Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?
Why are you scared to dream of God
When it’s salvation that you want?
You see stars that clear have been dead for years
But the idea just lives on
–We Are Nowhere and It’s Now by Bright Eyes
We live in a postmodern world. Our cultural sense of personal morality is dead and our concept of a morally perfect God outdated. Because of this, the culture we live in feels no need for atonement. The very idea of atonement baffles this culture. It cannot understand it or the need for it and thus dismisses the idea as irrelevant.
Meanwhile, atonement is the thumping heart at Christianity’s core. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). That is the center. That is the fixed point around which the rest of the Bible, the rest of Christian thinking, and the rest of the Christian life, revolves.
Some thirty-five hundred years ago, God gave an ancient collection of tribes known as the Israelites a code of laws which were to dictate their society and religion. In it, he included a complex and detailed system for conducting animal sacrifices – known to us as the book of Leviticus – for one purpose: to hammer into the Israelite mind, as they witnessed the morning and evening sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple every day without fail, the human need for atonement.
Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments… “As has been done today, the LORD has commanded to be done to make atonement for you.” Leviticus 8:30, 34
Fifteen centuries after Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Jesus of Nazareth died of crucifixion and a new understanding dawned on a small group of Hebrews concerning the nature of man, sin, and God. One said this: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:4, 12).
The phrase “sat down” is critical. The tabernacles and temples of the old covenant did not contain chairs, because the work of the priests was never completed. Only when the Son of God himself shed his blood could he say with finality, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
In our day, notions of vicarious atonement and guilt before God are viewed as silly at best and barbaric at worst. I believe, however, that to dismiss these things, which are the heart of the gospel, is not only to believe a lie, but to ignore a truth testified to by our universal human nature.
Any people brave enough to search their own hearts, even without a full biblical understanding of God’s moral law, will see in themselves, perhaps without even being able to name it, a deep wrongness. Such people will know that they are not as they ought to be. They disappoint themselves regularly, sometimes devastatingly. Even the most self-righteous people – or the most postmodern people, completely unconcerned with questions of sin, guilt, and righteousness – will see in their inner being a disjointedness, an incompleteness, an emptiness, a shame. That sense of wrongness that each of us recognizes in our hearts is the remembrance of who we were meant to be, and the longing for who we can be through the scandal of the cross.
Do not stifle the need for atonement that is in your heart. The heart and soul in you knows that you desperately need a stand-in, a rescuer, a sacrifice, a redeemer. Look nowhere else than at Jesus.