5. Preaching the atonement
by Edgar Andrews
‘And I, brethren, when I came to you did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Last month we explored what it means to ‘preach the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:8). But we cannot leave this subject without dealing specifically with our Lord’s atoning work. When the apostles preached Christ they proclaimed his death, his resurrection and his exaltation — and these things are foremost among the riches made available to us in Christ. In this article we have space to consider only the death of Christ.
When Paul brought the gospel to Corinth he ‘determined’ to preach nothing but ‘Christ and him crucified’ (text above). ‘We preach Christ crucified,’ he declared, ‘to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Do not imagine that Paul narrowed his message when he went to Corinth. On the contrary, the atoning work of Christ has such vast implications that it embraces the infinite treasures of grace.
Paul could have won favour among the Greeks by adorning (and diluting!) his message with human philosophy. He could have gained respect among the Jews by mingling his new covenant gospel with Judaism. But he refused to pander to man’s religious or intellectual pride. He had no desire to diminish ‘the offence of the cross’ (Galatians 5:11).
Why? Because only the message of the cross could save them and bring them to experience ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’. This is highly relevant to our own situation. Many think the gospel can only succeed if it accommodates the wishes of the world.
Do people want intellectual stimulation? Then give them philosophy. Do they desire ritual? Then model your worship on the Mosaic tabernacle and priesthood. Do they seek emotional release and inner healing? Then give them psychological stimuli — music, dancing, participation — whatever works for them.
But Paul knew better. He preached a message that offended the world — yet drew those who were ‘called’ by the gospel and the Spirit of God.
Who killed Christ?
What, then, should we preach concerning the death of Christ? At very least, the following five things. Firstly, that God himself was responsible for the crucifixion. On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared, ‘Him being delivered by the carefully planned intention and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified and put to death’ (Acts 2:23).
Of course, the Jews and Romans of that day were guilty. But their guilt was representative — a guilt that attaches to humanity in general, not to any race or nation in particular. More importantly, however, the cross was ‘the carefully planned intention’ of God himself.
Jesus Christ was ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). His death as a sacrifice for sin was determined long before there were any Jews or Romans — in the eternal counsels of God. Christ’s crucifixion was not ‘death by misadventure’ nor could it stem ultimately from human actions, no matter how wicked and perverse.
Zechariah makes it clear: ‘”Awake, O sword, against my Shepherd, against the Man who is my companion”, says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”’ (Zechariah 13:7; compare Mark 14:27). God’s righteous judgement fell on Christ.
Why did Christ have to die?
Secondly, our preaching must explain why Jesus was condemned to die in this way. We have already touched upon the answer. Christ was ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Put simply, Christ was an innocent substitute, sacrificed to make atonement (satisfaction) for sin.
From Abel onwards, animal sacrifices were offered to placate God’s righteous anger and atone for human sin. The symbolism reached its zenith under the Mosaic covenant when, day by day and year by year, an unending parade of animals died to keep God’s wrath at bay.
Unchanging principles were involved — an animal without blemish died in the place of the human sinner to propitiate God’s wrath against sin and free the transgressor from guilt and punishment. That is what we mean by ‘atonement’.
The Old Testament itself speaks prophetically of Christ: ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).
The idea of atonement is fundamental to our approach to God. Without it we can neither enter his presence nor enjoy any relationship with him — for we are sinful and he is holy beyond comprehension. ‘But now in Christ Jesus [we] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (Ephesians 2:13).
If knowing God is man’s supreme joy, then the atoning work of Christ that makes such knowledge possible must surely be surpassing wealth. Paul puts it thus: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9; see also 5:21).
Victory over sin and Satan
Thirdly, believers are not only reconciled to God by the death of his Son, but are also given victory over sin. Peter writes of Christ that he ‘bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed’ (1 Peter 2:24).
We impoverish ourselves if we put a full stop after the word ‘tree’. For Christ not only died for our sins but took our sinful selves to crucifixion with him. ‘Our old man was crucified with him that … we should no longer be slaves of sin, for he who has died has been freed from sin’ (Romans 6:6-7).
By what power are we freed from sin? By the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ: ‘I am crucified with Christ’, declares Paul. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
Jesus’ death also brings victory over Satan, for we read that God’s Son became man ‘that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil’ (Hebrews 2:14; see also Colossians 2:15).
Paul works out the practical application of these liberating truths in Romans 6:11-22, culminating with the words: ‘having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life’.
Our great high priest
Fourthly, we must proclaim Christ as our great high priest. He was not only the sacrificial lamb, but also the one who willingly offered himself to redeem us: ‘Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Hebrews 9:12).
Christ’s high priestly office opens up a vein of pure gold for the believer — a vein the preacher ought to mine with overflowing joy. In his sublime role of high priest, Christ is our representative (Hebrews 2:9), our forerunner (Hebrews 6:20), our peace-maker (Colossians 1:20), our intercessor (Hebrews 7:25), our acceptance (Ephesians 1:6), our sanctification (Hebrews 10:10), and the one who perfects us for ever (Hebrews 10:14).
Furthermore, when Jesus entered the ineffable presence of Almighty God, bearing his own blood, he opened the way for us to follow: ‘Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus … by a new and living way … and having a high priest over the house of God … let us draw near…’ (Hebrews 10:19-22).
No wealth could be greater.
The eternal inheritance
Fifthly, we must declare that Christ’s death bestows on his elect an eternal inheritance. Hebrews describes this incalculable benefit: ‘He is the mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator’ (Hebrews 9:15-17).
The inheritance in question is ‘the kingdom prepared for [God’s people] from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34). But although it was prepared before time began, it could not be possessed unless (and until) Christ was glorified in death.
The cross of Christ is therefore our passport to this kingdom. Its citizenship cannot be purchased with ‘corruptible things like silver and gold’ but only with ‘the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot’ (1 Peter 1:18-19). It was he who, ‘with his own blood, entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12).
Such are the riches of Christ’s atoning, sanctifying, redeeming death. Dare we not preach them? And what of the riches of his resurrection, his ascension, his enthronement, his power, his glory, his triumph…? Sadly, time and space forbid.
But one thing is certain. Those who preach Christ thoroughly will never lack a message to thrill the hearts of needy sinners.