The Awesome Mystery of the Atonement
May 17th, 1981 @ 8:15 AM
THE AWESOME MYSTERY OF THE ATONEMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-17-81 8:15 a.m.
With gladness we welcome the multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, delivering the message entitled The Awesome Mystery of the Atonement. And I do not know how I shall succeed in its delivery this morning; I have never studied more earnestly or prayed more sincerely over a message in my life. And I have prepared it half a dozen times; and each time not content with it, not happy with it. In this theological presentation of the death of our Lord and our salvation in Him, it is always presented philosophically. Maybe it is because there is no other way that the theologian can do it. But there are volumes; I would say, in the whole world, there are libraries that are written on this subject. But it is always metaphysical; it is always out there, up there, over yonder, in theological terms, and it is not in terms of our lives. How it affects me, how does the atoning grace of our Lord reach down to me? So I tried and tried and tried, and remade this sermon, and remade it, and remade it, and this is the best I can do. As a background text, in the ninth chapter of Hebrews, beginning at verse 24 to the end of the chapter, “For Christ,” Hebrews 9:24:
For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us:
Nor yet that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest entereth into the Holy Place every year with blood of others;
For then must He often have suffered since the foundation of the world—
if every year that sacrifice was made—
But now once in the end of the age
You have it translated “world.” But now once in the end of the age, at the end of the dispensation, at the end of the Mosaic covenant, at the end of the Old Testament:
Now at the end of the age hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
For as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear [the second time] apart from sin unto salvation.
We begin our message this morning by a universal fact in which all of us enter, to which all of us are sensitive, and that is the moral judgment of God upon sin, transgression, wrong; and in that all of us are sensitive. There is no tribe, there is no race, there is no people so degraded but that they are morally sensitive. That’s called the image of God. Some animals are very shrewd, they are very smart, some of them are far more gifted in areas of life than we are; but there is no animal that is morally sensitive except the man. And that’s the image of God in us [Genesis 1:27]: we know right and wrong, like God.
Now, in that moral sensitivity, all of us have had the sting, and the judgment, and the rebuke, and the guilt, and the sense of wrong in our lives. In the sixth chapter of the Revelation, you have that graphically described. In the vision the apostle sees “Heaven rolled back as a scroll; and every mountain and island moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, every slave, every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the rocks and the mountains, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of His wrath has come; and who shall be able to stand?” [Revelation 6:14-17]. What do you do in the presence of the Almighty God who is holy, and just, and righteous, and pure? What do you do in God’s presence, and your life is filled with wrong, and sin, and transgression, and moral depravity? How do you stand? Well, they called for the rocks and the mountains to fall on them; but can rocks and mountains hide us from the presence and the judgment of God? That is one of the most unusual aspects and facets of human life that is observable that you can see.
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, when they transgressed [Genesis 3:1-6], they became conscious of their nakedness, of their shame. So they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons to cover their nakedness [Genesis 3:7]. Well, why didn’t it do it? After they had sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons, they still hid themselves and were ashamed and were afraid. And when God came, as was His wont, to visit with the man and the woman that He had made for personal fellowship, He could not find them. Well, what is the matter? Can’t fig leaves hide their shame? Why are they still afraid? And why do they hide themselves? [Genesis 3:7-10].
Or take again, when Ahab goes to war, he covers himself with armor. And wouldn’t you think that to cover the whole body with armor would shield itself and protect itself? But in the story it says that a man drew his bow at a venture and let fly the arrow, let it go at a venture, that is, he didn’t aim it, he just pulled back the bow and let the arrow fly; and the arrow went into a joint of the armor of his harness, and pierced his heart, and the crimson of his life flowed out in the chariot [1 Kings 22:34-35]. And he died according to the saying of the man of God [1 Kings 21:19, 22:37-38]. Why couldn’t armor protect him?
In the tremendous—I suppose the greatest drama ever written—in the tremendous story of Macbeth, by Shakespeare, at the instigation of his wife he kills his guest, who is Duncan, king of Scotland. And when he appears in the presence of Lady Macbeth, the blood from the heart of the king, when he plunged the dagger into his heart, the blood following the dagger covered his hand, and Lady Macbeth says to her husband, the Thane of Scotland, “Go wash this from your hand, a little water will clear us of this deed.” And Macbeth goes to the fountain in the palace to wash his hands; and as he goes he looks at the blood on his hands, and cries, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood from my hand? No, rather, this my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” What’s the matter? Can’t water wash blood from your hands? What’s the matter? The judgment, the sense of wrong, of guilt, of moral condemnation.
