What is the Atonement?
What is the Atonement? When Adam and Eve were created they were at peace with Him. But they sinned. Then God reached out and provided a means of reconciliation--a means of atonement. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible tells the story of the atonement.
After God’s people apostatized from Him, He let down a ladder to make a way of return, providing a means for their sins to be covered--to return again to oneness with Him.
Their sin meant they had to be removed from the Garden of Eden. But God made a promise. God Himself--Jesus of the Godhead--would step down into His creation. He would be born into the human race; He would be the Seed of the woman.
Jesus, in the flesh of humans, would live a life of complete victory over sin, and die on the cross for us. His life would be a perfect and victorious sacrifice in place of our life. He never sinned; His blood was shed for us; He is our elder brother and our representative, and, He is God. On the cross He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, and by His stripes--the punishment wages of our sins--we are healed. Jesus’ death for us, the Father’s acceptance of His life as sacrifice for us, enables Him to transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sin is removed, and we live as people in whom God’s resurrection power is operative.
But the benefits of Jesus’ death for us does not stop there. He transforms all who choose to receive His life into their own life. The book of Romans shows that Christ is the end, the telos, the goal of the law for righteousness, to everyone who believes (Romans 10:4). That is, as Romans 3:4 tells us, when this is all over, God will be justified in His words, and overcome when He is judged. How God deals with the sin problem will show the universe that He was right in His claims and Satan was wrong in his claims. Jesus will return and reclaim all who choose Him. He will resurrect them. Many will live again, and some living in the last hour will be translated in a moment. They will be changed without seeing death. Jesus will produce a people described in the book of Revelation as living with neither deceit nor fault before Gods throne.
The earliest sacrificial offering we find in the Bible is a burnt offering. Abel offered it in Genesis 4:3-5. The first offering described in the book of Leviticus is the burnt offering (Leviticus 1). The entire offering was consumed on the altar, with no part eaten by the priests. It signified entire consecration, holding nothing back. Most of the other offerings were mandatory, but the burnt offering was voluntary. This kind of offering, in a special sense, represents Christ.
Yom Kippur and the Daily and Yearly Services
God revealed a rich understanding of sin and salvation to us through the sanctuary system. The camp was arranged in a square, with the twelve tribes camped in sequence round the square. In the center of the camp was the sanctuary. The sanctuary was where those who had gone astray became reconciled to God. At the west end of the compound stood the altar of sacrifice, where the animals were slain. At the east end was the tabernacle, or tent, with holy and most holy places. In the most holy stood the ark of the covenant, with God’s law inside and the mercy seat above. Above that, the visible presence of God glowed in the shekinah.
The sanctuary system consisted of two rounds of ministry: the daily and the yearly.
When an individual sinned at any time during the year, and repented, he was directed to bring an animal to be sacrificed at the alter at the east end of the courtyard. The priest might say, “I am sorry that you have sinned, as I am sure you are sorry. God, however, has made provision for the forgiveness of sin. You have brought an offering. Place your hands on that offering and confess your sin to God. Then kill the innocent lamb, and I will take the blood and make atonement for you. The lamb you are killing is symbolic of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Messiah is to come and give His life for the sin of the people. Through His blood you are forgiven. Go, and sin no more.”
That was the daily round. But the conclusion of that ministry came with the yearly round--yom kipper, the Day of Atonement, literally, the day of covering.
The high priest first offers a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering for himself.
When the high priest went into the most holy on the day of atonement, he went in as the representative of the people. In him, Israel appeared before the Lord to give account of the sins of the year. The record of these sins appeared on blood on the altar of burnt offering and in the holy place. With the arrival of the day of atonement, the day of reckoning had come, the day of judgment, when all sins were to come in review before the Almighty. The high priest appears in God’s presence, while the veil of incense shields him. For the first time that year, sin is brought before God in the most holy. The high priest sprinkles the blood of the bullock “upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times,” and receives “atonement for himself, and for his house.” (Leviticus 16:14, 11).
He is clean. Whatever sins he is identified with, whatever sins he is responsible for, have in figure been transferred to the sanctuary. He is clean; but the sanctuary is not. (That will happen with the goats.)
