“The Atoning Work of Christ for Us”
Romans 5:6-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
April 10, 2022 (Palm Sunday)
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We are pausing our series on our theological vision for two Sundays, for Palm Sunday today and Easter next week.
Typically, sermons on Palm Sunday focus on the events of holy week, leading up to Easter – whether the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the last supper, the betrayal, arrest, and trial of Jesus on Maundy Thursday; the death of Jesus on Good Friday; or Jesus’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday.
With that in mind, this morning, I want to focus on the effects of Christ’s death on the cross, and what they mean for us.
And I want to do that by focusing on the meaning of four theological terms that describe aspects of Christ’s atoning work – those terms are: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.
Now, when I say that, I imagine there were two dominant responses.
The first was “Oh no. I made such an effort to get here this morning. And I have real problems I need help with. And instead of focusing on something relevant, Nicoletti is going to spend the next 30 minutes on some abstract esoteric theological thing that has nothing to do with my life.”
That’s one response I imagine some of you may have.
The other is. “Oh yeah. Finally. Finally we’re going to get some stimulating abstract theology that I can really think about without all the mushy stuff about how we feel, or that boring stuff about what we should do.”
Now, my intention this morning is to defy both of those sets of expectations.
John Frame, in his Systematic Theology defines theology like this: “Theology,” he says, “is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life.” [Frame, 8]
In other words, at the heart of theology is supposed to be application. The task of theology is to apply Scripture to our lives. Yes, it might get abstract and technical at times, that is true. But the goal is always to bring that back to application. Because the purpose of theology is edification – building people up in the Christian faith. [Frame, 6]
That’s the kind of theology we’re going to try to do this morning.
And so, if you respond with a sense of dread to a list of theological terms about the atonement, I want you to bear with me as we discuss the more technical aspects of those terms, because they will have a real-life pay-off. My contention is that they will help answer the most pressing and important needs of how you understand yourself, and how you live your life.
On the other hand, if you respond to a list of technical theological terms with excitement, my exhortation to you is to bear with me not just for the definitions, but also for the applications – for why they matter. Because if you only think about the concepts in your head, but do not apply them to your heart and to your life … then you are treating theology not as an aspect of devotion or discipleship, but as a hobby. It’s like people who memorize baseball stats. It’s something to do … it’s something you may enjoy … but it has no real-life value. It’s a hobby. And that’s fine for baseball stats. But God did not give you his Word so that you could have a hobby. You need to ask this morning how to apply that Word to your heart and your life.
With all that said, let’s now hear from God’s Word. We have two passages this morning, which together speak of these four aspects of the atonement we will be considering: Romans 5:6-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
First, from Romans 5. That Apostle Paul writes:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Next, from 2 Corinthians 5. Paul writes:
14 For the love of Christ controls us, because 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.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 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. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, you are our portion,
and so we commit ourselves to keep your word.
We ask you with all our hearts to show us your favor,
and be gracious with us according to your promise.
When we consider our ways,
turn our feet to your testimonies.
And as we hear your word now,
give us a sense of urgency to conform ourselves to it,
so that we act on it without delay.
Grant this we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:57-60]
Two theological guides I’ll be drawing from this morning are John Frame and John Murray.
And our focus is on four aspects of what Christ has done in his atoning work in his death on the cross. But before we get to those four aspects, we need to speak about one other term I just used: the word “atoning” or “atonement.” What do we mean by “atonement?”
Well, the word “atonement” “comes from an Old English expression referring to […] bringing people to oneness, at-one-ment.” [Frame, 901]
And so, the way I’m using that word this morning is, in many ways, as an umbrella term for bringing together what has been separated. More specifically, I’m using it to describe what Jesus has accomplished in his death on the cross, to take people who are separated from God, and restore them to a right relationship with God.
That’s what we mean here by “atonement.”
The Bible tells us that God has made humanity in his own image, and he made them good, and upright, and holy. But our First Parents chose to rebel – to sin against God. And we have inherited their sin – we too have lived as rebels, and have failed to live according to God’s purposes, following his commands. We have failed to love God and we have failed to love one another. And as a result, we are estranged from God – we are guilty of cosmic treason before him, and have become separated from him. Our relationship to our Maker is deeply broken.
