At Issue Index   Table of Contents   Previous   Next

Questions On Doctrine


VII. Questions on Christ and His Ministry in the Sanctuary

 Wider Concept of the Atonement



Seventh-day Adventists have frequently been charged with teaching that the atonement was not completed on the cross. Is this charge true?


The answer to this question depends upon the definition given to the term "atonement." The word occurs in the New Testament only once (Rom. 5:11), where it is the translation of katallage, a word meaning "reconciliation," or a "reconciling," and is elsewhere so translated (Rom. 11:15; 2 Cor. 5:18, 19). The related verb katallasso occurs six times, and in each case is translated "to reconcile" (Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:11; 2 Cor. 5:18-20). Katallage should be rendered "reconciliation" in Romans 5:11 also.

The word "atonement" is much more frequent in the Old Testament. It occurs most frequently in the verbal expression "to make atonement" (Lev. 1:4; see Ex. 29:36), but occasionally also in the noun form "atonement" (Lev. 23:27; et cetera). The verb is the translation of an intensive form of the Hebrew kaphar, a word that basically means "to cover." The simple form is found in Genesis 6:14, and although translated "to pitch," really means "to cover." It is thus thought


that the basic meaning of "atonement" as the term is used in the Old Testament is to cover sin. From this come the derived meanings "to make amends," "to make matters right," "to expiate," "to make atonement."

In theological circles the term "atonement" has assumed a technical meaning and is generally used to describe the redeeming effect of Christ's incarnation, sufferings, and death. Christians are not all agreed as to what was accomplished by these events in the life of Christ, and consequently hold various theories of the atonement.

It is therefore necessary to make clear what aspect of the atonement is under consideration in any statement concerning the transaction.

Quite generally those who teach that a completed atonement was made on the cross view the term in its popular theological sense, but really what is meant by them is that on Calvary, the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice of Christ was offered for our salvation. With this concept all true Christians readily and heartily agree. "We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10). Those who view this aspect of the work of Christ as a completed atonement, apply this term only to what Christ accomplished on the cross. They do not include in their definition the application of the benefits of the atonement made on the cross, to the individual sinner.

There are those however, who believe the atonement has a much wider connotation. They fully agree with those who stress a completed atonement on the cross in the sense of an all-sufficient, once-for-all, atoning


sacrifice for sin. They believe that nothing less than—this took place on the cross of Calvary.

They believe, however, that in the ancient typical sanctuary service other aspects of the atonement are brought to light. In the morning and evening sacrifice they see sacrificial atonement provided for all men (Ex. 29:38-42). In the sinner's own personal offering they see sacrificial atonement appropriated by the individual (Lev. 4:31). Then came the grand climax on the Day of Atonement—day of judgment—when sin was definitely and finally dealt with. These ancient services, they believe, were all typical of the work of Christ. The morning and evening sacrifices and the individual offerings for sin pointed forward to the Saviour's sacrifice on Calvary's cross. The ministry of the priest in these services pointed forward to the high priestly ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, where He applies the benefits of the atoning sacrifice to the individual sinner. Then the Day of Atonement services, they believe, pointed forward to the work to be accomplished in what they call the Investigative judgment which eventually culminates in the final obliteration of iniquity at the close of the millennial period.

A study of certain Old Testament experiences, not connected with the sanctuary, will help to illustrate some of the meanings properly derived from the Hebrew word kaphar, which is rendered "atonement":

1. Notice the incident concerning Moses and Aaron and the making of the golden calf. This is recorded in Exodus 32. There we learn of the unfaithfulness of the people while Moses was in the mount with God.


Under direction of Aaron they made a golden calf, reminiscent of their stay for so many years in the land of Egypt. When Moses descended from the mount, he was greatly disturbed over the apostasy of the people, and it was in this crisis that the tribe of Levi stood by his side. Then he declared to Israel, "Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin" (Ex. 32:30).

Here is atonement, an atonement made evidently without a blood sacrifice, without any blood being sprinkled upon an altar. How was this accomplished? Moses did not bring a sacrificial offering to the Lord; no, he made an atonement in the fact that he offered to take the place of the people. In this he was a fitting figure of the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of mankind. In his earnest desire that the people might be saved, he was willing to be blotted out from God's book of life. "Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin;—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written" (verse 32).

2. Another instance is the case of David in his contact with the Gibeonites. The story is recorded in 2 Samuel 21. Saul had slain many of the Gibeonites, whom Israel had solemnly sworn to preserve. David, in seeking to make amends for the wrong done, called representatives of the Gibeonites together and said to them, "What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement?" (verse 3). Then follows the story of what was done. When seven of the sons of Saul were hanged, the atonement was made. Here atonement means making adequate compensation for the


wrong that had been done. This aspect is also embodied in the great sweep of Christ's atoning work. This is emphasized in the following words:

He [Christ] ascended to the heavenly courts, and from God Himself heard the assurance that His atonement for the sins of men had been ample, that through His blood all might gain eternal life. The Father ratified the covenant made with Christ, that He would receive repentant and obedient men, and would love them even as He loves His Son. Christ was to complete His work, and fulfill His pledge to "make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir."—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (1940), p. 790. (Italics supplied.)

