A Contemplation of Christ’s Atonement
June 4th, 1975 @ 7:30 PM
A CONTEMPLATION OF CHRIST’S ATONEMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-4-75 7:30 p.m.
This will be our concluding and our final lecture on the theology of the atonement. In each one of the others, we have looked at a presentation of what somebody has said. Tonight, we are going to look at it from our own heart’s persuasion. I have entitled the lecture A Contemporary Contemplation of the Meaning of Christ’s Atonement. And that title came out of a very studied and exhaustive review of all the meaning of Christ’s death is for us. So rather than entitling it “My View,” or “My Theory of the Atonement,” I have entitled it A Contemplation of the Meaning of Christ’s Death. And the reason I did it is this: I do not think that it is possible for a human mind to enter into all of the depths unfathomable of the meaning of Christ’s death for us. We can study and study, read and read, pray and pray, contemplate, adore, worship; but the full depths of the meaning of Christ’s death is beyond us. We can touch some of it, see some of it, understand some of it; but the vast magnitude of it is infinity itself. We simply cannot in human mind grasp all of its meaning.
In the Revelation, when you read of the adoration of all of those who are gathered in God’s redeemed family, as well as the four cherubim, the four zōon, the living ones who represent all God’s creation, the four and twenty elders who represent the old and the new who have looked to God in hope, if you read in the Apocalypse their employment, our employment in heaven, it is praising the Lamb who was slain, who bought us to God out of all the families and kindred and tribes of the earth [Revelation 4:9-11, 5:8-14]. So, I would assume from that apocalyptic view, the open door into heaven, watching the employment of the saints in glory, I would assume that we shall have all eternity to come into a full understanding of the grace of God in the death of Christ. Certainly, it is my persuasion, as I have read and studied through the years, it is my persuasion that there is no theory of the atonement that encompasses it all. There is no man who is able to place in human speech the meaning of it all. It is like God Himself: infinite; so the title A Contemplation of the Meaning of Christ’s Atonement.
First: we’re going to look at some of the weaknesses of the traditional views; all of those things that we have studied in these Wednesday evenings past. Most of the views of the atonement are legalistic; they are not personally centered, they are not centered in personality, they are not centered in God’s heart and us, but they are centered in some kind of a forensic, legalistic setting. They treat the cross as forming a part of a drama, a story enacted between the Father and the Son. Therefore, the ensuing results do not act upon us directly. Most of those legalistic theories—and practically all of them are that—most of them explain the death of Christ in terms of something between God and the Son, out there, but not involving us. They also virtually suggest that God’s love and righteousness are at variance. They sound too much like a bookkeeping affair. They imply that an exact equivalence holds between Christ’s penal suffering and the demerit of sin, and they’re balancing accounts: this is our demerit of sin, this is Christ’s merit [in His] death for us on the cross. And most of those forensic theories are kind of like bookkeeping arrangements: this and this. They imply that Christ’s merit and our sinful demerit are eternally transferable: this is our demerit; this is Christ’s merit; so we just transfer them in a good bookkeeping arrangement.
Now some of those theories of the atonement are moral influence theories; they are exemplarary theories. Now, any exemplarary theory of the atonement, that Christ’s death was something set up there before us as a marvelous and heroic example; those theories do not do justice to the seriousness of sin and the need of man for regeneration and rebirth. So, we’re going to turn aside from the legalistic view of the atonement, and we’re going to look at it and define it in terms of personality. So we’ll make personality the determining concept. That is, the death of Christ was not a dramatic event that happened on Calvary, but rather in it there are deep personal principles involved. And we’re going to look at those principles.
First, the personality of God: there is one God, not a split personality; He is One. And God’s attitude toward man has always been the same; namely, both righteousness and love. He isn’t righteousness on this side and then love on that side, and righteousness here and love there; but He is always one and the same. He is Creator, Judge, and loving Father all in one, and all at the same time. He is not angry at man, but He is intolerable of sin. God is for us, not against us.
