What is Reformed Theology? Part 6 – A Doctrinal Look

Why is it that we can be blessed with the new birth, justification, adoption, and sanctification?  Up until this point, I have been posting on what Reformed Theology teaches about the application of salvation.  In other words, I have been trying to explain how it is that God applies salvation to us.  I have argued thus far that the bible teaches that salvation is from God and by God.  He accomplishes it and he applies it.  It is not something that we participate in with God as if he meets us half way or even 99% of the way and we contribute the final 1%.  God elects, effectively calls giving new life, justifies, sanctifies, adopts, and glorifies.  Yes, we must place our faith in Christ, but this is evidence of God’s work in us not our part of the process.

But in my next two posts, I hope to explain how it is possible for God to bless us, his people, in these ways.  We will discuss the work of Christ on the cross.  Therefore, we will be focusing on the atonement and asking, ‘What exactly did Christ do on the cross with respect to the salvation of individuals?’  Before I say anything more, I want to be clear up front that there is a lot about the work of Christ that we will not be discussing.  I have just finished reading an excellent book on the work of Christ as a refresher for this post.  The Work of Christ by Robert Letham is an amazing book that discusses not only the atonement but the work of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, unpacking the individual and corporate dimensions of his work throughout his ministry, on the cross, and into eternity.  So, these two posts will attempt to explain in brief, the nature, the effect, and the intent of the atonement.

The Nature of the Atonement:

At the very heart of the biblical teaching of the nature of the atonement is the doctrine of penal substitution.  By this, I mean that Jesus Christ endured punishment upon the cross in our place.

We have broken God’s law to worship him as the creator and to love him and his creation, and thus he has prescribed a necessary penalty that we must endure which is death and exclusion from fellowship with him forever.

However, Christ willingly submitted himself to the just penalty for sin, though he was innocent, in our place as our substitute so that we would not have to bear it ourselves.

Paul teaches us this doctrine when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.21:

For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul is not saying that Jesus became sinful, but rather, that he was treated legally as a sinner even though he himself was not a sinner.  He was treated guilty by bearing our punishment in our place so that we might be treated as innocent and righteous before God.

Peter says the same thing in I Peter 3.18:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God

Again, we can see the idea of suffering a penalty in our place, the righteous one, Jesus, for the unrighteous sinners.

Once again, Paul says in Galatians 3.13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”-

Jesus was cursed for us, receiving the penalty that God the Father prescribed to those who broke his law.

Before moving on from this teaching, it is important to respond to a common objection to this doctrine.  There are many today who reject the assertion that this doctrine lies at the very heart of the gospel.  Many argue that historically, this has not been understood as the nature of the atonement by the church.  Other theories of the atonement have been set forth.

It is true that other theories of the atonement have been set forth throughout church history.  Space will not allow me to fully explain each, but these definitions will have to do:

  1. The recapitulation theory:  Christ’s whole life was a life of obedience.  Christ united himself with our humanity in order to perfectly live as Adam was supposed to, crushing our enemy the devil on the cross.
  2. The ransom theory:  The devil held humanity in his power, and thus God paid the devil a debt of Christ’s blood to purchase humanity back for himself.  His resurrection demonstrates his victory over the devil.
  3. The satisfaction/vicarious sacrifice theory:  This is another way of talking about the penal substitution view, but it has had some slight variations over the course of history.  It argues that Christ’s death satisfied the debt owed to God, but at times, people added the idea that it is not only a legal debt but a debt of honor.
  4. The moral influence theory:  Christ’s death was simply an example to us, a display of God’s love such that we are changed to become like God in our love.  Thus, there is no objective effect to Christ’s death, but a subjective one in us.
  5. The governmental theory:  This view assumes that the idea of God punishing sin is unfit for God, and thus understands the atonement as simply a prudential act of God intended to convince us that sin is a serious matter.

None of these theories however can be understood to be at the center of the work of Christ (for Scripture does not teach this), for while many of them do in fact teach us of some of the effects of the atonement, or explain some dimension of the atonement, none of them can work without the wrath of God being satisfied.  The bible consistently teaches that God’s wrath is the main obstacle that must be dealt with by Christ.

Thus, we must understand that Christ’s atonement for sin upon the cross could only be accomplished if we are united with Christ through faith.  In other words, the main objection to penal substitution is that it seems unjust that an innocent party should suffer for someone else and the guilty should go free.  This objection is easily dealt with when one realizes that the guilty do not in fact go free since the guilty are united to Christ and thus experience the penalty IN CHRIST.  Christ is our substitute and our representative head.  The human race is divided between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ (see Romans 5.12-21).  Letham says it well in his book on page 136:

It is in the context of a real and vital union between him and us, which is at least as real and vital as that between us and Adam.  Hence, we his people do indeed receive our just deserts for our misdemeanours [sic] inasmuch as Christ, having united himself to us in his incarnation, fully discharges the debt we owe.

A second objection to this doctrine of penal substitution deals with the concern people have about what this means about God.  Some argue that this God is not very nice.  Like a child abuser, God seems petty, vindictive, and maliciously violent for pouring out his wrath on his own Son.  However, this objection fails to account for the texts where Jesus explains that he himself lays his life down willingly.  Rather than seeing the cross as a disgusting act of hatred, we must see it as a beautiful example of God’s love.  God’s love is a holy love.  That means that his love does not come without justice.  Again, Letham says on page 138:

The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice.

So, to summarize, the bible teaches that at the very heart of the atonement is penal substation.  This doctrine is spelled out by describing Christ’s work on the cross as:

  1. a propitiation – a sacrifice satisfying God’s wrath (Rom. 3.21-26)
  2. expiation for sin – the removal of guilt, which goes hand in hand with propitiation (2 Cor. 5.21)
  3. an act of reconciliation – Christ’s blood eliminated God’s enmity toward us (Rom. 5.10-11)
  4. a ransom payment achieving redemption – Christ’s blood purchasing us from the curse inflicted by God, not the devil, and from slavery to sin (I Pet. 1.17-18)

All four of these concepts are tied up with penal substitution.  Yes, Christ died and was raised victorious over the devil, the curse, and sin, but this is only possible because he has shed his blood in our place.

The Effect of the Atonement:

Much of what I have said has already touched on the effect of the atonement.  Because Christ has satisfied the wrath of God, those who believe in Christ have their guilt removed, are reconciled to God, and are purchased so that they belong to God.

In other words, because Christ died on the cross for our sin in our place, we are justified, reconciled, and adopted.

  1. Justification is a legal term.  It means that we are declared to be in right standing with God by God because of what Jesus has done in satisfying God’s wrath as a propitiation.
  2. Reconciliation is a relational term.  It means we no longer are God’s enemies, but have peace with God.
  3. Adoption is a familial term.  It means that we belong to God, are part of his family, and are treated as children with an inheritance.

My next post will deal with the intent of the atonement.  While many Protestants would agree with what I have discussed thus far in this post, many have not understood the connections between these biblical ideas and what the bible teaches about God’s intention in the work of Christ on the cross.


One thought on “What is Reformed Theology? Part 6 – A Doctrinal Look

  1. Is the discussion of “atonement” as being “at-one-ment” rooted in scripture? We are “at one” with Christ after his sacrifice on the cross? Basically, is the “at-one-ment” talk a good way to explain the word?

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