The Awesome Mystery of the Atonement
May 17th, 1981 @ 10:50 AM
THE AWESOME MYSTERY OF THE ATONEMENT
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-17-81 10:50 a.m.
It is a gladness for us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas to welcome the multitudes of you who share this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Awesome Mystery of the Atonement. It is in this series of doctrinal sermons on Christology, on Christ our Lord.
There has not been in my memory any message that I have ever studied over, and prayed over, and wrestled with, and struggled with any more than I have the one I seek to deliver today. There have been libraries of books, literally, concerning the atonement of Christ, how the death of Christ saves us from our sins. But it seems to me that the presentation in all of them are up there somewhere. They are filled with theological language and philosophical discussions, many human speculations.
I can understand. It is a human attempt to explain the deep, unfathomable, infinite mysteries of God. But it does not do us any good if I stand here and try to repeat the theological, philosophical, theoretical, hypothetical reasons why Christ dies. What we need, for me at least, is something that I can see and experience. What is this in my life? And how does it affect me? What is God doing that I can understand, and feel, and experience, and respond to in my heart?
That accounts for the fact that I have made the sermon half a dozen times. I would make it, then throw it away, and then start over again, and then be unhappy with it, then start over again. So the result has been what you will hear this morning, and I pray that the Lord will bless it to our hearts.
There is a universal law in which all of us share. It is everywhere. There’s no family, there’s no tribe, there’s no people so degraded or so low that they are not morally sensitive. That’s the creation of God. We are in His image [Genesis 1:27]. That doesn’t refer to our intellectual capacities. There are many animals that are shrewd and smart and intelligent. The image of God in us refers to our moral sensitivity. We are the only one in the vast panorama of creation that possesses that image, that moral sensitivity. And all of us—the whole human race of all generations—has felt that moral lack, the condemnation of sin and transgression: guilt. And how do you get rid of it? How do you face it? What do you do with it?
In this dramatic and poignant presentation in the sixth chapter of the Revelation, beginning at verse , he sees heaven opened as a scroll that is rolled together:
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 mountains and rocks, 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, the judgment day has come; and who shall be able to stand?”
Can rocks and mountains hide us from the judgment day of Almighty God? Do rocks and mountains cover our transgressions? Always and through all generations is that sense of guilt and condemnation felt in our souls because of our sins, our moral sensitivity.
In the beginning, in the story of Adam and Eve, in their transgression [Genesis 3:1-6], they sewed fig leaves together and made aprons to cover their nakedness [Genesis 3:7]. Why did it not do it? When they heard the voice of the Lord God as He came to visit the man and his wife, they hid themselves and were afraid [Genesis 3:8]. They were ashamed because they were naked [Genesis 3:10]. Why didn’t the fig leaves cover them? Was it not sufficient? Having done all that they knew to do to hide away their sin, and transgression, and nakedness, and shame, they still hid themselves and were afraid.
We are told that when Ahab went out to battle, he made himself armor and covered his entire body about that he might be preserved in the hour of battle. But we are told that a man, a soldier on the other side, drew his bow and let fly the arrow at a venture [1 Kings 22:34]. That means he didn’t aim it. He just let fly the arrow, and the arrow found a crevice in his armor and pierced his heart. And the crimson of his life flowed out in the chariot, and he died according to the saying of the man of God [1 Kings 22:35-38, 21:19]. Why can’t we build armor to preserve us from the darts of our moral condemnation?
I would suppose the most dramatic of all of the plays, the dramas that were ever written, is Macbeth. And encouraged by Lady Macbeth, the thane takes a dagger and plunges it into the heart of his guests in his own castle. He murders Duncan, king of Scotland. And when we comes back to Lady Macbeth, the blood has followed the dagger when he pulls it out, takes it out of the heart of the king of Scotland. And his hand is bathed with blood. And Lady Macbeth says to the thane, she says, “Go wash your hands. A little clean water will clear us of this deed.”