I do not know of a greater doctrine that a man could preach in the pulpit than to try to preach to the people that God is our friend, God is with us, God is for us, God works for us, God never works against us. We need in this universe a friend, and God is that friend. We need a Savior, we need an Advocate, we need a Mediator, we need an Intercessor, we need a Savior; and God is that One, always. God is for us, never against us.
Now what is God like? Who is He? How do we know Him? The answer is in Jesus Christ: “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; I and the Father are one” [John 14:9; 10:30]. If you would know what God is like, look at Jesus. All compassionate, all grace, all love, all Savior, all for us: that is the personality of God.
Now, in looking at the atonement in terms of personality, we speak of the personality of man: he is created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27]. If you would look at a man, you would see God; He is like us, and we are like Him. We are the only creation in God’s world that is so made. You will see that, this last thing I’ve observed, that we’re the only creation of God made in His image, you’ll see that in the three words by which a man is described in the New Testament. Sometimes a man is looked upon as a dichotomy, soul and body; but mostly the New Testament will look upon a man as a trichotomy, he’s a tri-part man. There is a somatikos man [1 Timothy 4:8]; that is, a body man, this physical body. And we share that with all living things. A tree is a somatikos being. A vegetable, a radish, a turnip, a leaf, all somatikos life is in common. And if you study biology, your biology teacher will teach you that there are living cells that are hardly distinguished between animal and plant. They are all made alike; that’s the somatikos man. And we have that in common with them.
There is also in the New Testament a reference to a psuchikos man [1 Corinthians 2:14]; that is, we have sentient being. Now we share that with animals. Most plants, practically all plant life, are not sentient; but animals are. And in that sense, we share that life with them. A dog can be very intelligent. A horse can be very intelligent. And they can feel, they can love, they can hate. I’ve been told that an elephant will never forget an injury. And if you have injured him, done him wrong, if he sees you fifty years later, he’ll remember that you “done him in.” Now isn’t that a remarkable thing? We share the psuchikos life with all of the animal creation.
But in the tri-part man there is a third level that the New Testament refers to, and that is the pneumatikos man, the spirit man [1 Corinthians 2:15]. And in that sense, only the man is unique. We are not unique in a body, we are not unique in sentient being and response, emotion and mind; but we are unique in spirit, pneuma, spirit, the pneumatikos man. Only the man has it, and that is our image of God. “And the Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul,” a pneumatikos creature [Genesis 2:7].
Now, in the personality of man, we not only have the divine image in us—and I hate to take time to just go on and on and on, but that image is in all God’s human creation, all of it. Darwin, in his theory, you know, that we all came from animals, Darwin came across the Tierra del Fuegans down there at the very tip of South America. They were so degraded that he thought and wrote that he had found a species of Homo sapiens who were like animals. The Church Missionary Society—that’s the Anglican missionary society of England—heard about Darwin’s description of those Tierra del Fuegans down there, that they were subhuman, without souls; they were like animals. They sent missionaries down there and won them to Jesus; and they became noble, and Christian, and fine, and moral. And when Darwin heard about it, he was so astonished that he became a faithful contributor to the Church Mission Society in London. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? That image is in all God’s creation. There is no level of human life where the image of God is ultimately and finally destroyed. It is in all mankind.
Now, another thing about the personality of man which is very obvious: he is a fallen person. He’s like Satan: he fell from his first estate [Isaiah 14:12]. His story and his record are filled with violence and wrong and sin, and this has destroyed him in all three areas of his life. He is a fallen creature in his somatikos body; the body has in it the seeds and sentence of death. He is fallen in his psuchikos mind and emotions. That is the doctrine of total depravity: not that we are as vile as we can be, but that sin has entered all of our faculties; we can’t think perfectly or feel perfectly, can’t even pray perfectly, can’t even love perfectly, can’t even be perfectly. And it has entered into our spirits, the pneumatikos man; we are fallen creatures in our spirits.
