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’Tis Mystery All! (What I Know And Don’t Know about The Atonement)

All Christian discourse, is in some sense a dealing in mystery. To speak of “mystery” in the theological sense is simply to acknowledge that the reality of things far exceeds our insight and understanding as human beings.

This is true with respect to the Trinity; this is true with respect to the incarnation; this is true with respect to God’s Providence and this is true with respect to the atonement. The reality of these things is infinitely greater than our ability to understand, appreciate and proclaim. At the conclusion of the most fulsome exploration of the atonement contained in Holy Scripture the Apostle himself declared:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33 ESV)

If the Apostle Paul, as he was being carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke in such ways, then how much more should we? Charles Wesley did not think it an unmanful concession to declare:

‘Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine! [1]

All true worshippers delight in mystery – who wants to worship a God who can be fully and entirely contained by our acronyms and creeds? God is immortal and lives in unapproachable light! No one has ever seen or can see him. To him be honour and might forever. Amen! (1 Timothy 6:16)

And yet, that is not to say that nothing can be known about these mysteries. We worship the God who is there – and who speaks! Therefore what he has said, we may know. But where he has not said, we must proceed with caution, if at all.

The Scriptures do not address evenly all the questions and considerations we might identify with respect to the atonement. With respect to the facts and meaning of the cross there is a plethora of inspired material but the Bible is far more circumspect when it comes to the mechanics of the atonement and therefore there is less that can and should be said there. With those three categories in mind I now proceed to reflect upon what I know and what I don’t know about the atonement.

What Happened?

The essential historical facts related to the atonement are stated quite clearly in the text of Scripture.

1. Jesus died for our sins

That Jesus died for our sins is of course stated in narrative form in the Gospels, in fact, it has been argued that some of the Gospels, Mark in particular, are really just passion narratives with a prelude. Their entire purpose is to narrate the event of the cross and to set that even within a particular historical and canonical context.

The Apostle Paul put it this way:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV)

The Gospels are at great pains to clarify precisely what is meant here in terms of Christ dying for our sins. They are eager to show us that Jesus died bodily – as a true human being – on the cross. He ate, he slept, he walked, he hungered. He was a true human. And he died. He really died. He was hung upon a cross, pierced with a spear, assessed by a soldier and laid within a tomb.

Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins.

That the death of Jesus was in some sense for our sins as opposed to his own is explicitly stated in the Gospels themselves and also in the Apostolic letters.

Jesus asks the crowd in John 8:

“Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46 ESV)

No one answered.

It was not for his sin that the sinless Savior died, but, as the Apostle declares above, for ours.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV)

Thanks be to God!

2. Jesus suffered damnation

The Scriptures record, without embarrassment or apology, that Jesus suffered the judgment of God the Father upon the cross. Matthew records it thusly:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45–46 ESV)

Everything in this passage speaks about judgment. Leon Morris says here:

“Darkness is associated with judgment in several places in Scripture (Isa. 5:30; 13:10–11; Joel 3:14–15, etc.), and it appears that we are to understand it here as pointing to God’s judgment on sin that is linked with the cross.”[2]

Isaiah 53:5-6 tells us what was happening during those moments of dark forsakenness. The prophet says:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5–6 ESV)

On the cross Jesus bore our sins and was punished for them as if they were his own. He experienced the death and forsakenness that we ought to have experienced as sinners. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “descended to hell”. Good Christians may debate as to whether this should be understood spatially but all true Christians must affirm that Jesus descended unto hell really, truly, and substantially.

Jesus Christ suffered the damnation that I deserved for my sin and rebellion.

He was forsaken as a rebel that I might be received as a son – thanks be to God!

3. Jesus rose from the dead

The Gospels are uniform in their assertion that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Even the Gospel of Mark, with its very brief testimony to the resurrection, contains all that we need in terms of canonical witness. Mark says succinctly, through the voice of the angel:

“He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6 ESV)

The Gospels are at great pains to indicate that Jesus rose from the dead in a particular way. It was not a spiritual way – but a physical way. Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Thus Mark’s angel says “see the place where they laid him”. Had Jesus risen spiritually from the dead, his physical body would still have been in the tomb. The Bible says emphatically that Jesus rose from the dead in a physical body – which, though transformed and glorified, was essentially and truly the body in which he hung upon the cross.

