When we talk about atonement, we are talking about what Jesus Christ did through his life and death in order to earn our salvation. There have been many theories about why exactly Christ had to die and what all was accomplished by his life and death. The penal-substitutionary theory is the most complete and accurate of the theories that have been proposed over the years. Understanding this theory requires “wrapping your mind” around a few key concepts about God the Father, Christ, humanity, and God’s plan for dealing with sin.
The Starting Point…. God.
The place to start is in understanding part of God’s nature. Because God is perfectly holy and just, He cannot tolerate sin. Sin is the things that humans do to break God’s law and is the opposite of His holiness. Think of two magnets that are opposites in polarity when thinking about sin and God’s holiness. The magnets push each other away rather than attract each other. No matter how hard one tries to push them together, the magnets cannot stay together. Similarly, God and sin cannot co-exist (Exodus 34:7b). God’s law is representative of His holy and perfect nature. When humans break God’s law, they are sinning. Like any other law there is a price to pay for breaking the law. They essentially have become like that opposite magnet and are in opposition to God’s nature. Someone caught breaking the speed limit will usually get a ticket or have their license taken away. The Bible says that the price of God’s law (sinning) is death (Rom. 6:23a, Ez. 18:20). The Bible says we become God’s enemies and deserve God’s anger and punishment (Rom. 5:9-10). At the same time, God is also Love and He loves the people He created. He loved humanity enough that, though humanity did not deserve it, He chose to provide a way to save us from the punishment that was deserved (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-11).
To comprehend this theory, the second thing that needs to be understood is about humanity. Unlike God’s nature, human nature is sinful. This does not mean that just some people sin. It means that all people sin. Romans 3:23 says, “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The Bible teaches that human beings are more than just sinful. Beyond that, because of the sinful nature of humanity, people do not truly even want to do anything about their sin. Humanity does not even have the capability on its own to do anything about sin or to get rid of it. This is why the atonement would have to be taken care of by somebody else. Humanity cannot resolve this problem on its own.
Jesus: The Christ
This is where understanding the nature of Jesus Christ is important. Christ was not just some man. He is a man, but at the same time he is God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. While still being God the Son, Jesus was born and lived just like every other person in humanity. He experienced all of the things that we experience. He felt all the same feelings as we do. He was even tempted to sin like we are. He was subject to the same law (God’s Law) that we are. Galatians 4:4-5 says, “God sent forth his Son…born under law, to redeem those under law.” However, he never broke God’s law. He never sinned. Unlike the rest of humanity, Jesus had no price that he was supposed to pay. He never was an “opposite magnet” to God’s holiness. He would not have to die for his sins. This made him the only one that could pay for the sins of all humankind.
Sin and Sacrifice
Dealing with sin is not something that is new to God. It was mentioned earlier, though God is a just and holy God, He is also a loving God. During Old Testament times God had setup a system for His chosen people (the nation of Israel) to compensate for sins that had been committed. This is what is called the Old Testament Sacrificial system. In Old Testament times, when a person sinned against God a sacrifice to God was required. These sacrifices served to soothe God’s anger and served as a substitute for the person who committed the sin. The sacrifice was supposed to be spotless. When it was sacrificed, the sinner would confess his or her sins and symbolically transfer them to the sacrifice. The sacrifice became a substitute for the sinner so that the sinner could be made right with God (no longer an “opposite magnet”) and would not have to pay the price of breaking God’s law. The sacrifice instead would pay the price. The problem was that this sacrifice would only cover past sins. Any new sins would require a new sacrifice.
How exactly do Old Testament sacrifices relate to Jesus? Like the spotless sacrifice was needed for sins in the Old Testament days, a spotless sacrifice was needed to pay the price for the sins of all humanity. However, a spotless lamb like they used in the Old Testament would not be enough. A sacrifice was needed to could cover all the sins, of all humanity, and for all times. The Bible says that Jesus was the only sinless man that ever lived and was also the only divine Son of God. He was the only one who could meet the requirements to be that sacrifice. He was the only who could act as a substitute. The Bible says, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
When Jesus died on the cross he acted as a substitute for the sins of men. He paid the price that no one else could pay. In doing so, he made those who are covered by his sacrifice to be forgiven. Those who are forgiven no longer owe the price for breaking God’s law. They are no longer enemies of God. They are no longer covered with the sin that makes them complete opposites of God’s holiness. The word used for this is reconciled. The important thing to note is that the reconciliation has to do with God choosing to make a way for sinners to be reconciled, not with what sinners did to reconcile themselves to God. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God did what humanity couldn’t do for itself.
Image provide by Justin Marty