Rev. Haak is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan and radio pastor for the Reformed Witness Hour, on which this message was aired.
It is at this time of year that the church remembers in a special way the awful sufferings and bitter death of our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. I consider with you a subject of the Scriptures that is both vast and deep, broad and expansive; a truth of the Scriptures that reaches from one end of the Bible even to the other end; a truth that is absolutely vital for your soul. It is the truth of the atonement.
The word “atonement” refers to a payment, a payment made to God for our sins, rendered by Jesus Christ in the sufferings that He endured upon the cross. This doctrine of the atonement is the central doctrine of the Bible. And it must be central to you. No matter how old you are, no matter how much you have advanced in learning and insight in the Christian faith, no matter the deeds that you perform—there is nothing so crucial as Christ and Him crucified. There is nothing so central as the doctrine of the atonement.
The atonement of Jesus Christ is the bull’s-eye of God’s book, the Bible. So every truth of the Bible, all of the history, all of the precepts, doctrines, and exhortations are arranged around this bull’s-eye, namely, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Or again, “And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne stood a Lamb as it had been slain.” The message of God’s Word to you is not that you are OK. The message of God’s Word is not that you need only a spiritual overhaul, a face-lift, so to speak. The message is not that God has a wonderful plan for your life if only you…. No. The message of God’s Word is this: Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man, you have no life in you. That is, unless Christ is crucified and unless He makes an atonement for your sins, you have nothing—only eternal ruin.
You see, the Word of God is not, first of all, a manual on interpersonal relationships. And it is not given to teach you a supposed victorious living. Oh yes, we glean from the Word of God how we ought to live in this world. And the Word of God will teach us in every sphere of our life how we are to live as those who hope in the Lord. But, you see, the Bible is not like the Torah of Judaism. It is not like the Koran of the Muslims. It is not a book of virtue or moralistic teachings. But the central issue of the revelation of the Scriptures is: How will you stand before the living and the holy God of heaven and earth?
You see, the issues of your life are sin and God, judgment and grace, our guilt and God’s holiness. The issue is: an atonement for sin in the blood of God’s Son, given of God’s love for all of His own. All who, by grace, look to this Jesus Christ and trust in His atonement shall live. And all who, in folly, reject it and embrace their own ways and sin shall perish. That is the message of God’s Word.
So today we, too, preach Christ and Him crucified. We do not, as the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 1, dabble in speculation. Rather, we speak of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The atonement that He made on the cross purged, pardoned, covered all the sins of God’s people, of those whom the Father had given to His Son out of an eternal, gracious will of election.
Now the truth of the atonement is certainly a truth, as I said, that covers all of the teachings of the Scriptures. It is found throughout the Scriptures. The Old Testament people of God were well acquainted with the truth of the atonement. You will recall that there are books of the Bible—Exodus and Leviticus—that are devoted to the whole subject of the need of sacrifice and of the fact that the people of God repeatedly were to bring a sacrifice for their sin in order that an atonement might be made. If you lived in the Old Testament, it would have been unmistakable to you. You would know that the way to God was only in the way of sins being placed upon a sacrifice, and that this sacrifice was to be consumed in the fire of God. The only approach to God would be in a way of covering for sin—the way of an atonement.
If we could reconstruct the fabric of the system of the Old Testament, we would see how God impressed this upon the minds of His people. Whether that was in the wilderness, when the tabernacle was erected by Moses, or whether that was later on in the temple of Solomon in the city of Jerusalem, day after day, repeatedly, bloody sacrifices were brought to the temple or tabernacle. Animals were burned upon the altar. Atonement had to be made. What was God saying? He was saying this (Heb. 9:22): “Without shedding of blood is no remission.”
When we come before the truth of the atonement we are making a confession, a confession that the Holy Spirit writes upon our souls. We are making a confession of the realities of sin and the holy God. When we come to the atonement, then we understand that our great problem is our sin, our inability to remove our sin, and our deserving of punishment before God.
Do you know that reality? Are the words, “God, be merciful to me the sinner,” upon your heart? Are the words of David in Psalm 51 yours: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness”? Unless this reality, this burden of sin, is brought personally to your soul, there is no point in going any further in the explanation of the doctrine of the atonement. Salvation is not that you just say, “Jesus.” But the atonement stands in the concrete reality of your sin.
Sin is a horrible thing. Sin deserves everlasting punishment because of who God is. The God of the Bible is essentially holy and good, pure from all iniquity. We read in Hebrews 12 that our God is a consuming fire, and in the vision given to Isaiah in chapter 6, that the seraphim, the angels, hide their faces before Him as they stand before the throne and cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.” He is also a God of inflexible justice. He always does the right. God passed before Moses and proclaimed His name, “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity,” but who will “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). Under no circumstances will God ever wink at sin. But He is also a God of mercy and loving-kindness. According to Exodus 20 He has mercy upon thousands of them that fear Him. He is the God who says through the prophets, “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and in loving-kindness have drawn you.”
If you are to understand the truth of the atonement, these truths must be written upon your heart by the Spirit of God. What truths? Two truths: your sin, and the living, true God.