Now, in this theory of the atonement, viewing it from personality, there is a third thing about the personality of man, not only that he is created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27], and not only that he’s a fallen creature [Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21]: but he is capable of being recreated as a son of God [2 Corinthians 5:17]. And that is what the atonement of Christ does for us. John 1:11, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”; John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them gave He the right, the privilege, to become the children of God, even to them that trust in His name.” This recreation is always in terms of personal relationships. They are not external, but internal; they are not material, but spiritual; they are not forensically balanced, but it’s something that happens to us in our souls.
This new creation, Christ’s atonement for us, does not violate the principle of the first creation. The man is still himself, unviolated and free. God made him that in the garden of Eden. Mrs. C and I were walking this morning, and she asked me, “Why do you think that God allowed the man to choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” [Genesis 2:16-17]. Well, I said, “My only answer is the old clichés, the old words, and I don’t know anything beyond it: for the man to be free, not an automaton, for the man to be free, he had to have choice. If a man is not given choice, he is not free.” When I was over there in Africa, I talked to some of those black people, and they said to me this, “We had rather govern ourselves badly”—I doubt whether he used the good English “badly” or not, but let me say it in good language—“We had rather govern ourselves badly than to be governed well by somebody else.” Now I can understand that exactly. I had rather be free in America than to have the British govern us. Even though the British might be very capable in parliamentary procedures, I’d rather make mistakes and govern ourselves than to have somebody else govern us. Now that is the way God made us: absolutely free. He did it in the garden of Eden, so the man had a choice [Genesis 3:1-6].
Now, when we look at the atonement in terms of human personality, that is a part of its glory: we are not violated in what we do. I’m still free to choose. “But as many as received Him, as chose Him, to them gave He the right to become the children of God” [John 1:12]. So in this atonement, the man is not violated, he’s still free, he’s still in the image of God; he is choosing a way that glorifies and lifts him up—as we’re going to see in a moment. In any theory of atonement, the integrity of the man must be preserved as a personal, moral, intellectual, volitional, and emotional being. And that’s what we’re trying to do in contemplating the meaning of Christ’s death.
Now let’s look further at this. We’re going to look at the law of personal relations as the derived pattern for our understanding of the death of Christ. Personality is fundamental in God and in man. And a true theory of atonement would be couched in terms of personality and personal relationships. See what I’m doing is saying it is not a legal device as you’d find in a court of law, but it is something that happens down here in our souls and in our hearts. And any explanation or theory or hypothesis or reaching out in understanding of the atonement, I do not think will ever be found in legalistic terms, but always in personal terms; down here in our souls.
Now this law of personal relationship is not an arbitrary law, but one that inheres in the personal nature of God and of man. If God is God, He is personal, and if a man is a man, he is personal. That’s what makes him a man: personality, person. That’s what makes God God, is person, personality. May I illustrate that with gravity? Gravity is something that inheres in matter. Isn’t that a strange thing? It is a property, a component part of existence, of matter. For example, these astronomers for years and years, I mean many years, said way out there is a planet somewhere. We’ve never been able to see it, no telescope ever made could detect it, but there’s a planet out there, and we know it is there because of the effect it has upon the motion of the heavenly bodies. And of course, as time went on, they built this enormous telescope in California, and they finally saw it, and named it Pluto. Pluto, do you remember that? Pluto. Well, how do they mean, what are they talking about when they say, “We know that there is a planet way out there because of the influence it has on heavenly bodies”? The reason for that is inherent in matter is gravity. Now the moon is just a little thing compared to all God’s creation out there in the universe, yet so mighty is the gravity of the moon that it pulls the entire Pacific Ocean up. And if you’ve ever been in Panama, the tide in Panama will be nineteen to twenty-one feet. The moon will pull the entire Pacific Ocean—some of you are going to fly over that ocean in the next few weeks, and you’ve never seen so much water in your life as you’re getting ready to look at it, when you fly over that ocean. There is a way that you can turn the globe, and everything you see is the Pacific Ocean, solid water—that moon, just by being itself, will pull the entire Pacific Ocean up on the shore in Panama nineteen feet. Can you imagine that? Just the pull of gravity: that is what makes the tide. Now that is inherent in matter. It is a component part of matter. Now I’m saying that personality is inherent in our being. The man is a person, and God is a person; and any discussion of the atonement has to be in terms of personal relationships.
