The Achievement of the Cross: The Biblical Variety of Language

Desiring God 1989 Conference for Pastors

The Achievement of the Cross

I count it a great privilege to be with you tonight and I find myself in full agreement with the pastor when he said that, “Really there is no greater subject that could be dealt with than the subject we consider tonight — the subject of the work of Jesus Christ.”

The Centrality of the Atonement

A whole lecture could well be given about the centrality of atonement, of the work of the cross, in God’s redemptive message. It could be done in two ways. It could be done by showing how various books of Scripture put this as their center. And you could go then from Genesis to Revelation and see that there is a scarlet thread more significant there than even on the window of Rahab. And that leads from Genesis to Revelation speaking about the redemptive purpose of God, prophesying the work of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, preparing it in the new and looking back upon it in the new in a more striking way.

It’s so much so that Paul could say, “I have determined not to know anything among you if Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He was a man who could have known a lot of things. He was a great scholar, very learned in many ways. And yet he’s singularly focused on this as the very heart and center of the faith. Another way in which it could be done is to show you how the cross and the atoning work of Jesus Christ relates to all major topics of the Bible, all major low-key or systematic theology. So there is not one that is not in some very real way directly connected with it. And so, the great Swiss theologian Vinet would say, “Don’t say that this is one doctrine of the gospel. Don’t even say this is the most important doctrine of the gospel. Say, this is the gospel, the gospel itself, everything runs toward it.”

It is like the blood in the body which irrigates the whole body. And for those who might not recognize the cause in various places, this is because they have not yet sufficiently pondered about its meaning. And for him or her who can recognize it, everything points back to it, everything reflects it, everything prepares it, and everything rejoices in it, for here is the essence of the redemptive message of God for us. So how could we relate ourselves to a more passionately entrenching subject than this?

Now there are three lectures that I will be asked to give, and the first one deals with the language that Scripture uses in order to represent the cross for us. This is a positive, constructive presentation in which the biblical language is brought to the fore, distinctions are made, but they are meant to be, in the end, synthesized into a wholehearted and full-orbed view of what the cross is.

Tomorrow, I plan in the first to show you and to emphasize how important the concept of substitution is in the whole understanding of the atonement. Particularly, I would like to show you that any incomplete theory of the atonement is deficient precisely because it has attempted in some way to deny or to shortcut the reality of substitution. By that fact, it has really undermined its own footing, so to speak, the ground on which it desires to rest and the truth that it desires to proclaim. This will be in a sense critical and in some way negative but we need to be kept on our guard against infringements on the doctrine of this importance left by incompleteness. We might fail to do justice to the work of Christ.

And then tomorrow night, Lord willing, I plan to discuss the scope of the work of Christ. For whom was it intended? Was it for all human beings? Is it for all creatures? Or is it in a very special way for those who will in fact be redeemed? And I hope to put you before a dilemma. Is it effectual or is it universal? If it is universal, it is effectual. If it is effectual, it is not universal. And so, you will have to choose at that point, but not tonight.

The Language of Atonement

I begin by emphasizing that precisely because of the importance of the cross. We find in Scripture a variety of representations that are given by God to us (inspired), and they mutually supplement each other in order to give us a fuller understanding of the various things that the cross has accomplished and thereby achieved. In other words, God was not satisfied to use one form of metaphoric language, one line of illustration to cause us to understand what Jesus did. But there are at least five major lines of language that are used in Scripture and which it is good for us to distinguish, although not to isolate.


The first line that is to be presented is the language of reconciliation. The word that is used in the Greek here is drawn from the root, which means “something else.” Reconciliation is the bringing of another situation of another relation. Particularly, the letters “re” in English point to it as bringing back a situation that returns to one that was unfortunately abandoned. Reconciliation is used in our common language. I guess the student in the sixth grade could use it. And it is for these that the NIV was intended so they might understand in the hope that if they do, perhaps some older people might as well. A student in sixth grade would know what it is to be reconciled and know what reconciliation is, because there are some quarrels in the home in which reconciliation is needed. The kids are fighting with each other and then they get to be reconciled and they know what this means. Reconciliation is a process by which two people who are at odds with each other are brought back to a relationship of friendship. They are resuming a relationship of friendship that was unhappily disturbed or broken, sometimes by the fault of both, sometimes by the fault of one, but the friendship anyway was broken.

And so, Scripture uses that language in order to represent for us how the work of Jesus Christ has accomplished a change in our relationship with God. And the most important passages on this are found in Romans 5 and in 2 Corinthians 5. In Romans five we read as follows:

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 (Romans 5:10–11).

This is following a passage where it says that we shall be saved from the wrath of God. That is one passage where you notice that the apostle Paul is not concerned apparently with elegance of speech, he is more concerned to hammer home that word reconciliation by using it three times in two verses. Ordinarily, people who have an elegance of style attempt to avoid repetition of words, but Paul is not concerned about that. He’s more concerned to say that reconciliation is what has been affected by the work of Jesus Christ.

I pass on to 2 Corinthians 5:18–21:

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. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Now, here from verses 18 through 20, we have five times that word reconciliation or reconciled. So here the apostle Paul hammers even more heavily than in Romans 5 to emphasize reconciliation is a key for the understanding of the work of Christ.