So far, what has been accomplished is this: the high priest in his representative capacity has appeared before God and the law. He has acknowledged his sins and sprinkled the blood. It is as if the law has asked, “Have you sinned?” The high priest has answered, “I have sinned, and I have confessed my sins.” The law replies, “The wages of sin is death. I have no choice but to demand life.” The high priest replies, “I have brought the blood of the victim. Accept it.” The blood is sprinkled on the mercy seat. A substitute has been accepted instead of the sinner. On this substitute the sin has been placed; it has been made sin, and as such has died. It has paid the penalty for transgression. It has died in the sinner’s place and for sin. It has paid the debt due because of sin.
The hands were placed on the victim’s head, transferring sin to the victim. The victim dies with guilt on his head, dies for sin. Thus Christ took our sins upon Himself and was made sin. Being made sin, He must die; for the wages of sin is death.
But Christ died not only as a substitute for the sinner, but as the Sinless One. Taking our sins upon Himself, He ought to die; the law demanded it. But personally Christ had not sinned. He was sinless; yet He died. The death of the sinner satisfies the claim of the law. The death of the Sinless On provides the ransom and frees the sinner from death.
Included in the yearly round was the bringing of the two goats. Leviticus 16:7-10:
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scape goat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:15 and 16 show that it is the blood of the Lord’s goat that makes atonement. The offerings the high priest made for himself cleared him to officiate. But now the Lord’s goat is slain and the high priest reenters the sanctuary with its blood. Verse 16 says, “So he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins. . .”
Only when atonement has been completed in the most holy place does the priest come out and lay his hands on the other goat, the azazel, the live goat, the goat representing the instigator of sin. In vs. 21 he lays hands on its head and confesses all the sin of Israel back onto that goat. That goat is now the only dirty, sin-laden thing in the camp. The people are clean, the sanctuary is clean, and now the high priest is clean. All the sins which Satan tempted the people to commit are now back on the head of Satan, but not to atone, for that is already accomplished. All that remains is the removal of all this sin from the camp via the goat, and its death in the wilderness.
The Part of the People
The high priest represented all Israel, but as a group the people were engaged in the whole plan. Throughout the year, they brought their sacrifices and were forgiven. On the day of atonement the people were especially engaged. Someone from the congregation brought the two goats that the high priest received (16:5); it was also some member of the congregation who led the azazel goat out of the camp (vs. 21-22, 26). But there is more.
Verses 29-34 especially show us that the congregation, were deeply interested and actively involved. They were to afflict their souls through the day as the high priest carried out his duties. The people were not indifferent during this event; the whole community was invested in it. This was the cleansing of the camp. Every single member of the community had sinned through the year, and all were deeply interested in having their sins removed from the camp. Even one person’s sins, not removed, would leave the camp tainted with sin. Everyone had a stake in this.
This was not a theoretical operation; there was an actual purging of sin. Remember, this is the yom kippur, the day of covering. Kippur (covering) is an interesting word in Hebrew. This word is seen in several other places too. Proverbs 16:6 KJV provides an example: “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged; and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.”
Isaiah 6:7 NKJV: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”
Isaiah 27.9 KJV: “By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin.”
The word kippur, that is, kaphar, means to cover, that is, to address, to deal with, to purge, to remove. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day of the removal, the purging, of sin.
All through the year the high priest has carried Israel on his shoulders. The names of six tribes were inscribed on each shoulder stone (Exodus 28:9-12). All year he has carried the names of the 12 tribes in the 12 stones on his breastplate (Exodus 28:15-21, 29). The whole community is involved all year, all the time. All the priests who served throughout the year were included as if they were the high priest himself; they served as His adjutants, his assistants and helpers. Yom Kippur is a community event, the culmination of the year. Every member of the congregation is involved all year long. Likewise, every Christian is involved in the final, ultimate cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary by Jesus. All the human high priests represented Jesus making the final atonement.
Jesus does not recruit apostles and disciples to sit and watch and wait. We have a mission. We are to live this trusting relationship with God and we are to give. We are to pass on this way of life, this invitation to holiness and fulfillment available only through Jesus our great high Priest.
