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Jesus' death on the cross, how does it save me?


The moment we ask that question, we have to address another one: What is Atonement? If we can't answer this satisfactorily, then Jesus' death is just an unfortunate incident of 2,000 years ago.

"For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement" (Rom 5:10,11, KJV).
It's clear that atonement means reconciliation here. In fact, the Greek words used are the same, two in verb form -- 'reconciled' -- and one in noun form -- 'atonement'. Modern versions use 'reconciliation' in place of 'atonement' here (Rom 5:11), the only place in the KJV New Testament where the word 'atonement' appears. The apostle Paul helps us with our understanding of reconciliation:
"All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled [reconnected, reunited] us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation [reuniting]; that is, in Christ God was reconciling [reuniting] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them... We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled [reunited] to God" (2Co 5:18-20, RSV).
The Companion Bible does a good job of expressing the thought here: "We see here, revealed in simple majesty, the sovereign grace of God in providing by virtue of the precious blood of Christ a means where-by the rebellious creature can be restored to the favor of the Creator. It is not an entreaty [by man asking God] to 'forgive and forget' everything on man's side, but a command [for man] to return to God by means of the new connection, and by that means alone, ie, the new and Living Way which God Himself provided through the death of His Son."


Originally, the English word 'atonement' simply meant 'reconciliation', and was not a theological word -- it was at-one-ment, a restoration of friendly relations between any two parties. There was no idea of reparation, expiation, compensation, or payment. Those ideas were introduced by the orthodox theory of substitution: 'Christ died in my place, paying the penalty for my sin so that I don't have to pay for my guilt myself' (!) [But what happens when someone else has to pay for what I owe? I have no real need to do anything, my conscience is dulled, and my mind turns away from the issue. It's not just a matter of words. All sorts of things change!] So the term atonement acquired a new flavor, but not a Biblical one.

Atonement is basically an Old Testament word, appearing numerous times in connection with the Levitical sacrifices. The Hebrew is "kaphar", meaning 'to cover', as is apparent in its first Old Testament use:
"Make yourself an ark of gopher wood, make rooms in the ark, and cover [kaphar] it inside and out with pitch" (Gen 6:14).
Figuratively, the word comes to mean cleansing, pardon. Atonement was necessitated by the seriousness of sin and man's inability to deal with it:
"If they sin against thee -- for there is no man who does not sin -- and thou art angry with them..." (1Ki 8:46).

"They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one" (Psa 14:3).

"... since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
What can be done? Appeasement won't work. Payoff will not do it. The solution: Atonement [covering] is secured by sacrifice, the divinely appointed way:
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement ['covers over'], by reason of the life" (Lev 17:11).
Note that atonement is made BY God, not simply TO Him:
"Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice" (Psa 49:7,8).
The sacrifices in the Bible were not to pay for sin, nor were they substitutes to suffer and die, in the place of the sinner. Instead, they were a humble recognition that the only condition acceptable to God is purity and perfection -- that sin is uncleanness -- and that sinful man can be reconciled to God only by being covered by and washed in the blood of the Lamb. Those who offer are covered (as was Adam! -- Gen 3:21) by that which is supplied by God and considered adequate by Him. We do not receive atonement directly; we receive its result, which is reconciliation, cleansing, forgiveness. As we saw in 2 Corinthians 5, what God has done in reconciliation He has done in Christ. The purpose of God is always reconciliation, removing estrangement, restoring fellowship; His work ever since Eden has been aimed toward restoring what was lost there.

A Covering

A word should be said about the 'mercy seat' in the tabernacle. The phrase 'mercy seat' was first used by William Tyndale, translating a German word used by Martin Luther, which he in turn used to translate the Septuagint "hilasterion". This Greek word was also a translation from the Hebrew "kapporeth" (a noun form of "kaphar"), "kapporeth" being the name for the lid or cover on the Ark of the Covenant -- the place God established (Exo 25:22) where He was pleased to meet with His people, speak with them, and command them. The New International Version expresses it well:
"There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites" (Exo 25:22).
[Note: This is the only place where God specifically says He will meet with His people.]
"...since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified [reckoned as righteous] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation [KJV: 'propitiation'; NIV: 'sacrifice of atonement'; FF Bruce: 'our living mercy seat'; Greek hilasterion = 'covering'] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:23-26).
It was precisely this wonderful divine forbearance that caused the repentant David to cry out:
"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (Psa 32:1).
It is the blood of Christ, the perfect sacrifice, that covers and cleanses us -- not ritually, but practically and gloriously. Jesus lived and died to become the cleansing medium by which our sins are mercifully covered and washed away.

Deliverance from death

The greatest problem in the world ever since Eden has been death. The people of Israel had a graphic demonstration of the problem:
"From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die, in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.' Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, 'We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live" (Num 21:4-9).
What is the point of this strange episode? The people shook their fists at God. He was the cause of their problems, they declared. The wonders they had experienced, the manna they ate each day, were forgotten in their self-pity and disobedience and faithlessness. Only when they were forced to realize their inadequacies and their dependence upon God did they come to regret and repent of their actions. They recognized that they could do nothing for themselves. So they called upon their mediator to intercede for them, to ask God to restore the relationship that they had broken. God gave them a pictorial ex-ample of the means of their deliverance in the serpent on the pole -- a public spectacle displayed before them. And they were given the means to be healed.

[Note: There was nothing magical in the serpent. The power to heal resided in their looking in faith and obedience at the representation of what was killing them.]

It is not often noted that Jesus makes a poignant reference to this very incident in connection with his own mission:
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14,15).
Just as Israel had to repent of their faithlessness and disobedience, face squarely the representation of their problem -- sin and death -- in the public spectacle lifted up before them, and look in faith and obedience to the God-provided means of their deliverance -- just so, all who would be reconciled to God must look to Jesus, the representative man.

Look at the cross. Look at what sin does! Sin is impulsive and cruel. Sin looks away from God and to self. Sin destroys the best that God has to give. And sin is killing us. God might look on sin and just turn away, or He might strike out in wrath, but He does neither; He acts in love -- He provides the means for deliverance, as He did for Israel:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (v 16).
In what may be a commentary on his own words in John 3, Jesus says (John 6:40):
"For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day."
And Paul says:
"While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for [on behalf of] us... For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Rom 5:6,8,10).
Jesus consented to a death normally reserved for those guilty of desperately evil crimes, to reveal the terrible character of sin.

Any sin is a violation of God's holiness. How can God -- who is holy, just, and separate from sin -- forgive a sin against His holiness, and so reckon a sinner as justified (righteous)?

By overlooking it? No, that's not forgiveness.

By having Jesus pay off the debt as our substitute? No, that is not just, and sins aren't transferable.

The correct answer is given by Paul:
"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom 8:3).
FF Bruce puts it: "He passed the death-sentence on sin in the domain of human flesh." Jesus' flesh was the arena of the perfect and total victory over sin.
"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb 2:14,15).
Now that sin has been defeated on its own ground, the way is open for God to forgive sinners on the basis of faith and obedience, without compromising His own holiness.


Jesus Christ, the bearer of a sin nature like ours, destroyed sin by a life of perfect obedience, finally being obedient to the cross in offering himself as a perfect sacrifice. Sinners, repentant and identifying themselves with Jesus in baptism and a subsequent holy life (like Israel looking upon the bronze serpent), look to Jesus in faith. On that basis, God meets with us at the 'mercy seat', the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Jesus), and forgives our sins. And thus we are justified (made righteous) by his blood. (NZ)

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