A boy, a boy, a teenager appears before the judge, and the judge is his father. Surely the boy has got it made. The father on the bench, on the court, is looking at his own son. But he opens the statute books, and the boy is condemned, even though it’s his father who sits on the court. That is universal. It’s in your life, it’s in mine, it’s in every life, that sense of condemnation and of wrong. “I have sinned,” cried Job; “what shall I do?” [Job 7:20]. There is no man that sinneth not, says the Scriptures [2 Chronicles 6:36]. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. And it carries with it a judgment; always that inevitable judgment. The two are welded together by God Himself: “The wages of sin is death [Romans 6:23], and the soul that sins shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. Now that is the beginning of the gospel.
There is also in this world, in this same universe in which all of us are morally sensitive and all of us are under the judgment and condemnation of our wrong, there is also in this world another tremendous universal fact: law, provision. It is universal, I say. It is one of redemption, of repurchase, of ransom. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, there is provision there made in the law for the repurchase, for the ransom on the part of a kinsman of a poor brother’s possessions. He has lost, however he lost it, by idiotic investments or by strange transgressions or by downright prodigal waste, he’s lost what he had; and in the Levitical law, in chapter 25, there is provision made for a kinsman to repurchase for his poor brother what he’s lost [Leviticus 25:25-28]. In that same twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, there is provision made for the redemption, for the repurchase of the man himself. If he sold himself for debt or for whatever cause that plunged him into the necessity, there is arrangement made in the law for his redemption, for his repurchase, for his ransom [Leviticus 25:47-54].
Now, that universal law is seen everywhere: the possibility of redemption, of repurchase, of ransom, to buy back what we have lost. I was amazed—you cannot know how astonished I was—in studying this word in the Bible that in the passage you read in Romans 5:11, it is translated “atonement”; that’s the only place in the Bible where katallassō or katallagē, the substantive form, is translated “atonement.” Everywhere else it is translated “reconciliation.” Now in the passage that you read, “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, and being reconciled we will get to heaven because He was raised and is up there in heaven to see us through” [Romans 5:10]. Then he closed with that word translated “atonement,” “By whom we have now received the atonement” [Romans 5:11], katallassō, katallagē, the substantive form. Now you look at it again:
All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Christ, and given to us the ministry of reconciliation: namely, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and hath given to us this word, this preaching of reconciliation. Now we are ambassadors for Christ, as though it was God Himself we pray you, in Christ’s stead, Be ye reconciled to God.
[2 Corinthians 5:18-20]
Now, the most astonishing thing I can ever remember discovering, I never knew it was there, that word katallassō, translated “to reconcile,” that word katallassō originally meant “to exchange,” like money, “to exchange,” like anything, “to exchange; to give this for that.” And finally it came to mean “reconciliation” because they were exchanging enmity for friendship, anger for love and forgiveness. But the original word, translated here “atonement” [Romans 5:11], translated here “reconciliation” [2 Corinthians 5:18-19], the original word meant “to exchange,” like money, this for that. Now when it is applied to Christ, there is an exchange, a literal exchange made for all of us sinners in the ransom, the redemptive work of our Lord [Mark 10:45].
Now I say that is a universal law, and you live in it every day; it’s a part of your daily experience. When you read about a war, this side has captured a captain, and this side over here has captured several private soldiers, and this side says, “I’ll trade you this captain for ten private soldiers.” Or they’ve captured the general. “I’ll trade you,” says this side, “I’ll trade you this general for five hundred private soldiers,” the exchange. Or take another thing: this man has a beautiful diamond, he has a beautiful diamond, and that one diamond will pay thousands and thousands of dollars of debts, just one diamond, thousands and thousands of dollars of debts. Or this is a rich man, and he’s able to pay thousands and thousands of men who are hopelessly in debt. That’s just life, that’s the way the universe is put together.
