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Jonathan Gal - Meaning of Atonement

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The Meaning of the Atonement:  Ellen White's Understanding

Taken from an essay by Jonathan Gallagher (England)

The need for a proper understanding of the atonement is a recurring theme in Ellen White's writings.   While she does made extensive use of traditional terminology in describing why Jesus died, her perception of this vital truth goes far beyond the reiteration of terms such as appeasement, propitiation, expiation etc.  In assessing the true meaning and implication of the reconciliation of man to God brought about by Christ's life, death and resurrection, Ellen White implements the insights of the Great Controversy viewpoint to help understand what questions the cross answered and what problems it solved.


In order to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ, it is essential that you should meditate much on the great themes of redemption.  You should ask yourself why Christ had taken humanity upon himself, why he suffered upon the cross, why he bore the sins of men, why he was made sin and righteousness for us.  You should study to know why he ascended to heaven in the nature of man, and what is his work for us today...We take it for granted that we know all about him, and yet we do not comprehend his character or mission.  Signs of the Times, Dec 1, 1890


What is essential in her thought is the MEANING of why Jesus died.

The atonement of Christ is not a mere skillful way to have our sins pardoned; it is a divine remedy for the cure of transgression and the restoration of spiritual health.  It is the Heaven-ordained means by which the righteousness of Christ may be not only upon us but in our hearts and characters.  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 6, 1074

God's forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which he set us free from condemnation.  It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin.  It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart.  Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 114.


In this she is repeating God's desire that the law should not be an external corrective but an inward determinant.

Ellen White well knew, speaking of "the remedial sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who is our atonement--at-one-ment with God".  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 6, 1077

Christ's death shows us God's great love for man.  It is the pledge of our salvation.  To remove the cross from the Christian would be like blotting out the sun.  The Cross brings us near to God, reconciling us to him...Through the cross we learn that our Heavenly Father loves us with an infinite and undying love, and draws us to him with more than a mother's yearning sympathy for a wayward child.  Review and Herald, April 29, 1893

Christ was the medium through which He (the Father) could pour out his infinite love upon a fallen world.  "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself".   God suffered with His Son, in the agony of Gethsemane, the death of Calvary; the heart of Infinite Love paid the price of our redemption.  The Home Missionary, April 1893


The atonement of Christ was not the cause of God's love, but the result of that love.  Jesus died because God loved the world.  The channel had to be made whereby the love of God should be recognized by man, and flow into the sinner's heart in perfect harmony with truth and justice.  Review and Herald, September 2, 1890

The atonement of Christ was not made in order to induce God to love those whom He otherwise hated; and it was not made to produce a love which was not in existence; but it was made as a manifestation of the love that was already in God's heart, an exponent of the divine favour in the sight of the heavenly intelligences, in the sight of the worlds unfallen, and in the sight of a fallen race...We are not to entertain the idea that God loves us because Christ has died for us, but that He so loved us that He gave His only-begotten Son to die for us.  Signs of the Times, May 30, 1893

God Himself was crucified with Christ; for Christ was one with the Father.  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 5, 1108

What a love it is that appeals to fallen men!  (John 3:16 quoted)...Well did the disciples understand this love as they saw their Savior enduring shame, reproach, doubt, and betrayal, as they saw his agony in the garden, and his death on Calvary's cross.  This is a love the depth of which no sounding can ever fathom.  As the disciples comprehended it, as their perception took hold of God's divine compassion, they realized that there is a sense in which the sufferings of the Son were the sufferings of the Father.  Youth's Instructor, December 16, 1897


Satan had accused God of requiring self-denial of the angels, when he knew nothing of it himself, and when he would not himself make any self-sacrifice for others.  This was the accusation Satan made against God in heaven; and after the evil one was expelled from heaven, he continually charged the Lord with exacting service which he would not render himself.  Christ came to the world to meet these false accusation and to reveal the Father.  Review and Herald, March 9, 1897