And we ourselves cannot repair it. But Christ came – God the Son came – in order to restore people to a right relationship with God.
Now, on one level Christ’s whole work in his life, and death, and resurrection was towards that end of restoration. But at the heart of that work is his death on the cross. And that is our focus this morning, as we speak of Christ’s atoning work.
And so we will consider four aspects of Christ’s work of atonement – the aspects of: expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.
Now, we’ll see that there is overlap between these aspects, and on some level, they can’t be fully separated. But by distinguishing them, and looking at them one at a time, we can more fully see the magnitude and significance of Christ’s atoning work and what it means for our lives. And that is our goal this morning.
And so, with that in mind, we come to the first aspect of Christ’s atoning work for us: “expiation.” Now, what is “expiation?”
John Frame puts it like this – he says that expiation is the fact that “Jesus bore our sins, took them on himself, and therefore did away with them.” [Frame, 902]
“Jesus bore our sins, took them on himself, and therefore did away with them.”
We have sin and guilt. It’s in our soul. It’s part of us. We are defiled by sin and guilt. And Jesus’s work of expiation is the fact that in his death he took our sins from us, bearing them on the cross, and thus doing away with them for us.
We see this in both of our main texts this morning. In Romans 5:9, the Apostle Paul says that we have been justified – meaning that we have been declared “not guilty” – by the blood of Jesus. That means that our guilt before God has been removed by his sacrifice on the cross. That is expiation.
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul, speaking of Jesus, says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Paul is saying that Jesus took onto himself our sin, so that we might be made righteous. Our sin and guilt came off of us and went onto him. Which is why in verse 19 he says that in Christ God does not count our trespasses against us. This is Jesus’s work of expiation.
And we read of it elsewhere in the Bible as well.
In Isaiah 53 we read:
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
Yahweh has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.” [53:4-6]
In Psalm 103 we read:
“He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” [103:10-12]
And in Micah 7:19, the prophet says to the Lord:
“You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.”
Think about that. If you are in Jesus, then he has taken all your sins, and it is as if he has cast them into the depths of the sea – sinking them down to the ocean floor. That’s how far he has removed your sins from you – as far as the East is from the West. That is Christ’s work of expiation. That is how truly Christ, by his blood, has removed your sin and guilt.
The question is: Do you really believe that?
If you are a Christian, do you believe that that is true of you: that because you trust in Christ, because you cling to him by faith, your sin really has been removed from you – it really has been done away with, it really has been cast on the ocean floor?
Or do you tend to act … or think… as if you still bear your guilt?
If you do, then you are not believing God’s Word about what Jesus has already done for you. When you have trusted in Jesus, but you still feel like you bear the guilt of your sin, you face an important choice: Whether you will believe your feelings, or whether you will believe the Word of God and the promises of Jesus.
And faced with that choice, you must trust God’s Word. For our hearts are deceitful. But God’s Word is true. And so, if you have trusted in Christ, then you must believe that his atonement applies to you – that he has done a work of expiation for you and so your sin and guilt really is as far from you as the East is from the West. It has been cast onto the ocean floor.
If you’re here and you’re not a Christian, then you need to know that this is what Jesus offers you in the gospel. That sense of guilt you have … that sense that you have fallen short of what you were made for … that you are contaminated and not the way you are supposed to be – it’s true. It’s true of you. It’s true of me. It’s true of all of us. And we can’t fix it. But Jesus can. In fact, that is exactly what he offers, if you place your trust in him – to cleanse you of your sin and guilt.
The first aspect of Christ’s atoning work for us is his work of expiation – his work of taking our sin and guilt off of us, bearing it on the cross, and so doing away with it forever.
The second aspect of Christ’s atoning work for us is his work of propitiation. If expiation is about what Jesus does towards us on the cross, then propitiation is about what Jesus does towards God on the cross.
As Frame explains it, propitiation means that Jesus “bore the wrath and anger of God that was due to [us for our] sin.” [Frame, 903] And so propitiation is Jesus’s work of receiving, onto himself, the wrath of God that was due to us, so that that wrath towards us is spent and there is no more remaining for us.
If Jesus’s work of expiation removes our sin and guilt from us so that there is no more, Jesus’s work of propitiation receives and exhausts God’s wrath towards us, so that there is no more.