The atonement is the part of Christianity that has to do with the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the blood, the character, and the restoration of the image of God in those who receive Him. It is the transformative part. It is the removal of sin and reception of righteousness part. There is no gospel without the atonement. This is that part which God’s adversary most desires that we not understand.
Heppenstall versus Andreasen
We have refreshed ourselves concerning what the atonement is. But there are, today, differing views in the church about the atonement. What’s more, we trace these views to two contrasting figures in Adventist history: ML Andreasen, and Edward Heppenstall.
Milian Lauritz Andreasen was born in 1876 and died in 1962. Edward Heppenstall was born in 1901 and died in 1994.
Both had theological training, both were born in Europe, both emigrated to America, both taught at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, both were significant writers and speakers, and both addressed, in particular, the Atonement.
These are prominent figures who taught thousands of ministers at the seminary and thousands of members through books and writings. Every religious group has prominent teachers who shape in some measure the thought of the broader church. And all it takes is a single generation to significantly change a teaching. No two individuals had a greater impact on Adventist thought in the last century than these two men. Andreasen is known especially for his book The Sanctuary Service, which makes a detailed examination of the Bible teaching on the sanctuary. In particular, his chapter near the end of that book titled, “The Last Generation,” has stimulated Jesus-loving Seventh-day Adventists since that book’s publication in 1937.
But Heppenstall was another highly influential figure. He also wrote books, including Our High Priest, and The Man who Was God, in which he addressed many of the same pieces.
Carefully reviewing these writings, we can contrast Heppenstall’s with Andreasen’s position.
Pivotal in the entire question of the atonement is one’s anthropology--one’s view of the nature of man, of what is possible. Heppenstall describes what he regards as an innate fallen condition which we cannot change. He teaches that we are born with original sin, original guilt. Therefore, humans can have no substantial part in God’s work of atonement. The activity that human free will plays can have almost no part in Heppenstall’s thought about the atonement. Here are some important sample statements describing Heppenstall’s view of human nature and sin:
This state of sin into which all men are born is called original sin—not in the sense of inherited guilt, but of an inherited disposition to sin.(TMWIG 107)
Original sin is not per se wrong doing, but wrong being.(TMWIG 122)
He [Jesus] could not have been born in a state of sin as we are.(TMWIG 144)
He [Jesus] had not the slightest trace of personal guilt that would come from being born into a state of sin or from remorse over some sin committed.(TMWIG 146)
Although Heppenstall denies that when he says we are born with original sin he means that we receive inherited guilt, he says (in the very same book!) that humans are born in a state of sin and that being born in a state of sin means having personal guilt, and that therefore Jesus could not be born like we are because He cannot be born with guilt. Heppenstall’s position is in error.
The biblically correct position is that of ML Andreasen. Andreasen gives human free will a balanced role. There are choices that God makes and there are choices that man makes. Listen to what Andreasen says about sin and free will:
Satan has no power--and never had--to make any man sin. He can tempt, he can seduce, he can threaten; but he cannot compel. . . . Through the last generation of saints God stands finally vindicated. Through them He defeats Satan and wins His case. They form a vital part of the plan of God. They go through terrific struggles; they battle with unseen powers in high places. But they have put their trust n the Most High, and they will not be ashamed. They have gone through hunger and thirst, but the time shall come when ‘they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ Rev. 7:16, 17.(TSS 295)
Andreasen, in harmony with the Bible, sees sin primarily as chosen actions.
Forgiveness operates after transgression, when the damage has already been done. True, God forgives the sin, but it would have been better had the sin not been committed. For this, the keeping power of God is available. To forgive the transgression after it has been committed is wonderful; but it is not enough. There must be a power to keep from sinning. ‘Go, and sin no more’ is a possibility of the gospel. But to ‘sin no more’ is sanctification. This is the eventual goal of salvation. The gospel is not complete without it. We need to enter with Christ into the most holy. Some will do this. They will follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. They will be without spot or wrinkle. ‘They are without fault before the throne of God’ Rev. 14:5. By faith they enter the second apartment.(TSS 49)
Again, Heppenstall views justification as forensic.
