Help me Understand the Atonement

Not open for further replies.

De Jager

Puritan Board Sophomore
Hi guys,

I have a really fundamental question that I would love some help on. I believe that God's justice is satisfied in Christ's work. But sometimes, I wonder - how?

I have heard some people say that "Jesus pays your fine" (like Ray Comfort) so that God can "legally dismiss your case". Is that what is happening? If I were to imagine a human courtroom and there was a man on the stand who was guilty of murdering his family, and the judge said "someone in here is willing to pay your fine, so you can leave", while that would be wonderful news for that man, it would be bad news for society, because the murderer is back on the street. Now, I know that this is solved by regeneration and that God doesn't just forgive sin without changing a person from the inside out. So it is not a murderer who is let back onto the street but a changed man who loves God and neighbor.

But back to the penalty question, is it proper to look at our "wages" for sin as being like a "fine"? This seems to put in a separation between me and my sin, because my sin is part of who I am and is tied to my person. Others speak of the atonement in this way: it is as if God unlatched my sin, attached it to Christ, and unlatched his righteousness and gave it to me. However we were separate during this process. In that sense, I wonder on what legal basis this can be done.

My understanding of what happened is that in the atonement, is that God united me to Christ in his death and resurrection. So when he died, I died. When he was punished. That is, there was no imputation without union.

As you can see this is probably very basic stuff and I would appreciate some help. Ultimately the Bible makes it abundantly clear that God's justice is fully satisfied in Christ and I know He is righteous; therefore any misunderstanding is attributable to me, I will not impugn God in this. However, when the tempter asks me to question Him, I would love to be able to better answer these inner accusations and questionings.


Staff member
God requires our death for our sin (Genesis 2:17). Terms like wages give a reasonable analogy but not the full picture which we must glean from the rest of the scriptures. What's remarkable about atonement is that God turned around and pronounced the penalty on himself. He is the covenant maker, but he slaughtered the animals and cut them in two (Gen 15:17) and in essence said: may this be done to me if I don't keep the terms of the covenant.

The substitutionary application of this covenant begins to be seen more clearly in the Passover and later in the ceremonial/sacrificial system that could never -- with temporary not-made-in-God's image creatures -- be enough (Hebrews 10:4). Paul brings the concepts together in 1 Corinthians 5:7b: "For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed."

Forgive me if I'm being rather brief and simplistic -- the Gen 15 passage deserves much greater examination than I've given here so perhaps someone else will jump in? Greater detail would also be helpful for the necessity of a spotless and eternal Lamb. I have a rather full day to attend to or I would love to spend more time on this.

Suffice it to say, these concepts are quite dear to me and quite frankly, I'm not sure they are well understood outside the robust view of the covenant that the reformed church has particularly well understood.
Last edited:


Staff member
Izaak, it sounds to me that your issue seems to hinge on a hangup with the idea of a "fine." I agree that a fine doesn't seem like a very good analogy to use by itself, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it seems to cheapen the infinity of what we owe to God for our disobedience. Secondly, it seems like something eminently payable by us (which could be seen as the same idea as the first objection). Thirdly, it seems to limit our debt to God to monetary terms. Now, Paul does use monetary terms to describe justification in Romans 4. So, we cannot rule out that imagery entirely. However, it is accurate to say that what we owe is our lives. Therefore, what Christ gives is life for life. This is by substitution. In the courtroom analogy, it is not as if we owe some trifling fine and someone else is willing to pay it (unless you take that fine to infinity in amount). It is also that our lives are forfeit by virtue of offending the infinitely holy God, and therefore Christ interposes His life in between the wrath of God and us.

The mechanism is by two biblical concepts: propitiation and expiation. This is illustrated by the two goats offered on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. The one goat that was slain was propitiatory. Propitiation means turning God's wrath aside by offering a different target. It is God's wrath that is propitiated. The other goat took the sin away from the sinner by exiling it out into the wilderness (the scapegoat). So also Christ deals with our sin in this two-fold fashion, corresponding to the two-fold problem our sin presents; namely, guilt and stain. Propitiation deals with guilt, and expiation deals with stain. Christ suffered the wrath of God for propitiation, and He did so outside Jerusalem, symbolizing the scapegoat, thus taking our sin away from us, and exiling it into the wilderness.

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Hello Izaac @De Jager ,

Lane is right when he says what we owe God for our sin and rebellion is our life, consigned to the "second death" of eternal misery under His wrath, and that a "fine" doesn't catch the reality.

We owe this because our sins – and our father Adam's imputed to us – against the infinite majesty and dignity of the Supreme Being warrant a punishment we could never pay, as we are finite beings. Each individual's wicked and treacherous rebellion – loving his or her sin and sinful nature and hating the light of His holiness – polluting the world and the human community we are in, calls forth from God a wrath aimed at destroying what defiles His good creation. It would be an awful thing – a terrible thing – to have to endure that deserved destroying anger endlessly. We may recoil at such a prospect, but we do not apprehend the glory of the infinite, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent LORD we have offended, and the awfulness of our sin against such a One.

The triune God decreed in eternity past to redeem a people from this horrendous destiny, and how each member of the Godhead would work to realize this. God the eternal Son would be the Redeemer, would take on human nature and so unite with humankind, becoming one of us, so as to be fit to bear the punishment of all our – the elect's – sin, the many millions of us!

In Christ's active obedience He lived the perfect – absolutely righteous – life we never did or could, what with all our vile law-breaking, and He died – in His passive obedience – actually bearing in His own human body and soul the wrath due the wickedness and sin of all His elect people, as written, "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor 5:21). He bore our sin, and God imputed His righteousness to us who are in Christ – baptized into Him by the Holy Spirit in regeneration, signified by water baptism – and as a robe of righteousness covering us in His glory we are clean and pure – perfectly acceptable, and beloved – in our Father's eyes.

We cannot comprehend the suffering of Christ in His final passion of redeeming love, bearing the wrath – the killing fury – of the Godhead against evil; it is beyond us. The holocaust of the Jewish people in the last century, terrible as that was, cannot be compared to the holocaust of Justice's fiery vengeance the Saviour endured on the cross. The holocaust of the unrepentant wicked in eternity is more comparable, save that just one Man bore the equivalent for the redeemed who trust in Him.

Thus God's justice is satisfied in Christ's work of redemption. A topic too grand and terrible to comprehend, so all we can do is worship, praise, and give Him thanks – for His mercy endureth forever to His beloved.
Not open for further replies.