The Legal Aspect of Christ's Atonement
This chapter reveals how simple it is to understand the meaning of Christ’s Atonement and what He accomplished for us and the world some nineteen hundred years ago. However, over the centuries most preachers and professional theologians have abandoned the simple doctrine of Scripture and substituted a variety of complex and contradictory teachings that confused and destroyed the basic concept of Christ’s Atonement. It is time the plain and simple declarations of the Holy Scriptures are restored. They make perfectly good sense in a simple way.
To understand what the Atonement was intended by God to convey it is necessary to appreciate God’s view of sin and its consequences. And, God’s viewpoint is not how humans ordinarily look at the matter of sin. True, many people recognized that there is not a person on earth who can claim to be perfect, for all have sinned, but how does God deal with those sins we all commit?
It has been suggested that God, if He wishes a person to be saved, could simply show mercy and forgive a person of sins by overlooking the punishments to be meted out for their sinning. After all, is God not good? Certainly He is. And since God knows that none of us is capable of living above sin, should not God show mercy on all of us, especially those who diligently try to be good, and overlook the punishments for sins we have earned? To many this seems a reasonable proposition. But this procedure is not the Scriptural way of dealing with sin.
If this were the manner in which God gets rid of our sins, it would have been unnecessary for Christ to bear our sins for His lifetime and during His crucifixion. The very reason Christ endured punishment for our sins is because God demands total justice (and this means punishments) for the breaking of every law and for every lack of faith His people have committed on earth. Indeed, we are consistently classified as being active sinners. Recall the principle of punishment Christ gave His disciples:
“Agree with your adversary quickly, whiles you are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Verily I say unto you, you shall by no means come out from there, till you have paid the uttermost farthing.”
In other words, every ounce of punishment will be exacted for sins; there will be no “forgetting” or “overlooking” the required punishment. God insists on obedience to His laws and if any laws are disobeyed, even in the slightest, there must be a complete accounting and a punishment exacted for every violation. This is what the Bible teaches and God will not deviate from the full justice He demands upon each one of us, and I mean upon you as well as upon Ernest L. Martin. Our sins are a complete reproach unto Him and He will not absolve any of us of our sins by simple acts of mercy and forgiveness!
Thankfully, this is where Christ Jesus comes on the scene. He willingly took upon Himself every sin that you and I have committed. And He took to Himself the complete and thorough punishment that God the Father exacted on all rebellious humans who fail to keep His divine laws. Christ lived and died for you—in your place. He took upon Himself the punishments for your sins and mine.
When we come before the judgment seat of God, we can stand before Him completely sin-free and legally possessing the very righteousness of Christ Jesus that will then be reckoned to us. This teaching represents the heart and core of Christianity and every one of us should understand it. The Bible teaches we are righteous, even when we are not (that is, in the eyes of God the Father).
Once this essential teaching of the Bible is recognized we will then be in a proper position to comprehend the full consequences of sin and what the Atonement of Christ represents. Let us look at the first major teaching that we can be assured of. It is a simple doctrine misunderstood by about 95% of Christian preachers and theologians today.
If you ask the majority of Christian preachers today what awaits a sinner after death for sins committed if he did not accept Christ Jesus during this lifetime, the answer of most fundamentalist evangelists and Catholic priests is that hell-fire awaits him and that sinner will burn in that hell-fire in agony without interruption for all future time. Catholics invented a non-biblical purgatory experience for the not-so-wicked and that people can have release from it after a period of punishment if church officials pray them out.
Regarding the punishments for sin, I once asked a charismatic evangelist what his destiny would be after death had he not accepted Christ some seven years before. He answered quickly and with complete dogmatism: “I would have gone directly to hell-fire and I would have to stay in that agonizing condition in thorough torment for the rest of eternity.” But I responded to him with the simple teaching of the Atonement that Christ worked out for us. I said to him:
“If the legal consequence of unforgiven sins according to the Bible was to go at death to hell-fire and stay in torment for all time to come, then for Christ to have paid the penalties for all our sins He would have had to go to that hell-fire and remain there in torment for the rest of eternity. After all, if the wages of sin are to go to an everburning hell without any hope of release, then Christ would have had to go to that hell-fire and stay there in our place for ever to pay the penalty for sin. But three days after Christ died, He was out of the grave and sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven. In no way did He go to any hell-fire and burn forever to pay the penalties for our sins. This is because eternal hell-fire is not the penalty for sin. If it were, then that is where Christ should be.”