Do you know those realities? I am not asking you if you are a theologian. I am asking you if the Holy Spirit, through the Word, has given you to understand reality—your sin and the holy God? If your God is not the God of the holy Scriptures, then you serve an idol. If the God that is being taught you or preached to you is less than the holy God of holy Scriptures, then the truth of the atonement will make no sense to you. If God, to you, is the stuff of your own imaginations, then all of the truth of the atonement is unexplainable to you.
Why? Why does the Son of God hang upon a cross forsaken even of God? The Scriptures give the answer. See Psalm 22: “But thou art holy, thou that inhabitist the praises of Israel.” Jesus Christ was upon the cross because the just and the holy God, in mercy, would give His Son to bear the penalty that the sins of His people deserved.
The glorious truth of the atonement is that our sins were transferred to Jesus Christ.
What a glorious truth! This glorious truth was represented in the Old Testament when the priest would press down his hand upon the sacrificial animal as a sign of the transference of guilt. That is the wonderful truth of the atonement. All of our guilt and sin was transferred upon Christ. This was God’s act. As the judge of all the earth, God pressed the sins of His elect children down upon the head and bosom of Jesus Christ.
You recall that a crown of thorns was pressed upon Jesus’ head. Far above that was that the Lord Jesus Christ was made to be accursed of God for us. The curse due to us was laid upon Him. God poured this upon Him. The whole tremendous load of the guilt of God’s church was laid upon Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ represented that, bore that, as He died upon the cross.
Oh, the joy of this! Do you know your sin? I am not asking if you admit to messing up now and then. But do you know the blackness of your own heart? Do you grieve under that sin? Or, in pride and conceit, do you downplay your sin? Do you stand offended, perhaps, before the gospel of Jesus Christ today, which declares that you are a sinner deserving only of eternal destruction?
Do you know your sin? If, by the Holy Spirit, you do, what a glorious truth! God, in grace, not compromising His holiness, not winking at sin, took our sins and placed them upon Jesus Christ. It is by faith that we receive this blessing. It is by faith, in the cross, that we appropriate and know the glorious truth that an atonement has been made for our sins.
This atonement God has accepted. The sacrifice of His Son upon the cross was accepted because Jesus Christ paid it all, endured it all. We read inEphesians 1:6, “”To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” God has made us accepted in the beloved Son. In the work of His beloved Son, God was appeased, satisfied. A full payment was rendered. Jesus Christ, upon the cross, did all that was necessary to remove the burden of our sins. He suffered all that the justice of God required. He made a perfect atonement.
The gospel declares to us today that Christ is our covering, that we need look and must not look to anything else for the forgiveness of our sins, but to Christ and His one work upon the cross. There is no other remission for sin. There is no possibility that so much as one sin can be remitted, sent away, apart from the work of God’s own Son once performed upon Calvary’s cross. The cross is our hiding place. It is the only hiding place. It is the sure hiding place for our souls.
Do not place trust in yourself. Do not look to who you are. Do not pride yourself in the thought that at least you are better than someone else. Do not look to someone else to make an atonement for you, or to a priest, or to some ceremony or some sacrifice that the church is performing to take away your sins. Do not look to your works, to your pedigree, to your strength, your beauty, your gifts. All of this, when it comes to taking away sin, is rubbish, absolute rubbish. It cannot remove your sin.
One thing alone takes away sin: Christ crucified, the cross. Hear Him cry from that cross: “It is finished.” He did not say, “I am finished, I’m done in.” Oh, no. He cried with a loud voice, “It is finished!” And that means that all the work of atonement, of making a payment for sin was accomplished. All the eternal wrath that our sin deserved was paid in full.
What holds the center in your life? We must live out of the truth of the atonement. We must live under the shadow of the cross. If this truth of the atonement that we have briefly explained to you today from the holy Scriptures is not the heart and the soul of your life, then all is lost for you. This must be central in all of our thoughts and in all of living. You can call yourself a Christian, you can say, “Well, I’m a Christian. I went to this new church and there was this wave of emotion. I don’t know what it was all about, but we had this good feeling about ourselves. I must be saved.” If that is the extent of your religion, then your religion is as a stinking corpse in the sight of God.
True religion is Christ and Him crucified. True religion is the bondage and burden of sin broken at the foot of the cross. All who confess this cross and this Savior and who, by the grace of God, embrace this truth of the atonement shall never be put to shame.
Do you glory in this? Is it the heart and the center of your whole life? Does it capture everything? Does it bind fast your heart so that now, by His Spirit, you declare that you will live unto Him and not to yourself? Or does the glitter of sin and the glitter of the world capture you? If Christ crucified is not the center of your life, whatever else is at the center is an idol. He alone is worthy.
It is of this gospel that we testify today. It is this truth that we proclaim. It is the truth. It is found alone in Christ crucified. Nothing really changes in a man or woman’s life until the cross touches that life, exposing sin, proclaiming the holy God, and bringing the wonder of God’s grace.
Many will call this foolishness. But to those who are saved by the mighty grace of God, this gospel is Christ, the power of God; Christ, the wisdom of God.
Hear the word of God: a wonder has taken place. The sins of God’s people were placed upon Jesus Christ. And on the cross He bore them all away. They are gone forever. An atonement was made for us. And it was made because God loved us. Now we go away from this truth with one burning question: Lord, how shall all my thoughts and words and affections, my heart and my soul, ever be able to show forth the love and the praise which is Thy due?