And as the thane makes his way to the fountain in the palace to wash his hands, he says, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, rather this my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” How do you wash the blood of guilt from your hands?
Or a judge is seated on the bench, and before him is his own son; a teenager, his own boy. Surely, being kin and son of the judge will clear him of the wrong that he’s done. But the judge seated on the bench, looking at the boy standing in front of him, opens the statutes of the law. He has no other choice. And the boy stands there before his own father who reads the condemnation. I am just trying to emphasize the universality of this sense of moral lack, moral depravity. Our fallen natures, fallen in mind, fallen in heart, fallen in will, fallen in life, we are a fallen and dying humanity. It is universal.
There is also another law, universal. It is the law of redemption, of repurchase. It is the law of ransom. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, “If a poor man is taken away from his possessions, the law of redemption, of ransom, of repurchase, a kinsman can buy back his poor brother’s loss” [Leviticus 25:25]. In that same chapter, the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus, “If the poor man has sold himself into slavery, a kinsman can buy him back, can redeem him,” and any slave could be bought back, could be redeemed, could be freed in an exchange of money [Leviticus 25:47-48]. The law of redemption, of repurchase, of ransom, that’s universal.
One of the most amazing of all the discoveries I have made in my study is this word translated “atonement” or “reconciliation.” “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, and being reconciled, we shall be certainly saved by His intercessory life in heaven. We’re going to make it,”for in our Lord Jesus Christ, we have received the atonement” [Romans 5:10-11], the only place in the New Testament that that word “reconciliation” is translated “atonement.”
Look at it again, as Paul will write:
All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us this ministry of reconciliation: namely,
that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself . . . and has given to us this ministry of reconciliation.
Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead as though God Himself were here, as though Christ were standing here we pray you, we beseech ye, be ye reconciled to God.
[2 Corinthians 5:18-20].
Now, I had never seen it before, the word translated “be ye reconciled,” katallassō, and the word “reconciliation,” katallagē, translated in one place “atonement.” That word originally meant an exchange, like an exchange of money. It came to be reconciliation because it came to mean the exchange of enmity for friendship, hatred for love, reconciliation. But in the beginning the word katallassō meant an exchange of money. And it is used here to describe what Christ has done for us. He has bought us. He has redeemed us. He has ransomed us at a price! [2 Corinthians 5:18-20].
When you look at that universally, here are two armies that are battling, and this side has captured a general from the other side. And this side says, “We will exchange this general for five hundred private soldiers.” Or, “We have captured a captain, and we’ll exchange this captain for ten private soldiers”; katallassō, an exchange.
Here is someone who has a big diamond, a beautiful, beautiful diamond. I will exchange this diamond for thousands of dollars that I owe you in debt. I’ll exchange the diamond for thousands of dollars in debt—one for thousands. Here is a rich man, and he is able to pay the debt of thousands of poor people who are, say, facing the confiscation of their homes or their farms, their properties. And he is able to do it because he is rich. Exchange.
So Christ is described as in His deity and in His incomparable worth; the vast indescribable, immeasurable, unfathomable, impenetrable marvel of His soul, and His life, and His being, and His love, and His grace, and His goodness toward us, His loving kindness, His friendship; Christ exchanges His self, His love in sacrifice, His vicarious giving of Himself [Ephesians 5:2]. He does that to purchase to Himself all of us poor, undone sinners who face slavery and condemnation and judgment [1 Peter 1:18-19].
And that’s why Paul will say, “You are not your own. You are bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. And that’s why Simon Peter will write in the first chapter of his first letter, “We are redeemed, we are bought, not with corruptible things as silver and gold; but with the precious blood of the Son, the Lamb of God” [1 Peter 1:18-19]. And that’s why the Lord said “For the Son of Man is come to give His life a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45], an exchange, the worth of our Lord for us sinners. And He has bought us. He has redeemed us. He has paid our debt and we now don’t belong to ourselves [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. We belong unto Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us [Galatians 2:20].