The Pentecostal preacher was startled by my answer. After thinking a few seconds over what I had said, he replied: “I have never heard it put that way before.” My response to him was: “Don’t you think it’s time that you did?”
The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal [eonian] life” (Romans 6:23). And what did Christ do for us? In scores of places in the New Testament it shows that He died for us and that He was resurrected from the dead. The truth is, Christ was not even conscious while He remained in His tomb for three days. He was absolutely and completely dead, as we will later see demonstrated in this chapter. The punishment for sins (and this means all sins) is death. And that is what Christ precisely performed for us in our place. Christ was a substitute the Father allows to take our place.
This now brings us to the second misconception regarding the full Atonement that Christ Jesus worked out for us. I was not through talking with the Pentecostal preacher, so I continued telling him the simple teaching of what the Atonement of Christ consists.
I told that preacher that the church of which I was a member for eighteen years 1 correctly taught that death was indeed the penalty for unforgiven sins, but then they turned around and made the absurd assumption that the punishment was eternal death. In no way is this true and anyone with a little common sense should recognize it. The truth is, if eternal death were the punishment for sins, then for Christ to pay that penalty for us, He would have had to die and remain dead for the rest of eternity. Obviously, Christ did not remain dead for all time because He was resurrected from the dead three days later. But if the penalty for sin was eternal death, Christ would still be dead in the grave and never resurrected.
Understand that if the Father had not resurrected Christ—and if He would never have been resurrected—Christ would indeed have remained dead for the rest of eternity. But of course, the punishment for sins had no aspects of eternal death attached to it and the dying of Christ for our sins was the necessary duty to pay the penalty for our many transgressions. Christ’s punishment was not eternal death!
A third misconception people have about God’s punishment for unforgiven sins is that the unrepentant sinner must be separated from God for the rest of eternity. This is often used by kindly Protestants who wish to avoid mentioning the agonies of hell-fire (which they still believe in) and they simply change the verbal judgment to an imagined “separation from God” for all future time. This would be a calamity of the highest proportions, but by using this tactic they avoid referring to the rigors and everlastingness of hell-fire. But a simple explanation of the Atonement that Christ worked out for us dispels the nonsense of this evaluation as well.
All one has to do is to apply the rules governing the Atonement of Christ to show the silliness of this suggestion. If the punishment for unrepentant sins was everlasting separation from God the Father, then for Christ to pay that penalty for us He would be separated from the Father from the time of His death for all future time. But this did not happen. In three days’ time we find Christ resurrected from the dead and sitting at the right hand of the Father. The theory of eternal separation from God is nonsense. God did not create us to be eternally estranged from Him. He made us all to be part of the divine Family of God.
There is a fourth misconception regarding sins that have led people astray from biblical truth. This is the belief that if a human dies without asking forgiveness of his or her sins, and those sins remain at death on his or her body, soul or spirit, then that person’s opportunity for having sins forgiven is over. That person will then go to hell for eternity to pay his or her punishment for sin. But this teaching and belief is as antichristian and counter to Christ’s efficacious Atonement for mankind as it is possible to get.
The truth is, when Christ died with all the sins of mankind on His person, He Himself died UNREPENTENT of those sins. In other words, it is cardinal Christian doctrine that Christ died a sinner (in place of the world having to die for their sins). Christ died with all the world’s sins upon His divine person. “He [God] made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As Martin Luther rightly remarked, Christ died reckoned by God as an abject sinner and a totally depraved human being. Though sinless, He died totally full of sin. But even when Christ died with those sins harboring the totality of His person and thoroughly occupying the full extent of His tripartite nature (body, soul and spirit), yet Christ Jesus a short three days later was fully redeemed and accounted righteous at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Christ died in His sins, sins inherited from all mankind at the express command of God the Father.
With the Father, no person today dies in their sins since Christ has borne all of mankind’s sins. It was Christ who died with man’s sins on Him. He died with more sins on Him than any other human. Christ died without repenting of those sins. He died in those sins!
