B. The Atonement’s Nature
If the purpose of Christ’s death is salvation for his people, then what does this salvation include? In other words, what did his atonement accomplish? The Bible uses four key words to reveal the nature of Christ’s atoning work: redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, and substitution.
Redemption. Ephesians 1:7 specifically ties the death of Christ to the redemption of believers. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” The Apostle Paul expands on this truth when writing to the church of Colossae. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). Michael Horton provides an informative definition. “Redemption means ‘to buy back,’ to ‘return to one’s possession by payment of a price.’ You were kidnapped and held hostage by sin. But if you are a believer, Christ paid the ransom price for you to be freed so you could become his possession.” The atonement frees believers from slavery.
Propitiation. The Bible also refers to the atonement as a propitiation. Paul states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 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” (Rom 3:23-25a). Horton explains this concept as well: “Propitiation refers to the breaking away of the enmity and hostility that keeps God at odds with us. Propitiation removes God’s wrath.” How? Because Christ has taken it on our behalf.
Reconciliation. Additionally, Scripture reveals Christ’s death as bringing reconciliation. Paul says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 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” (Rom 5:9-10). Horton summarizes, “‘To render no longer opposed’ is the definition of reconciliation. . . . People who are reconciled are made friends. And Jesus said that he would lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” Believers are at peace with God through Christ’s death.
Substitution. Furthermore, Christ became the substitute of his people in the atonement. Paul declares, “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Substitution is at the very heart of the atonement, and is clearly seen throughout the Bible. Horton explains, “The concept of substitution is found throughout Scripture as the act of one who suffers vicariously, or in the place of another. . . . You were the criminal, but Christ stepped in and took your place. Because he took your place, you will not have to take it [the punishment you deserve].” Christ took his peoples’ wrath and they are given his perfect righteousness.
Through Jesus substituting himself for his people, his death redeemed them, took the wrath of God which they deserved, and reconciled them with God. The nature of the atonement itself secures all of these wonderful realities.
Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Who Does What in Salvation? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 139.