The Atonement: An Eternal Perspective and a Historical Work, Pt 1
In John 10:17–18, Jesus teaches the relation between God’s eternal decree to save and Christ’s work on earth: ‘For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.’
By the phrase ‘I lay down My life’, Jesus refers to his work of substitutionary atonement (see John 10:15). In verse 18 he asserts that by his voluntary death he is accomplishing the commandment of the Father and enjoys the Father’s favour; the Father has a complacent love for Christ the Mediator, delighting in him and his faithfulness. This assertion moves the discussion of the atonement back into the triune eternal council.
THE ETERNAL PLAN
The Bible teaches that God had eternally determined to save a people and that he chose a specific people to that end. Consider, for example, Paul’s glorious declaration in Ephesians 1:4-5, ‘He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.’ This remarkable expression of God’s love, however, must overcome the obstacle of God’s justice. For how can a holy, just God save a sinful people? He has declared that the soul that sins must die, and he abominates those who justify the wicked (Ezek. 18:4; Prov. 17:15). How then is God to save a people whom he ought to condemn?
The answer to the dilemma, which of course is no dilemma for God, is to save them by a covenant mediator. Note in Ephesians that God chose us in Christ Jesus (1:4, 5). God never loved his people apart from Christ Jesus. In fact, it was God’s eternal plan to redeem us through his Son. He chose us in him.
God has always dealt with the human race through a covenant head. Adam represented us in the garden. If he had obeyed, he would have merited (by covenant appointment) life for himself and the entirety of his posterity. In his rebellion, he plunged us, as well as himself, into the morass of sin, guilt, condemnation, and death. Though Adam broke the Covenant of Works, its inexorable demands and inflexible penalty remain in force. Christ would come as the second Adam to accomplish what the first Adam failed to do: to obey perfectly and to pay the penalty of sin.
It was God’s eternal purpose to save us in this manner. It was worked out in an eternal transaction between God the Father and God the Son in prospect of his incarnation. This transaction established the terms and conditions to be accomplished by Christ in purchasing the salvation of his people.
The Father covenanted to prepare a body and soul for the Son, to bestow on him the three-fold office necessary to accomplish this work, to anoint him with the Spirit, to uphold him in all his work, and to accept his work for his people. The Spirit agreed to equip the Son incarnate with all gifts, graces, and powers necessary to accomplish his ministry, to sustain him in His suffering, and to be bestowed by him on his people. God the Father promised the Son that he would see the salvation of his elect. He would invest him with honour and power, and would make him judge of heaven and earth.
In this eternal transaction Christ assented to the conditions and assumed them with full joy, agreeing to be Covenant Head, Mediator, and Surety; he united the two natures in his person, and agreed to be the second Adam in order to fulfil the demands of the Covenant of Works. For this reason he is called the Servant of Jehovah, whose chief delight was to do the will of the Father (Isa. 42:1–9; 49:5–7; 52:13–53:12). He accepted the promises and strengthened himself by them (Heb. 12:2).
The entirety of Christ’s work may be summarized under the concept of obedience. He became the God-man in order to fulfil the stewardship entrusted to him from eternity, to accomplish the terms, and to bear the punishments of the broken covenant.
Traditionally, his obedience is described under two headings: active obedience and passive obedience. In his active obedience he fulfilled the terms of the covenant by perfectly obeying God. From his submission to his parents (Luke 2:51), to his baptism (Matt. 3:15), to his mediatorial submission to God’s law (Matt. 5:17), to his resisting temptation (Matt. 4:1–11), and to his submission to trial and suffering (Heb. 5:8), he perfectly obeyed his Father. His obedience was essential to his work as mediator and covenant head. Paul summarizes the importance of Christ’s obedience and relates it to our justification in Romans 5:19, ‘For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous.’
His passive obedience refers to his work of suffering for the sins of his people. The phrase does not mean that his will was passive in his obedience. He actively offered up his body and soul as the sacrifice for the sins of his people, submitting to the Father’s will in his suffering (2 Cor. 5:21). Scripture describes Christ’s passive obedience in four distinct categories.
CHRIST’S EXPIATION OF OUR SINS
Expiation describes Christ’s work as a substitutionary sacrifice, by which he cleanses us from the guilt and the defilement of sin. John calls him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). John sees him in Revelation 5 as a Lamb slain. This terminology directs our attention to the Old Testament sacrificial system.
The sacrifices, in their entirety and multiplicity, served as types of the atoning work of Christ. The two key components of the sacrificial system were representation and imputation. These two aspects are illustrated in the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement. Annually on that day the high priest entered the holy of holies with sin offerings for himself and for the people (Lev. 16:11, 15). In these transactions the priest and people confessed that it was they who deserved to die; the animals were slain in their place.
The second aspect is imputation. The term means to place upon. We practise imputation today when we electronically transfer money from one account to another. This transaction was an essential part of the Day of Atonement:
When he finishes atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. And the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness (Lev. 16:20–22).
In this ceremonial act the sins of the people were imputed to the goat. It was led into the wilderness to depict the fact that the guilt of the sins of the people had been removed from them, ‘As far as the east is from the west’ (Psa. 103:12).
Now, for someone to be a fit substitute, an appropriate relationship must exist between the substitute and that for which it is substituted. The blood of bulls and goats could not atone for man’s sin – the substitute for a human being had to be a man. It was for this reason that the Son of God became a man.
Jesus Christ, being a man, is the suitable sacrifice. Moreover, he is also the only sufficient sacrifice. For the death of a mere man could not satisfy infinite wrath nor bring everlasting salvation. Thus, being the God-man, he made infinite and eternal satisfaction (Westminster Larger Catechism 38–40). Christ was the expiatory sacrifice who purged our sins (Heb. 9:14, 28). He was appointed by God to be the vicarious representative of his people. Isaiah 53: 4–10 pictures him as crushed and destroyed for the sins of his people. Moreover, our sin was imputed to him as our representative (Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21).