How simple it is to understand what the Atonement of Christ affects for us. All that we have to do is to read in the Holy Scriptures what Christ did for us while in the flesh, while being crucified and what occurred to Him from the time of His death until His presentation to the Father in heaven after His resurrection from the dead. If we comprehend the punishments Christ underwent for us during those times, then we can have certain knowledge of what the Atonement of Christ is all about in the clearest way possible.
Notice it plainly. If Christ Jesus did not experience hell-fire forever, then “hell-fire forever” cannot be the penalty or consequences of sin. If His death did not last for eternity, then neither are the wages of sin a death without hope of a future life. And if Christ did not have an everlasting separation from God (as commonly expressed in Protestant circles) as final punishment for sins, then an everlasting separation from God is also not the wages of sin. But what are the wages of sin? What did Christ do for us? Romans 6:23 gives the answer as plain as anything. The consequence of sin is death and that is what Christ did for us. He died for us in our place. What “death” did He die for us? This is the next question we must investigate.
We need to recognize what Christ’s Atonement effected for us and especially what it does not cover. The inspired revelation tells us that His Atonement does not cover our first, physical death. “It is appointed unto men once to die; and then cometh the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The “death” that Christ died for us is something different than the fleshly death we must all undergo. What Christ secured for us is a legal standing with God the Father regarding the payment of our sins. But this legal standing is only brought into play at the judgment that all of us must undergo when we stand before God (2 Corinthians 5:10). It is God the Father reckoning to us a perfect sinlessness in His sight as it relates to the judgment. At that time, when we come before the bar of judgment, God the Father will open the books to the demerit side of our ledger and He will find it completely free of any censure—even the slightest sins will have been taken care of by Christ on the tree of crucifixion. But that does not mean that we are actually free of the consequences of sin while in the flesh.
The apostle Paul states that we are actually sinners and many times we suffer at present for those sins. If, for example, you would eat a green apple or a whole box of chocolates in one sitting (which could be reckoned a sin to your body), you would probably develop a stomachache or a general malaise. The application of Christ’s Atonement to get rid of that stomachache and discomfiture that you caused is not covered by the Atonement of Christ that He worked out for us during His life and at the time of His death. Christ’s Atonement does not free us from the pains, sufferings and physical death in this life. If Christ’s Atonement were fully applied now, we would never suffer or even die, because we could just apply the sacrifice of Christ in our stead and apply the Atonement He worked out for us even here and now. But we are all appointed to undergo the first death (and the pains and aches that lead up to it, remember Hebrews 9:27). And even though Christ indeed died in our stead (2 Corinthians 5:14), that death of Christ on our behalf will apply only when we stand before God in the Judgment.
Let’s go even further. If you get a speeding ticket from a traffic officer and you plead the Atonement of Christ to forgive that “sin” now in this life (and on your behalf now), the judge will still toss you into jail if you fail to pay the fine. Christ’s Atonement is actually awarded to us at the judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10), not during this life. For sins you commit in the flesh, Paul taught clearly: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
People who teach that Christ’s Atonement for all our sins (even secular sins we commit against society or to ourselves) presently applies in our human existence while in the flesh are totally wrong as to what the teaching of Imputation is all about. The Pentecostals who insist that all of your sicknesses and pains can be totally removed through the Atonement of Christ in this present life (in fact, right now) are way off the mark of what the Atonement of Christ entails. Listen, brothers and sisters, Christ’s total Atonement for our sins (our pains, sicknesses, follies and demerits) applies only at the final judgment when we appear before the bar of God to answer for our sins in the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:10). Your own physical death (and my physical death) that all humans must undergo is your payment for your sins against yourself (in the way we mistreat our bodies in this life, etc.), and also for the sins we commit against society and any human on earth (Hebrews 9:27). Since the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), we pay for our own sins with the death that all of us must undergo. Once we die and pay those wages, God will not put us through a second trial to pay for them. God in the Judgment is only interested in the sins you committed against Him personally. 2
Yes, all the sins we have executed against God (and many sins against our fellowman that God abhors), are the sins to be dealt with by Christ paying for our sins on the tree of crucifixion. We get freedom from punishment for those sins at the Judgment after our resurrection from the dead. Remember that Christ’s death for us involves dealing with sins against God, NOT against those that we implemented on earth that our own deaths will remedy. I repeat (because of its importance) our own prophesied deaths are a payment for the sins we now commit. But, as the apostle Paul tells us, we have nothing to fear beyond our deaths, because Christ’s death on the tree takes care of all sins in the eyes of God.