This distinction seems to come up in Romans 5:9. Paul writes: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Paul here distinguishes two things that cannot be separated. The first is the removal of our guilt – our justification – in Christ’s work of expiation. The second is the removal of God’s wrath in Christ’s work of propitiation.
This concept of propitiation occurs a few times in the New Testament, but it is especially emphasized in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. It acknowledges first that God is displeased – he is justly angry – with us, for our sin. And then it points out that Jesus has received and exhausted the wrath of God towards his people. [Murray, 29-30]
Now, on one level, expiation and propitiation can seem very similar. And yet, as we think of analogies, the distinction maybe becomes more clear.
If you steal $1,000 from me, there is a distinction between the financial debt you owe for your crime, and whatever just anger I may have about the betrayal. Those two things may be deeply linked. But they are distinct.
And that distinction might become even more clear in the fact that when it comes to our relationship with God, we can sometimes believe one of those truths but doubt the other.
And so, some of you who are Christians believe God loves you because of what Jesus has done, but you tend to doubt that your guilt has fully been removed. You still feel, in some sense, as if you bear the guilt for your sin. You believe in Jesus’s work of propitiation – of exhausting God’s wrath towards you – but you doubt his work of expiation – that he has fully removed your sin and guilt.
But still more common, I suspect, is the opposite tendency: to believe in expiation but doubt Jesus’s work of propitiation. Because some of you who are Christians believe that Jesus has removed your sin – you believe in his work of expiation. But you still generally feel as if God does not like you. You still tend to assume that he’s angry with you – that on some level, his wrath is still upon you.
If that describes you, then you doubt Jesus’s work of propitiation. You doubt that Jesus really did take all of God’s wrath – all of his just anger – towards you on the cross. You doubt that he took it all, so that there is no more for you. You doubt this important aspect of the work of Christ.
But where you doubt, the Bible calls on you to believe – to have faith in Jesus’s work of propitiation and to trust that he really has fully saved you from the wrath of God, as Paul says in Romans 5:9.
Now, some may object at this point that we do see God’s anger and displeasure directed towards Israel or the Church in the Bible, and so how can these claims of propitiation be true?
Two things need to be noted here. First, in some of those cases God is not expressing his wrath towards those who have trusted in him, but those who claim to be his people, but have not embraced him from the heart. That fact is a reminder to all of us to consider our hearts and lives and whether we have really clung to Christ by faith.
But second, the Bible is very upfront that true believers can receive God’s Fatherly displeasure and discipline. But there is a world of difference between God’s Fatherly displeasure and discipline on the one hand, and his just wrath on the other. God’s just wrath gives us what we deserve. And what we deserve is eternal destruction and estrangement from God. But God’s Fatherly displeasure and discipline is motivated by love, not justice, and it is designed to draw us closer to God – not to drive us farther away. Jesus has exhausted the just wrath of God toward all who trust in him. And so, God’s fatherly displeasure grows out of his love. Out of love for us, he wants to see our sin destroyed, so that we might truly flourish.
If you have a child who is making a mess of their life, and harming themselves as a result of their poor choices, then you, as a parent, get much more upset about what they are doing than you would if you read an article about a total stranger who was making the same mistakes. The more you love your child, the more you hate all that would harm them and hurt them and degrade them.
In the same way, if you are a Christian, then in a sense, God hates your sin even more than he would otherwise, because in Christ, he loves you so much.
And so such Fatherly discipline is not contrary to Christ’s work of propitiation, but the result of it.
That said, God’s love is not limited to such fatherly discipline. It is much more than that. In Christ, God delights in us. God cares about us. God has no more just wrath towards us. God treats us as his treasured possession. And all of that is because of Jesus’s work of propitiation.
That is the second aspect of Christ’s atoning work.
If the first two aspects of Christ’s atoning work have to do with us and God separately, then the next two have to do with the relationship between us and God.
And with that in mind, the third aspect of Christ’s atoning work for us to consider is: reconciliation.
Reconciliation means that we are now once again on right terms with God – we are no longer enemies with him as we once were, but we are at peace with him, and are brought close to him once again – in Christ we have a right and restored relationship to God.
We see this in our texts this morning. In Romans 5:10-11, Paul writes: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Paul says it three times there.