Making Amends with God

Now in most cases, in human affairs, when you have reconciliation, both of the parties who are estranged are somewhat at fault. When you have a divorce and people desire to resume their relationship as husband and wife, ordinarily both have to confess that somehow they have not been perfect. The man has to say, “I have not been a perfect husband and I regret that.” And the woman has to say, “I have not been a perfect wife and I regret that.” And then, when there is that mutual regret, reconciliation sometimes can be affected and people can resume their normal relationship as husband and wife.

When we deal with God, we are not in a situation that is like it, for God has committed no departure from an entirely proper and desirable attitude toward us. And so, the break is entirely ours. The fault is entirely ours. Scripture is very plain on this subject. Even though God included sin in the totality of his plans, the responsibility for sin remains with Satan in the first place, and then with Adam and Eve and then with us individually. And so, each of us, we have to make our amends before God. God has no occasion to repent. He does not have to give us any apologies, but we owe him repentance and a profound regret and sorrow for having sin against him.

And yet, the question arises when we talk about reconciliation at the level of God to humanity, who is being reconciled to whom? There are people who have said, “God really does not need to have a change of attitude because he’s always ready to receive us.” He’s gracious by his very nature, and loving, and merciful. Therefore, there is no need to have any kind of modification in God’s disposition toward us. The place where you have a disposition that is inappropriate is with humanity. We, foolishly like Adam, have fled when we heard the voice of God in the garden. We are afraid of him. We view him as an enemy and we have a sacred fear of him that comes from the fact that we sense our own inadequacy. And therefore, the people who need to be reconciled are human beings. But God does not need to be reconciled. And sometimes as a support for this as an argument in favor of this view, it is stated that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we don’t find any change of attitude on the part of the Father.

He was always willing to receive his son. He was waiting, perhaps at the window, watching over the road to see whether perhaps this son who had become estranged would come back. And so, there was no need of any offering, or reconciliation, or sacrifice that would come from him or that would be offered to him. All that was needed is that the son should in repentance turn back unto his father and the arms of the father were open for him. Well, this argument may appear somewhat convincing at first, but it is not in keeping with what Scripture makes it. In the first place I would have to say, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not a proper argument in this matter, for have you tried to find out where the place of Jesus is in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

All we have is the Father and the sinner. Surely, Jesus would not attempt here to teach us a kind of salvation that would not involve him in the process. And you will not compare Jesus to the elder brother, will you, that disagreeable fellow who did not even want to rejoice when his brother came back? In fact, Jesus is the very opposite of the elder brother. Perhaps if you turn him around, then you would have something like Jesus, but surely not in the parable. So it is very obvious that the parable was not meant to represent for us the fullness of the mystery of redemption. It represents one aspect, the incomprehensible goodness of God who is prepared to receive us in spite of our ill dessert. But it does not show how God can manage this and how this comports with the interest of divine government.

A Full Understanding of Redemption

In order to have a full understanding of the work of redemption, we need to go to the whole Bible. Particularly, in this matter of reconciling, it will not do to say that Scripture never says God is reconciled, but it says, “Be reconciled.” Man is reconciled to God. And God gives the message of reconciliation because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. And so, the use of the language is sometimes brought forward as an argument to indicate that the reconciliation is not on God’s part, but it is on the part of human beings.

Well, that argument is also specious, for in the first place in the Greek, the use of the “world” is precisely the reverse of what it is in English and in French. And you can see that if you go to other parts of the Bible. So I don’t want to make a long demonstration on this, it could be built on a number of passages, but I’ll take just one to show you how it works. In Matthew 5, we have a passage where Jesus speaks about a man who is an offering:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23–24).

Now here, you notice you heard the word, be reconciled in the passive. Now let’s say that the worshiper is A, the brother is B. In terms of this passage, I’m asking you, who has grievance against the other? Well, Jesus made it very plain. It’s B that has a grievance against A. He says, “Your brother has something against you” and yet it is A that has to be reconciled. Therefore, when Paul says, “Be reconciled to God”, that means, “Make sure that God does not hold his grievance, his just grievance and anger at your sins against you.”

In other words, “Be sure that God will act peaceably toward you instead of acting in terms of his just wrath against your sins.” And this is not just a question of who has something against the other. If it were just the worshiper with something against his brother, I submit to you he wouldn’t even have to leave the altar. He could settle that before God, right on the spot. He would say, “Okay, Lord, I forgive my brother and now please receive my offering.” But it’s because it’s the brother who has something against him that a little trip is necessary in order to set matters right. So very obviously when it says be reconciled, it means make sure that the other person does not carry on a grievance against you.

Whether it a justified grievance or unjustified grievance is not the issue. In the case of God, it’s always a justified grievance. In the case of human beings, sometimes people have a grudge without full justification, but that’s not what is in view. And so, the reconciliation of which Scripture speaks is a reconciliation by which God himself in his mercy dismisses the grievance which he justly holds against us for our sins. And this he can do because of the intervention of Jesus Christ. God was in Christ providing for the setting aside of grievance. That is what Scripture says. And I can talk about that even more emphatically merely by analysis of the Greek language or the English language. Scripture is very plain because in both of those passages where Paul hammers the idea of reconciliation, he has not left it to haphazard as to what is in view.