When we appear before God, we will stand as already having paid for our own sins by our physical deaths, and we have also paid for the sins that God the Father reckons against us by the death of Christ (on our behalf) when He died on the Mount of Olives almost 2000 years ago. It is just that simple. You should have no fear of the coming Judgment, because Christ released you completely from any sins that God has ever held against you (or any sins that God may in the future hold against you). Indeed, you have already passed the Judgment triumphantly in Christ, legally, when He was your substitute on the tree of crucifixion.
The judgment scene depicted in the Holy Scriptures occurs just after the Second Advent of Christ and our resurrections from the dead. Since Christ, as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is the only one with a present immortality (1 Timothy 6:16), all Christian saints will put on immortality when the trumpet blasts at Christ’s return and we are resurrected (or changed) into an immortal existence at that time (1 Corinthians 15:50–54; 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17). That is when we will be resurrected from the dead to be judged (rewarded), when we will be healed of all our sicknesses and when the full Atonement of Christ will be applied to our account. We will appear before that judgment scene without the slightest sin on our persons. Christ Jesus will have taken care of all those sins and we will stand before God the Father sin free and without the slightest taint of wrongdoing on our accounts.
But one thing we must never forget and I do not apologize for repeating this fact: The suffering and the sicknesses that Christ endured are NOT part of the Atonement that applies to us as long as we are in the flesh. Paul even said that at this present time “the sufferings of Christ abound in us” (2 Corinthians 1:5). He also said:
“That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.”
And Peter most emphatically said:
“But rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, you may also be glad also with exceeding joy.”
1 Peter 4:13
Only with our resurrections to spiritual glory do all the factors of the Atonement apply to us and to the rest of creation. Paul summed it up well by saying:
“For the creation was made subject [by God] to vanity, not willingly but (by reason of him who has subjected the same) in hope, that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruit of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves waiting for the sonship, to wit, the redemption of the body.”
True, we can gain relief from some of the groanings of our infirmities from time to time. Christ is presently taking the knowledge of our afflictions before God the Father (Romans 8:26), but we are not promised complete deliverance from sicknesses and other afflictions in this life (see Romans 8:35–36). Such relief comes after our resurrections from the dead at Christ’s Second Advent. That is when the full redemption of our bodies and the complete application of Christ’s Atonement will come into a thorough effect.
Until that time we have only the earnest of the Spirit, which is a type of down payment in which we can experience a minor part of our inheritance from time to time as God is willing to show mercy (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). But during this fleshly life, Paul reckoned that his own sufferings were finalizing or filling up the sufferings of Christ. “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” (Colossians 1:24). The apostle Paul did NOT teach, as so many charismatic preachers do today, that since all our sicknesses, afflictions and sufferings were borne by Christ during His act of Atonement for us, that we can claim deliverance from all these things now. In no way! True, He bore them all, but the manifestation of our complete redemption will only see the light when our spiritual resurrections take place at Christ’s return (Romans 8:19–26). Until that time we still experience many sufferings, afflictions and sicknesses, and we must all undergo the death of this flesh (Hebrews 9:27).
If this is so (which it is), what death did Christ die for us? It could not have been our fleshly death that the Book of Hebrews talks about. This is easy to determine. It must be the “death” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:26. Paul said:
“For he [Christ] must reign, till he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”
1 Corinthians 15:25–26
This is when Satan’s final bit of authority over death is taken away from him, since Satan presently has “the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). It happens to be the “second death” that is the means by which Christ destroys both the angelic powers called Hades and Death (Revelation 2:14). And when death is destroyed or annihilated only life will then exist! There will then be no more death in all the creation that Christ founded (Colossians 1:15–21) and then a universal reconciliation will take place among all creatures in the universe (Ephesians 1:10). All will be made alive when death is destroyed.
So Christ’s death in His Atonement is finally attributed to us when we are resurrected from the dead or are changed at Christ’s Second Advent. This is when His complete atoning work regarding sicknesses, afflictions and other sufferings will be applied.
For all other people who do not come up in the first resurrection (Revelation 20:1–5), they will receive the full Atonement benefits of Christ at the final resurrection that Paul called “the end” (1 Corinthians 15:24) when death is finally annihilated (verses 24–28). This is when all mankind will finally be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). This is also when the full Atonement that Christ secured for us and all creation will be manifested. Understand that the Atonement of Christ is equally effective for the redemption of all beings in the universe when death itself is finally destroyed by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:25–26).