Now that same thing is applied to Christ. He, deity, so precious and so valuable, is able to pay for the debts of uncounted multitudes of us lost sinners. And that’s why Paul will write, in Acts 20:28, “He has purchased us with His own blood.” And that’s why in the Book of the Revelation, in Revelation 5:9 they sing, “For thou has purchased us unto God by Thy own blood.” That’s why Paul will write in 1 Corinthians 6, “We are not our own: we are bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. And that’s why Simon Peter will write in the first chapter of 1 Peter, “He has redeemed us to God, He has bought us, He has purchased, not by corruptible things as gold and silver, but by His own precious blood” [1 Peter 1:18-19]. There is an exchange made. The Lord said it like this: “The Son of Man is come to give His life a ransom for many” [Mark 10:45]. He has bought us! He has paid a price for us! He has redeemed us, like money would be exchanged for a slave—that’s what that word means, katallassō, there’s an exchange made.
There’s another universal law: everywhere, and we live in it and under it and by it, and that’s the law of substitution. This one can be substituted for that one. Or this one can give his life in behalf of that one, that this one might live. The law of substitution, I say, is as universal as this law of moral sensitivity; and we live in it every day of our lives. Substitution: in the Bible, in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, when Abraham lifted up his dagger, his knife to plunge it into the heart of his only begotten son Isaac, the angel stops him: “Abraham, Abraham,” he calls from heaven, and the angel points to a ram caught in a thicket. And instead of his son Isaac, Abraham offers a sacrifice, the ram caught in a thicket, substitution [Genesis 22:10-13].
Look again, in the forty-fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis. Joseph has been sold into Egypt for a slave, into slavery. And as the days pass, he is next to the Pharaoh; he is prime minister. He administers the whole government of Egypt. And his eleven brothers come from their father, seeking food. Then is the long story of Joseph on the throne, whom his brothers do not recognize; he was a lad when they sold him, and now he governs Egypt. And in the story, finally Joseph makes the ten bring Benjamin, his own blood, full brother, by Rachel, who has died. And Joseph says to his brothers, “Now you all can go back home, but Benjamin has to stay here with me” [Genesis 37:26-44:17] And Judah, in the most dramatic address read in the Bible, Judah comes before the Pharaoh, who is Joseph, but he doesn’t know it, and Judah draws near to that great man and makes appeal for Benjamin, and says to him, “How can I go up to my father’s house, and the lad be not with me?” [Genesis 44:18-34]. And the next verse says, “Joseph broke into crying and tears” [Genesis 45:1]. It broke his heart. “You take me,” said Judah, “and make a slave out of me. Do as you will with me, substitute me; but let the lad go” [Genesis 44:30-33].
The law of substitution, it is everywhere. In the whole sacrificial system: a man who had sinned put his hands on the head of the animal, confessed his sin before God, and the animal was slain, and his blood poured out; a substitution [Leviticus 1:1-5, 4:27-30]. In the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, “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. All of us like sheep have gone astray . . . and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all”; substitution [Isaiah 53:5-6]. It is everywhere.
In the Second World War, where I pastored was one of the biggest camps in America. One of the divisions activated there was the 88th Division. They went all the way through that war in Europe. They started in North Africa, they went through Sicily, they landed at Salerno, and they fought the Germans clear to the homeland. And in that 88th Division that I saw activated and so many of the men we tried to minister to, practically every man was killed, every one of them. They died for us! They died for me! I wasn’t on the frontlines battling. I didn’t hit the beaches at Salerno; they did, substitution, they fought and died for me, for us, for our country!
I remember a pastor who was so beautifully described at one of our conventions. They had in these days gone by, they had a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans— that was before they discovered the awesomeness of a little disease carrying mosquito—and everyone was invited and urged to leave. And this pastor was urged to leave. He stayed and ministered to his people, and died. Substitution: his life poured out for them. Everywhere I see that.
Here is a man who says, “When I was born, the doctor said to the husband,” the father of this man, “I can’t save the baby and I can’t save the wife, the mother, at the same time. One of them I can save.” And the mother overheard it, and said to her husband, “Husband, please, take my life; save the baby.” That is substitution. That he might live, take my life. That is the great doctrine of the atoning work of Christ. He receives the penalty and the judgment of death for us, that we don’t face it [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Death for us now is a rapture [Romans 14:8]; it’s the open door into heaven, it’s the laying down of all of the sorrows and tears and heartaches of this life, and opening our eyes in the glory of heaven. He has taken the sting out of death and the victory out of the grave by substitution [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. That’s the great preaching of the gospel: Jesus did not come into this world like a Greek philosopher to just teach us things of the mind; men did not go out into the wilderness just to see a prophet, the last and the greatest; He did not stand as some man calling others to a knowledge of God; He came into this world to die in our stead, a substitute for us in the condemnation and judgment upon our sins [Hebrews 10:5-14]. That’s why He came.
