We Lutherans are often accused of being “obsessed with terminology” when we teach and discuss the doctrines of Holy Scripture, terminology that is nowhere found in the Bible and terminology that hopelessly confuses all but professional theologians with its complexity. And our most reactionary critics, particularly from among the sects, allege that this terminology amounts to a stumblingblock [an offense, skandalon] which discourages simple people from studying Christian doctrine and may even prevent them from being saved and from coming to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4). In point of fact, however, terminology which briefly and accurately describes a Biblical truth or a doctrinal concept is merely a short-cut intended to simplify that which otherwise might require a lengthy explanation. Actually, most of our terminology is taken directly from the words of Holy Writ [terms like redemption (Romans 3:24, etc.), justification (Romans 4:25, etc.), sanctification (I Thessalonians 4:3), regeneration (Titus 3:5), inspiration (II Timothy 3:16), and the like]. No one seems to have trouble with secular terminology that describes everyday processes and concepts (aerobic exercise, internal combustion engines, microwave ovens, and Internet access), but Christ’s vicarious atonement and His passive obedience in particular, as rendering payment-in-full for the sins of the world, is just “too much.” The critics need a reality check, and they would do well to spend their time in searching the Scriptures (John 5:39) rather than in striving about words to no profit (II Timothy 2:14)!
The word “atonement,” found well over seventy times in the Bible, means, according to its dictionary definition, “satisfaction given for wrongdoing” and, theologically understood in the light of the New Testament, “the effect of Jesus’ sufferings and death in redeeming mankind and bringing about the reconciliation of God to man” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). “Vicarious” means “taking the place of another thing or person; endured, suffered, or performed by one person in place of another” (Webster, op. cit.). Thus, the term vicarious atonement simply describes the payment-in-full that our Savior rendered to God as the Substitute for sinners in order to satisfy divine justice — the “propitiation” or all-sufficient compensation which He Himself became (I John 2:2) and which He offered to God (Hebrews 9:14) in the stead of sinful mankind in view of which God reconciled the world unto Himself, “not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). Thus Christ, as the Substitute for sinners, fulfilled BOTH the legislative demands of God’s Law (e.g., “Ye shall be holy!” Leviticus 19:2) by His life of perfect righteousness (His active obedience, i.e., what He DID) AND the punitive demands of God’s Law (e.g., “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” Ezekiel 18:4) by His suffering and death (His passive obedience, i.e., what He ENDURED). It is the latter, His “passive obedience,” that we address in particular when we speak of Christ’s work of redemption, what He did literally to “buy sinners back” from “the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10, 13), namely, from “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), from everlasting death in hell.
In order properly to understand this concept, it is necessary to recognize and acknowledge an undeniable fact —undeniable because it is stated in the plain words of Holy Scripture in passage after passage: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20); “They are all gone aside; they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3; cf. Psalm 53:3); “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12); “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us” (I John 1:10); and “We [even we Christians] are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Consequently it is impossible for sinful men, by what they themselves DO, to “pay off” their Divine Creditor for their iniquities and transgressions and sins, to assuage His righteous wrath against them, and to escape the just consequences that His holy Law prescribes as punitive satisfaction for their sins: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), eternal death in hell. When a person suffers sin’s wages, he languishes in that inescapable “place of torment” forever (Luke 16:23, 28) and can never enter into eternal life; for “damnation” and “salvation” are mutually exclusive. And, since we are unable to save ourselves from the curse of the Law, so we are also incapable of helping or ransoming or redeeming anyone else by any sacrifice of our own, since it would not be “precious” enough to satisfy God’s justice and to secure anyone’s release from the curse of the Law. The Psalmist writes: “None of them [i.e. sinful mortals] can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; for the redemption of their soul is precious” (Psalm 49:7-8). Thus Luther found, on the basis of Scripture, that a bogus “indulgence” from punishment, purchased on behalf of oneself or on behalf of another, is useless for remitting the consequences of sin and is a fraud perpetrated upon panic-stricken souls seeking to avoid sin’s wages apart from (or in addition to) the redemptive merit of Christ.
