For No One in Particular?- What Atonement Reveals about Itself (Part 1)

November 20, 2008

I think the greatest flaw in understanding how general or particular the atoning work of Christ is is that we focus on verses which may or may not be trapped in context and we consider too highly what we would want instead of what God has done. Therefore, I think to properly understand the atonement we must first properly understand what the atonement is.

I stated in yesterday’s post that “Atonement for a Christian is the act by which sins are forgiven and reconciliation is made with God. It contains two parts: propitiation, the act of satisfying God’s wrath; and expiation, the act of removing the burden of guilt from the sinner.” Going through the Bible there are two big places to look for an actual discussion of the act of atoning for sin: Leviticus 16 and 17 and Hebrews 9 and 10.

However, before looking into those chapters I think it is important that we more fully encounter why atonement is necessary for salvation. We stated that atonement provides propitiation of God, but what do we really mean by this? What I think a lot of people mean, particularly those on the unlimited atonement (UA) side of the debate, is that God has some general cloud of anger and wrath which must be satisfied and Christ, in his death, does this. Yet, to think of God’s wrath as just ambiguous anger towards this thing called ‘sin’ is not severe enough. Ezekiel 18.20 says

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

God is not just angry at sin, God is angry at you because of your sin. Thus, God need not just be generally propitiated, he needs to be propitiated individually for each sinner. This individualization of responsibility is further established by 2 Kings 14.6 and Jeremiah 31.30.

So, we see that it is not sufficient for God to just have some cloud of wrath towards sin propitiated, there must be more. Irregardless of the extent of the atonement, for Christ to provide atonement for any person he must provide it for that person individually since God has a specific portion of wrath resting individually against them. This understanding is key to the argument that I will put forth.

With a proper perspective of where God’s wrath lies we are now prepared to look into the main passages on the actual execution of the atonement. Following the thought that the New Testament is the realization of the Old Testament, and the fact that understanding Hebrews 9 and 10 necessitates an understanding of Leviticus 16 and 17, we will start in the OT passage. What we see when we get here is a step-by-step outline to the Day of Atonement, or more importantly, to the actual doing of the atonement ritual. Within that what we see are occasional explanations about who and what the various sacrifices and rituals affect. Of particular interest is the broadest application of the sacrifices, namely, Who in the end is the atonement being provided for?

Recall that at this point in history there are two distinct types of people (at least biblically): Israelites and Gentiles. Now, what does Leviticus 16 say about who is atoned for? Verse 17 says “No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until [the high priest] comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.” All the assembly of Israel. Not all people, but all the assembly of Israel. Similarly, verse 21 says, “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel . . .” And verse 24, “And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.” And verse 33, “He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.” And verse 34, “And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. . . .” Therefore, I believe it is overwhelmingly clear that the atonement, as originally established in the OT, was never intended as a sacrifice for the whole world, but only for God’s people, Israel.

But what difference does that make in the New Testament, since we all know that salvation is available to the Gentiles at this point? Well, the first thing I would have to say to that is that it is important to have a right understanding of who truly comprises “Israel” throughout redemptive history before getting sidetracked here (I’m sure I’ll argue this sometime, but not right now). However, even without that, I think Hebrews 9 and 10 gives us enough information that we can get to the right place anyways, which will be where we pick things up tomorrow.