A Primer on the Atonement
In this excerpt from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner uses a fictional dialog between Christian and Inquirer to provide a primer on the Christian doctrine of the atonement. Over the coming days we will highlight this unique resource.
CHRISTIAN: The atonement may well be the most important doctrine in the Christian religion.
INQUIRER: Why do you say that?
C: I should qualify that statement. The atonement is the most important doctrine for us. In and of itself, it would not be as important as the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I: What do you mean, “for us”?
C: The atonement is the way of salvation. If it were not for the atonement, we would not be here at all, not to mention calmly discussing truth about God and man and the world to come.
I: I see what you mean. At the same time, I do not profess to understand the doctrine of the atonement enough to feel the weight of what you are saying. So, if I might, let me ask you some questions.
C: Please do.
I: To begin with the simplest of all questions, what is the meaning of the word “atonement”? Not that I have no idea, but I want to see if my idea is on target.
C: The atonement has sometimes been defined as the “atone-ment.” But that is not so much a definition as a description of the effect of the atonement.
I: The effect?
C: Yes. As a result of the atonement, the previously estranged sinner and God are brought to “at-one-ment.”
I: I see. But if that is the effect of the atonement, what is the atonement itself?
C: It has to do with the mercy seat of the Old Testament tabernacle, where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled once a year at the Day of Atonement. In Old Testament ritual, that sacrifice was made by the high priest for the people of Israel and taken by him into the Holy of Holies. By the blood of the sacrificial victim, Israel was made acceptable to the holy Divine Being.
I: Are you saying that the atonement was a bloody sacrifice of an animal?
C: Well, you and I know (along with the ancient Jews) that the blood of goats and bulls would not wash away human sin.
I: Then this sacrifice symbolized something other than itself.
C: Obviously so.
I: What did it signify?
C: It signified what John the Baptist, the greatest of all Jews before the coming of Jesus Christ, said of Jesus: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
I: In other words, the animal was the symbol of another victim?
C: Yes. Christ was called a “lamb” because, like the sacrificial lambs, He was slain and was a victim. Yet He was infinitely more than even a human victim.
I: But if Christ is God incarnate, are you saying that God was slain for the sins of Israel?
C: In a sense, yes. In a sense, no.
I: I can understand the “in a sense, yes.” As you say, He was the Lamb of God who was slain. And, as you also have said, He was God incarnate. So are you saying that God was slain as a victim for the sins of His people?
C: No, although admittedly it looks as if I am saying that.
I: You puzzle me. You say that Jesus Christ is the God-man. Correct?
I: And the God-man died. Is that not so?
C: It is.
I: Then on the other hand, you say that God did not die.
I: I thought we had established long ago that orthodoxy is not neo-orthodoxy and therefore does not glory in theological contradictions. What you are saying here sounds as contradictory and as paradoxical as anything I have ever heard. How can you say in one breath that God died and in the next breath that He did not die?
C: I am not saying that God died.
I: Let me think this over again. The God-man died; and yet God did not die. So there must be some distinction that I do not yet detect between saying the God-man died and God died.
C: Yes. Can you figure out what the difference is?
I: I will try, though I know you will say this is wrong. You say that the God-man died, but God did not die. Then, at the time of His death, the divine nature and the human nature were separated and only the man Christ Jesus actually died.
C: No. Remember that when we discussed the person of Christ, we insisted that His union with the human nature was forever.
I: Yes. That is why I thought you must be saying that God died. You stressed that God entered into a permanent and inseparable union with the human nature. So I was sure that you meant the death of the God-man must have included His Godhood as well as His manhood.
C: Surely you recognize that there is something wrong in saying that God died. I am a bit disappointed in you.
I: I know what you mean. God is life—eternal, unchangeable life. He cannot die. I choked on those words myself. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ is in inseparable union with God, and Jesus Christ died in an inseparable union with God. It seems impossible to deny that God died. Are you not going to help me with this problem?
C: I could, but I think it is better for you to help yourself. You have all the basic data needed to resolve the difficulty and to articulate a great Christian doctrine.
I: Okay. I will struggle a little longer. First, Christ died. Second, that includes His human nature. Third, that human nature was indissolubly united with the divine nature. Fourth, nevertheless, the divine nature could not possibly die. Fifth, and yet, the God-man died. Sixth, therefore the God-man died, but God did not die. That’s my problem. Seventh … what is the solution? Obviously God was with the human nature—inseparably with the human nature— when the human nature died. Aha! I have it now. The divine nature was with the human nature—inseparably with it— when the human nature underwent death, which the divine nature could never undergo. So, though God did not die, the man who died was God. He did not cease to be God when He died, as the divine nature did not die, but only the human nature. Am I moving in the right direction?
C: Not only in the right direction, you have answered the question.
I: I have?
C: You correctly stated that the God-man, who is inseparably one person forever, has undergone death in the only nature in which such an experience was possible.
I: And it was the death of God in the sense that the man who died was God, though He did not die in the divine nature. His human death, though finite, was of infinite value because it was the death of a man who is God. In that sense of the word, God died. Or that experience which the divine human person, Jesus Christ, underwent was an experience that pertained to both natures, though it was undergone in only one.
To Be Continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.