The following are some of my reflections while teaching a course for Holy Trinity Anglican Church using Confessing the Faith, chapter 7, “The Work of Christ” in which Articles II, IV, and XXXI of the Thirty-Nine Articles are addressed.
First, the last part of Article II says Christ “… truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.”
Atonement: Originally coined by William Tyndale (16th Century), “atonement” means a re-establishing, reinstatement, restoration, or renewal. Atonement is the work Christ did to earn our salvation. In the broadest sense, the atoning acts of Christ include not only his death on the cross but his life as well. Inherent in the term “atonement” is a broken union to be restored caused by the holiness of God (his moral perfections) and the sinfulness of humanity (our moral imperfections). The scope of atonement, however, reaches further than the breach between God and humanity; it also includes the whole of creation (Rom 8:19-22).
Propitiation: Negatively, to propitiate means to turn aside or reverse God’s anger; positively it means to render favorable. In propitiation God initiates the offering and he receives it as total satisfaction for the debt incurred by our sin. “Propitiation” can also mean “mercy seat” or “cover.” It is the center of God’s provision for atonement (cf., Lev. 16:30; Heb. 9:12). The cross now takes the place that the mercy seat once occupied. What was once done in secret is now laid bare for all to see (Mt. 27:50-51; also Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10).
Atonement is accomplished through propitiation, which involves sacrifice and substitution.
A few words about sacrifice:
- The New Testament sees Jesus as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who is the sacrificial Lamb (compare, Is 53, verses 1, 4-9, 11 with Jn 12:38, Mt 8:17; 1 Pt 2:22-25; Acts 8:30-35).
- Since no human can withstand God’s wrath, then God takes the initiative and unleashes his holy fury on His Son. It is only God himself who can withstand and avert his righteous wrath (Rom. 3:25; also, Is. 53:6). Therefore, the cross is the symbol of God’s justice toward sin and God’s love toward sinners (Rom. 5:6-8; 1 Jn. 4:10). The sacrifice of Christ was a once-for-all event making a complete and final restitution to God for the debt that we incurred and could never repay (Heb. 9:26-28; σταυρός = “cross” was a profane term).
A few words about substitution:
- Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body” (1 Pt. 2:24), was made “sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21) become a “curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) by giving “his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
- What did Jesus do for us that we could never do for ourselves? Turn away God’s wrath, fulfill God’s righteous requirements for living (Rom. 8:3-4), and provide the means for an eternal relationship with God. As faithful high priest, Jesus fully represents us in every respect by standing in our place as our sacrifice and Savior.
In sum, ““Christ took our place, bore our sin, became our curse, endured our penalty, and died our death” (John Stott).
Looking Back: The Backstory to Christ’s Atoning Work
The New Testament sees Christ as “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pt. 1:19), “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor 5:7), and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur; see Lev 16) commemorates the Passover event (Ex 12) that requires a substitutionary sacrifice of two goats, each of which represent different but complimentary aspects of atonement. The sacrificed goat represented the means of atonement (death), whereas the scapegoat represented the results of atonement (forgiveness; Heb 9:22). Both were intended as a substitute for the people, symbolically represented by the High Priest laying both hands on the scapegoat and confessing the sins of the people (Lev. 16:21-22). The author of Hebrews in the NT relates these concepts of atonement to Christ’s work on the cross ( Heb 9:7, 12, 23-28).
- It is not just Christ’s death that atones for our sins, but also his righteous life of perfect obedience.
- Guilt once removed still requires blameless living before a holy God.
- Paul says to the Philippian believers that his goal (and ours) is to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philip. 3:9). We need more than a tabula rasa; we need explicit moral righteousness and perfect obedience. Christ’s life of righteousness provides that.
As sinners by nature and by choice we are morally indebted to God and impoverished of means in reconciling ourselves to him. Therefore, we must have someone stand in our stead. It is not just the death of Christ but also the life of Christ that is charged to our account of debt (Rom. 5:19). The sufferings Jesus endured throughout his entire life and that culminate in his death were part of his obedience and are the very means by which he fulfilled the will of God for us (Heb. 12:2-3). Because Christ’s life is credited to our account we can say with Paul “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Second, I want to highlight a point brought out by Article XXXI, namely “there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.”
We live in a religiously, morally, and culturally diverse society that is increasingly secular in adopting a full-on moral and intellectual relativism—the notion that there is no one right way to believe, behave, or be. I’ll just say a couple things that are practical in nature but deserve much more substantiation.
- No other religious leader was fully God and fully human (Philip 2:5-8).
- No other religious leader atoned for the sins of the world (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 3:18).
- No other religious leader was sinless in living (Jn. 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pt. 1:19).
- No other religious leader satisfies God’s justice (Rom. 3:25-26; 1 Jn. 2:2).
- No other religious leader reconciles God and sinful humans (2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:22).
- No other religious leader has the last word from God (Heb 1:1-2) but is the last word of God (Jn 1:1, 14).
- No other religious leader has the name that is above every name, “not only in this age but in the one to come” (Eph 1:21).
- No other religious leader was raised from the dead (Matt. 16:21; Acts 2:24; 4:10; Rom. 4:25; Eph. 1:20).
Which leads me to Article IV: “Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he returns to judge all Men at the last day.”
The Importance of the Resurrection (Easter anyone?)
The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is essential to the biblical Gospel (1 Cor. 15:14-32). You see, if Christ is not raised:
- the Apostles were really deceivers or sadly deceived (v. 15).
- there is no forgiveness (v. 17).
- believing loved ones who have passed in death have, in reality, perished (v. 18).
- enduring hardship in hope of a better existence renders us “pitiful” (v. 19).
- hedonism is the only viable lifestyle to adopt (v. 32).
But, we know that Christ is risen, to which you say “He is risen indeed.” You see…
- Because Christ is raised death does not have the final word. Christ’s resurrection assures us that we will some day be raised and that something better does indeed lie beyond our life (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:54-57; Philip. 3:21).
- Because Christ is raised not only is our future resurrection guaranteed, but also our believing loved ones are raised and we will be reunited with them (1 Cor. 6:14; 1 Thess. 4:14).
- Because Christ is raised the world is not merely a product of mundane principles of cause and effect, physical laws of nature, and social interaction of humans, but rather is an open system where miracles of God are possible in history! This includes miracles of healing and, most importantly, the miracle of forgiveness!
- Because Christ is raised we participate in a new quality of life empowered by the resurrection that inspires righteous living (Rom. 6:4-8; Eph. 1:18-19; Philip. 3:10).
- Because Christ is raised the bestowal of spiritual gifts for authentic Christian service empowers the Church (Eph. 4:7-10) and us as agents of God in fulfilling his will on earth as it is in heaven.