We see it in 2 Corinthians 5 as well. In verses 18-20 we read: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 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. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
In his atoning work, Christ reconciles us to God. He not only legally removes our sin and exhaust’s God’s wrath towards us, but he brings us back to God, and draws us close to him. Where before there had been alienation, now there is real and right connection.
If you are a Christian, you are called to believe that promise – that you have in fact been made right with God and drawn close to him through Christ’s atoning work.
And if you are not a Christian, then you are to know that the cross of Jesus is the solution to the alienation that you feel. Apart from Christ you are alienated from your Maker, and that reality and that sense of alienation can express itself in all sorts of ways. God’s provision is to first reconcile you to himself through the cross of Christ, and then, all other reconciliation and peace can flow from that.
The third aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that he has reconciled us to God.
A fourth and final aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that he has redeemed us.
And we use the word “redemption” in a lot of ways in our culture and in the Church, but I want to focus now on its more narrow, concrete meaning in the Scriptures.
John Murray explains that in this sense, “the idea of redemption must not be reduced to the general notion of deliverance. The language of redemption is the language of purchase and more specifically of ransom.” [Murray, 42]
John Frame puts it like this – he writes: “Redemption means literally ‘buying back’ something. In the [Old Testament], when someone sold his property, or even got so far into debt that he sold himself into slavery, a relative could buy back the property, or buy the man’s freedom. […] In Mark 10:45, Jesus says that he has come to give his life ‘as a ransom for many,’ buying us back as God’s lost property. His sacrifice on the cross was an act of great value, and it purchased for him a people of his own possession. So we belong to God, both by creation and by redemption.” [Frame, 903]
This concept of redemption therefore has two sides to it. One is what we have been ransomed from, and the other is what we have been purchased for.
When it comes to what we have been ransomed from, chief among what we see is that we have been ransomed from sin and death. Before, sin was our master – we had no power before it. We were in bondage to sin – we were servants of sin. But Christ has ransomed us from sin. We see this in Titus 2:14, where Paul says that we have been redeemed from “lawlessness,” and 1 Peter 1:18 where Peter says we have been ransomed from the “futile ways” of the world. It’s why Paul can say in Romans 6:14 that in Christ, sin no longer has dominion over us.
Now, this does not mean that we will never sin again in this life. It also certainly does not mean that we will not be tempted in this life – in fact, some temptations will be with us our entire lives. But it does mean that sin is no longer our master and lord. It does not own us.
Instead, we belong to Christ. He owns us. He is our Master and Lord. That is the second half of redemption: what we have been purchased for. We have been purchased so that we ourselves might belong to Christ, as his possession.
We see this concept – that by the cross we have become Christ’s property and possession – in our text from 2 Corinthians. In verses 14 and 15 where we read that those redeemed by Christ are no longer to “live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” because the love Christ was now to control them.
Our lives are to be controlled by the love and by the commands of Christ because we belong to him – we have been purchased by him – and so that we can no longer live for ourselves, or for sin, but we must live for him.
We see this same idea in Revelation 5[:9-10], when the heavenly hosts are praising Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, they say together to him:
“you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,”
Jesus was slain. And with his blood, he ransomed – he “purchased” as other translations put it – he purchased for God people from every tribe and language and people and nation.
If you are a Christian, that’s talking about you. Jesus, with his blood, purchased you. You now belong to him.
In First Corinthians 6 the Apostle Paul writes:
“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
That has broad application. But it might be best to begin with its original context. Paul spoke those words in the context of speaking about sex. Paul was saying that the Christians he wrote to in Corinth were not free to go and commit any sexual act they wanted with whomever they wanted. And that was a somewhat radical statement to make in Corinth in the first century, where such sexual sins were normalized and embraced. Christians saw that, and some of them wanted to embrace that kind of sexual hedonism and permissiveness as well.
And Paul had two responses for them. First, he seeks to reason with them, trying to help them understand God’s intention for human sexuality, and the ways that using their sexuality outside of God’s intention both dishonored God, and degraded them. [1 Corinthians 6:12-18]
But then, after that, he reminds them that the call for them to obey is not limited to obeying the commands of God that they understand – It’s not limited to the ones that make sense to them and that they agree with. Because they do not belong to themselves. “You are not your own,” he says. “For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” [v.19b-20] And that seems to settle the matter for Paul.