When Paul speaks of righteousness which is by faith, he is not thinking in terms of righteousness in man, but of their legal standing before God. . . . ‘Justify’ never means in Scripture to pour the quality of righteousness into someone, but to establish righteousness forensically, or to make righteous by an act which is is entirely outside man.(TSOA, fn 136)
Andreasen says a great deal more about personal holiness, sanctification, imparted righteousness.
After awhile the woman repents, seeks God earnestly, and receives forgiveness. In the day of judgment—or as in the type on the Day of Atonement,--her sin is blotted out, and even the record is no more. She stands before God as though she had never sinned; she is clad in a robe pure and white, she is a new creature in Christ Jesus. . . . What has happened? The death penalty which hung over her has been removed. Christ has died for her, died in her place. He has taken upon Himself the punishment which was due her. He has suffered for her sake, and by His stripes she has been healed. The old life is a thing of the past. She is a new creature. Christ has taken her sins with Him into the grave; there He paid the penalty; there He made ‘an end of sin’; and there, through death, He destroyed ‘him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.’ . . . When she, by the grace of God, gave up her sin, when she received forgiveness and cleansing, when she heeded the admonition, ‘Go, and sin no more,’ sin came to an end; there was no more sin, no more uncleanness, no more transgression, It had all vanished. Christ had done a complete work. . . . What happened in this supposed case happens in the case of every truly converted person; Christ takes entire charge. He takes the sin and its punishment, He forgives and cleanses, He creates a new heart and mind, and the sinner becomes an entirely new creature.(TSS 203-204)
Heppenstall focuses on Jesus to the exclusion of the believers Jesus came to save. Andreasen emphasizes the experience of believers in demonstrating the power of God.
Heppenstall’s work suggests a kind of regimented theological thinking typical of some Europeans. There is a set of ideas usually emphasized in an almost traditional way. Meanwhile, although Andreasen was born in Scandinavia, his work seems more rooted in original Bible exploration. It’s character is less tradition-constrained, and more American in outlook, not ruled by theological orthodoxy. Andreasen’s reasoning is mostly inductive (from the specific to the general), while Heppenstall’s is mostly deductive (from general to specific).
One of the starkest theological differences between Heppenstall and Andreason is the question of demonstration and vindication.
Heppenstall’s view, which he addresses over and over, surely in conscious response and as a counter-view to Andreasen, is that humans play no substantial part in whatever demonstration God is making.
The full account God makes of His character and administration of the universe is independent of man’s vacillation. Always there is a transcendent factor about the work of the Godhead in the heavenly sanctuary that must never be reduced to Christian experience, however important that may be. The successful accomplishment of the purpose of God from the throne room makes possible the eradication of sin and Satan and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Nothing else will.(OHP 23)
Heppenstall says that God makes a “full account” that is “independent” of humans. Thus, Heppenstall utterly cuts off humans, the one kind of creature whom God made in His own image, from any substantive participation in His vindication plan. God is transcendent, but Heppenstall seems determined to remove all human components from the salvation plan.
In contrast, Andreasen speaks of God calling His people to the front in demonstration of His divine power to transform humans. In the following extended quote Andreasen uses the word “demonstration” five times:
Sin, like some diseases, leaves man in a deplorable condition—weak, despondent, disheartened. He has little control of his mind, his will fails him, and with the best of intentions he is unable to do what he knows to be right. He feels there is no hope. He knows that he has himself to blame, and remorse fills his soul. To his bodily ailments is added the torture of conscience. He knows that He has sinned and is to blame. Will no one take pity on him?
Then comes the gospel. The good news is preached to him. Though his sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. All is forgiven. He is ‘saved.’ What a wonderful deliverance it is! His mind is at rest. No longer does his conscience torment him. He has been forgiven. His sins are cast into the depths of the sea. His heart wells with praise to God for His mercy and goodness to him.
As a disabled ship towed to port is safe but not sound, so the man is ‘saved’ but not sound. Repairs need to be made on the ship before it is pronounced seaworthy, and the man needs reconstruction before he is fully restored. This process of restoration is called sanctification, and includes in its finished product body, soul, and spirit. When the work is finished, the man is ‘holy,’ completely sanctified, and restored to the image of God. It is for this DEMONSTRATION of what the gospel can do for a man that the world is looking.