God Reconciled to Man

For in Romans 5:9, it says:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

It’s not that we were saved from our wicked disposition but saved from the wrath of God. It is that which involves the reconciliation of God. And in 2 Corinthians 5:19, we read:

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . .

Reconciliation in Christ is the process by which the sins of men are dismissed as having an importance in our relationship with God. And it is by virtue of Jesus Christ this is possible. So both of those great passages where reconciliation is the key issue, leave us not in doubt at all but that the reconciliation is primarily the reconciliation of God to us. It’s the great, marvelous process whereby God himself in his mercy through Jesus Christ dismisses his grievances against us, weighty as they were, to forgive us our sins and to receive us as if we had not sinned.


In another argument in the same line comes another word that is used in Scripture, the word “propitiation.” We find this word four times in the New Testament related to the work of Jesus Christ, twice more in some other connection, and about 93 times in the Old Testament. And here, the roots that is used (hilaskomai) in the Greek was a root which was often used in heathen worship and which related to the appeasement of gods which are seen as impetuous and wrathful beings who would be prepared at the drop of a hat to cause mischief and havoc in the human race. So the Greeks felt that they needed to subdue the anger of the gods and the goddesses by making appropriate offerings in the hope of curbing their temper.

Here, the concept was tied in with the concept that the Greeks had about the gods and the goddesses who were not like Jehovah God, a God of justice, of love, and of holiness, but they were impetuous and rather immoral playboys and playgirls who were really giving vent to all kinds of inappropriate and undesirable dispositions and feelings. So sometimes there might be some reason why they should be angry. For instance, when Paris was called to judge a beauty contest between three goddesses — the wife of Zues, Hera; the the goddess of love, Aphrodite; and the goddess of Athens, Athena — when he chose Aphrodite, then the other two were angry at him because he had not given them the palm, a little bit like our ladies in Miss America who have not been crowned and they make a good pretense of embracing the one who was crowned, but deep within their heart wells this feeling of jealousy that is difficult to hide.

So the goddesses didn’t try to hide this and the result was that Aphrodite was in favor of the city of Troy and the other two goddesses were favoring the Greeks, and the kings that were there and the Greeks that came to lay siege before Troy. And so, that was one of the problems that the people had to face. In some other cases, the gods could become jealous of somebody who was too fortunate. And they have the rather funny story of Cassius who was so fortunate and so successful in everything he did that he began to fear that perhaps the gods might be jealous and cause a very great sorrow to fall upon him and his house. And so, he sought advice from his best friend and he said, “I am so successful, and so happy and everything that I do succeeds so well, I’m afraid of the jealousy of the gods. What do you advise me to do?”

The friend said, “What’s the property that you have that you like most of all?” And he said, “Well, I guess it’s this ring that I wear on my finger with very heavy jewels on it.” I should think he should have said, “My wife is the most precious of all the things that belong to me.” But the friend said, “I have advice for you. You go and take a little cruise in the sea and when you have gone far from the shore, take that ring from your finger and throw it into the sea. The discomfort of having lost your ring will prevent the gods from being jealous of you. They will see you crying and lamenting over the loss of your ring and you will not have to fear anything from the jealousies of the gods.”

Now, Cassius was a little reluctant to follow this advice because he really liked that ring, but he felt, “Well my friend has good sense, so I guess I’ll do it.” And so, he went on his cruise and he threw the ring into the water and then returned and said, “We will have a nice banquet in order to celebrate the fact that now I am not exposed to the jealousies of the gods.”

So the first course in this banquet was a large fish that they had just caught and they parted the fish and low and behold on his plate, in his portion of the fish, Cassius found his ring that had come back to him. He threw it in the water, a fish had swallowed it, the fisherman had caught it, and there it was on the table right back in Cassius plate. So his friend said, “I guess the gods are jealous. Count me out. I was your friend so far, but now I’m going to go as fast as my little feet can carry me because terrible disasters will befall you and I don’t want to be a part of it when the roof falls in.”

So that’s where the story goes. Now you see, the ring was a propitiation that was refused by the gods. It was meant to subdue the jealousy or the anger of the gods, but the gods refused it. And they said, “No, we are going to stick it to this man and let him suffer.” And so, indeed they did do exactly that.

Uses in the Bible

Well, it would seem that a word like that would be unusable for the Christian vocabulary. It is so tainted by its heathen origins that one wonders how anybody could use it. And yet it is being used and we find it in Romans 3:25, the passage already quoted by the pastor in his introduction. You have this great passage where we read:

We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:23–24).

The NIV has “sacrifice of atonement,” not because they wish to shun the idea of propitiation, but because they think that sixth grade students don’t understand that word and that therefore we ought to have something that may be meaningful for them. But the idea of propitiation certainly is present and the people of the NIV believed in it. Then again, in Hebrews 2:17 we have the statement:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

And there are two great passages in 1 John. First John 2:2 says:

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

And 1 John 4:10 says:

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.

I see in each of those four passages, it is in relation to Jesus Christ and his atoning work that the word is used. In Luke 18:13, we also find that word, but this is in the prayer of the Publican. Remember the Publican and the Pharisees had gone to pray and the Publican prayed to God and said, “Be merciful toward me”, literally, “Be propitiated to me, Oh Lord, for I am a sinner.” And then again in Hebrews 9:5, we have the word “the propitiatory,” which was part of the furnishings of the tabernacle.

