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The Atonement of Jesus Christ

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This atonement of Jesus Christ is one of the great themes of the Bible. For example, John the Baptist declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”[2] But many [even Christians] are reluctant to accept the simple fact that Jesus paid the penalty for everyone’s sins.

If Christ Died for All, Why Aren’t All Saved?

Several scriptures clearly state that Christ died for the sins of the entire human race. Consider the following:

  • And He Himself is the propitiation [satisfaction] for our sins and not for our only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[3]
  • God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.”[4]

But if this is so, why doesn’t God save everybody? The answer is found a few verses later: “He [God] made Him [Christ] to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”[5] In other words, Jesus Christ bore all of our sins in order that we, the sinners, might acquire the very righteousness of God in Christ. Christ’s death does not automatically confer God’s righteousness. It is acquired by faith.[6] Every human being is estranged from God[7]. Unless such a man is reconciled personally to God by faith in Christ [so that he partakes of the life of God] he faces the prospect of spending eternity in Hell [the only place suitable for all who are estranged from their Maker].[8] God never makes the sins of the world the ground for man’s eternal damnation. As a judicial issue, the Lamb of God has taken them away![9]

The Risen Sacrificial Lamb

Notice in the scripture quoted above that Jesus “Himself is the propitiation for our sins”.[10] That is, Jesus – in His own Person – is that propitiation. Other New Testament writers also stress this truth.[11] In other words, Jesus did more than simply offer the sacrifice. He is the sacrifice. Jesus Christ stands in dramatic contrast to every animal sacrifice offered under the Old Testament Law. The remains of every such animal had to be disposed of after the offering was made [since the animal remained dead]. But in Jesus’ case, the Lamb of God has been raised from the dead. His victory over death is complete and permanent.[12] Therefore, as Jesus Christ stands today as our Advocate before God, God’s gaze is focused upon Him personally as the all-sufficient propitiation for the sins of the world. In His own Person Jesus represents God’s complete satisfaction with the work on the cross. God’s approving eye rests at all times[13] on His crucified but risen sacrificial Lamb. The work of the cross is complete and our Lord’s character as the Lamb who satisfies God’s justice is eternal.[14] The Apostle Paul, also, connects our justification with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[15] Another way of expressing this is that the sacrificial Lamb whose life was given up on the cross has returned to the presence of the Father in a new capacity. He is now the Lamb who was slain and bears the marks of His suffering in His resurrected physical body.[16] His Father not only receives Him back, but also exalts Him above every other being and gives Him a name above every other name.[17] God is supremely and eternally satisfied with His Son Jesus Christ. Thus no one can bring a charge against God’s elect.[18] In terms of the justice demanded by the Judge of all, Jesus is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Thus the grounds on which God regenerates and justifies the believer in Jesus Christ are infinitely adequate. God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”.[19]

The New Mercy Seat

The concept of our Risen Lord standing before God as the propitiation for human sin reminds us of the Old Testament Holy of Holies. In that most sacred area (both in the Tabernacle and in the Temple) there stood the Ark of the Covenant over which was placed a golden slab known to us from our Bibles as the “Mercy Seat”.[20] On the Day of Atonement the High Priest brought sacrificial blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat.[21] It is also important to observe the divine declaration that follows the command to construct the Mercy Seat:

“You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.”[22]

Therefore, the blood-sprinkled Mercy Seat was a point of meeting between God and man.[23] But this helps us gain insight into a statement by the Apostle Paul in Romans:

“being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God sent forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith …”.[24]

However, the word translated “propitiation” here is not the same word as translated “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2.[25] This particular Greek word is primarily used in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) to render the Hebrew word for Mercy Seat.[26] It also means Mercy Seat in its only other New Testament use.[27] In other words, Christ now has the place that the Mercy Seat had in the Old Covenant, the center and focal point of God’s provision of atonement for His people. Or, to state it another way, Jesus - as a result of His becoming the living embodiment before God of a perfect and universal propitiation for all sin in His own Person - is also a living Mercy Seat[28]. That is to say, He has also become an infinitely sufficient “meeting place” between a holy God and sinful man. As a result, when faith in Jesus occurs,[29] God and man encounter one another and the human participant in this encounter is “justified”[30]