In the Bible both the process and the finished work are spoken of as sanctification. For this reason the ‘brethren’ are spoken of as holy and sanctified, though they have not attained to perfection. (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Heb. 3:1.) A glance through the Epistles to the Corinthians will soon convince one that the saints there mentioned had their faults. Despite this, they are said to be ‘sanctified’ and ‘called to be saints.’ The reason is that complete sanctification is not the work of a day or of a year but of a lifetime. It begins the moment a person is converted, and continues through life. Every victory hastens the process. There are few Christians who have not gained the mastery over some sin that formerly greatly annoyed them and overcame them. Many a man who had been a slave to the tobacco habit has gained the victory over the habit and rejoices in his victory. Tobacco has ceased to be a temptation. It attracts him no more. He has the victory. On that point he is sanctified. As he has been victorious over one besetment, so he is to become victorious over every sin. When the work is completed, when he has gained the victory over pride, ambition, love of the world--over all evil--he is ready for translation. He has been tried on all points. The evil one has come to him and found nothing. Satan has no more temptations for him. He has overcome them all. He stands without fault before the throne of God. Christ places His seal upon him. He is safe, and he is sound. God has finished His work in Him. The DEMONSTRATION of what God can do with humanity is compete.
Thus it shall be with the last generation of men living on the earth. Through them God’s final DEMONSTRATION of what He can do with humanity will be given. He will take the weakest of the weak, those bearing the sins of their forefathers, and in them show the power of God. They will be subjected to every temptation, but they will not yield. They will DEMONSTRATE that it is possible to live without sin—the very DEMONSTRATION for which the world has been looking and for which God has been preparing. It will become evident to all that the gospel really can save to the uttermost. God is found true in His sayings.(TSS 300-302)
Finally, what about vindication? Andreasen’s last generation chapter refers to God’s sanctuary truth being vindicated (TSS 297x2), God’s government being vindicated (299), God’s power to sanctify being vindicated (303, 315), on 320, the clearing of God’s name. Here is what Andreasen says about the last generation:
“Through the last generation of saints God stands finally vindicated. Through them He defeats Satan and wins His case. They form a vital part of the plan of God” (319).
Do not miss that, although we as last generation believers have a part in His vindication, “through them He defeats Satan and wins His case.” He, God, defeats; He, God, wins; we do not defeat; we do not win.
Andreasen has been portrayed as saying something wild here, but that is exaggeration; he says no more here than Romans 16:20 and Revelation 14:1-5, 12 say.
Heppenstall, in the two books he authored I refer to uses the word vindication some 50 times, but in none of them does he give any substantial role to God’s people in vindicating His name.
To summarize, Andreasen’s view on the atonement highlights God’s gift of human free will and the Great Controversy War as a demonstration of the goodness of God’s character and His process of transforming men from sin to righteousness as vindicating His once-and-for-all solution of the sin problem through Jesus. Heppenstall cannot see that and urgently highlights God while obscuring any significant role for believers. These are different views on the atonement rooted in different views about sin and the power of the gospel. It is not that Andreasen was a perfect and infallible super-saint--he was not. Nor is it that Heppenstall was evil or stupid--he was not. These workers simply had different, and in some respects, mutually exclusive views on key theological points. Both men, I believe, loved God and meant well. But Heppenstall’s views led to a series of departures and digressions from the Adventism that had gone before. Heppenstall’s views sharply reduced the importance of the sanctuary, muted distinctive Adventist understanding, and moved us backwards. Many have received a truncated understanding of God’s Bible truth for the last days, differing little from that of Christians who have no understanding whatsoever of the sanctuary on earth or in heaven. We can--and must--do better.
I want to close with a short line from ML Andreasen which summarizes the atonement.
“The first promise in the Bible is a promise of hatred for sin. . . Christ not only loved righteousness, He hated iniquity. This hatred is fundamental in Christianity. And God has promised to put this hatred for sin into our hearts.”(TSS 19)
TSOA The Shaking of Adventism) Edward Heppenstall, "The Meaning of Righteousness," in lessons at Andrews University, pp. 39-40)