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Atonement Assumed

Jesus never spoke at great length on the necessity of atonement. His Jewish audience, steeped in Old Testament Law, knew it well. That a sacrifice was needed to make satisfaction for sin was never in question.


Our Lord, in addressing a people familiar with the ideas of sacrifice, did not deem it necessary to [focus]* on the necessity of an atonement, and for the most part narrowed the allusion to the sacrifice of Himself, assuming the necessity as an undoubted truth. God had from the first sought to develop the idea of sin among the chosen people, and to keep their consciences alive to the fact that it must needs be expiated by propitiatory sacrifices. Many laws were enacted for the purpose of awakening a sense of want: civil and ecclesiastical privileges were withdrawn for the violation of these laws, and many afflictive visitations were sent. The government of God was ever anew violated by sinful deeds or transgressions of the law, and in all such cases fellowship with God was foreclosed. Every Jew was aware that, in consequence of a transgression, he was liable to the penalty which must follow; and, in a word, that there was no enduring covenant, and no free access to the Holy One, without a complete fulfilment of the law. No approach could otherwise be allowed to God's presence in the sanctuary services; and there was, besides, a conscious guilt, which tended to estrange the sinner from God, and to make him apprehensive. This was an education of the people in the knowledge of sin.

To meet this deep-felt need of pardon, and as a method of remitting the penalty incurred by a violation of the letter, sacrifices were appointed, which operated on the conscience of the Jew in a peculiar way. They gave him a vivid view of the guilt of sin, and of the rectitude and holiness of the Divine government. The whole Old Testament was thus calculated to bring into prominence the necessity of an atonement, and to sharpen the conviction that sin required a higher sacrifice; and the sacrifice, presupposing the sinful deed, showed the inviolability of the law and covenant. If the Jewish worshippers neglected the sacrifices of atonement, they incurred the curses of the law. If they brought the sacrifices, they were purged from their defilement, and had access reopened to God in the sanctuary service, without impediment from without or fear from within.

With this doctrine of sacrifice the Jewish mind was familiar. They all admitted the necessity of a sacrifice of atonement in order to avert punishment. This was the great idea for the full development of which the nation had been peculiarly separated from other people, and which was to be learned by them in order to be diffused over the earth. They acknowledged these atonements as the method of averting the threatened penalty, however much they perverted them from the Divine purpose for which they were appointed by extending their effects to moral trespasses, instead of limiting them, as they should have done, to ceremonial defilement. They held the necessity of expiation; and our Lord, accordingly, in speaking to them, proceeds on this conceded truth. And hence His words take all this for granted, wherever He makes reference to His work. With a deeper reference than was commonly attached to the sacrifices, and sounding the depths which underlay them, He throughout assumed the indispensable necessity of an expiation. All His sayings contain this thought in their deeper relation. Thus, when we read of sin to be borne in a sacrificial sense (John i. 29) of a ransom to be paid for the purpose of liberating captives to Divine justice (Matt. xx. 28) of the law, both moral and ceremonial, to be embodied in a sinless life and exhibited in a sacrificial death (Matt. v. 17) of the blood of the covenant which puts men on a new footing, and in a relation of pardon and acceptance, to be dissolved no more (Matt. xxvi. 28)—all these allusions take for granted that an atonement is indispensably necessary, and that the Divine claims must be discharged in full.

—George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 24–25.

*Smeaton: “dilate.”

Posted 2018·04·25 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Atonement · Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement · George Smeaton

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