The Atonement by Kevin Paulson

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We state for the record that our purpose in reviewing these issues is not to persuade hardened critics, whose contempt for our faith will not likely change apart from a Damascus Road experience. We simply wish to provide answers for those persons with honest questions about the Biblical faithfulness of Adventist beliefs. The Atonement By Kevin Paulson

We need to review once more the methods of Bible study taught by the Bible itself, which constitute the basic tools of historic Adventist theology:

1. All Scripture is inspired by God, profitable for doctrine, and able to make us “wise unto salvation.” 2 Timothy 3:15-16; see also Matthew 4:4.

2. Scripture consists of the words of God’s holy men, inspired by the Holy Spirit. See 2 Peter 1:20-21.

3. What the Holy Spirit inspires is to be spiritually discerned, by “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” 1 Corinthians 2:12-14; see also Isaiah 28:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:13.

The need to consider all of Scripture before reaching a doctrinal conclusion becomes especially critical as we study the Bible doctrine of the atonement. Like any other doctrine, the atonement can only be understood in the light of the whole Bible. If any one of Scripture is used to the neglect of another, or if one portion is mistakenly viewed as theologically superior to another, confusion and falsehood will be the sure results.

Ratzlaff, like other evangelicals, criticizes historic Adventism for teaching that Christ’s atonement for sin was not completed at the cross. He declares that “the incomplete atonement has been a thorn in Seventh-day Adventist’s flesh for many years.” He condemns Ellen White because of her denial of a finished atonement on the cross she “pictures Christ as now having a standing, pleading ministry before the Father.” This teaching of Ellen White’s of course, comes straight out of the New Testament:

“Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25. The book of Daniel identifies Christ as being Michael, “the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.” Daniel 12:1. While many evangelicals deny that Michael refers to Christ, the Messiah is the only heavenly being identified in Daniel as a Prince. See Daniel 9:25; see also 8:25. No heavenly angels, which many evangelicals believe Michael to be, is ever identified in Scripture as a Prince. The New Testament declares that at His Second Coming, “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Here the voice of Jesus is identified as the voice of the Archangel¾or rather, the Ruler of the angels. See also Jude 9. Moreover, Michael is the only heavenly being described in Scripture as an Archangel. Paul likewise states that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 2:5. If Paul is right, only One could be standing for God’s people at the end of time or any time¾and that is Christ.

A mediator is the same as an intercessor. The work of such a one is to plead, so that reconciliation might be accomplished. Hebrews 7:25 is clear, in contrast with Ratzlaff’s view, that Christ is doing exactly that just now. God does not need to be reconciled to man, but man needs to be reconciled to God because of the sins that have separated man from God. See Isaiah 59:2. This reconciliation is, in fact, the process of atonement, as our discussion will demonstrate.

The Bible is clear about what the word atonement means. In Leviticus, chapters 4 and 5, we read that the process of atonement required three phases:

1. Confession of sin over the sacrificial victim.

2. The slaying of the victim.

3. The mediation of the blood by the priest in the sanctuary.

Only after these three phases occurred do we read that an atonement had been made, with forgiveness for the sinner taking place. See Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:9-10.

This three-phase atonement is the same in the New Testament as in the Old. The apostle John declares what is required for the sinner to receive God’s forgiveness:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…

“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” 1 John 1:9; 2:1.

Paul teaches the same thing when he writes: “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” Romans 2:13. Elsewhere the Bible reinforces what the ancient sanctuary service illustrates:

“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” Proverbs 28:13.

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:7.

God’s forgiveness, or justification, is not merely the judicial removal of our sins. It also involves the removal of sin from our hearts and lives. David stated his understanding of this principle after his sin with Bathsheba, when he prayed: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:7, 10. In Paul’s words:

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:5-7.

The reason God’s forgiveness or atonement cannot occur until sin has been confessed and forsaken is because God cannot remove sin from our hearts unless we want Him to. And because God’s judicial forgiveness involves the actual cleansing of the heart and life (which is what the “renewing of the Holy Ghost” in Titus 3:5 is all about), judicial forgiveness cannot take place unless sin has been willingly given up. See Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 55:7. God’s reverence for liberty demands that sin not be removed unless it is voluntarily relinquished. The Bible declares, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” Joshua 24:15. “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Revelation 22:17.

“Atonement,” or at-one-ment, is another word for reconciliation¾bringing estranged parties back together. Romans 5:11 in the King James Version reads:

“And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.”

Most modern translations use the word “reconciliation” rather than “atonement” in this verse, but the two really mean the same thing. Does the Bible teach that this reconciliation process took place at the cross? Or did the cross simply make the process possible?

The Bible contains several passages which speak of the death of Christ reconciling man to God:

“For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” Romans 5:10.

“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-19.

“And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” Colossians 1:20-23.

Notice that while Paul says in one place: “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10), and in another that God “hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18), he yet invites his readers to, “Be ye reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20. Paul’s earlier statement in 2 Corinthians 5 that “we commend not ourselves again unto you, but give you occasion to glory on our behalf” (verse 12), gives evidence that “we” in this context refers to himself and his fellow evangelists who had experienced God’s converting power, while “you” refers to his audience which doubtless included many who were not yet converted.