We need to take that seriously today as well. Our setting is not unlike the one the Christians in Corinth faced in the first century. We, like them, should seek to understand God’s commands and intentions for human sexuality, so that we can see that his restrictions for us really are for our good – that his commands really are for our flourishing.
But even if we don’t yet understand his commands – even if they don’t quite make sense to us yet, we do not need to understand in order to obey. Because we are not our own. We were bought at a price. And so we must seek to glorify God with our bodies.
In our particular setting such statements in the Church quickly become focused on those struggling with LGBTQ issues – and it certainly does apply there. But its application is not limited there. Paul himself makes that clear. [1 Corinthians 6:9-20]
Whether you are tempted towards homosexual sin or heterosexual sin, whether you are tempted towards adultery or premarital sex, whether you are tempted towards pornography, or allowing yourself a lustful gaze, or permitting yourself lustful thoughts, the same fact remains: You are not your own. You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
And, of course, the implications go beyond the realm of sexuality. Just a few verses earlier Paul speaks of greed, and reviling, and idolatry in the same breath as sexual immorality. [1 Corinthians 6:9-11] You are not your own, you were bought by Christ with a price. And so you must glorify God with your body. But also with your money. And also with your time. And also with your heart. Your anger, and your efforts, and your time, and your resources, and your sexuality – if you are a Christian then none of these things are your own: they belong to God because you belong to God, because Christ has purchased you with his blood. That is the meaning of redemption.
And that is good news. Because, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, it is in Christ’s service that we find perfect freedom. Because when he purchases us, he does not use his lordship over us to mis-shape and deform us contrary to our nature. Rather, he calls us to live as we were designed to live. He seeks to make us truly ourselves.
In this life that will always be a struggle because we will always feel the temptation to sin – to live contrary to our Maker’s intention for us. But as we strive to live instead as faithful servants of Christ, we find true freedom, and true rest. For, Christ himself says to us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28-30]
Left to ourselves we serve created things: money, or achievement, or pleasure, or the approval of others. We give ourselves to such things, and they become our masters. But in the end, they always turn out to be cruel masters. They always promise freedom, but they never seem to deliver it. Their yoke is heavy, and it crushes us.
But Christ is a different kind of Lord. Belonging to him is not like belonging to the things of this world. For in his service we find rest, in his service we find freedom, in his service we find joy. In his service we become who we were made to be.
And so, when we belong to him, though he does call us to difficult things, it remains true that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.
That is the blessing of the fourth aspect of Christ’s atoning work: He has redeemed us – ransoming us from the futile ways of this world, and purchasing us for himself.
Now, some folks hear all this – these four aspects of Christ’s atoning work – and they struggle with it. They ask: Why is all this necessary? If God is love, then why are all these steps needed in order to restore our relationship with him?
But that question misses at least two things.
One, is that God’s justice is a good thing. God hates all that is wrong in this world – he hates all sin, all rebellion against him, every revolt against the perfect way that he first made this world. And that is good. Five minutes reading the news should be enough to impress upon us the fact that we do not want a God who is indifferent to the evils of this world.
But at the same time, we ourselves have contributed to the evils of this world. And it is our sin and evil that has alienated us from God and brought about the real need for every aspect of the atonement that we had discussed this morning: for expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.
But second, we must not miss the fact that it was God himself who initiated this work of the atonement. That’s what Paul says in Romans 5:8. God the Father is the one who sent Jesus, his Son, to carry out this work of atonement, to restore us to himself, because he loved us. God the Son has come in the person of Christ, and he lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved to die, because he loved us. And God the Holy Spirit has worked in our hearts, and given us faith, and applied to us the atoning work of Jesus because he loved us.
Every aspect of the atonement is motivated by God’s love. And so our overwhelming response to it all should be gratitude and wonder toward the God who would give so much to restore us, after we had so sinfully rebelled against him.
For by his love he has carried out this work of atonement. He has cleansed us from our sin, he has put away his anger, he has reconciled us to himself, he has freed us from futility and made us his own.
Let us respond with thanks and praise, marveling at his atoning work, and offering ourselves fully to him.
This sermon draws on material from:
Frame, John. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.
Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955.
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