On top of the arc of the covenant there was this plate of gold which was called the propitiatory. It was on that table of gold that the blood of atonement was deposited on the great day of atonement just in the presence of God once a year and only by the great high priest. And this plate was called “the propitiatory” because it was precisely there that the Israelite could be assured that God was appeased in spite of their sins and that he was receiving them in mercy and not in wrath.

Anger Set Aside

Now this word by itself again emphasizes that the reconciliation we need is one in which God sets aside his anger against us. Now, some people have at this point a misconception in thinking that God changes his anger into love. Now that is not what is in view. It is out of love that God provides propitiation. And particularly, the propitiation of which Scripture speaks is not one that we manage to scare off, so to speak, in order to present it to God. But it is rather a provision that God himself in his great mercy has made for us. And particularly in Jesus Christ, we realize that it is God himself offering himself for us. So this is not something that is immensely costly to us, it’s costly to God.

The point however, is that out of love, God has made this provision so that the interest of his justice would not be set aside. And nevertheless, he would not have to deal with us in terms of our sins as a judge, but could freely forgive our sins and bypass them because the punishment due to them would already have been received in the person of our substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, propitiation is the triumph of the love of God, the love of the Father who offers his Son, the love of the Son who offers himself, the love of the Spirit, by whom the Lord Jesus has offered himself — “by the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14) as Hebrews puts it. All three persons are loving and all three persons are equally interested in justice also. It’s not the justice of the Father that the love of Christ assuages, but the Father is just, the Son is just, and the Holy Spirit is just. And it is the justice of God that demands that some compensation be made for the grievous offense made to God in the form of sin.

So it is out of his love that God provides the thing that is essential for the interest of his justice so that we may not have to suffer the consequences of our sins, that they pass on to the person of our substitute. And this which is found relatively rarely in a New Testament — since there are only four passages that relate to it — it is found much more frequently in the old, particularly in the book of Leviticus, when it says “make atonement for,” this is exactly the Greek word that is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the translation known as the Septuagint. This leads us to the whole institution of sacrifice that is found in Scripture and to which the work of our Lord is compared.

In fact, we might say that the principle of sacrifice is one of the great uniting bonds which binds together the old and the New Testament. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were a foreshadowing of the great sacrifice offered once for all by the Lord Jesus Christ. No one explains this more fully than the author of Hebrews who brings to the fore the priestly work of Christ and also the significance of his sacrifice.

Atonement in Christ’s Blood

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 5:7 where we read that our Passover has been sacrificed, even Christ. And here Jesus Christ is compared to the Passover offering which was made in order to safeguard the people of Israel from the plague that was going to devastate Egypt and claim the firstborn. And the people of Israel no more than the Egyptians deserved to be spared in this. But the Passover lamb ensured that the avenging angel would pass over their homes without striking them while striking all the others. And in the same way Christ is called our Passover, it is the one by virtue of whom God passes over us in the meeting out of punishments because Christ already has suffered for us.

Ephesians 5:2 says:

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Here you have the work of Christ compared to the sacrificial offering of the Old Testament. First Peter 1:18–19:

knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Hebrews 7:27 says:

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.

Hebrews 9:26 says:

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

Hebrews 10:12 says:

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God . . .

And then very movingly, Matthew 26:28 says:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

The parallel passage in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians is there too. So there are just a few of the passages, but there are about 300 passages in the Old Testament where the blood is mentioned and about half of them relates to the blood of sacrifices. There are about 97 passages in the New Testament where “blood” is found and more than half relate to the blood of Christ, to the sacrifice that he has offered and by which the pouring out of his life for us is made plain by the shedding of his blood. It’s not that there is a physical quality in blood that is redeeming, but rather that the blood of Christ is indication of a life surrendered in completeness and forfeited for the sake of those for whom Christ offered himself. So the sacrificial language is a very important language and Jesus himself in the Lord supper calls us to remember that his offering was a sacrifice, a sacrifice to God by which nothing that was pleasing and satisfying unto God was presented, which dispenses us from being burdened by the punishment due unto our sins.

I counted reconciliation and propitiation as one form of language really even though there are two roots and sacrifice was the second.

The Court of Law

Now, I want to move on to a third form and that is the language of the court of law. I have a number of passages I would like to show you. This is what is sometimes called the forensic language forum in Latin. It was the court in which legal disputes were being argued. And so, forensic language is a language that relates to the judgment, the judgment seat, the tribunal, the court of law in which matters are being adjudicated. And we have this language very strongly in Isaiah 53 that we read together responsively. It comes all through the chapter, but Isaiah 53:11 is meaningful:

By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
     make many to be accounted righteous,
     and he shall bear their iniquities.

And perhaps even more impressively, the earlier passage:

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 (Isaiah 53:5).

This is exactly the language of penal justice. The court which administers a sanction of the law in order to punish the malefactor. Hebrews 9:28 says:

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many . . .

Now does it mean to bear sins if it is not to accept the punishment due unto unto sins, the consequences of sin, in the place of the one who actually was a sinner? First Peter 2:24 speaks of Christ who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree. Second Corinthians 5:21, which I already read to you, 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.