So the two foci in viewing this law in its harmonious operations are divine grace and human acceptance and obedience. If the law operates harmoniously, there must be grace on the part of God, and acceptance and obedience on the part of man. Now contrariwise, the two foci viewing the law in its disruption are divine justice and human disobedience. It’s the same Lord God who loves us, who when we reject His grace and mercy, we find the other side of that coin, which is judgment, it’s the same coin. This side, the face of grace and love and forgiveness; the other side, the same person, the reverse: judgment and justice. And the man is that way: he can be this way, obedient and full of trust and acceptance, or the man can be disobedient and full of rejection and unbelief.
Evil therefore in this personal view is man’s adversary; it’s the problem that we have, it’s not God’s problem. He is untouched by sin [Deuteronomy 32:4, 1 John 1:5]. He is of such pure eyes He cannot look upon it [Habakkuk 1:13]. But sin is a problem that we have. And the law of filial relationship is always broken on man’s side, never on God’s side. God is always for us, always! And when we fall into error, it is we who do it; it is not God. Sin must be overcome from man’s side. The struggle is here in us. The decision is made here in us. It is we who must be reconciled to God; for God is already reconciled to us [2 Corinthians 5:19-20]. And God is reconciled to us in the provision He has made for our forgiveness and acceptance in His presence [Ephesians 1:5-7].
So the filial relationship between God the Father and the sinful man is reestablished in the death of Christ [Romans 8:15, 29]. Christ ransoms the believer from sin, the cause of the breach between man and God [1 Timothy 2:5]. A true study of the atonement would view it in the light of Christian experience. We have been too prone to study the atonement on a forensic basis, on a bookkeeping basis. Now, our ransom in Christ is God’s best. Therefore it is adequate. It is a revelation of God’s personality, His love and righteousness. It is a revelation of man’s personality, his fallen nature and the power and presence and progressiveness of sin. And it is a revelation of God’s provision for our deliverance, the life of Christ in us, the death of Christ for us [John 3:16-18].
Atonement is our deliverance, our ransom from sin, accomplished through the gift of His life [1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1 Peter 1:18-19]. And that phrase, “the gift of His life” [Matthew 20:28], is the key to the whole transaction. “Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:28]. Now, this view, this personality view of the atonement, looks upon Christ’s death as a ransom for us from the penalty and judgment of sin [Titus 2:14]. And the way that is done is found in the phrase “the gift of His life” “to give His life for us.” That involves His physical life, His physical life on the cross [1 Corinthians 15:3]. The pouring out of His blood is a sign and a symbol of the pouring out of His life into the earth, on the earth, into the lives of men. However an infidel may speak or an atheist may be persuaded, this world can never be the same again because of the pouring out of Christ’s life into this world. It is never the same again. The life of Christ is in this world; it was poured out into the world, and a physical sign of that was the pouring out of Christ’s blood on the cross [John 19:16-34].
But not only was His physical life poured out into the world, signified by the pouring out of His blood [Matthew 26:28, John 19:34], but His psychic life, His mind life was poured out into this world [1 Corinthians 2:16]. The world can never be the same again intellectually because Christ lived here and died for us. You remember that glorious, wonderful passage, possibly one of the greatest pieces of theology written in literature, in the second chapter of the Book of Philippians: “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus: who,” and then it describes the mind of Christ, “who, being in the form of God, the morphos of God”—whatever the morphos of God is—“who, being in the form of God, thought it not a thing to be held onto to be equal with God: but poured Himself out, emptied Himself, and was made in the morphos, the form of a man: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” [Philippians 2:5-8]. Now what is all that? It all started from the use of the word “mind”: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 2:5]. Not only was the physical life of Christ poured out into the world, but His mind was poured out into the world.