And that is the kerygma, that’s the gospel, that’s the great good news that they preached in those beginning first Christian centuries. John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. The disciple that Jesus loved, who lay on His breast at the Lord’s Supper: “He is the propitiation for our sins” [1 John 2:2]. It is the blood that cleanseth us from all sin [1 John 1:7]. Peter stumbles around in a thousand ways, but he doesn’t stumble here: “In His own body, in His own self He bore our sins on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24].
The apostle Paul is greatest when he is speaking of the atoning grace of our Lord: “Him who loved me, and gave Himself for me, in my stead” [Galatians 2:20]. Isn’t that the Apocalypse? Isn’t that the Revelation? “Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood” [Revelation 1:5]. Isn’t that the gospel? Jesus died for me, in my stead, that I might live unto God [1 Corinthians 15:3].
In conclusion, there’s a corollary that follows that, inevitably follows it, always follows it, and that’s a part of our own human experience, our personal experience: how is it that I’m saved? Shall it be all glory to me, “I did it. Look at me, I achieved it. I bought it, I earned it, I deserved it,” is that the song that we sing? Is that the feeling of our hearts? No. Any man who has ever come to Christ always is filled with that abounding and wonderful praise and joy. “He did it.” Salvation is a free gift [Ephesians 2:8-9], and I just take it; I receive it. And the glory and the praise is to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us [Ephesians 5:2]. That’s the Christian worship. That’s these songs, that’s these words that we say, that’s these praises that come unbidden out of our hearts. Jesus, worthy, worthy, the blessed Jesus, He did it. When I was too weak, He had strength to lift me up. When I was too poor, He paid the debt. When I was lost, He found me.
You know, in preparing this sermon, I got to thinking about those angels who stand on the golden floor of paradise and who sing praises to Jesus, their great Captain and Lord, I was just thinking about those angels, and how they would sing. But an angel has never been redeemed; an angel has never fallen, an angel has never died, an angel has never been resurrected from the dead, an angel has never been lifted up out of the grave. And their singing is just in tribute to so great and marvelous a Captain as the Lord Jesus is over the hosts of heaven. That’s the way they sing. But when you and I sing, when we join in the heavenly chorus, it’s going to be a song of redemption and of salvation and of blood-bought forgiveness.
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
When this poor lispering, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave
I’ll sing Thy wondrous power to save.
[“There is a Fountain,” William Cowper]
That’s our song.
He saw me in deep distress
And came to my relief
For me He bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief
To Him I owe my life and breath
And all the joys I have
He makes me triumph over death
And saves me from the grave.
[“Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned,” Samuel Stennett]
An angel couldn’t say that? They can’t sing that? It is we who have been redeemed by the blood of the Crucified One [1 Peter 1:18-19], who have known what it is to transgress and been forgiven, who have known what it is to be lost and to be found in Christ, and someday know what it is to die and be buried, and be raised in triumph from the grave [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. We are the ones who sing that. That’s why I think the Book says that we’re going to be exalted above the angels [1 Corinthians 6:3]: God’s redeemed people.
May we stand together?
Our Lord, what a wonderful, wonderful gospel; what a precious and blessed hope. Our whole lives flow out in praise and gratitude to Thee. Lord, if You will give us a greater capacity to love Thee, we’ll love Thee. If You give us a greater gift to sing Thy praises, we’ll sing for Thee. If You will give us strength, Lord, greater to serve Thee, we’ll serve Thee. And our Master, if You will give us faith, the gift of faith, we’ll believe in Thee, and trust Thee, and give our lives in praise to Thee.
And while our people stand in the presence of our Lord for this moment, to accept the love of God in Christ Jesus, the free pardon of our sins, heaven, here and there, would you come? Would you answer with your life? A family together, a couple, the two, or the one somebody you, “Pastor, today, we’re coming.” And our Lord, thank Thee for the sweet harvest, in Thy saving name, amen. While we sing, welcome, welcome, welcome.