Christ's self-sacrificing love is revealed upon the cross.  He gave all He had, and then gave Himself, that man might be saved.  Testimonies, Vol 4, 80

Pardoning, redeeming love is brought to view in Christ Jesus.  Satan had misrepresented the character of God, and it was necessary that a correct representation should be made to worlds unfallen, to angels and to men...In Christ we behold the character of the Father, and see the pitying tenderness which God exercised for fallen man, giving his only begotten Son as a ransom for the transgressors of the law.  It is in beholding the love of God that repentance is awakened in the sinner's heart, and an earnest desire is created to become reconciled to God.  Review and Herald,  March 9, 1897

In the atonement the character of God is revealed.  Great Controversy, Vol 5, 1137


The Cross is not meant to be some kind of mystic symbol or magic talisman that can ward off danger, defeating vampires or whatever on the same level as garlic, silver bullets and holly stakes.  the cross of Christ had no more impact than those of the two robbers if it is seen as just an object.  As always, it is the meaning that must be asked for.

Never before was there such a general knowledge of Jesus as when He hung upon the cross.  He was lifted up from the earth, to draw all unto him.  Into the hearts of many who beheld that crucifixion scene, and who heard Christ's words, was the light of truth to shine...they saw the meaning of Christ's mission.  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 5, 1137

It is growth in knowledge of the character of Christ that sanctifies the soul.  To discern and appreciate the wonderful work of the atonement, transforms him who contemplates the plan of salvation.  Review and Herald  August 26, 1890


The death of Jesus is the graphic demonstration  to all of what happens to those who refuse to accept his offer of recnciliation.  Not as a threat of punitive retribution, but a warning that the wage that sin pays is death, that without God, life is impossible.  In his agony of separation from his Father, Jesus cries out to all the world "Sin will kill you".

Beholding Jesus upon the cross of Calvary arouses the conscience to the heinous character of sin as nothing else can do.  It was sin that caused the death of God's dear Son, and sin is the transgression of the law.  Review and Herald, November 22, 1892


The Devil had told Adam and Eve, "You will not surely die".  God on the cross proves the Devil to be a liar--that sin does indeed result in death.  He also answers an even greater question:  Is it God who kills?  No: it was sin itself.

As one is drawn to behold Jesus uplifted on the cross, he discerns the sinfulness of humanity.  He sees that it is sin which scourged and crucified the Lord of Glory.  Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 9

We are not to regard God as waiting to punish the sinner for his sin.  The sinner brings the punishment upon himself...By choosing to sin, men separate themselves from God, cut themselves off from the channel of blessing, and the sure result is ruin and death.  Selected Messages, Vol 1, 235

God does not stand toward the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression; but He leaves the rejecters of His mercy to themselves, to reap that which they have sown.  Great Controversy, 36

Christ is ready to set us free from sin, but He does not force the will; and if by persistent transgression the will is wholly bent on evil, and we do not desire to be set free, if we will not accept His grace, what more can He do?  We have destroyed ourselves by our determined rejection  of His love.  Steps to Christ, 34

God destroys no man.  Everyone who is destroyed will have destroyed himself.  Christ's Object Lessons, 84

The woes of a lost world broke His heart and crushed out His life on Calvary's cross.  Great Controversy, 651

Sin is self-annihilation; it carries its own seeds of death which will bring about that bitter harvest of eternal separation from God, the source of life and being.  All this Christ endured to show to us that what God had said was really so, and to persuade us to come to him that we might have life.


God does not compel any one to love him and obey his law.  He has manifested unutterable love toward man in the plan of redemption...If we refuse such love, and will not have him to rule over us, we are working our own ruin, and we shall sustain an eternal loss at last.  God desires a willing service of our hearts...It is only in the light of Calvary's cross that we can estimate the value of our salvation.  Review and Herald, February 14, 1888


When Jesus died on Calvary, men and angels beheld the malignity of Satan, and the love of God for a fallen world.  Review and Herald. July 12, 1892


One of Satan's greatest charges against God was that his system of government was unfair, his laws arbitrary and unjust, and in need of change.  But God's laws are an expression of God's very nature and character, and are consequently as unchangeable as God himself. 

