Brethren Archive

Atonement and Forgiveness.

by Henry Heath


WHAT thoughtful person does not know that, as the result of unwisely feeding and nursing infants, disease and deformity are to be found? If this is true in nature, it is equally true in things spiritual. The food of newborn souls is that same Word of God by means of which they were regenerated by the Holy Ghost; it is also the guide of their steps. Consequently, to feed aright is to feed on that Word, and to walk aright (that is, to behave correctly) is to act in obedience to it (2 Tim. iii. 16, 17).
All Scripture is essential; there is nothing in the Word of God unimportant; everything written is essential to the end for which it was written. That which is not essential to our salvation is essential to our true knowledge of God, our communion with Him, and our full obedience. Let me then entreat young Christians to acquire correct, i.e., scriptural, views of God's character, and of His ways; also early, by grace, to form godly habits of watchfulness and prayerfulness, carefulness of speech and action, and unreserved obedience to His revealed will.
There is a difference between atonement and forgiveness; they are connected, yet distinct. The one was effected for us, but without us; the other is made true in us.
Atonement was made by Jesus to God on the Cross, and for us; forgiveness is the act of God to us in Christ, and is witnessed to, in our conscience by the Holy Ghost. Atonement was made before we were born; forgiveness, or remission of our sins, took place when we believed; we then "received remission of sins" (Acts x. 43; xxvi. 18).
Atonement is a word which in our English translation frequently occurs in the Old Testament, but is only once used in the New (Rom. v. 11), where it stands as the translation of one form of the Greek word katallasso, "to change, exchange, to reconcile." In the Old Testament, it is the translation of the Hebrew word kipper, "to cover." Of this, which is its true meaning, there are many happy illustrations or examples; such as Noah pitching the ark with pitch, Moses making the lid (or cover) of the ark of the tabernacle, which formed the mercy-seat; but there is one very interesting use of this word which Jacob made when preparing to meet his brother Esau. Having arranged his present, he said, "I will appease" (that is, cover) "him with a present, and afterward I will see his face." As between man and man, Jacob with his present, put a cover between his offence and Esau's anger, and afterwards saw his approving countenance.
Forgiveness or remission are the usual translations in the New Testament of the same Greek word aphesis. There is another word, apoluo, "to loose," once used for forgiveness (Luke vi. 37), "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven"; but both convey the idea of release, freedom from, deliverance, as we see in Luke iv. 18, where the former of these Greek words occurs in the sentence, "To preach deliverance to the captives."
This may suffice as to the scriptural uses of the words atonement and forgiveness. Let us now enquire as to their connection with the work of Christ.
Atonement refers to His sufferings on the Cross, when He actually bore our sins and the consequent judgment of God; when He satisfied justice, expiated guilt, and paid the ransom-price, in order that, by the blood of His covenant, His prisoners might be sent out of the pit in which there was no water (Zech. ix. 11). In a word, when "He through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God," He performed the mighty deed of "covering" forever our sin and guilt, reconciling us to God by His death, and justifying us by His blood. He then atoned, and laid the solid basis on which God could display His grace in justly forgiving sin; for mercy shown to the believing sinner is an act of justice to Christ. "The sure mercies of David" are just and "holy things."
Forgiveness, or remission, is based on atonement. "God, for Christ's sake" (or in Christ), "hath forgiven you." It is the act of God towards the sinner, in virtue of his having believed in the work of Jesus on the tree. As a matter of experience, it stands thus: An unconverted man finds himself convinced of sin, and discerns the fearful consequence, namely, the righteous judgment of God; he is conscious of guilt, fearful of judgment, and oppressed and bound by this awful sense of God's displeasure at his sin. While in this state, the Holy Ghost, Who has convinced him of sin, shows him Jesus Christ, God's Son, suffering in his stead; he believes it, the awful weight of guilt and fear is lifted from his soul; he is free, for he has obtained remission; the accusations of conscience give place to the peace of God through faith in the peace-speaking blood of Christ; the sense of God's displeasure at his sin is exchanged for the assurance of his acceptance in Christ, the Son of God's love; and he is happy, for he is forgiven, he is delivered. Having believed, and known the blessedness of the atonement as covering his sin, love to God takes the place of enmity, and his entire condition is changed; he is reconciled, and it is his privilege to "joy in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom he has now received the atonement."
This is his washing or bathing (John xiii. 10), so complete that it leaves nothing to be done ever after but to wash his feet; that is, to cleanse and keep clean his daily walk through the Word.
Henceforth, God is known as a Father, and with Him as such, the reconciled one has to do. The severest form the dealings of God can assume towards him now is that of Fatherly correction; and though very solemn and severe, if needs be, it is the token of Fatherly love, and the mark of his son-ship, intended for his profit, to make him more holy, more like God his Father (Heb. xii. 5-11).
Even when conscious of sin—which indeed is too frequent an occurrence—he should have no "conscience of sins" (Heb. x. 2), as if the atonement had not covered all, nor should he know again his former fear of judgment and presence of guilt; but as a child, he should confess his offence against a Father's love with deeper grief, and more perfect hatred of the sin than at the first, knowing that "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
This child-like confession of known faults, together with the prayer for cleansing from secret faults (i.e., faults unknown to ourselves, but seen by God), is the secret of abiding peace and joy in the Lord, and becomes power for service and suffering.
The neglect of such confession and of such prayer leads to hardness of conscience respecting sin, until God is, to speak with reverence, often obliged to give up His child to the commission of that which will put him to shame, even before men.
Israel of old opened and closed each day with the morning and evening lamb. Christ is our Lamb, Whose blood once for all covered sin, and on the ground of it, God as our Father can repeat His acts of forgiveness.
Hold fast then, beloved, to the one sacrifice of Christ, the virtue of which is perpetual, eternal, unchangeable. By it, you were reconciled to God, "reconciled by His death"; and your position was entirely and forever changed; remembering this, practice without fail the confession of your faults, as a child to a father, and so walk in peace, in the light and joy of the Lord. This, I repeat, will be your strength both for service and endurance, and you shall certainly escape the judgment of the Lord, and shame before men.
Once more, beware of false teaching on this fundamental point. The scriptural teaching is not at-one-ment by which is meant reconciliation without blood, without the Cross, but atone-ment, that is, covering by blood, or by the one offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Since the fall, there is nothing for man, apart from the blood of Christ, but judgment.






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