Again, there is in this world universally, there is a law of substitution, and it is in every day’s life; vicarious suffering, substitution, a life for a life. I say that’s from the beginning, and it’s a universal law in which all of us daily share: substitution.
The Bible will present it sometimes in poignant ways. On Mt. Moriah, where the temple was built in the heart of Jerusalem [2 Chronicles 3:1], Abraham, according to the word of the Lord, built an altar and laid upon it his son Isaac. And when he raised up the dagger to plunge it into the heart of his boy, a voice called from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham.” And the Angel of the Lord that stopped the plunging of the knife pointed to a ram caught in a thicket. And Abraham offered the ram instead of, as a substitute, for his son Isaac [Genesis 22:9-13]: the law of substitution.
In that same Book of Genesis, in chapter 44, the sons of Israel, [ten] of them, are standing before the prime minister of Egypt [Genesis 44:14-15], who is the brother that they sold as a teenager into slavery [Genesis 37:26-28], but they don’t recognize him now. He’s the lord over Egypt [Genesis 44:38-41]. And over those long chapters, when they go back and forth, finally that man on the throne, Joseph, unknown to his brethren, he has them go back and bring his own full brother Benjamin [Genesis 42:34-43:15], who was born of Rachel, who died in Benjamin’s birth [Genesis 35:16-19]. The man on the throne has them bring Benjamin. And then this time, when he dismisses them to return to Canaan, to Israel, he says, “But you will leave Benjamin here. You cannot take Benjamin. Benjamin must stay here” [Genesis 44:14-17].
In the forty-fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis is the most moving and dramatic of all of the appeals you’ll read in human speech or in human literature. Judah, Judah draws nigh to the prime minister of Egypt and makes appeal for his little brother Benjamin [Genesis 44:18-33]. He closes it, “How shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me?” [Genesis 44:34]. The next verse, and that man who stands for Pharaoh could refrain himself no longer [Genesis 45:1], when Judah says, “Take me,” the substitute, “and let little Benjamin go back to his father, lest we bring his old gray head down to the grave” [Genesis 44;30-33] The next verse says that Joseph could contain himself no longer. He burst into tears [Genesis 45:1-2]. It broke his heart, the tremendous dedication of Judah. “Take me and let my little brother go” [Genesis 44:33]: the law of substitution.
The whole sacrificial system was there. The sinner came with his offering, with his sacrifice. Putting his hands over the head of the victim, he confessed his sins [Leviticus 5:5-6]. And the victim, a lamb or a bullock, was slain, and the blood poured out before God: substitution. The great fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is that. “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 we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:5-6]: substitution.
And that was the great fact of the kērugma, the gospel, the proclamation of the love of God in Christ Jesus. This He did for us. He took our place. He died in our stead. He was punished for our sins. “He was made sin for us, He who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness, that we might be received righteous before God” [2 Corinthians 5:21]: substitution.
It’s a remarkable thing. Jesus did not come into this world like a Greek philosopher to discuss to us the things of the intellectual mind. Nor did men go out to hear a prophet, the last and the greatest. Nor was He one who stood for God, calling men to the faith of the Lord God. Rather, our Savior, the precious Jesus, came into the world to die for us. “In the roll of the Book it is written of Me, and lo, I come to do Thy will, O God” [Hebrews 10:7-9]. And that will was that He die in our place [1 Peter 3:18], so much so now that death is robbed of its sting and the grave of its victory [1 Corinthians 15:55-57].
And death now to us is but the open door into heaven. We close our eyes on the heartache, and the tears, and sorrows, and hurts of this world; and we open our eyes upon the glories of heaven. This has Jesus done for us. And without fail, all of the old apostles and witnesses bear witness to that glorious gospel of the saving grace, the efficacious substitution that we know in Christ for our sins [2 Corinthians 5:21].
