Atonement Reconsidered

Texts:  Leviticus 16: 3, 5-11, 15-16, 20-22; Matthew 27:50-51       

“The Old Rugged Cross” is a hymn I sang at many bedsides while I was a nursing home chaplain.  It might seem like just another dusty old hymn to teenagers, but it is a beloved classic for me and for many of you who were born long before me.  The familiar refrain says, “I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”  This is a great statement of hope for us.  But why is the cross of Jesus Christ so important?  What really happened there?

In the midweek Lenten worship gatherings at the church I am serving this spring, we are taking a closer look at the event on Golgotha—that “hill far away”—that is the focus of the Christian faith.  Although we might be tempted to avert our eyes from the terrible suffering of Jesus, we will not look away this time.  We need to know what we mean when we say that he died for our sins.

Although it is our most beloved religious icon, the Roman cross could be considered the most unreligious of all objects.  It was meant as a deterrent to the people of Israel.  Anyone who dared to threaten the iron rule of the Romans through crime or rebellion was seized and tortured to death on that gruesome invention.  The crosses bearing criminals were posted along the road, their bodies rotting away, exposed to carnivorous birds.  It was an effective warning to passersby: do not do what these fools did, or you’ll meet the same fate.

How did we go from an instrument of torture and death to singing “Jesus paid it all,” to using the cross as a decorative shape for our walls and purses and blue jeans?  I hope we can explore its meaning and conclude that the use of this symbol deserves more thoughtful treatment.


The cross I chose for this piece is a stained-glass window, a depiction of the story of Jesus’ death.  It shows that the cross is more than a symbol.  It is a story that defines us as God’s people.  And our stories are somehow gathered into the story that shape represents.

The cross is at the very center of our faith.  Jesus didn’t come to earth merely to sweet talk us into being good.  There are plenty of wise teachers who can do that, and they have their followers.  Jesus came to address the sin that enslaves us and kills us.  There was no convincing us of our need for this.  And so Jesus put himself in the path of sin’s deadly force to render it impotent, unable to kill us in the end.  He took the punishment to satisfy the judgment our sins place us under.

The Scriptures declare this function of Jesus’ death on a cross:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”  (1 Peter 3:18a)

“[John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”  (John 1:29)

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:22b-25a)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The idea of Jesus taking on the punishment we deserve is called atonement.  Atonement is a meaningful word.  It means that the guilty one has received a just punishment for their wrong.  An embezzler spends time in jail and also has to pay back the money that was stolen.  A murderer is given the death penalty, in some states; and in others, she lives imprisoned with her shame for the rest of her life.

The atonement is Jesus paying the penalty for our sin.  In Old Testament terms, Jesus is the ultimate, perfect sacrifice for our sin, so that the sacrifices described in Leviticus are no longer required.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul tells us. (Romans 6:23) Somebody has to pay.  It seems to be a component of a civilized society.  If we don’t punish people for doing wrong, we will fall into anarchy, won’t we?

I wonder.  How much is our sense of just punishment dictated by an innate compulsion for vengeance?  Revenge takes root at an early age. Take a toddler’s toy, and he will hit you or bite you.  We punish children for taking vengeance, but he impulse remains in us.  Take my daughter’s life and the first thing I’ll want to do is to hunt you down and kill you.  Somebody has to pay.  We don’t always act on those feelings, but our sense of justice demands punishment.

In the passage from Leviticus that we read today, we find that there were not only sacrifices to be made for the sin of the people; there was also a scapegoat.  It is an interesting concept.  My understanding is that it was a provision for the sins the people didn’t like to admit, the sin we can’t bear to acknowledge because either it seems harmless, or it feels too shameful to name.  Those sins are supposedly assigned to a goat that is driven away, out of sight.  The people can go about their business again…except that, when the wind is in just the right direction, there is that faint sound of a goat bleating out there in the dark.  The guilt won’t go away that easily.

Jesus became our sacrifice for the sin we admit to, and the scapegoat for the sin we would rather gloss over or hide. Sin comes so naturally to us that we don’t recognize its shape nor its impact.  It was perfectly described in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God by trying to put themselves at the center in place of God.  “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”[1]

The atonement is about sin, plain and simple.  Now one of the problems that we can have with this is that it seems to imply a God who is cold, almost a Scrooge-like character who is watching every penny, so to speak.  A God who stands ready to lower the hammer when we do wrong.  Well, at least the good news is that Jesus bore that punishment for us.

Yet it still leaves us with a God who is to be appeased more than anything.  Take care of business, make sure you go to heaven when you die, but is that record-keeper a God you really want to know?  The Scriptures show us a God who is determined to care for us, and wants us to care for one another.  Those sacrifices that God commanded in Leviticus made us realize the gravity of our sin, but they couldn’t soften our hearts toward God.

David the psalmist said as much when he gave voice to God’s dreams for us.  We read it just last week, on Ash Wednesday.

“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Psalm 51:16-17)

God wants our hearts to be broken over our sin, not because it makes a mark on our record, but because God’s heart is broken over it.  Sin hurts us, hurts other people, and so it hurts God.  The atonement is directed not toward a wrathful, divine punisher, but toward the outcome of our sin, because that is the focus of God’s wrath.  God is righteously angry when greed leaves whole tribes of people dying of hunger, when perversion and entitlement enslaves young girls and exploits them.  War, abuse, pornography.  We want a God who is angry about these horrible manifestations of our sin.

And it is our sin.  See, the cross is not so much an antidote to your bad habits as it is God’s response to a world gone wrong.  Our bad habits are the seeds of the greater sin, make no mistake.  It is our participation in the world’s darkness that Jesus addresses on the cross.  That is worth his suffering, and it must be dealt with.  Otherwise we would continue to think that we are in charge, that we know what is best.  In our narrow, self-centered, warped version of what makes sense for the world, we will keep hurting and killing one another.

It is possible that the sacrifices required in the generations of God’s people that began with the escape from Egypt were a step in a process.  Were they meant to show us that sacrifices cannot ultimately bring us to God?  That our innate desire for revenge is not the last word on God’s righteousness?  Because punishment is an endless cycle, never effectively dealing with the sin that keeps enslaving us and killing everything in its path.

Why does the cross matter?  What difference does it make to you this afternoon, when you watch the basketball game on TV, or tomorrow when you go to school or work?  I’m glad you asked.  You don’t have to live under a cloud of shame, because God took the anguish of sin’s shame and removed its power by forgiving us.  Because Jesus died on the cross, you don’t have to spend your life striving for respect or significance.  Jesus considered you worth rescuing from the clutches and deadliness of sin.  The cross matters because the evil in this world might be horrifying, massive, and deadly, but it cannot ultimately kill all those God has claimed as his own on the cross of Jesus.

But this is only one aspect of what was accomplished on the cross of Jesus.  There is a lot more to think about, rich colors and layers of meaning that give us every reason to cherish that “old rugged cross.”  But even as I strive to point out the beauty and profound meanings of the cross, we cannot really break it down into tidy theological points.  In the end, all we can do is come to the cross with nothing to say for ourselves.  We simply gaze at our suffering Savior on his cross, and know that this brutal, mysterious piece of history is the source of our life, our faith, our hope.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Stott, John.  “Naked Pride” in Bread and Wine, 2003.  (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House), p. 217.

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