But “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). As the Substitute for sinners, Christ bore the guilt of all mankind, as if He Himself had been the transgressor; for “[God had] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). Thus “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). The Law condemns both sin and the sinner; and, apart from Christ and His vicarious atonement, God hates both sin and the sinner (Psalm 5:5). God declares according to His justice: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” (Ezekiel 18:4) and “The wages of sin is death!” (Romans 6:23). “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the Book of the Law to do them!” (Galatians 3:10). Therefore the Prophet Isaiah says that the people who witnessed the Messiah’s suffering and death, as He was “numbered with [or counted as being one of] the transgressors” by the execution detail on Calvary’s hill who crucified Him between two malefactors, “did esteem [regard] Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). They regarded the suffering “Christ, the King of the Jews,” to be guilty-as-charged of blasphemy “because He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7) and therefore receiving not only the punishment of the Roman state but the punishment of God Himself. And so it was; for the Savior cried out from His cross (in fulfillment of Psalm 22:1), “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me??” (Matthew 27:46). As our Substitute, Christ was “made to be sin for us” (II Corinthians 5:21), was in fact guilty of the sins He had taken upon Himself, and was bearing, in our place, vicariously, the full brunt of God’s fierce wrath against sin and against the sinner. Thus Peter writes in his first epistle, chapter 2, that “[Christ] His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes ye were healed.” (v. 24).
Therefore we Christians treasure, as a Scripture reading for Good Friday, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as the “classical” prophecy of Christ’s vicarious atonement in His passive obedience, as “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. …The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. For the transgression of my people was He stricken. …He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief. …He shall see the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall my righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Selected verses). And the Scriptures remind us that this vicarious satisfaction of God’s punitive justice was not just for Israel according to the flesh, but for us as well, and for all mankind. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and declared: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Apostle Paul stated it in the simplest of terms: “He died for all” (II Corinthians 5:15). And Peter writes of the precious value of His sacrifice: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold…, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:18-20). Indeed, Christ became “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
In the Old Testament, animals were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices to God, as tokens or symbols of the one Sacrifice that would truly atone for sin. They were precursors of the Savior’s perfect sacrifice of Himself on the tree of the cross, “but the body [the real thing] is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The Passover lamb slaughtered at the time of the Exodus, whose blood was painted on the doors of the houses of the Israelites and whose flesh was eaten in haste by the people as they were about to be delivered from bondage in Egypt, is the very best example of that symbolism. Christ Himself, as a function of His active obedience, obeyed the command of God that the Passover be celebrated as a perpetual memorial of Israel’s deliverance; and He and His disciples ate the Passover together (Matthew 26:17ff.; Mark 14:12ff.; Luke 22:11ff.) one last time (Luke 22:15-16) on “the same night in which He was betrayed” (I Corinthians 11:23). And immediately after finishing that symbolic supper, He instituted His real Supper of the New Testament, giving them His true body to eat and is true blood to drink “for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The connection between the Passover lamb and the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) is inescapable when we read St. Paul’s words in I Corinthians 5:7, “For even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.”
The wonderful Epistle to the Hebrews is truly the divine textbook that reveals and explains the relationship between the Old Testament with its symbolism and the New Testament with its fulfillment. Very particularly, the holy writer by inspiration of God explains the function of the priests of the Tabernacle (and later of the Temple), according to which they offered up sacrifices of slaughtered animals (bulls, goats, heifers, etc.) “year by year continually” (Hebrews 10:1) as visual reminders of the only sacrifice that truly atoned for sin, the sacrifice of Christ Himself. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (v. 4). However, “by [God’s] will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every [Old Testament] priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man [Christ], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God, from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. For by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us; for after that He had said before, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,’ saith the Lord. ‘I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.’ Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.”
Christ’s one sacrifice in atonement for the sins of the world was perfect and complete; redemption was made “once for all [people]” (Hebrews 10:10) and not merely a “down payment” of sorts which we must supplement by our own works of merit. God now looks upon us differently than His justice would require apart from Christ’s redemptive work, and He is able to be gracious and merciful unto us without transgressing His divine justice, “for He hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21 —Note that the word order here corresponds to the grammar of the Greek text.). Why had God “forsaken” Him on the cross? Why did He have to endure the God-forsakenness of damnation for the sins of the world imputed to Him? “Now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Thus “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).
Since Christ has full atonement made
and brought to us salvation,
each Christian therefore should be glad
and build on this foundation:
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Thy death is now my life indeed,
for Thou hast paid my ransom!
(TLH 377, 6)
—D. T. M.