so much that He did everything that He required to restore us to Himself.
[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. (Rom 3:23-25) We’re starting with this one for an important reason. Propitiation points us to why Christ’s death on the cross was so necessary. To propitiate means that you make someone propitious or favorable. It means that someone’s anger has been satisfied or appeased. Because of God’s justice, we earned His wrath when we sinned against and offended Him. When Jesus became our propitiation on the cross, he satisfied God’s righteous wrath against us.
This idea has made some people uncomfortable. How can God be both wrathful and loving at the same time? they might reason. As a result, some have claimed the word means something more like a cancellation of our sin-debt, a taking away of sin. But while Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), propitiation carries a different meaning. In Hebrews 9:5, it’s translated as the “mercy-seat,” an image from the Old Testament Holy of Holies where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled to pay for the people’s sins. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, God required a blood payment for sin in order to satisfy His righteous anger against it (Lev 16; Is 53).
Paige Patterson explains why it’s so important to understand this word correctly: “Propitiation is the appropriate translation because there is more than simple cancellation of sin or its debt…In order to deal with the justice of God and his wrath against sin, ‘propitiation’ becomes the only translation that incorporates both concepts of cancellation and the satisfaction of the wrath of God.”
While the attributes of God’s wrath and God’s love may seem to clash to our spiritual ears, they were in perfect harmony in Jesus’ death on the cross. As John Stott explains, “God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath that needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love that did the propitiating.
Because of propitiation, God satisfied His own anger against us in a way that also protected us from it – by taking the punishment Himself.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace. (Eph 1:7). The word “redemption” is a marketplace or commercial term. It focuses on the change in our spiritual condition as a result of the cross. Apart from Christ, we have a debt we cannot pay back to God and we are slaves to our own sin nature.
But redemption changes all of that. When Christ redeemed us, He became our ransom payment to buy us out of spiritual debt and slavery (Mk 10:45). A.W. Pink describes redemption as “a clear emancipation or restoration as the result of the ransom being paid….[It] is the setting free of those who have been ransomed.”
In order to be redeemed, we needed a Redeemer – someone who was like us and had both the ability and the desire to redeem us (which is why the story of Ruth an her kinsman-redeemer Boaz is so richly significant….but that’s another post!). The fact that Jesus redeemed us means that we have been purchased out of slavery to sin and death and that sin no longer has a rightful claim on our lives. We belong to a new Master.
Because of redemption, we have been bought back from sin and set free from its bondage.
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Rom 3:28) Justification is a legal term and describes our new status before God. It is a one-time, once-forever event that can never be repeated, changed, or taken away, regardless of what we do (Rom 4:1-5, 5:1, Gal 2:16, 3:11, 3:24.)
When God justifies us in Christ, He makes a legal declaration. He pronounces us as righteous and not guilty. But this isn’t some kind of “divine delusion.” God’s isn’t ignoring our sin. Just the opposite, in fact. Stott explains: “When God justifies sinners, he is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinner after all; he is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself in his Son has borne the penalty of their law-breaking.”
This is why Martin Luther described the Christian as someone who is both righteous and a sinner. While we have personally broken God’s law, God transfers our record of disobedience to Christ and Christ’s records of righteousness to us. As Pink states, “Just as God transferred the guilt of His people to Christ, so does He transfer His obedience to them. Christ has not only made us accepted, but acceptable to God (Heb 10:19) – accepted, because acceptable.” Just think of that for a moment: All of your sin – past, present, and future – has been placed on Christ. And He has dealt with it fully, finally, and forever.
Because of justification, we are no longer condemned, but are declared perfectly righteous in Christ.
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach (Col 1:21-22) This term just might be the sweetest word to describe all that Jesus has done for us. It describes our new relationship to the Father. Because of reconciliation, there is no longer anything between God and us that could create distance or keep us apart.
Before Christ, we were separated from God because of our sin. In fact, as Ephesians 2 says that we made ourselves God’s enemies. “The ‘enmity’ [hostility] was on both sides. The wall or barrier between God and us was constituted both by our rebellion against him and by his wrath upon us on account of our rebellion, ” explains Stott.
But the Father took the initiative to reconcile us to Himself (Eph 1:3-4). By judging all of our sin in Christ, God can legally, righteously, and freely adopt us as His children (Rom 8:16, Eph 1:5). We who broke God’s law have been restored, “through Christ’s having closed the breach” that alienated us from Him. Now, we belong to Him.
Because of reconciliation, we now have peace with God and a restored relationship with Him.
In the mosaic of the atonement, the various words used by Scripture to portray the work of Christ all fit together when we take a step back and see God’s salvation. Propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation all point us to the same story. Leon Morris captured this perfectly when he said, “Christ has opened up the way to God by taking our sin out of the way…Look at sin how you will, the Son has dealt with it.” It’s all God’s story. Because it’s all God’s design. And, in Christ, we become His works of art! (Eph 2:10)
L. Paige Patterson, “The Work of Christ,” in Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 583,
John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), 172.
A. W. Pink, The Atonement (Swengel: Reiner Publications), 188, 190.
Stott, The Cross of Christ, 187.
Pink, The Atonement, 203.
Stott, The Cross of Christ, 194.
Pink, The Atonement, 161.
Leon Morris, Hebrews: Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 20.