Through Faith in His Blood

The language Paul uses in Romans 3:25 expresses another fundamental New Testament truth: God and sinful man encounter one another in peace only in the Person of His Son.[31] In the Greek of this verse the word order is as follows: “as a propitiatory Mercy Seat through faith in (by) His blood”. Though the whole world is covered by the propitiatory work of our Lord,[32] His mediatorial function as a Mercy Seat is realized only when men come to God through faith in Him.[33] The basis on which He becomes a Mercy Seat through faith is by virtue of His shed blood.[34] Though Jesus Christ is – and always will be – the one Mediator between man and God,[35] we may also say this: whenever an unsaved sinner comes to God through God’s chosen Mediator, Jesus fulfills the function of the Old Covenant Mercy Seat by becoming the genuine meeting point between God and the believing sinner. The saving transaction might be illustrated as follows:

the believing sinner comes to God through faith in Jesus. Jesus, in His role as Mediator, bestows eternal life on the believer, thus introducing him to God.[36] God, in response, accepts the believing sinner and pronounces him justified.[37] What has happened to the believer? He has met God in the Person of God’s living Mercy Seat, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And what has God done? He has behaved righteously and graciously in response to His Son. In this way He has been “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”.[38]


[1] This treatment is based on a booklet by author Zane Hodges entitled The Atonement [Kerygma, 2006].

[2] John 1:29.

[3] 1 John 2:2.

[4] 2 Cor. 5:19.

[5] 2 Cor. 5:21

[6] Rom. 3:21-22. Thus eternal salvation is a two-step process: 1) The righteous justice of God was satisfied for all humanity by the death of Christ. 2) Sinners themselves must be “reconciled to God” [2 Cor. 5:20].  This happens the moment they believe in Christ.

[7] Eph. 4:18.

[8] Rev. 20:11-15 makes clear that each man’s works are assessed at the final judgment. But this is to verify that he has no claim on God’s mercy [because of these works]. However the man himself is actually sent to Hell because his “name was not written in the Book of Life” [that is, he does not possess eternal life]. A lost person is not sentenced to Hell for the sins Christ died for. Neither does he pay all over again for those sins. Instead, he reaps the consequences of his own estrangement from God.

[9] In His role as Mediator in the presence of God, His Father sees Him [Jesus] as the fOnbe who has perfectly met the demands of divine justice against sin (1 John 2:2).

[10] 1 John 2:2.

[11] See 1 Pet. 2:24 and Heb. 9:26.

[12] See Rev. 1:18.

[13] See Rev. 5:6.

[14] Note the word is” in 1 John 2:2.

[15] See Rom. 4:23-25. His death itself was the execution of divine justice for our sins [“our offenses”]. His resurrection, on the other hand, brings up from the dead, and ultimately into the presence of God, the Lamb who is personally the propitiation for the world’s sins. [He was “raised for the sake of our justification.”]

[16] John 20:27.

[17] Phil. 2:5-11.

[18] Rom. 8:33-34 (Cf. 1 John 2:1-2). In His own Person, as the One who died, rose, was received at God’s right hand and who intercedes for us, He is the insuperable and impervious barrier to any and every charge against God’s elect children.

[19] Rom. 3:26. The risen Person of Jesus Christ is God’s eternal justification for His gracious justifying of everyone who believes. Note John 1:29.

[20] Cf. Exodus 25:17-22, 37:6-9. Out of either end of the Mercy Seat, as an integral part of it, came the figures of two cherubim. The faces of the cherubim were both looking at the Mercy Seat itself and the wings of the cherubim were spread out over the Mercy Seat.

[21] See Lev. 16:1-17. Of particular importance is the statement, “So He shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins. (Lev. 16:16).

[22] Ex. 25:21-22.

[23] In Ex. 25:22 Moses is in view, but Lev. 16:2 seems to imply that this could happen to Aaron – or even to his high priestly descendents.

[24] Rom. 3:24-25.

[25] In 1 John 2:2 the word ἱλασμός hilasmos is used; whereas in Romans 3:25 the word ἱλαστήριον hilasterion is used. As we will see, even though these two words are related the distinction between them is theologically significant.

[26] This is the Hebrew word כַּפֹּ֫רֶת kapporet.

[27] Heb. 9:5. Thus, it is very likely that in Romans 3:25 we have this same meaning.

[28] That is, a propitiatory meeting place.

[29] Rom 3:26.

[30] Receiving the “righteousness of God” that Paul is talking about here. “No one comes to the Father” except through Jesus (John 14:6).

[31] This is also stated in 1 Tim. 2:5-6 and John 14:6.

[32] 1 John 2:2.

[33] In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ becomes a Mercy Seat to those who believe.

[34] He can become the hilasterion through faith as a result of the fact that He is the hilasmos for the sins of all humanity.

[35] 1 Tim. 2:5. Thus hilasterion in Romans 3:25 does not so much describe a position as it does a function. Man and God really meet in Jesus Christ - when saving faith occurs.

[36] See John 17:3. Eternal life is always bestowed by the Son [John 1:12, 4f:10, 14; 6:27 etc.].

[37] It is always God who justifies [Rom. 8:33].

[38] Rom. 3:26.

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