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Atonement

08/05/07

 

John 10:14-15

“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.”


 

There is an old story about a young man who was in Africa as a missionary a century ago. He received a shipment of canned goods from America, and he amazed the Africans because he knew what was in each can before he opened it. He was struggling with the language, but he finally understood the source of their amazement, and he tried to explain. He said, ”See picture on can? That is what is inside.”

A few days passed, and the missionary saw groups of tribesmen muttering together and giving him angry looks. As he approached, they scattered. They literally ran away from him. This happened several times before he managed to corner one of them. The missionary demanded, “What’s going on? What is wrong?”

Fearfully, the man responded, “Missionary eat babies.”

How in the world did you think that?” asked the missionary.

Walking to the pantry, the African picked up a can of baby food and pointed to the baby picture on the outside. He said, “Baby on the outside, baby inside. Missionary eat babies.”

The point of that story is the difficulty of translating concepts across cultures. Sometimes we find it hard to convey what we mean to other people in our own culture. Take, for example, the word “atonement.”

The word was invented by William Tyndale. Tyndale was a 16th century reformer who translated the Bible into English. Tyndale's translation was the first English version of the Bible to be printed and widely distributed. In 1536, Tyndale was burned at the stake, but much of his work eventually found its way into the King James Version of the Bible, which was published in 1611. Incidentally, the fifty-four scholars who translated the KJV did not give Tyndale credit though they used his translation extensively. I guess the rules about plagiarism were different in 1611.

In any case, as he translated the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language. For example, “Jehovah” was a word he developed for the name of God.

Then Tyndale decided that there was not a word in English that would explain the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God. So he invented a new word. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word "reconciliation" while incorporating the aspects of "propitiation" and “forgiveness.” His proposed word comprised two parts, 'at' and 'onement,' which means reconciliation, and something more

Today the word “atonement” describes how sin can be forgiven by God. In Christian theology, the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which made possible the reconciliation between God and creation. Atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.

The atonement Christ wrought derives directly from the love of God. Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us so much that God made atonement for our sins, so we could be “at-one” with God.

By dying on the cross, Christ atoned for sins. Christ is the one who atones. But who is the atonement for? Christ is the savior. Who is he saving?

Your first answer might be, “Everyone.” Christ died for the sins of the world, did he not? Jesus came to save everyone. Like a lot of things, that seem obvious until we start thinking about them that answer sounds good but does not really work.

First of all, we know that not everyone is going to be saved. We are told in scripture that most people, in fact, will never see heaven. They are not reconciled to God. So if Christ died for everyone. Christ is the biggest failure in the universe. If Christ died for everyone, and most everyone is not going to be saved, then Christ is mostly a failure. He came to save everyone, he failed. Now I do not believe that. I do not believe that Christ is a failure at all. Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. He is God incarnate. By definition, God cannot fail. If God is a failure, he is not God. But God is not a failure. Every person is saved whom God intended to save. Not one person that God elected to his family is lost. Every person that Jesus Christ died for is saved.

But let us review our logic here. If every person that Jesus died for is saved, then Jesus did not die for everyone. I know this may sound harsh to you, but Jesus died only for his people, only for the elect.

This is the doctrine of Limited Atonement, sometimes called Definite Atonement, and sometimes called Particular Atonement.

There was a group of folks in England who called themselves Particular Baptists. They were opposed to another group called General Baptists. The Particular Baptists believed in Particular Atonement—Christ died to save particular individuals, usually referred to as “the elect.” Today the Particular English Baptists are called Strict Baptists. I guess that is to separate them from the slack Baptists. Some times they are called “Strict and Particular Baptists.” The name strikes me as funny, but I actually agree with most of what they say. Incidentally, the most famous Particular Baptist was the author of Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan.

Particular English Baptists, and many American Baptists, say the thing as Presbyterians. Jesus Christ's substitutionary atonement on the cross is limited in scope to those whom God has chosen to save.

Now in a sense Jesus died for the sins of the world, but the only people in the world who are saved by the atonement of Christ are the elect. Jesus literally pays the penalty that we deserved for our specific acts against God. That is, Christ receives the wrath of God for specific sins and thereby cancels the judgment that those sins deserved.