In this body, according to Luke’s Gospel he could walk, talk, eat and be recognized. (Luke 24:13-49)

In this body, according to John’s Gospel he could be seen, touched, and worshipped. (John 20:24-29)

Jesus rose bodily from the dead – and this fact is understood by the Apostles as no incidental appendage to the narrative of his redemptive work. The Apostle Paul goes so far to say that Jesus was:

“delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:25 ESV)

The empty tomb was God’s emphatic declaration that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ satisfactorily addressed the full debt and obligation of his people. It declares to the world the status of our account before him: Paid in Full!


“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33–34 ESV)

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ settles our account and places us under the care and protection of the Almighty forever – thanks be to God!

4. Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand

As the above citation clearly indicates the distinctive aspects of Christ’s atoning work are not easily disentangled – nor should they be. The death of Christ cannot be separated from the resurrection of Christ which in turn cannot be properly considered apart from the ascension and intercession of Christ. The work is of a piece and each part contributes to our understanding of the whole.

The Gospel of Luke narrates the ascension, as does the first chapter in The Acts of the Apostles. Luke 24:50-53 reads as follows:

“And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:50–53 ESV)

That the ascension of Jesus has redemptive significance is made clear in Hebrews 7:25:

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25 ESV)

The climactic act of our salvation is the current intercession of Jesus on our behalf. Man is not saved in any real sense if he cannot approach God with his prayers, concerns and petitions. But according to the Apostles that is not our situation as believers. If we are in Christ then we are before God. We have access, intimacy and favour – thanks be to God! 

What Was Accomplished?

It is impossible to speak intelligibly about the facts of the atonement without discussing at least in part their implied meaning. Even to say that Jesus died on the cross for our sins – is to speak simultaneously about a historical fact and it’s Gospel meaning. Many Jewish people died on Roman crosses – but Jesus died on the cross for our sins! The fact cannot be separated from its significance.

And yet, having narrated the essential facts, there is still more to be said in terms of the meaning and effect of the cross as developed in the letters of the Apostles. The cross was the chief object of Apostolic devotion and declaration – so much so that Paul could say to the Corinthians:

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

(1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV)

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Apostles reflected a great deal as to what specifically has been accomplished for us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Chief among their observations would be the following:

1. The love of God was demonstrated

For the Apostle Paul the cross of Jesus Christ could only be explained in terms of Divine Love. For Paul, Jesus was:

“the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 ESV)

The cross was the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. It answered forever the question begged by the end of the Old Testament narrative: Does God still love us?

Because of our sin and rebellion we had no legitimate claim on his affection:

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV11)

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Thanks be to God!

2. The justice of God was satisfied

God’s word cannot be broken. He said to Adam, our first father and the federal head of all humanity:

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17 ESV)

The deal offered to humanity was a fair one:

Obey God and live forever.

Rebel against God and die.

That is what God said in the beginning – so how now may God forgive sinners and welcome them back into his presence?

A great deal of New Testament thought is spent upon this question. The Apostle Paul landed thusly:

“we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15 ESV)

Paul says that if we are united with Christ through faith – then we have died with Christ for sin and to sin. Thus raised with Christ we should no longer live for ourselves and for sin but for Christ who died for us.

Thus it is true to say that Christ died for us but it is also true to say that in Christ we died. J.I. Packer puts it this way:

“Christ has taken us with him into his death and through his death into his resurrection.”[3]

Therefore it is said that God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26); thanks be to God!

