The atonement is the work that Christ did in his death to earn our salvation. About a week ago my family and I began considering it in our family Bible reading time, guided by Wayne Grudem’s discussion of it in Chapter 27, “The Atonement,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Grudem defines “atonement” to include work that Jesus did in his life as well as in his death, but here I’ll consider it in the narrower sense in which it is generally used.
The Cause of the Atonement
Why did Christ come to earth and die for our sins? The Bible attributes his doing so to the love and justice of God.
The love of God as a cause of the atonement is expressed in the Bible’s most familiar passage, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are taken from the ESV).
The justice of God as a cause of the atonement is expressed in Romans 3:25-26, “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood…to show God’s righteousness, because in divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Jesus’ Suffering on the Cross
Although Jesus’ whole life on earth involved suffering, it reached its climax on the cross. Grudem identifies four aspects of the pain that Jesus experienced on the cross:
1. Physical Pain and Death. Crucifixion was one of the most horrible forms of execution, as can be seen by reading descriptions of it in Bible encyclopedias and on the Internet.
2. The Pain of Bearing Sin. He who was perfectly holy and hated sin with all his being “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
3. Abandonment. Jesus’ crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) shows that he felt abandoned by even his Father while on the cross.
4. Bearing the Wrath of God. Romans 3:25, quoted above, says that God put forward Jesus as a propitiation. Propitiation is the removing of wrath by the offering of a gift. Jesus’ bearing our sins on the cross allowed God to pour out His wrath against our accumulated sin on him and forgive us those sins.
I understand the darkness that covered the land for three hours to be part of God’s display of wrath against the sin born by Jesus and to contribute to Jesus’ feeling of being abandoned by Him. Finally the darkness ended, letting Jesus know that God’s display of wrath and apparent abandonment of him was over. He proclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30); called out, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 19:46); and breathed his last.
Thus, as Isaiah had prophesied, Jesus “poured out his soul to death [and] bore the sin of many” (53:12), enabling us to become “at one with” God.