As Christians, we live in a world full of unbelievers who view us in a myriad of unfavorable ways. Some would say that we are bizarre and fanatical, while others regard us as foolish, intolerant and offensive. This is no surprise, considering that Scripture teaches us that, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:21-22). Elsewhere we read, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We too were once in the dark and were lost before Christ saved us, and many of us would have once responded to the proclaimed gospel in like manner. To lost Jews, our message of salvation is a stumbling block, while to Gentiles it is utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). According to worldly wisdom, it is absolute folly to believe in a message about a crucified Jew who rose again from the dead three days later, and to not only sing songs of worship about bloodshed from the most humiliating kind of death imaginable, but to also actively remember that bloodshed time and time again in a tangible manner!
Yet, what the world regards as foolish, is in reality the wisdom of God on display. As Christians, our eyes have been opened to see the truth and this glorious divine wisdom, and we understand that there was a cost to purchasing our freedom in Christ. We sing beloved hymns such as “Power in the Blood” and “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus”. We partake in the Lord’s Supper to remember the ultimate price Christ paid with His body and His blood, and for good reason! It is precisely this “good reason” that we will be exploring in the coming weeks as we seek to understand the biblical teaching of the atonement. But before we can dive into what Christ’s atonement on the cross accomplished and for whom Christ provided the atonement, we need to do our homework. So, what is an atonement? What does it mean to atone?
In the Old Testament, the word atone comes from the Hebrew word kaphar, which carries with it the idea of coating or covering something. In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, they attempted to cover themselves with fig leaves because of shame (v. 7). But this covering quickly proved to be insufficient, thus when they heard God walk in the garden in the cool of the day, they attempted to hide from Him (v. 8). Clearly their attempt to cover themselves did not resolve their shame; instead, God provided the covering and made garments of skin to clothe them (v. 21).
We might be tempted to quickly read that passage and think to ourselves, “What a nice gesture”, but there was so much more going on here than a mere token of generosity! God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve did not obey this command and therefore deserved to die instantly for defying the infinitely holy God who made them. But instead of killing them, God killed an animal and clothed our first parents with the dead animal’s skin. A substitutionary atonement was made on their behalf! Though Adam and Eve would eventually succumb to physical death as a consequence of their sin, and though they did die spiritually the moment they ate the forbidden fruit, their physical death was not immediate because God demonstrated His mercy towards them. From that day forward, animal sacrifices would continue to serve as a reminder of just how heinous our sin is in the eyes of a holy God and how justice is demanded for our crimes against the King of the universe.
Long before the Mosaic law regulated the sacrificial system, our spiritual forefathers repeatedly built altars and offered burnt offerings. This was Noah’s action when the waters from the Flood receded and he stepped outside the ark. Abraham built an altar when the Lord showed him the land He would give to his descendants. Job, who likely lived during the time of the patriarchs, would offer burnt offerings on behalf of his entire family, because as he reasoned, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” (Job 1:5). Clearly, we see how genuine believers, even prior to the Mosaic law, knew that God demanded a blood payment for their sins. They also knew that those animal sacrifices served as a substitution for the death that they themselves deserved for their sin.
Perhaps the greatest account of substitutionary atonement we find anywhere in the Old Testament is in Genesis 22. After many years of waiting, God finally opened Sarah’s womb and at the ripe old age of 90, she conceived and bore a son named Isaac. Isaac grew up and when he became a young man, God commands his father Abraham to do what is, by all appearances, the unthinkable. In v. 2, God spoke to Abraham and said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you”. In a great display of faith and worship, Abraham obeys the Lord and does exactly that. He split wood for the burnt offering, gave it to Isaac to carry to the altar, and walked over to the altar while carrying the fire and the knife. But Isaac noticed that there was something missing: a lamb for the burnt offering, and pointed this out to his father. In response, Abraham famously said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). It was at this moment when God formally revealed Himself as YHWH-Jireh, “The Lord will Provide”. Though the saints of old brought their animal sacrifices to the Lord over and over again, it is God Himself who would provide the ultimate atonement for our sin.
Abraham longed for this ultimate provision from God, and as Jesus would later say concerning him, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Abraham did not literally live to see Jesus, but he undoubtedly rejoiced when God provided the ram caught in the thicket for the burnt offering that day instead of his son Isaac. That ram foreshadowed the perfect and complete atonement God would one day provide through His Son Jesus Christ. Unlike Abraham’s only begotten son, who was spared at the last second, God did not spare His only begotten Son, but instead, “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). Unlike the Old Testament sacrifices which could only provide a temporary covering over sin, Christ’s atonement completely washed away our guilty stains! As John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
While all true, Bible-believing Christians will affirm the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, not everyone agrees on the extent of that atonement. Was God’s atonement a general provision for every single person, but is only “actuated” when a person believes in Jesus? Or did God decree in eternity past for His atonement to be on behalf of a particular group of people and only those people? The doctrine of limited atonement seeks to address this very question, and we will begin to dive deeper into this topic next time as we take a closer look at the particularness of the atonement as foreshadowed in the Mosaic Covenant.