Galatians 3:13 says:

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”—

And the law is a curse only for malefactors. The only people who are under the curse of the law are people who have failed to fulfill what the law requires. The other people are under the benefaction of the law which really represents the order in which God is established. But the curse of the law is threatening to anyone who has not fulfilled the law and so, to all of us.

Romans 3:24 says:

[They] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . .

It is that word “justify” which is accounted righteous before the tribunal of God. Romans 8:1 says:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

And again, Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14 (identical passages), say:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses . . .

Our Burden Lifted

Our trespasses are forgiven by virtue of the fact that our Lord has accepted in our place the punishment due unto our sins. Other passages which talk about judgment, condemnation, the punishment that is justly following sin, the severity of God, are all tied up with the language of the court, the language of the tribunal. And here this is used to show us how Christ, appearing before the judgment seat of God on our behalf, has been willing to accept the burden of our sins and to bear instead of us the punishment due unto them so that the justice of God would be satisfied even though God may now forgive us and treat us as if we had not sinned.

This is such an important form of language that evangelical people are quite commonly using it. And so, this is not something that is deficient in the evangelical section of the church, but they are sometimes emphasizing this in a one-sided manner and sometimes also they do not perceive sufficiently that for people who are not used to the gospel, it may appear incoherent to talk about substitution in judgment. For indeed at the judgment seat or the tribunal, you cannot have substitutions.

If I have killed somebody and I am being tried for that crime and Pastor Piper says, “Release this man, I am going to take his punishment.” The judge will say, “You go home Mr. Piper, we have our man. We got the person who did the misdeed and we are going to punish him. And we are not interested in having substitutes. If we had a substitute, it would be a miscarriage of law.” So many people don’t understand why the court language bears substitution in the case of Christ. At that point you see we need to recognize the difficulty that arises in people who are not used to the Christian faith in connection with this language, even though I think it is in the fullness of language that we can see the reconciliation that we need.

The Language of the Marketplace

The next form of language that is used is what I’ve called the language of the marketplace. That is, language in which there is a speech about purchase, and payments and costs. I have a lot of passages because this is used probably more frequently than any other in Scripture. And there is such an emphasis on it that there are actually three different recruits that are used in order to emphasize this part.


And first of all, there is the language of ransom which is used quite often. Matthew 20:28 says:

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And that is identical with Mark 10:45. And then again in 1 Timothy 2:6, we read:

[Christ] gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Not only the words ransom, but you have a special prefix anti that means substitution. And so, this is particularly emphasized in this passage. Romans 3:24 speaks of this, which we have come to know as a good friend by now I trust where we read, “Being freely justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Now redemption is precisely the process by which something that was alienated is purchased back. The people who are functioning with green stamps talk about a redemption store. And the redemption store is a store at which you can bring your green stamps or your brown stamps and get for them the object that you were hoping to get. At that point you surrender your stamps and you get the objects that correspond to the number of stamps that you have gathered. And redemption is the process by which people whose life was forfeited has been, at a cost, regained for its desirable purpose.

Another passage is 1 Corinthians 1:30, where we read:

[Christ] became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption . . .

Ephesians 1:7 says:

In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.

Again, that’s just like Colossians 1:14. Titus 2:14 says:

[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Hebrews 9:12 and Hebrews 9:15 says:

He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption . . .Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

First Peter 1:18–19 says:

You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

All of these passages relate to one same route which comes from the verb “to loose,” or, “to deliver” and to do so by payment of a price by virtue of the ransom at great cost.


Then again you have another word which is drawn from the name for the marketplace in Greek, agora, the place of business for business transactions. And here we read in 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price.” The transaction took place and God has paid the price for it. Then again in Galatians 3:13, it says:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.

It is also the word agorazō. And in Revelations 5:9, it says:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . .

The word purchase is the word agorazō, even with an ex in addition, meaning a complete deliverance as a result. So you have Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 14:3–4.


Then there is another word which means “make a transaction.” And we have that in Acts 20:28 where Luke speaks of Paul. In fact, it’s in the discourse of Paul to the Ephesian elders where he speaks about the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. And then in Ephesian 1:14, we have an interesting combination. It’s the redemption of God’s own possession. Here we have the word “redemption” with an idea of a ransom and then the possession, that which has been secured by a transaction. And in our Lord’s prayer,he says, “Forgive us our debts,” and that also is the language of the marketplace. It’s a language of payments.

Now, perhaps no form of language is used more commonly. And we have that also as evangelicals in our hymns: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe,” and things of that kind. So we are not likely to forget this. In my judgment, this is the form of language that most readily comports with substitution, because in payments it doesn’t matter who it is who forks over. What is important is that the person who is a creditor should receive what is owed. If I owe a thousand dollars on my rent and my landlord is prepared to evict me because of that, and Pastor Piper says, “Here, man is a thousand dollars for Nicole.” Well the landlord has no right to say, “Well, I’m not accepting this thousand dollars, I want them from you.” Well, I say, “This is from me. Piper gave them to you and I passed before him with my head high. Everything that I owed has been paid and he has no more claim on me whatsoever.” And so, in payments, it is not important to know who it is who pays, as long as what is required is proffered.

So precisely in the payments that we owed God, as it were in terms of justice, Christ has taken our place. He has paid in our place and he has rescued us by the cost of his own life, at great cost.