There is no argument in favour of the unchangeable character of God's law so forcible as that presented in the cross of Calvary.  If God could have altered one precept of his law to meet man in his fallen condition, then Christ need not have died.  Review and Herald, October 9, 1888

The law really is valid and true, a description of the only way the universe can operate in peace and harmony. 

It is the work of Satan to present the Lord as lacking in compassion and pity.  He misstates the truth in regard to him.  He fills the imagination with false theories concerning God; and instead of dwelling upon the truth in regard to the character of our Heavenly Father, we fasten our minds upon the misrepresentations of Satan, and dishonor God by mistrusting him and murmuring against him.  When we act like culprits under sentence of death, we bear false witness against God.   The Father gave his only begotten and well-beloved Son to die for us, and in so doing placed great honor upon humanity; for in Christ the link that was broken through sin was reunited, and man connected again with Heaven.  You who doubt the mercy of God, look at the Lamb of God, look at the man of sorrows, who bore your grief and suffered for your sin.  He is your friend.  He died on the cross because he loved you.  Review and Herald, January 14, 1890


Few give thought to the suffering that sin has caused our Creator.  All heaven suffered in Christ's agony; but that suffering did not begin or end with His manifestation in humanity.  The cross is a revelation to our dull senses of the pain that, from its very inception, sin has brought to the heart of God.  Education, 263

By examining the wonderful plan of redemption to restore the sinner to the moral image of God, we see that the only means for man's deliverance was wrought out by the self-sacrifice, and the unparalleled condescension and love of the Son of God...We can see in the cross of Calvary what it has cost the Son of God to bring salvation to a fallen race.  Fundamentals of Christian Education, 135


It was not alone His betrayal in the garden or His agony upon the cross that constituted the atonement.  The humiliation of which His poverty formed a part was included in His great sacrifice.  The whole series of sorrows which compassed humanity Christ bore upon His divine soul.  SDA Bible Commentary, Vol 6, 1103


By His life and death, Christ has achieved even more than recovery from the ruin wrought through sin.  It was Satan's purpose to bring about an eternal separation between God and man; but in Christ we become more closely united to God than if we had never fallen.  Review and Herald, February 25, 1915

The plan of salvation is not merely a way of escape from the penalty of transgression, but through it the sinner is forgiven his sins, and will finally be received into heaven--not as a forgiven culprit pardoned and released from captivity, yet looked upon with suspicion and not admitted to friendship and trust; but welcomed as a child, and taken back into fullest confidence.    Review and Herald, September 21, 1886


Christ has died for us, and we are not to think that we are of no value before the Lord;  for the cross of Calvary reveals the fact that we are valued by the infinite sufferings of the Son of God.  Review and Herald, July 5, 1892

I am glad that we have a Saviour whose love cannot be measured, except as we look to the cross of Calvary with comprehensive faith.  The light that streams from Calvary show us the value of the soul and of eternal life.  Review and Herald, October 30, 1888

It is only in the light of Calvary's cross that we can estimate the value of our salvation.  Review and Herald, February 14, 1888

You who doubt the mercy of God, look at the Lamb of God, look at the man of sorrows, who bore your grief and suffered for your sin.  He is your friend, He died on the cross because he loved you.  Review and Herald, January 14, 1890

We must believe the works of God just as he has spoken them; we must take Christ at his word, believe that he came to represent the Father, and that the Father, as represented by Christ, is our friend, and that he desires not that we should perish, or he would have never given his Son to die our sacrifice.  Review and Herald,  March 8, 1892