The verse in Romans which states that “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10), must be placed alongside Colossians 1:21, which states that “you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled.” These verses clearly speak of those who have relinquished their evil deeds by availing themselves of Calvary’s reconciling power. Without question this cannot—as many believe refer to the whole world, but only to those who have chosen through God’s grace to give up their sins.

We also notice that 2 Corinthians 5:19, which speaks of the world as the focus of reconciliation, uses the word “reconciling,” which is in the present, continuous tense. Never does Paul say that the world has been reconciled (past tense). The verse also says, “Not imputing their trespasses unto them.” In Romans Paul cites an Old Testament passage on this subject:

“ Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Romans 4:7-8; see also Psalm 32:1-2.

Does Paul apply these statements to the whole world?¾ Obviously not, since two chapters earlier he maintains that “the doers of the law shall be justified.” Romans 2:13. We have already seen how this teaching of Paul’s is based on the Old Testament teaching that the confessing and forsaking of sin are necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness. See Proverbs 28:13; Isaiah 55:7.

Ratzlaff declares: “Contrary to Ellen G. White, the Bible clearly states that the atonement was completed at the cross.” The following two verses are cited by Ratzlaff as proof for his position:

“When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said. It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” John 19:30.”

“For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” Hebrews 10:14.

The first passage says nothing about the atonement being finished: it simply says that Jesus cried, “It is finished,” without in context explaining what was finished. We need to look elsewhere in Scripture for an explanation. Ironically, Ratzlaff quotes the context of the above passage from Hebrews, which in fact explains just what was finished at Calvary:

“Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first the first [covenant], that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” Hebrews 10:9-14.

The theme of this passage, of course, is that the many sacrifices of the Old Testament, which could not take away sin, have been replaced by the one Sacrifice of the New Testament which can. See also Hebrews 7:27. Seventh-day Adventist have never denied this truth. At no time in our history has it been denied that Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary was complete and fully capable of saving all people who have ever lived¾provided they avail themselves of this saving power. This is what Ellen White means in context when she speaks in several places of a finished, or complete, atonement at the cross. But what Adventists have historically denied, because it is not Biblical, is the “finished atonement” theology¾which teaches the involuntary forgiveness and reconciliation of every human being to God at Calvary, whether they like it or not.

In short, that which was finished when Jesus died was His sacrifice for sin. No more sacrifices needed to be offered. All the power essential for man’s salvation has been provided by the cross. But the atonement cannot be completed until man confesses and forsakes his sins, and the blood is mediated by our High Priest Jesus in the sanctuary above. See Hebrews 2:17; 7:25.

We find it interesting that neither the word “atonement” nor its synonym, “reconciliation,” can be found in the verses quoted earlier from Hebrews 10. We do find Christ’s work of making reconciliation described in the following verse:

“Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:17.

In other words, Jesus’ work of reconciliation (atonement) is part of His high priestly ministry, which the book of Hebrews repeatedly identifies with His intercession in heaven. See Hebrews 4:1-16; 6:19-20 7:24-26; 9:11-12. The book of Hebrews is telling us that Christ is now making reconciliation for our sins as our High Priest in heaven. No hint can be found anywhere in Hebrews, or elsewhere, that this work of reconciliation was completed at the cross.

Hebrews 10 teaches that only the sanctified are depicted as saved because of Calvary. Never is the whole world described as being involuntarily saved because of Calvary. Again we note the words of Hebrews 10:14: “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (All emphasis supplied unless otherwise noted). Verse 10 speaks of how “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” We noted earlier the passage from Colossians which speaks of making peace through the blood of the cross by the relinquishing of evil deeds. See Colossians 1:20-23. Elsewhere Paul speaks of how the ordinance of baptism symbolizes the believer’s participation in Christ’s death. See Romans 6:3-5. This obviously does not apply to the whole world, though the whole world is offered the chance to claim the grace and power thus provided.

Ratzlaff claims that while Ellen White portrays Jesus as standing in His high priestly ministry, the Bible pictures Him as seated supposedly implying a finished atonement at the cross. However, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus’ physical posture in heaven is not at all the issue. We have already seen the verse from Daniel which depicts Michael (Christ), as “the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.” Daniel 12:1. Moreover, the symbolic nature of this posture (much like the “seating” of delegates at a convention) is obvious in this verse, since Michael is said to “stand up, the great prince which standeth.” In other words, He is standing in either case. Obviously, this language is symbolic. Whether seated or standing, Jesus’ work as Mediator is essential to the completion of the atonement process.

In short, there is no possible way for the atonement the reconciliation of man to God to be completed at the cross. According to Scripture, man has been separated from God by sin. See Isaiah 59:2. Therefore, the only way we can come back to God is to get rid of sin. But since no one can accomplish this work in his own strength (see John 15:5), Jesus came to earth to provide power whereby we can be saved from our sins (see Matthew 1:21). But this salvation cannot be ours unless we want it. “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Revelation 22:17. “And being made perfect, he [Christ] became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” Hebrews 5:9.

The Bible texts quoted by Ratzlaff in no way teach a finished atonement on the cross. They do teach a complete sacrifice, which Adventism has always believed. But neither the Scriptures nor historic Adventism teach a finished atonement on the cross. A finished or completed atonement can only occur when human beings respond affirmatively to the apostle’s invitation: “Be ye reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20.