The Atonement: When was it Made?

J. A. Trench.

Article 28 of 55 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 2.

On this great subject it may be helpful to note that the word so often in the Old Testament is only found once in the New, namely (Rom. 5:11), where it ought to be rendered "reconciliation." Perhaps through the erroneous use of the word here, atonement has been confounded with reconciliation, to which it stands in relation as cause to effect, reconciliation being one of the sweetest consequences of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus. For if the word is not used, the idea expressed by atonement is very fully brought out in the New Testament. And first as to the place where it was wrought, Romans 3:25 gives us "Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [a 'mercy-seat' as constantly in the Old Testament and so translated, Hebrews 9:5] through faith in his blood." Then as to the work wrought there we have "to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (R.V.). Hebrews 2:17, and in 1 John 2:2, "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours [Jews] only, but also for the whole world." Again 1 John 4:10, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Two things thus come out very fully: first, that atonement or propitiation is for God, as it is against Him all our sins have been; He it is who needs to be propitiated. But that if this is so, it is His own love that has provided the propitiation in sending His Son into the world. On the other hand, if the subject is reconciliation, it is not God that needs to be reconciled, but the sinner who was alienated from Him. Hence the importance of not mixing up the two thoughts.

As to where atonement took place, the testimony of Scripture is decisive: it took place at the Cross.

It is there that, when God had provided for Himself a lamb for the sacrifice, when Christ through the eternal Spirit had offered Himself without spot to God to be the willing victim, God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that He laid upon Him the iniquities of all who have been brought to the confession of their sins under divine conviction. It was there Jehovah had made His Son an offering for sins. It was there He bore our sins in His own body on the tree, and endured the judgment of God due to them in divine righteousness. It was there He drank the bitter cup to the last dreg, even the hiding of God's face from Him, till He could say, "It is finished." It was there His precious blood was shed, without which there is no remission. Nor must the value of the offering be separated in any way from the suffering that accompanied it. (See Heb. 9:25-26) "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." And how infinite the glory of that work for God, when for the first time, all He is in every moral attribute of His being was revealed. There all divine holiness was manifested as He hid His face from Jesus; there divine righteousness was declared in sin's righteous judgment; there the Majesty of His throne was vindicated against the outrage of my sins and very existence as a rebel creature; there His truth was maintained and His love to the sinner found full expression; and all this in the place where nothing but sin was in question. How great the triumph of the Lord Jesus in being able to turn sin, the worst work of the enemy, into the brightest revelation of the glory of God.

Now this is just where the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus come in. They add nothing to the work, but are the answer of God's righteousness to the perfection of it. The Lord Jesus appealed to this as the proof of God's having been glorified in it. (John 13:31) "If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him." And He did, for as we know from Romans 6:4, before the dear women that loved Him could be at the sepulchre, He was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. And here is to be found the full positive revelation of God's righteousness in setting the One that had so glorified Him in the highest heavenly glory; the Spirit there witnesses of that righteousness "because I go to the Father," as the Lord Jesus says.

Thus we learn (Heb. 1:3) that when He had by Himself purged our sins — or made purification for sins — He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. He never sat down there until He had settled the whole question of sin. And this is pressed to its full consequences for us in Hebrews 10 "that this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins, for ever sat down on the right hand of God … for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us … their sins and iniquities will I remember no more."

Again, "if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain, ye are yet in your sins." But if He be raised, it is the magnificent proof to everyone that believes in Him, that the sins that He bore on the Cross are gone for ever.

Nothing can be more conclusive, then, than the testimony of Scripture to the Cross as the place where the atoning work was done. The resurrection is the necessary answer to its perfection in the righteousness of God, and for the satisfaction of His own heart. In all this we must ever remember that if the righteousness of God demanded the sacrifice, His love it was that provided it; a love that found its answer in the devotedness of the Son to the Father's glory, that would give Himself even to death for the accomplishment of the counsels of divine and infinite love.