Jesus  has said, " And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."  Christ is constantly drawing men to himself, while Satan is as diligently seeking by every imaginable device, to draw men away from their Redeemer.  Christ must be revealed to the sinner as the Saviour dying for the sins of the world; and as he beholds the Lamb of God on the cross of Calvary, the mysteries of redemption begin to unfold to his mind, and the goodness of God leads him to repentance...Christ draws the sinner by the exhibition of his love upon the cross, and this softens his heart, impresses the mind, and inspires contrition and repentance in the soul.  Review and Herald, April 1, 1890

Christ said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."  Christ is to be the great center of attraction, the object to which the attention of the world is invited; and the word of God so portrays him...He (God) would have us comprehend something of his love in giving his Son to die that he might counteract evil, remove the defiling stains of sin from the workmanship of God, and re-instate the lost, elevating and ennobling the soul to its original purity through Christ's imputed righteousness.  Review and Herald, November 1, 1892

"And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.  This he said, signifying what death he should die".  This is the crisis of the world.  If I become the propitiation for the world, it will be lighted up.  The defaced image of God would be reproduced and restored, and a family of believing saints will finally inhabit the heavenly home.  This is the result of the crucifixion of Christ and the restoration of the world.  MS 33, 1897 (Questions on Doctrine, 671)

It is by beholding Christ upon the cross of Calvary that the sinner is drawn to his Saviour; and he realizes that Christ has died for him, his heart is melted into contrition and tenderness.  Review and Herald, July 5, 1892

What is this "drawing" of sinners to Christ by His cross?  In essence it is the revelation of God as he is, in the fullest expression of divine truth.  That is what wins distrustful human beings back to trust and replaces fear with confidence, hate with love.  Knowing God as he truly is, understanding the lengths to which he is prepared to go; that is what convinces cynical, skeptical rebels and persuades them to trust the only One who is able to transform them into loyal dependable friends.  In this way the image of God is remade in the human mind, and the believer becomes safe to be admitted to eternal life.  How?  Because sin is fully revealed in its real nature and its dire consequences.  Sin broke the heart of the Son of God on the cross, and sin must break the heart of the sinner if he is to be healed.  No longer does the spirit of rebellion rule, but the deep conviction of the need for reconciliation as understanding dawns of what he truly is: a diseased degenerate demon.

Jesus says, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me".  And as one is drawn to behold Jesus uplifted on the cross, he discerns the sinfulness of humanity.  He see that it is sin which scourged and crucified the Lord of glory.  He sees that, while he has been loved with an unspeakable tenderness, his life has been a continual scene of ingratitude and rebellion.  He has forsaken his best Friend and abused heaven's most precious gift.  He has crucified to himself the Son of God afresh, and pierced anew that bleeding and stricken heart.  He is separated form God by a gulf of sin that is broad and black and deep, and he mourns in brokenness of heart.  Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 9

Yet this mourning is not despair.  For the cross answers the problem of separation by offering reconciliation--the process of becoming at one with God.  God does not leave us where we are.  Knowing we are incapable of helping ourselves, that he is the only one who can heal and renew, God acts.  God stretches out his hand to cross the gulf, he comes to us, and he carries us back to himself.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man has been lifted up, that we might look and life.  There is but one plan of salvation.  There is but one process by which the soul may be healed of its wounds.  Look to the man of Calvary.  Review and Herald, April 9, 1889

Jesus Christ laid hold on humanity, that with His human arm He might encircle the race, while with His divine arm He grasped the throne of the Infinite.  He planted His cross midway between earth and heaven, and said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto ME."  The cross was to be the great center of attraction.  It was to speak to all men, and to draw them across the gulf that sin had made, to unite finite man with the infinite God.  It is the power of the cross alone that can separate man from the strong confederacy of sin.  Christ gave Himself for the saving of the sinner.  Messages to Young People, 137-8

He (the Saviour) loves us with a love that is inexpressible, and if at any time you begin to fear that you will be lost, that Jesus does not love you, look to Calvary.  Do you want a clearer expression of his love than that which the Father has bestowed upon us, in that he has given us his Son?  The light shining from the cross of Calvary should made us the happiest people on the earth.    Review and Herald, August 5, 1890


Deeper than this, the uplifted, drawing cross of Christ has implications far beyond the individual sinner.  The light of Calvary shows all as they really are;  God, man, Satan, the angels...The cross is not just the answer to our own specific needs.  It is the answer to the whole Great Controversy itself?