But think about this. It would be absurd for God to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins and then still condemn most of them for those same sins. How could that be? Did Christ pay the penalty for the sins of people who are in hell for those same sins? That makes Christ ridiculous. That leads us again to say that Christ did not die for everyone’s sins. He died for the sins of the elect, and thus only the elect are saved.

God chose a group of people, who would not and could not choose him. God chose them to be saved apart from their works or their cooperation, and those people are moved by God's grace to accept the offer of the salvation achieved in the atonement of Christ.

The atonement is thus called “definite” because it certainly and surely establishes the salvation of those for whom Christ died. The atonement is called limited because it saves the elect only.

Notice that the power of the atonement is not limited in any way. There is no sin that is too great to be expiated by Christ's sacrifice. The atonement of Christ does exactly what it is supposed to do. It saves everyone that it is supposed to save.

As I have mentioned some folks prefer the term “Particular Atonement.” This term emphasizes the intention of God to save particular persons, and that God never intended to save everyone.


 

In John 10, Jesus uses the illustration of a shepherd to show us what his atonement on the cross means.

A shepherd of those times would call his sheep from a mix of flocks, and his sheep would hearken to his voice and follow, while the sheep of other flocks would ignore any but their own shepherd's voice (John 10:1-5). In that context, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me,...and I lay down my life for the sheep" (vv. 14-15). In other words, Jesus knows who his people are, and he died for his people, and they know who he is. His people are those who believe in him. Later on, in v26, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they do not believe because they are not part of his flock. They are not his people. He did not die for them. VV27-28 add, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” Wow. What a promise. Jesus says, I know who my people are and I am not going to lose any of them. Therefore, we conclude that Jesus did not die for everyone but only for those whom whom God had chosen to save.

For believers, this is a most precious truth. Unbelievers never think about it anyway, so they do not care, but believers realize that this is a wonderful doctrine.

In the Old Testament temple, a massive curtain hung in front of the Holy of Holies, representing the separation between God and man. No one could go into the Holy of Holies, except the High Priest, and he could go only once a year, to bring blood to atone for the sins of the people. But when Christ was crucified that veil was torn in two from top to bottom (not from bottom to top but from top to bottom), showing that Christ had removed the separation from God, granting us access to God like never before, so that now we are reconciled with God.

Another thing this wonderful doctrine of the atonement does. It shows us that our salvation is settled. It’s a done deal. Rom 5:9, “Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” Christ saved us. Christ saved me. That is a particular atonement. Christ reconciled me to God and made me at-one with God.

In Romans 5:11, the Apostle Paul says, “we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” Today, right now, right where you live you can delight in God because you have received the atonement Christ made. I can delight in God today because Christ made me at-one with God.

I heard a story about a pastor who visited a sheep ranch and saw a very strange lamb. It looked as though it had two heads and eight feet. He asked the rancher about it. The rancher explained that one of their sheep had a lamb but the mother died. Meanwhile another sheep had another lamb, but the lamb died. They tried to give the orphan lamb to that mother but when she smelled it, she rejected it. Then they skinned the dead lamb and put the skin on the live lamb, and then the mother sheep accepted that lamb as her own and cared for it,

In like manner, Jesus, as the good shepherd, died for us as the Lamb of God, and God accepts us because we are clothed with the Lamb’s robe of righteousness. Jesus was willing to lay down his life for us, so that we might have life, life with the Father and life eternal.

Jesus loves us enough, cares about us enough to die for us. He could have used his power to get out of dying, but he chose to die, so that we might live. That is a powerful statement of the love, the mercy, and the compassion that Jesus our savior has for each of us.

Jesus knows each of us intimately and entirely. The good shepherd knows his sheep by name. Look at your fingers. There are billions of finger tips in the world, but no others are like yours. Even your finger tips have had special attention from God.

We are special people, not because we are good, or righteous, or have some how pleased God, but because God loves us as we are or in spite of what we are. God showed us how much he loves us by the sacrifice he made on the cross. God is concerned about us from the hairs on our heads to the blisters on our toes. And we respond, now and always. Praise God. Amen.

 

If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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