When upon the cross He cried out, "It is finished," He addressed the Father. The compact had been fully carried out. Now He declares: Father, it is finished. I have done Thy will, O My God. I have completed the work of redemption. If Thy justice is satisfied, "I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am." . . . The voice of God is heard proclaiming that justice is satisfied. Ibid.,— p. 834.

3. Still another incident recorded in Numbers 16 well illustrates a further aspect of the atonement. Israel had grievously provoked the Lord. The people had murmured against God; 250 of the princes, men of renown, had rebelled against the Most High. Resulting from this apostasy a plague broke out in the camp of Israel. In connection with this we have the divine declaration:

And Moses said unto Aaron. . . . Go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them (verse 46).

And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed (verses 47, 48).


Here we see Aaron as a mediator, a fitting type of Christ Jesus, our blessed Lord. In thus stepping in between man and God, and by his sacrificial abnegation and devotion, standing between the living and the dead, covering the people from the wrath of God, he thereby made an atonement for them.

4. There is another aspect of the question, however, that should be considered. This grows out of the narrative recorded in Numbers 25. Israel had fallen captive to the seducing wiles of the heathen around them. They had sinned grievously in the sight of God in committing the abominations of the Canaanites. One man brought a heathen woman into the camp. God showed His displeasure by sending a plague among the people. Then Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, realizing the gravity of the offense, went out in the name of God and slew the offenders. When this was done, the plague was stayed. Because of this man's jealousy for the work of God, the Lord said:

Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: and he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel (verses 12, 13).

In this instance we see that this loyal priest made an atonement by removing the incorrigible offenders. The people of Israel were taught this aspect of God's plan in the sanctuary service as the Day of Atonement came around each year. The final act on that great day was the removal of the goat for Azazel, representing the instigator of evil. This goat was taken from the camp of Israel and banished forever. So it will be in the closing work of God. Then the last act in God's great plan of cleansing the universe from sin will be to


remove the greatest offender of all, he who was a liar from the beginning, that old enemy, the devil and Satan. These four experiences teach us vital and important lessons concerning the work of the atonement. In God's eternal purpose, He who makes the atonement is the Mediator. Everything in the typical service—the sacrifices and the work of the priesthood—pointed forward to Christ Jesus, our Lord. He took our place and died in our stead. In doing this, He became our substitute. In dying on the cross, in yielding His life an atonement for sin, He made adequate compensation for the wrong done; He met in full the penalty of the broken law of God.

Christ's sacrifice in behalf of man was full and complete. The condition of the atonement had been fulfilled. The work for which He had come to this world had been accomplished.—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 29.

But the work accomplished on Calvary involves also the application of the atoning sacrifice of Christ to the seeking soul. This is provided for in the priestly ministry of our blessed Lord, our great High Priest in the sanctuary above.

Not only are His people cleansed from sin by the sacrifice of the Son of God and saved for time and eternity, but the entire universe is to be purified from the very taint of iniquity with the author of sin utterly destroyed. Then will follow a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13) which will be the eternal home of the ransomed of all ages, those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of the Lamb.


Some of our earlier Seventh-day Adventist writers, believing that the word "atonement" had a wider meaning than many of their fellow Christians attached to it, expressed themselves as indicating that the atonement was not made on the cross of Calvary, but was made rather by Christ after He entered upon His priestly ministry in heaven. They believed fully in the efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of men, and they believed most assuredly that this sacrifice was made once for all and forever, but they preferred not to use the word "atonement" as relating only to the sacrificial work of Christ at Calvary. We repeat, they believed as fully as we do that the sacrificial work of our blessed Lord on Golgotha's hill was full and complete, never again to be offered, and that it was done once and for all. Their concept was that the sacrifice of Jesus provided the means of the atonement, and that the atonement itself was made only when the priests ministered the sacrificial offering on behalf of the sinner. Viewed in this light, it will be seen that the question after all is a matter of definition of terms. Today, not meeting the same issues that our earlier writers had to meet, we believe that the sacrificial atonement was made on the cross and was provided for all men, but that in the heavenly priestly ministry of Christ our Lord, this sacrificial atonement is applied to the seeking soul.

Stressing this wider concept, however, in no way detracts from the full efficacy of the death of the Son of God, once for all for the sins of men. It is unfortunate that a lack of definition of terms so often leads to misunderstanding on the greatest theme of the Christian message.

At Issue Index   Table of Contents   Previous   Next