The Language of the Battlefield

Now, finally we have a fifth form of language, the language of the battlefield. And that is the language that is drawn from the great struggle that we have between God and Satan, and the great victory which is accomplished by the work of Christ. I start with Colossians 2:15, which says:

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Principalities and powers would be the nefarious angelic powers that are arrayed against God and against us with Satan at their head. Triumph has been accomplished over them by the cross of Christ. Hebrews 2:14–15 says:

He himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

So here we have the principle of a deliverance by virtue of a mighty act of God who has overcome hostile powers. In Hebrews 2:10, Jesus is called “the captain of their salvation.” Now the captain is a rank in the army. And what is involved is not that he was only a captain and not a colonel or a general, but rather that he has a position of leadership. He’s the one who is at the head of the troops, so to speak. There is not an attempt to assess a grade lesser or higher, but rather the element of leadership in military ways is emphasized. Then again in the prayer of our Lord, he says, “Deliver us from evil,” or from the devil, from the evil one (Matthew 6:13). Colossians 1:13 says:

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son . . .

Galatians 1:4 says:

[Christ] gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age . . .

And then, we read those triumphant words in 1 Corinthians 15:54–55:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

And further it says:

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Here the emphasis is that in the great struggle against demonic powers and against sin in us and outside of us, we would be surely defeated and vanquished and brought into a condition of misery and slavery and death. But by the intervention of Jesus Christ as our champion, victory has been achieved and Christ delivers us from the fear of death, from the power of death, from the power of sin, and finally from the presence of sin when his work will be accomplished in full in us by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Union with God Through Christ

Now you see, we have those five different ways in which the work of Christ is represented. And it is very important for us not to isolate those but to recognize all five of them and to attempt to make our presentation sometimes consonant with one theme and then again to bring the various themes together, because it is in the combination of those themes that Scripture gives to us the fullness of what it is that Christ has accomplished. And no view which fails to do justice to any one of those forms of language can be properly recognized as a biblical view.

The biblical view has to have a synthesis of all five forms and any other that may be found in addition. There is also the expression of example, for instance. And so, nothing that Scripture says about the work of Jesus is something we can dispense with. And we need to have a grasp which recognizes the adequacy of these partial illustrations in the fullness of what Christ has done. For this reason, I have attempted to give you a table that will show how the work of Jesus Christ in the various forms presented relates to the things that we receive by virtue of his work.

Here, I have on the left-hand side what each line means. It is Christ’s work on the first line and we have reconciliation, sacrifice, court language, market language, and battlefield language. How does this affect us in our salvation? Well, reconciliation involves union. If we are reconciled, now we are united with God instead of being separated from him. And this union is noted particularly in Scripture by the word “covenant,” and by the word “adoption”. In fact, it is also expressed by the union of Christ with his bride, of Christ with his people as the head to the body, of Christ to his people as the vine to the branches. So the Bible abounds in illustrations of the unity that is developed by the grace of God between Christ and those who belong to him, and between God and all the redeemed through Jesus Christ. So the reconciliation issues into a marvelous union of redeemed humanity with God through Jesus Christ our savior.

God’s Accomplished Work in Christ

Then again, sacrifice involves particularly an emphasis upon the fact that it is God who is propitiated. And the emphasis is that this is offered to God. Nobody offers a sacrifice to himself or to another person. So obviously the Godward direction of the atoning work of Christ must be recognized. And people who have thought that the direction of the atonement was primarily to make a show for us or to influence us in that respect are deeply mistaken, for they fail to acknowledge that it is Godward first of all. It is throughout God that a work had to be accomplished. And this is made plain by the sacrificial significance of the work of Christ.

Then again, the court language involves justification. That is the right meaning of justification. It is the process or the act by which God as a judge, by virtue of the work of Christ, our substitute, declares us guilty sinner, believing in him to be righteous, and freed from all our transgressions and covered by the full righteousness that the obedience of Christ has accomplished for us.

Then, the language of the marketplace. It is redemption that is especially emphasized, a purchase. And what is in view is particularly substitution and the immense costs, even to God, which the work of redemption, of salvation has incurred.

And finally, the battlefield language relates for us in sanctification, the battle royal against sin in our lives as long as we live as Christians, the liberation also of humanity from the power of evil and from various oppressive powers that tend to circumscribe our lives, and to make them less than what they could be and should be.

We ought not to abandon the term “liberation” to the so-called “liberation theology,” which is mostly a social outlook and which does fall very short of making a full assessment of what freedom Christ has brought to those who belong to him. What is emphasized here is the newness of life, which is brought by the work of Jesus Christ and enacted in us by virtue of the Holy Spirit. These blessings that we get through the work of Christ are appropriated to us, applied to us, by the work of the Holy Spirit so that it is the Father in planning, the Son in enacting, and the Holy Spirit in applying. They are one in the great redemptive process. They are not working at loggerheads with one another, but they work together in conjunction. And the plan of redemption is fully that of all three persons of the Trinity. This is what I wanted to say about the nature of the atonement.

Questions and Answers

If the texts that speak of being reconciled by the blood have a, I don’t know whether you’re saying exclusive reference, to a reconciliation of God toward us, to what text would we then look, if any, to show that in the death of Christ, our inclination to come to him and repent has also been purchased?