I asked one of the brilliant members of this church—who’s a teacher in school, who’s here tonight—I asked her to write me an article on philosophy and the Christian faith. And she used a term in that that stayed in my mind: “For a man to be a Christian does not mean that he assassinates his brains.” You don’t have to be stupid or dumb or ignorant to be a Christian. Rather it is the other way around: the Christian is the man who has the key to the understanding of the meaning of life, of the universe, of death, of eternity; he finds purpose, there’s a teleological philosophy in his head that he can’t escape when he becomes a Christian. There’s a great purpose toward which all things move. And when Christ died on the cross, He poured out His physical life, He poured out His intellectual life, His psuchikos life into this world.
And on the cross He poured into the world His ethical and moral life. He lifts us up and out of sin. Paul said it like this in the second Corinthian letter, chapter 4, “The love of Christ,” subjective genitive, “The love of Christ,” the love that belongs to Christ, “The love of Christ constrains us” [2 Corinthians 5:14]. There is something about the death of Christ that affects us morally and spiritually, ethically and righteously. It lifts us up. There is no man who meets Christ but is a better man thereby. The Christian home, just to say it means a fine home. A Christian man means to say a fine man. A Christian organization, use the word anywhere, any place, it means an uplift out and above the ravages of sin.
Then He poured into the world His spiritual life, the pneumatikos life. In Romans 8:9, “If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” If a man is a Christian and accepts Christ, there is in him the spirit life of Christ. It affects the whole man, the death of Christ does. It affects his mind, it affects his physical being, it affects his ethical and moral being, it affects his spiritual being. Any time a man comes face to face with Jesus Christ, he is a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17]; he’s somebody else. His body is something else.
I could not conceive of a real honest-to-goodness Christian being dirty and filthy. I just can’t. To me one of the first signs of a man who’d been a Christian is he’d clean up, he just would. Because there’s somebody with a big hammer beating him to make him do it? No, he just does it. A filthy man as a Christian is an anomaly; it just doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Well, it’s the same way throughout the whole personality. I cannot conceive of a man who’s a Christian, being filthy in his speech. It’s easy for me to understand how that infidel talks, that atheist talks; dirty. That’s one of the filthiest minds, one of the filthiest mouths in America. Well, it goes. But I could not conceive of a Christian being that way; it’s impossible. The meaning of the atonement of Christ in our lives is always an uplift, a cleaning up; just another kind of existence.
Now Christ ransomed man by living in us and helping us to overcome sin. That is the meaning of the death of Christ. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” [Romans 8:2]. A worm cannot become a butterfly until it ceases to be a worm. As long as it is a worm, it’s not a butterfly. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that, doesn’t that just go along, isn’t that axiomatic? You don’t have to prove that. That’s what it is. If it’s a worm, it’s not a butterfly. But if it becomes a butterfly, it is no longer a worm. That is exactly what the atonement of Christ means to us who have gone for refuge to our blessed Lord. It is something that is regenerative in us. We become something else. I could not be filthy in thought and mind and love Jesus at the same time. I could not be vile in my life and look in faith to the atonement of our blessed Lord [1 John 3:9].
Now there are a whole lot of people in the church that are not Christians; they’re not born again. They’re in the church, but they’re not saved. There are people in the church who do all kinds of vile and evil things; they’ve never been regenerated. For that’s what it is to be regenerated: you cease being a worm; you’re a butterfly. The fruit of atonement is seen in true regeneration, in a new creation, in new people. Atonement should always be studied as it bears fruit in the life of the believer.