John the Baptist; “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. The beloved apostle John, who leaned on the Lord’s breast at the Lord’s table [John 13:25; 21:20]; “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” [1 John 2:2]. And it is His blood that cleanses us from all sin” [1 John 1:7].
Peter may stumble in a thousand ways, but he never stumbles here. “In His own body, He bore our sins on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24]. And the marvelous preaching of the apostle Paul, “He loved me, and gave Himself for me” [Galatians 2:20]. “And when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” [Romans 5:10].
And the great moving introduction in the first chapter of the Revelation, “Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood” [Revelation 1:5]: this is the gospel, this is what Jesus has done for us. He took our place and bore the judgment that should have fallen upon us [1 Peter 2:24]. And in Him, we have forgiveness of sins [Ephesians 1:7], and an open door into heaven.
A concluding, deductory, corollary remark; this occasion, the abounding praises that fill our hearts and our souls for what Jesus has done for us, when we stand in the presence of the great throne of God, on that sea of crystal glass [Revelation 4:6, 15:2], shall our song be, “Look what I have done? I am here, saved by my own merit. I have paid the debt. I have earned my salvation. It is something I won or achieved or deserved.” Shall that be our song?
Or shall it be, “I was a lost and dying and condemned sinner, and He lifted me up out of the miry pit and set my feet on the rock? He forgave me my sins. He died in my stead, and my salvation is a gift from His gracious and loving hands. He did it for me.” Isn’t that the gospel? And isn’t that our praise now and forever, “To Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever” [Revelation 1:5-6].
In preparing this sermon, I began to think about those hosts of angels in heaven. And in the Book of the Apocalypse, read the song that they sing, the hymns of praise that they offer unto Jesus. And I began thinking about those songs that the angels sing.
Standing on the golden floor of paradise, they address those beautiful words to the Lord Jesus. He is the Captain of their host. He is the crown Prince of glory. He deserves the adoration and praise of the innumerable angels, myriads and myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands, and thousands of thousands [Revelation 5:11-12]—the Apocalyptic verse describes them as being. And I think that’s wonderful. Oh, to be there someday and to listen to those angels by their uncounted myriads praise the Lord, the Prince of glory.
My brother, an angel has never been blood-bought. An angel has never been redeemed. An angel has never been ransomed. And if He tarries, an angel will never have the experience that we shall have: to die and to be buried and to be raised in resurrection glory [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 John 3:2]. An angel has never known what it was to be forgiven of sin. They can’t sing as we can sing. We shall sing:
Ever since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be ’til I die:
Then, in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy power to save.
When this poor, lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
[“There is a Fountain,” William Cowper, 1772]
He saw me in My 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 know;
He makes me triumph over death
And saves me from the grave!
[adapted from “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned,” Samuel Stennett]
That shall be our song forever and ever. What Jesus has done for us. May we stand?
Our Lord, we just pray for hearts greater and bigger to love Thee more. We pray that God shall help us to sing songs that the more beautifully and gloriously praise Thee, O blessed Redeemer. And we ask humbly that God shall give us faith to trust in Thee the more completely and then strength, Lord, to serve Thee the more effectively and wondrously.
While our people stand before our blessed Lord, a family you, “Pastor, today we’re coming down that aisle together. We’re putting our lives in the family of God here.” A couple you, “We have decided for the Lord.” Or just one somebody you, “Today, I received the gift of life in Christ Jesus, and I’m coming. I want to be baptized. I want to follow the Lord in His commandment [Matthew 28:19-20], and beautiful example” [Matthew 3:13-17]. Or, “I want to put my life here with these dear people in this wonderful church.” Make the decision now in your heart. And in this moment when we sing, down that stairway or down this aisle, “Here we come, pastor, answering with our lives.” And our Lord, we love Thee and thank Thee for the sweet harvest, in Thy precious name, amen. While we sing, “Here I come.”