3. The people of God were reconciled

All people born after Adam have been born into a state of enmity and hostility toward God. The Bible says that we are:

“by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3 ESV)

We are born with an inherited inclination toward sin and we all commit actual sin. There are no exceptions:

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV)

Thus all people begin their lives outside the Kingdom of God. We are rebels. We are dissidents. We are foes. The Scripture is clear that this is our position apart from and before Christ. Paul says:

“while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV)

That is what the cross does! It reconciles man to God! That is our faith, that is our creed and that is our calling.

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19 ESV)

Jesus Christ is our peace! He is our sacrifice of atonement – thanks be God!

4. The glory of God was manifested

Everything Jesus did in his earthly life and ministry brought glory to God – but nothing more so than his climactic act of trust and obedience upon the cross. Shortly after the Triumphal Entry John records Jesus as saying:

“Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:28 ESV)

Everything Jesus ever said and did – all the miracles, all the teaching, all the kind words, all the helpful corrections all the works of power – all these things showed us the goodness, the righteousness, the holiness, the mercy, the majesty and the beauty of Almighty God – and yet an even greater demonstration of these things was coming.

God has never been more glorious – more self-evidently glorious – than he was in Christ upon the cross. It is there that we see what Moses saw only in brief and in miniature. We have seen the Lord!

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7 ESV) 

Thanks be to God!

How Does It Work?

When speaking of the atonement we may speak of the facts, the meaning and the mechanism. With respect to this last we must by necessity be brief and cautious in the extreme. There are only two passages that bear directly upon this question; 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13. The first of these tells us that Christ’s work of atonement was accomplished by means of a great exchange.

1. By means of a great exchange

The Apostle Paul describes the great exchange in these terms:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

Thus it appears that on the cross our sins are accounted to Christ. He takes them unto himself and so identifies with them that it can be said that he became sin.

In the Bible sin and sinner are not easily separated. The Psalmist says:

“The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” (Psalm 5:5–6 ESV)

The Scriptures seem to indicate that we become what we do – the marvel of the cross then is that Christ became what we do. He became sin who knew no sin.

The imagery appears drawn from the rituals associated with the Day of Atonement. Christ is our scapegoat. Our sins are laid upon him and he suffers the judgment, exile and death that we deserve.

The second part of the great exchange has to do with what is given to us. As our sins are laid upon Christ so his righteousness is laid upon us. God treats Jesus as if he were us and treats us as if we were Jesus!

Oh the marvel – oh the mystery – oh the kindness and the mercy of the cross!! Who can speak of it and not be moved to praise! That the Lord would look on him and think of us and look on us and think of him – what response can there be but worship? Thanks be to God!

2. By Christ becoming a curse

The clearest answer to the question “how” comes to us in the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians.

“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”” (Galatians 3:13 ESV)

Martin Luther explained it thusly:

“the curse, which is the wrath of God upon the whole world, has a conflict with the blessings; that is to say, with grace and the eternal mercy of God in Christ…Therefore if you look upon this person Christ, you shall see sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, the devil, and all evils vanquished and mortified by Him.”[4]

Jesus became a curse. He bore it. He absorbed it. He exhausted it. He mortified it. And he reversed it.

That is the “how” of our redemption.

That is the math and that is the end.

The sword no longer bars the way to the blessings and bliss of Eden.

The door is open – the curse is lifted – and we can go home.

The Spirit and the Bride say come. Let the one who hears say come. Let the one who is thirsty come.

Come unto Jesus and be saved.

Thanks be to God!

What Questions Remain?

Where the Scriptures are silent we are wise to say very little if anything at all. Models of the atonement are not intended to be exhaustive but rather serve as control mechanisms by which we may test and focus our devotion. The reality is ever larger than our insight and understanding. With all that has been said there are things that remain unsaid and questions that remain unanswered. They may be briefly stated as follows:

1. How can God be loving and hostile toward us at the same time?

The Bible clearly states two things that we struggle to hold together in our finite human minds. First, the Bible states that God loves us. Secondly, the Bible states that God was hostile toward us because of sin. 1 John 4:8-10 states both of these truths simultaneously and without embarrassment:

“God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:8–10 ESV)

Calvin comments on these verses saying:

“There is great force in this word “propitiation”; for in a manner which cannot be expressed, God, at the very time when he loved us, was hostile to us until reconciled in Christ.”[5]

Notice Calvin’s humility: “In a manner which cannot be expressed”.