There is still one important thing that we must have on our ledger of works during our earthly life. Without that factor we cannot sit with God on His divine throne. Remember this important point on the doctrine of Imputation as taught in the Holy Scriptures. It is the third usage of Imputation found in the Bible. We must have a perfect righteousness accounted to us on our record books. And that holiness must be perfect and it must be an utterly unblemished righteousness. How do we obtain that kind of perfect righteousness?
Another factor in the meaning of Christ’s Atonement concerns the matter of His death. Did Christ really die? That is, did all of Him die or was it only part of Him that died? This is an important point for us to consider and understand. A vast number of preachers and theologians accept that only part of Christ actually died at the time of His crucifixion while the rest of His personality continued to live without interruption and in a complete conscious and active state. In a word, they are saying that the real Christ did not actually die on the tree of crucifixion.
Let me make this point plain. If Christ did not in fact die (or did not die completely) then His Atonement becomes thoroughly ineffective. This means that you and I, and all Christians, do not have a savior (1 Corinthians 15:12–17). We had better be assured in our minds that Christ did die and that all His person died, or the teaching of Christianity about the efficacy of Christ’s Atonement is destroyed.
Note this point. There can be no forgiveness of sins unless someone pays for those sins through the act of death. The Book of Hebrews puts it this way.
“And for this cause he [Christ] is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal [eonian] inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator [a contract victim in the Old Testament was an animal sacrifice and in the New Testament it was Christ]. For a testament is of force after men are dead; otherwise it is no strength at all while the testator lives”
What we need to determine is whether Christ did in fact die, or did He continue to live without really dying? Of course, the Scriptures tell us time and again that Christ did die, but preachers and theologians are prone to accept this teaching as referring to the death of His body—not that His soul or His spirit died. But the Book of Hebrews makes it clear that if a testator does not die [the author is referring to Christ] then there can be no “redemption of the transgressions.” And without all of our transgressions being forgiven by the death of Christ in our place, then we are all still in our sins, as are all other humans from the time of Adam until now. This would make the whole meaning of Christ’s Atonement to be disallowed and of no value in saving us from our sins. The truth is Christ Jesus did in fact DIE, just like you and I will die. He did not possess some kind of “immortal soul” in the Platonic fashion of explanation. Christ did not go to heaven immediately at His death, like so many people imagine Him doing today. He was dead in His grave for three days—thoroughly dead and totally unconscious.
Remember that we are told by the apostle Paul that Christ was not an angel, but He was a Son of God (Hebrews 1 and 2). No angel can ever be called a Son of God according to Paul (Hebrews 1:5–14). In those scriptures Paul makes clear that Christ Jesus before His birth was the “God” and the “Lord” (under the authority of God the Father) who created the heavens and the earth. But Paul also insisted that this creative act of Christ in bringing the universe into existence (see also Colossians 1:15–22, John 1:1), was done as a “Son of God,” and not as an angel (even the most powerful of the angels).
Then, in the rest of the Book of Hebrews, the apostle Paul shows why Christ had to die, even though He was the Deity under the Father who created the universe. Paul is simply reflecting the teaching of Psalm 82 which speaks of an assembly of the Family of God in heaven (verse 1) and how some of those called “Sons of God” were judged by the Father for their wrongdoing. Then the Psalmist said, “You are gods; and all of you are Sons of the most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes [of men]” (Psalm 82:6–7).
This means that the heavenly “Sons of God” (of whom Christ was the Firstborn) can die. God can judge them for their wrongs and send them into a death-state. And though Christ (as the Firstborn) DID NOT SIN, the Father still judged Him when Christ carried our sins on His back. Recall that Christ died for us [in our place] and this means Christ’s body, His soul and His spirit all died! So, spiritual beings from heaven can die (and they do die if God judges them as worthy of death). In the next chapter I will show that all humans die (like Christ died) in body, in soul and in spirit.
1 I later came to be the head of the theology department at their headquarters college.
2 Sometimes we have done sins against Him by actions against our fellowman or done other physical things that God forbids we do, such as our first parents taking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Order our Book: Essentials of New Testament Doctrine to read all the chapters.
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions