What Is Atonement?
Elder Wm. Doyal Thomas
Former Pastor - Philadelphia Baptist Church
Decatur , Alabama

Is it not all too common among men to become careless as we read and contemplate the language of the Bible? Do we all have a propensity to assume far too much as to our understanding, and as to the understanding of others concerning God’s Book? I greatly fear that our answer must be in the affirmative. We are careless and we do assume far too much. This probably applies to us as we study on any subject, including the subject of the atonement.  

There does seem to be a renewed interest in recent times concerning the atonement, as measured by the frequency of sermons preached and printed relative to this most wonderful and stupendous doctrine. And I rejoice in this activity among dear brethren of my acquaintance and close personal relationship. I praise God for His leading us toward a re-examination of our understanding of His perfect work that He has undertaken for His glory and for the good of His people.  

Atonement is a foundation doctrine, and as such, it deserves our careful attention and our most valiant effort to enable us to arrive at the correct position of understanding. We must seek to know God’s will and work in this matter, or suffer with the lack of true worship and praise that He ought to receive from creatures with whom He has in such mercy and grace dealt. He is to be adored and worshipped with all that is in us, and with faulty understanding, we will be unable to do so.  

A careful reading of the Authorized Version (King James of 1769) of our English Bible will reveal that the word “atonement” appears only once in the New Testament. When my serious reading and meditating on the Scriptures began more than sixty years ago, this one appearing of the word I found to be quite astounding, as it was quite unexpected. “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:11).  

The Greek word that is here translated “atonement”, is used only three other times in the New Testament, but in each of these three times used, it is translated “reconcile”, or “to reconcile”. This is also a cause of wonder and amazement.  

For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).  

But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (I Corinthians 7:11).  

And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18-19).  

That there is close connection between the words atonement and reconciliation none can deny. The words are expressive of a change that has occurred on the part of one person toward another person. In the case of the passage in I Corinthians 7:11, the change of attitude is said to be on the part of the wife who has departed from her husband. She is to be reconciled to her husband, or else she is enjoined to remain unmarried to any other. In other cases (Romans 5:10, and II Corinthians 5:18, 19), it is sinners who have departed from the relationship and fellowship with God who are to be changed in their attitude toward Him, and hence, are said to become reconciled to God.  

This point now is vital to our correct view and understanding of the doctrine of atonement. Strictly speaking, God receives the atonement price, or the satisfying ransom price, while redeemed sinners receive the benefits of the atonement as a covering (c.f. Leviticus 17:11).  

Never is God said to be reconciled to man, in the sense that He must capitulate, deviate or moderate His holy, righteous, and just nature or stance in order to accommodate creature lack of either will to, or capacity to meet His just demands. God has not changed. His position has not been altered at all, for His essential attribute of holiness is immutably the same. It is man that has sinned and has fallen from his created estate. It is man that is estranged from God. It is man that must have atonement made for him, and it is man that must be reconciled to God, or make satisfaction with God. (More on this later - WDT)  

Take note that it is creature man that needs to be reconciled to God. Though man is not the sole sinning creature, he is the only creature for whom God has been pleased to make atonement, and to bring to a state of reconciliation unto Himself. And not all men are so blessed of the Sovereign to be so cared for and provided for.  

Satan, fallen angels, and all unrepentant men will suffer eternally in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. And their suffering will be just and retributive punishment which their sin has earned. The punishment meted out to them will be in accordance with the enormity of their heinous sins against the Holy God. It will be deserved punishment.  

And the judgment against them will indeed be punishment. It will not be corrective nor chastening in its nature. It will be penal. It will be punitive. Because the eternal burning will not be, and is not designed by God, nor intended by God to produce repentance unto life, it will not so produce. It will punish, and that eternally!  

The rich man of Luke chapter 16 is seen in hell, and he laments, “I am tormented in this flame”. Yet, no mention is made of any purging effect upon his nature. He is not brought to repentance unto life so as to escape from this place, or to be released from hell’s confinement. What about a chastening “purgatory”, as is so evilly presented by the Romish system of Satan worship, so cleverly disguised as Christianity?  

An examination of the Scriptures will reveal that when God preached the gospel of the grace of God to a congregation of three in Genesis, chapter 3, no mention is made of His having made a “covering” (atonement) for the sins of the Devil. And the reason that no mention was made of such a covering being provided was because there was no such covering provided, nor intended. God did not “offer” a way out for all sinners. Remember that of the gathered assembly here, all three of them, Satan, Adam, and Eve were creatures, and they were all sinners.  

But, it is expressly declared in Holy Writ that, “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Search if there be any mention of, or any intention to, make a coat of skin and clothe Satan. There is none. God did not seek to recover Satan. He did not intend to extend to him redeeming grace in any form, measure, or degree.  

Revelation 20:10 makes crystal clear the ultimate end that awaits God’s archenemy, Satan. And it will not be as the laughing, diabolical creature he is imagined to be by foolish men who view him as the ruler of a so-called “devil’s hell”. There is no such place. There is a hell, but it is God’s, who created it for the purpose of punishing those who have sinned against Him. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever”. And God is glorified in this just act.

Does this sound like the future of the Devil will be joyous? Is this a picture of one who is enjoying himself while others are being tormented? Unquestioningly, the Devil is to be forever punished by God for his sins. And he will go right on sinning and heaping continuing punishment upon himself in endless duration.  

And he is judged and sentence executed in full compliance with the declaration of God, his Creator, as expressed in Genesis 3:14-15. “And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enemity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it (He) shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.  

God’s judgment of Satan then is sure and certain. There will be no stays of execution, and certainly no parole or early release from the confining and troublesome place designed for Satan, his angels, and all unrepentant men. Judgment is pronounced by God and it most surely will be carried out exactly as prescribed.  

Consider also the destiny of all the angels that followed Lucifer in his rebellion against the Holy One. Search for opportunity provided them for restoration to their created state, and you will be assured that no such opportunity exists. That is, you will find no scriptural warrant to assume that a way to escape the justice of God is found for fallen angels. When one is shut up to the declarations of Scripture, all imaginations of men and traditional teachings of men collapse around him who makes such declaration. There is no salvation for fallen angels.  

But that’s the way it is with all the suppositions and imaginations of men. When they are brought to the Holy Scriptures, they are all weighed in the balance and are found wanting. They all simply fall into nothingness and disintegrate into an empty heap of rubbish. And all this to the glory of God and to the vindication of His eternal will and pleasure.  

Those angels that followed Lucifer in his rebellion were created beings just like those who were kept in their created estate and did not sin. There was no difference in them. The difference being only that God had elected certain of them to be preserved while the rest were by-passed and allowed to sin.  

In this act of choosing some while by passing others, was any injury done to those who were not chosen? How could there be? Did either the chosen, or those left have any claim upon God that required Him to act favorably toward some and unfavorably toward others? To say so would be to impugn the sovereign prerogative of God to deal with His own as He would (c.f. Matthew 20:15; Romans 9:10-24).  

What does the Scriptures have to say about angels, fallen and kept? Concerning those chosen ones, God has said that they are “elect angels” in I Timothy 5:21, and that they are to worship Him and to serve Him. “And again, when he bringeth in the first begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire” (Hebrews 1:6, 7).  

Now concerning those angels that were not kept, but instead were left to their own way, God has said of them, “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). Note also this declaration: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment; ...” (II Peter 2:4).  

So then, we are scripturally assured that Satan and his angels will be eternally punished for their sins in the lake of fire. They will be eternally PUNISHED!!! This tells us that no punishment was suffered in their room and in their stead by Christ, or by any other. They are still “in” their sins, as they are being punished “for” their sins in the lake of fire. Note, they are still “in” their sins.  

But what of unrepentant sinners among men? Hear the Lord Jesus Christ as He speaks to such. “Then said Jesus again unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come. Then said the Jews, Will he kill himself? because he saith, Whither I go, ye cannot come. And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:21-24).  

And what is this declaration, “ye shall die IN your sins”? Hear the conclusion of this matter. “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of these things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire” (Revelations 20:11-15).  

This is what it means for man to die IN his sins. He dies eternally for sins unatoned for, and the punishment is in correspondence with the enormity of those sins.  

Now, what is atonement? Atonement is not at-one-ment, as foolish and unlearned men have imagined and have expressed their pride in declaring. Men imagine that it is just a matter of bringing God and the guilty sinner together, which could lead one to further imagine that both have an active, producing part to play in the transaction.  