Very good. I’m very glad you asked that question because that points to something I should have said and I managed to overlook. Obviously, in connection with us, there also needs to be a change of our attitude. So reconciliation is mutual and there is a change of our attitude as well as a change in God’s dealing with us. So our enmity becomes the joy of children who are now the adopted children of the household. When a child is misbehaved, sometimes the mother threatens, “When dad comes home, you are going to get it.” And so, the return of the father is an event to be feared. And when the father actually comes back from his work, then the child may go into hiding because this is a threatening presence. Well, that is exactly what we do in relationship to God. And now by virtue of the work of Jesus Christ, instead of that, we are running toward our father as little kids run toward daddy when he comes home. It is a joy.

He’s going to repair the automobile that was damaged, or to blow on a boo boo that was done during the day, something that is beneficial. So definitely our attitude needs to be changed. And that reconciliation is, in that sense, mutual. But the point of Scripture is primarily to emphasize that God has a justified grievance against us and we cannot simply afford to ignore it and say, “Well, God shouldn’t have any grievance.” God has a grievance. It is by virtue of the work of Jesus Christ that he can set aside this grievance and deal with us as if we had not sinned.

Jesus says, “Now don’t you imagine that you can just go on having your grudges and still claim to be a child of God because that really is fooling yourself.” That’s how I understand this twofold point. I think there are lots of people who have failed to perceive this. So when I preach on forgiveness, I do mention that there is a sense of condition for forgiveness. We are not forgiven because we forgive, but we are comforted in our prayer for forgiveness by the evidence of the Spirit working in us, in the forgiveness that we are ready to grant to others.

How would you answer a parishioner who asks, “Will God bring up any of my sins on judgment day?” What do you say to that?

I would say he will not. If you are confident this person is a Christian, you say he will not. But that is by the grace of God. So don’t underestimate the weight of your sins. Don’t fail to be penitent for it. Don’t fail to be generous toward other people who may commit the same kind of thing as you do, but very definitely, our sins will not be brought up. They are behind his back. So that’s one humiliation we won’t have. In this life, we have to live with our sins and our past can be a hindrance and sometimes should be a hindrance. But fortunately in heaven, it will be gone. You see, the full righteousness of God’s people will be declared not because of what they have done, but because they are clothed now with the righteousness of Jesus Christ who will cover a multitude of sins.

You don’t think God is going to talk to us about any of our sins on judgment day?

I trust not. I think he talks to us about them in this life and we have to be very careful to hear that voice.

One of words that I missed tonight, perhaps because I wasn’t listening carefully enough, was the word “atonement.” Is that because that’s overarching all of these things you talked about?

No, atonement is the equivalent of reconciliation. It’s the process by which two people who are separated are brought “at one.” It’s funny, you see it’s “at-one-ment.” There is no such word in the Greek, but we do see atonement and that’s the equivalent of the whole bit if you want, but also specifically of the word “reconciliation.” And where we use reconciliation, sometimes we have “atonement” in the King James version.

I’m thinking about the question right before this one. How would you answer text like in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15, where our works of wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up on the judgment day.

I think that there will be a variety of rewards for the Christians, for those in terms of their faithfulness in the service of Christ. So I see particularly here a reference to God’s dealing with his people in terms of their faithfulness in service. So that which is fully done then will be like hay, wood, and stubble. It’ll disappear. It doesn’t count in any way.

So that burning is not a punishment?

I don’t think so. He will be saved himself as through fire it says, doesn’t it? So the person in question is still saved.

So they are glaringly absent?

Yes, I’m afraid so. I must say frankly, I’m not enormously concerned about rewards. I feel so happy to be honored to be there at all that if anybody has a better reward than I, I’m not going to begrudge that.

This is so important. Can I just push a text further? Second Corinthians 5:10–11 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” Now, what would “or evil” mean?

“Evil” would mean a poor reward, something that is very insignificant in comparison with a rich reward. It’s the same thing as saying, “After having preached to others, I would be myself without a reward” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Paul didn’t say, “After I preach to others I might be lost.” That’s in that same epistle. He holds his body severely for that purpose. I have no other way to understand the situation where somebody in the end is saved and somebody who’s saved is hidden in the cleft of the rock, so to speak. He’s hidden by the work of Jesus Christ. And that is precisely the glory of salvation, that our sins are not counted against us. So if they are not counted, what’s the point of having them at all? To be written in a book of life is to have your sins wiped out.

I would assume that if you could be chastised justly here, you could be there.

What will be the point of it? By the time we are in heaven, we are brought to perfection.

Maybe it’s the final means of being brought to perfection? I don’t know.

No, I don’t believe in purgatory. Was that mean? I told you I would try to be witty once in a while.

First John 2:2 uses the word “propitiation.” It appears though there are two groups in mind, ours and the world. Could you elaborate on that?

Yes, tomorrow night. Madly. I think it would call for quite a bit of an explanation and I want to give it to you. I feel very confident that this passage does not mean what people would understand at first, but I’ll give you some reasons why not. And then, also I’ll give you three explanations that are possible and that can in fact be combined. So you see there will be quite a lot of stuff to be said if you are going to deal with this at all. So I will postpone it until tomorrow night. You’re going to be there? Great. Blessings.

Historically, it seems like the church is very slow in understanding with some clarity from these categories that we spoke of. Why was the church so slow in recognizing or understanding the clarity on the atonement?

