the atonement of Christ


The Secret Weapon of Grace
by Ted Schroder

The apostle Paul wrote: “We preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God… For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23,24; 2:2) 

Why is the Cross of Christ so important? The New Testament makes it clear that man’s salvation rests on the fact of the Cross. What Christ did on the Cross is essential for our salvation, not our interpretation of it, or our understanding of it. “Christ died for our sins” is the New Testament explanation. It reveals the wisdom and the power of God. How does the Cross do that?

Paul Zahl in his recent book: “Grace in Practice”, puts it this way. In order for God to rescue humanity from our sins, i.e. our rebellion against God, he had to develop a secret weapon. He had to find a way to atone for us. His way was to cover our guilt by substitution. The atonement of Christ on the Cross is the sacrifice of one man by which the sins of the world is taken from the shoulders of the guilty and placed completely on the shoulders of the innocent. God the Judge, the unswervingly fair judge, accepts the substitution. Someone had to bear the just sentence of his judgment. That had to happen for justice to be done because justice is a part of God. But in the atonement, the direction of the thunderbolt of judgment swerved. It struck away from the guilty and hit the innocent one.

However we must not think of Christ as a third party separate from us and God. Because he is divine, Christ is one with God, to whom the ‘debt’ is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our sin against God and frees us from just retribution. But also, since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt. Christ’s oneness with creditor and debtors makes him the perfect and only possible mediator. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

There are four parts to atonement. These parts are the judge, the offender, the guilt of the offender, and the offering. God the Judge has passed a just sentence. Justice must be done or there is no meaning to it. The offender is the man or the woman who committed the sin. All of us are sinners and are therefore guilty. The offering creates the atonement. The atonement of Christ is the death of an innocent man in the place of every guilty man and woman. It is representative, as his death ‘represents’ the death of every single guilty human person. It is vicarious because it is in their place. He dies vicariously so each of us will not have to die for the sin we inherently and historically bear. It is substitutionary because he actually takes on our identity. He is an ‘identity-thief’ in the sense that our old identity, as a sinner, transfers to him; and his identity, as the perfect man for others, goes to them. It is an exchange. It is a one-way exchange because as God, he alone can make this happen. It is the one-way love of grace.

The atonement of Christ satisfies the just demand written into the universe that guilt must be punished. The atonement of Christ gives the one-way initiative in the matter to God alone. The atonement of Christ frees the recipient without a hitch. There are no hidden clauses in the contract. There is no contract! The entire cost of the arrangement is born by Christ Jesus. That cost is the cost of death and experiencing for us, in our place, the judgment of hell. The good news is that the Father rescued Jesus, and by him us also, from hell. “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!” (Charles Wesley)

The atonement of Christ on the cross is the mechanism by which God’s grace can be offered freely, and without condition to strugglers in the battle of life. We all wish that the innocent had not had to die for the guilty. We wish that a different road, a road less traveled in scars, had been taken. But we have been told that this was the necessary way by which God’s law and God’s grace would be resolved. 

“Wait a minute,” you might protest. “I don’t feel guilty. What have I done that requires that sort of atonement? I feel good about myself. Why should I need Christ to die for me?” 

The answer is that our very sinfulness denies the truth about ourselves. We don’t want to know anything unpleasant about ourselves. The technical psychological term for this suppression of self-knowledge is “repression.” We can exclude from our consciousness impulses, ideas, wishes, attitudes, feelings and incidents which would result in intolerable threat or pain if we openly acknowledged them. It is a defense mechanism to keep us unaware of the threatening information. We push our thoughts down into the unconscious. It is a refusal to recognize and to accept whole parts of our inner lives. It is mentally unhealthy and potentially destabilizing. The apostle Paul identified this phenomenon when he wrote that men “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God made it plain to them.” (Romans 1:18) 

“Sinners hate [the Cross] because it tells them that they cannot save themselves. Preachers are tempted to avoid it because of its offensiveness to the proud. It is easier to preach man’s merits than Christ’s, because men greatly prefer it that way.” (John Stott, Our Guilty Silence, p.40)

We tend to insulate ourselves from unpleasant truths about ourselves. Our memory remembers our sins, but our pride denies them. We prefer our own rose-colored view of our lives so that we will not be shamed or plagued by guilt when we see ourselves in the mirror of memory. For our sins include, not only what we have done that we ought not have done, but the good that we have not done that we ought to have done. We need forgiveness, not only for our acts of stubborn rebellion against the will of God in our lives, but also for the ways we have fallen short of God’s desires for us through our selfishness and indifference. We all bear a share of responsibility for crucifying Christ. 

Because of Christ bearing our guilt on the Cross, God can impute his righteousness to us. There is an exchange in which the innocent bears the sins of the guilty, and the guilty receives acquittal of the innocent. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) This one-way granting of love to another is what we call saving grace.

Whether we admit the truth about ourselves or not, we all need the Cross of Christ, if we are to be saved. That is why the Cross of Christ is so important and central to the Christian Gospel. That is why we celebrate Holy Week, the Passion of Christ, Good Friday and Easter every year.

Sermon delivered Palm Sunday, 2007

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the atonement of Christ


the atonement of Christ