"Now is the judgment of this world," Christ continued; "now shall the prince of this world be cast out.  And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.  This He said, signifying what death He should die"  This is the crisis of the world.  If I become the propitiation for the sins of men, the world will be lighted up.  Satan's hold upon the souls of men will be broken.  The defaced image of God will be restored in humanity, and a family of believing saints will  finally inherit the heavenly home.  This is the result of Christ's death.  The Saviour is lost in contemplation of the scene of triumph called up before Him.  He sees the cross, the cruel, ignominious cross, with all its attending horrors, blazing with glory.  But the prince of this world is cast out.  The accusations which Satan has brought against God are refuted.  The reproach which he has cast upon heaven is forever removed.  Angels as well as men are drawn to the Redeemer, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth," He said, " will draw all men unto Me".  Desire of Ages, 625-6


But the plan of redemption had a yet broader and deeper purpose than the salvation of man.  It was not for this alone that Christ came to the earth; it was not merely that the inhabitants of this little world might regard the law of God as it should be regarded; but it was to vindicate the character of God before the universe.  To this result of His great sacrifice--its influence upon the intelligences of other worlds, as well as upon man--the Saviour looked forward when just before His crucifixion He said:  "Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out.  And  I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all  unto me" (John 12:31, 32)  The act of Christ in dying for the salvation of man would not only make heaven accessible to men, but before all the universe it would justify God and His Son in dealing with the rebellion of Satan.  It would establish the perpetuity of the law of God, and would reveal the nature and results of sin.  Patriarchs and Prophets, 68-9

The angels ascribe honour and glory to Christ, for even they are not secure except by looking to the sufferings of the Son of God.  It is through the efficacy of the cross that the angels of heaven are guarded from apostasy.  Without the cross they would be no more secure against evil than were the angels before the fall of Satan.  Angelic perfection failed in heaven.  Human perfection failed in Eden, the paradise of bliss.  All who wish for security in earth or heaven must look to the Lamb of God.  The plan of salvation, making manifest the justice and love of God, provides an eternal safeguard against defection  in unfallen worlds, as well as among those who shall be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Signs of the Times, December 30, 1889

All heaven triumphed in the Saviour's victory.  Satan was defeated, and knew that his kingdom was lost.  To the angels and the unfallen worlds the cry, "It is finished", had a deep significance.  It was for them as well as for us that the great work of redemption had been accomplished.  They with us share the fruits of Christ's victory.  Not until the death of Christ was the character of Satan clearly revealed to the angels or the unfallen worlds...They had not clearly seen the nature of his rebellion...All heaven and the unfallen worlds had been witnesses to the controversy.  With what intense interest did they follow the closing scenes of the conflict...Heaven viewed with grief and amazement Christ hanging upon the cross...Well, then, might the angels rejoice as they looked upon the Saviour's cross; for though they did not then understand all, they knew that the destruction of sin and Satan was forever made certain, that the redemption of man was assured, and that the universe was made eternally secure.  Desire of Ages, 625-6

Through the plan of salvation a larger purpose is to be wrought out even than the salvation of man and the redemption of the earth.  Through the revelation of the character of God in Christ the beneficence of the divine government would be manifested before the universe, the charge of Satan refuted, the nature and result of sin made plain, and the perpetuity of the law fully demonstrated.  Signs of the Times, December 22, 1914


This drawing  by Christ's cross is therefore not only of humanity, but of all universe--a larger perspective which is so significant.  Significant because it illuminates what the issues in the conflict between God and Satan really are and how they have been resolved by God so that each of his created beings are left in no doubt.  Significant because it shows that God has always been concerned to preserve the freedom of choice of all his children, that he wants only willingly offered love and respect, not slavish terror.  Significant because he is so open in all his dealings that he invites inspection of his every motive, and places himself on trial.