Well frankly, I don’t know how much you know about church history, but if you look at Thomas Aquinas, I was surprised to discover myself that he had just about done what I did tonight. I thought I was a little bit original in classifying those categories and lo and behold, it was already in Thomas Aquinas who lived from 1225 to 1275. So it’s a story that is already 700 years old.

My point is that it seems kind of late to me. Why was it misunderstood?

I think one reason might be that Scripture has not made an attempt to carry on metaphorical purity. And so, you will find these things in combination. In fact, if you count six instead of five and take propitiation as one of them, I have found that within two or three verses, all the 15 possible combinations of six objects, two by two, are to be found. So the Bible mixes it in one glorious salad.

The theologians task is to take the salad and show you what are the component parts. It does not attempt to destroy your joy in eating a salad. The part of the salad that’s nice, you see that you have several things together. So Scripture has a glorious salad and the theologian has a glorious army where the things work in reaction and in orderly ways. But in order to understand your salad, I think you might do well to have the ingredients. And this is what I have attempted to do. I think this was just marvelously understood at the Reformation. The reformers had a wonderfully adequate understanding of the work of Christ and they proclaimed it with power by the grace of God. And in this, Luther was a great clarion for justification, a clarion of crystal clear truth. He didn’t allow anything to cloud this in any way. And Calvin was right on his steps on that.

Could you make a comment about how the RSV uses the language of “expiation”?

Yes, the RSV has “expiation” because they were under the influence of a paper by C.H. Dodd in which Dodd attempted to eliminate the idea of propitiation from Scripture saying that it was a pagan idea and that that word should never be used that way. What he did not consider sufficiently is that his argument is not tenable. So Leon Morris made some very valuable points in a telling criticism of it. In this particular matter, I happened in 1955 to write a huge, very boring article of about 40 pages in “The Westminster Journal”with tables of the Hebrew and the Greek in which I had about 20 different arguments to show that Dodd’s argument was inadequate. Nobody has ever answered that, so much so that Maurice paid me the compliments to say it was irrefutable. So the point was that Dodd wanted to have propitiation out and so he satisfied himself with inadequate reasoning. When his reasoning was carried out, it was shown that he had really made a very slovenly job of it. I sent him my article, it was a little pugnacious in tone and perhaps that turned him off. He never replied.

You made a comment under a sacrifice and ritual about the pouring out of Christ’s life for us as his blood was shed. I have a friend who’s under quite a bit of attack regarding the issue of the blood of Christ, the death of Christ. Can you comment on the association of the blood of Christ and the death of Christ?

Blood is symbolic of life and death in the Scriptures. The life of the flesh is in the blood, said God in Leviticus 17:11. He says, “I’ve given you on the altar to make expiation for your souls.” And so, the shedding of blood represented also the forfeiture of a life that was seen as tainted. The life of the animal was tainted because there was a transfer of the sin of the worshiper upon the animal by virtue of the laying on of hands. And when the animal’s blood was shed, it was an indication this life was forfeited and the punishment was born. No other explanation of sacrifice will avail in terms of the sacrifice of the trespass offering and the sin ring. Some people attempted to say that the blood simply meant the dedication of life or consecration of coming forth with a very untenable position because it was always that blood could easily be obtained. So if all you wanted was a little blood in order to show consecration, you could actually get it from the worshiper without killing him.

But the significance of the sacrifice is that all the animals that were involved in it died. So its death made apparent through the shedding of blood. There are other forms of death, but this was the form that God had chosen at this point. And in the death of Christ also, there was a shedding of blood. So the term blood is precious to us because it is God’s own appointment for the symbolism of a life forfeited on our behalf. People who want to eliminate “blood” from Scripture are really resentful of a form of expression that God has chosen. And what I think to consider the matter more carefully, nobody objected when Churchill said, “blood, sweat, and tears.” And in patriotic things, we say things like that. In patriotic things, nobody objects to speaking of blood.

When you speak of blood in religion, suddenly they say, “Oh, you have a butcher shop religion, this is blood. Oh, that’s terrible.” But it is not terrible. It’s beautiful. It’s God’s own language and God’s own imagery. And in the 20th century, we understand much better the function of blood in the body and we can see how tremendously effective an illustration it is. It is the blood that provides the transportation for all the things that are necessary for the cells. It is the blood that does the trash removing job. It is the blood that provides the defensive powers at various points where there is an opening in the body. So a study of the use of the blood physiologically is to encourage us the more to rejoice in this because it’s so extraordinarily opposite. So if somebody is in difficulty, I would encourage him to be patient and help them gradually to grasp what Scripture says.

It’s kind of in the other direction. There’s a theology that’s growing up around the blood of Christ that said, when Christ was crucified, the blood was somehow mysteriously and miraculously collected and it’s up in heaven right now.

Oh, yeah. That’s awful stuff. I have no sympathy for this at all because our salvation is not by flesh and blood in that sense, it’s by the offering of Jesus Christ and the physical blood is not significant. If we had the vial of it, probably the best thing we would do would be to just pour it in the ground. Certainly wouldn’t eat it or drink it for one thing. And secondly, we wouldn’t want to worship it. So the best thing would be to remove that temptation.

was a native Swiss Reformed Baptist theologian. He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), established in 1949.