Such cannot be the case however, because the coats that Adam and Eve wore were supplied by God. What part did they play in the attaining of suitable “covering” for their nakedness, and for their exposure to the judgment and wrath of their Creator? And we answer, none at all. They were, to be sure, the recipients of the covering that was provided, but they did not, in any way participate in its procurement, nor in its bestowal. Consequently, all the honor, glory, and praise connected with the atonement, or covering, accrues to God alone.  

Atonement means, in its most basic terms, a covering under which there is security. It means that reconciliation now is done because atonement has been made. It means that a ransom has been paid, whose price precisely, exactly and finally corresponds to the demand. It means that when atonement is made and reconciliation is brought about, there will never be further need to repeat, nor to augment this once accomplished and eternally blessed act.  

What is atonement? Atonement is Christ being made our Mercy Seat; our Covering. It is a complete and lasting transaction which God performs as He exercises His grace toward elect sinners. But what He does in this regard, He does on the basis of, and on the positive ground of what His dear Son has done. His Son propitiated Jehovah God. That is, He has satisfied God on the behalf of His own so as to bring them into agreement with God, and to appease the Lawgiver on their behalf.  

Christ has accomplished atonement by His obedience to God and by His suffering the just penalty for our sins and disobedience. Both obedience and suffering were required, and the suffering of Christ was effectual in that it satisfied God. His suffering was for others who had failed to positively obey God. His active obedience and passive suffering was in the room and stead of His people.  

Had Christ only suffered our guilt and penalty we would have been restored to the state of innocence which Adam was in possession of before the fall into sin. But we would also be subject to another fall. What would we have that Adam did not have? What guarantee would there be that we would not likewise fall? Adam was in a state of innocence wasn’t he? And what is innocence except the lack of guilt?  

The solution is that Christ suffered our guilt and penalty. That’s what His suffering accomplished. He passively submitted Himself to the suffering our sins had earned and did not seek to be released from that suffering. He willingly submitted to our deserved suffering.  

Have you not wondered why, when all the false accusations were made against Him, He did not speak to defend Himself? Why did He not open His mouth in His own defense? Surely He, the sinless Son of God was personally innocent of every charge that was, or could be brought against Him. But He opened not His mouth. Why?  

We, for whom He stood Surety were guilty. Thus, as He stood for us, He stood guilty in our stead. Not personally guilty, but legally guilty. Accountably guilty. And that by imputation. Our sins were confessed over Him, and legally laid upon Him. He was “made to be sin” for us. (II Corinthians 5:21). And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21-22).  

Now hear the prophetic declaration of the fulfillment of this typical scape goat’s role in the removal of guilt and penalty from the account of God’s elect. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But 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. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3-7).  

We, being personally guilty of sin were obligated to suffer the judgment of God against us. We were guilty! But Christ, our Substitute, assumed our guilt and took it as His own, opened not His mouth, and suffered our penalty. Thus, He passively submitted to our suffering. Remember, Christ died for our sins “according to the scriptures”, and died in complete harmony with their demands. He met our due death, and delivered us from its demands.  

But He also actively produced for us a perfect righteousness, and then laid that righteousness upon us. He clothed us with His own Righteousness which takes us far beyond the state of mere innocence and restoration to innocence that Adam had previously enjoyed, and that we now have been brought back to. We have positive Righteousness from which state we will never, and can never depart. We are kept by the power of God. We will never again be subject to the fall that Adam experienced, and that we experienced in him, as we sinned with him.  

This is the atonement that the Bible presents. This is an atonement that atones. This is a ransom paid that yields positive and eternal results. This is a redemption that truly does redeem those for whom it was intended. If the Lord wills, we will continue to look into the matter of atonement in future issues of The Baptist Herald. There is very much to this wonderful subject that is yet to be presented. There is yet much to be studied, considered, and meditated upon. Please pray that each of us, writer and readers will diligently look into God’s Book for His instruction on this and all other matters.  

We anticipate further study into the nature of the atonement; the intention of the atonement; and the results of the atonement. We want to know more about this foundation doctrine, and to be enabled to apply its teaching and precepts to our understanding of all those matters that shall come before us from time to time in our study of the Word. Please pray for us, and for the ministry of our church as we send forth each month The Baptist Herald.

(The Baptist Herald - June, 1990)

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