When Christ cried out from the cross, "It is finished" all Heaven triumphed.  The controversy between Christ and Satan in regard to the execution of the plan of salvation was ended.  The spirit of Satan and his works had taken deep root in the affections of the children of men, but the holy angels were horror-stricken that one of their number could fall so far as to be capable of such cruelty as had been manifested to the Son of God on Calvary.  Every sentiment of pity and sympathy which they had ever felt for Satan in his exile was quenched in their hearts...To manifest such malignity toward the divine Son of God, who had with unprecedented self-denial and love for the creatures formed in his image, come from heaven and assumed their fallen nature, was such a heinous crime against Heaven that it caused the angels to shudder with horror, and severed the last tie of sympathy existing between Satan and the heavenly world.  Signs of the Times, September 23, 1889

It was in order that the heavenly universe might see the conditions of the covenant of redemption that Christ bore the penalty in behalf of the human race....By the sacrifice Christ was about to made, all doubts would be forever settled, and the human race would be saved if they would return to their allegiance.  Christ alone could restore honor to God's government.  The cross of Calvary would be looked upon by unfallen worlds, by the heavenly  universe, by Satanic agencies, by the fallen race, and every mouth would be stopped...Who witnessed these scenes (of Christ's crucifixion)?  The heavenly universe, God the Father, Stan and his angels...Satan's charge in regard to the conflicting attributes of justice and mercy was forever settled beyond question.  Every voice in heaven and out of heaven will one day testify to the justice, mercy, and love of God.  Signs of the Times, July 12, 1899


God's aims have always been the same:  peace, love and harmony throughout his universe based on freely-given assent to the right and truth of God's ways.  Any other kind of imposed worship of arbitrary requirements would destroy that freedom to love God for who and what his is:  goodness and truth supreme.  In this way the cross is the safeguard of eternity.

That which alone can effectually restrain from sin in this world of darkness, will prevent sin in heaven.  The significance of the death of Christ will be seen by saints and angels...Signs of the Times, December 30, 1889

How and why?  Because all will know the true character of sin, and will never wish to take that route.  All agree that God really is right, and though forever free to choose, forever follow right for right's sake.

For though they trusted God, until the cross the loyal angels had an imperfect understanding of his real nature.  They did not realize the depths to which he would love.  They failed to see how a God of right could reclaim sin-sick rebels.  They could not comprehend the selflessness of the Almighty God.  As a result they expected something very different as God came to earth:

The heavenly intelligences were prepared for a fearful manifestation of Almighty power.  Every move was watched with intense anxiety.  The exercise of justice was expected.  The angels looked for God to punish inhabitants of the earth...The heavenly universe was amazed at God's patience and love...To save fallen humanity the Son of God took humanity upon Himself...Review and Herald, July 17, 1900


It is the final answer of God to all the questions and queries, doubts and uncertainties of the whole universe.  In all his past dealings God could only express himself in limited ways.  Now at the cross he shows his true nature, and proves he has done absolutely everything the Divine Creator could ever do.

The universe of heaven, the worlds unfallen, the fallen worlds, and the confederacy of evil cannot say that God could do more for the salvation of man than he has done.  Never can his gift be surpassed, never can  he display a richer depth of love.  Calvary represents his crowning work.  It is man's part to respond to his great love, by appropriating the great salvation the blessing of the Lord has made it possible to obtain.  Youth's Instructor, October 17, 1895

God reveals himself to us.  The Cross is the supreme example of this--and the goodness of this God who shows himself as he really is leads us to repentance.  The Cross is our salvation, the evidence of sin's effect, the unmasking of evil, the answer to the Devil's charges, the security of the Universe, the fullest demonstration of a God who is LOVE.

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