There is no human way to exhaustively understand the holy love of God. There is no perfect human analogy – no passing useful human analogy.

God is other and his love is his own.

I don’t know how it is that God can love me and be hostile toward me until I am reconciled to him in Christ.

God’s love must be bigger than mine. His love for me must somehow encompass a hostility toward that which diminishes me but precisely how that may be so I cannot say. I know that it is so because I read it in the Bible but it abides beyond my ability to express.

2. To whom was our ransom price paid?

The cross of Jesus Christ is often discussed in Scripture as a sort of ransom payment. Jesus himself said:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 ESV)

But to whom was this ransom paid?

For the first thousand years of church history almost all pastors, preachers and theologians would have believed that this ransom was paid to Satan. It was believed that our sin somehow put us in his power. We were his captives and Jesus offered his own life in exchange. This version of the great exchange is sometimes described as a form of Divine Deception. The humanity of Jesus was the “bait on a hook” that tricked the devil into biting down only to feel the force of the Divinity of Jesus which he had failed to account for. He ought to have known that Divine Beings cannot die and thus he ought to have expected Jesus to rise from the dead. But he didn’t – and that’s on him – but because of this successful deception, we have been set free.

C.S. Lewis appears to have believed in some version of the ransom to Satan theory. In his Chronicles of Narnia Aslan offers himself as a ransom for Edmund. Edmund has fallen under the legal authority of the White Witch and Aslan offers his own life to her as a substitute for his. But in a version of Divine Deception, the White Witch is unaware of the deep magic that governs the death of any innocent victim in the realm. And thus having relinquished her claim upon Edmund she is similarly robbed of her prize as Aslan is resurrected from the dead.

While there is much to commend aspects of this theory it does appear to go well beyond that which is clearly affirmed in Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible are we led to understand that the devil is owed anything because of our sin. The devil is a usurper who stepped into the void created by our sin but the devil has no rights over God’s creation and the devil stands in no position to require anything of the Lord.

The ransom to Satan theory says far too much.

The Bible does not indicate to whom the ransom is paid. Some theorize that it is paid by God to God and that may be so. Others say it is merely a metaphor intending to communicate that a price had to be paid and it was.

I cannot and will not say for sure. If there is an answer to this question, it remains in the realm of mystery. It is part of the reality which cannot be known because it has not been told.

3. In what sense was the communion between God the Father and Jesus broken on the cross?

The Scriptures are clear that Jesus was forsaken of God upon the cross. In Matthew’s Gospel it says:

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Matthew 27:46 ESV)

That Jesus was forsaken of God cannot be denied – in what sense he was forsaken and how this relates specifically to the inner workings of the Godhead cannot be articulated. R.T. France counsels caution here. He says:

“There must always be mystery here. We who are finite and sinners do not understand, and cannot even begin to understand, how evil appears to a holy God. The prophet Habakkuk could say in his prayer, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing” (Hab. 1:13). And the apostle Paul adds, “him who knew no sin, he [i.e., the Father] made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21); and again, Christ became “a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). When we put such passages of Scripture together, it seems that in the working out of salvation for sinners the hitherto unbroken communion between the Father and the Son was mysteriously broken.”⁠1

D.A. Carson’s takes a similar approach; he says:

“If we ask in what ontological sense the Father and the Son are here divided, the answer must be that we do not know because we are not told.”⁠2

Thus it remains in the realm of mystery.

There is infinitely more to the reality and beauty of Christ’s redeeming work than we will ever know and understand in this life.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV)

‘Tis mystery all and glory throughout – thanks be to God!


Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.

[1] And Can It Be?

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 720.

[3] J.I. Packer, “What Did The Cross Achieve? The Logic Of Penal Substitution”. The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973.

[4] Luther, Commentary On Galatians (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1988), 184-185.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 1285.