For example, Jesus spoke to that Samaritan woman. She’d had one husband after another; one husband, two husband, three husband, four husband, five husband. Now I grant you, that’d be a whole lot of husbands to have, isn’t that right? But when she met the Lord Jesus, she was a new person [John 4:1-26]. Well, the same thing happened in the life of Zaccheus. That’s the new businessman. The way of business that Zaccheus described after he met the Lord was not characteristic of Zaccheus. But after he met Jesus, things were different. He did business on a different basis when he met the Lord [Luke 19:1-10]. Any man who is a Christian man will do business on a different basis. He just will. That’s what it is, the meaning of life in the death of Christ for him. With regard to money and possessions, the rich young ruler had a choice, but he couldn’t follow Jesus and keep the world in his heart [Mark 10:17-23]. They don’t go together. The gate is too narrow for a man to go through it holding the world in his arms [Matthew 7:13-14]. You can’t do it. And Jesus in the Good Samaritan is the attitude toward race: the kindness of the man, not to hate anybody [Luke 10:25-37]. Now of course, the hatred of the Jew for a despised Samaritan was beyond any racial antipathy that you and I know today.
Now we must conclude. The death of Christ establishes His way of life among His followers. The Christian way is a way of the cross; it’s a way of self-crucifixion. He did not die to save us from physical death. If He tarries, we all shall die physically. But He died to save us from sin, from worldliness, from the weakness of the flesh [1 Corinthians 15:3], and the works of the devil [1 John 3:8]. He died to lead us to the way of the cross; not from a cross, but to a cross. We are to take up our cross, and follow Him [Mark 10:21].
Somebody say, “What does that mean?” Well, the meaning is very plain, but we don’t ever say it. We say to take up a cross and follow Jesus, well, that means that I have a thorn in the flesh or something. No sir. The meaning is very simple: the cross is an instrument to die on, and that’s all. And when you take up a cross to follow Jesus, you crucify yourself; you don’t live anymore for you, you’re living for God [Mark 10:21].
Now when we share in the Lord’s Supper [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26], we pledge ourselves to this principle. When we have the whole story of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said as He began the meal, “If I have washed your feet; ye ought to wash one another’s feet” [John 13:14]. That’s the attitude we ought to have for one another: washing feet. Now, the reason that they were brought into that lesson was they were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom, occasioned apparently by the seating arrangement at the Lord’s table [Luke 22:24]. Who was going to be seated next to Him? Who’s going to be the greatest? Who’s going to be the prime minister? Now, washing feet is to be our attitude toward each other. Nobody is to lord it over God’s heritage, nor is any one of us to feel that he’s better than any of the other of us. If there’s any difference in us, it’s by the grace of God. And humbly we are servants of each other.
He said, “No greater love hath any man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” [John 15:13]. And we are children of the same Father, in the fellowship of the church. We ought to be willing to lay down our lives for each other. And the death of Christ as atonement is seen in that He saves us, He changes us, He regenerates us [Titus 3:5]; He has me, He has you. And when we seek to define, to determine, to delineate the death of Christ, in my humble opinion it ought always to be in those terms: what it is in me, how it affects me, what it has done to change me. And I would suspect that if there was more of a willingness to think about our Lord in His suffering, and in His compassion, and in His grace, and in His death, it would be a rebuke to us any time that we are proud, or vainly ambitious, or grasping, or worldly. Always, there is that in the death of our Lord that rebukes the weaknesses of the flesh.
When you think about Jesus, how could a man be proud? Think about the cross, how could a man be grasping? We are so easily hurt and injured and insulted. How could one think about the Lord as they spat upon Him, covered Him with spittle, as they plucked out His beard, as they smote Him on the face, saying, “Tell me my name [Matthew 26:68]; You say You are a prophet” [Matthew 27:27-31]. Oh, world without end, a contemplation of the cross does something to us. And how much more when we receive the grace and love of God in Christ Jesus as our hope for forgiveness [Ephesians 2:5-9]; it just makes out of us new people. Like Paul avows, “If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation: old things are passed away; all things are become new” [2 Corinthians 5:17].
Is there someone here tonight who tonight would like to give your heart in faith to the Lord Jesus or you’d like to put your life in the circumference of this dear church? Would you hold up your hand if there is one somebody you, anywhere, anywhere? If you would, just come down here to the front, and kneel at the altar rail. And when we fill that, why, we’ll just kneel down here on this soft rug; asking God to help us.