The Objectivity of Christ's Atonement
We live in an age that militates against the idea of God’s absolute holiness. Combined with a denial of the sinfulness of man, the rejection of God’s moral character results in a necessary de-valuing, or even denial, of the atonement. A crucial piece of a biblical understanding of Christ’s work is the objective nature of Christ’s atoning work.
To say that the atonement is objective is to say that the atonement was intended to and actually succeeded in propitiating God’s wrath and reconciling Him to the sinner. The reason that I am highlighting the objective nature of the atonement is because it represents the main difference between those who accept the penal substitutionary view (or vicarious substitution) doctrine of the atonement and all those who prefer some other theory.
Let me give you 4 reasons to consider Christ’s atoning work as objectively securing the redemption of His people.
- The fundamental nature of the priesthood agrees. Hebrews 5:1 reads, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Christ, as the great high priest, fulfills each of those functions. (1) He was chosen among men, having come down and taken upon Himself the form of a servant. (2) He is appointed for men, that is, He was sent to be active in the interests of men. And (3) Christ was appointed to be the mediator between God and mankind. He has a “Godward orientation” in His work.
- The very nature of the sacrifices in the Old Testament confirm this idea. Each of the old covenant sacrifices had an objective reference: God. They were supposed to produce an effect: appease God’s wrath.
- The propitiation language in scripture confirms the idea of an objective atonement. Kipper language in the Old Testament refers to atonement by the covering either sin or the sinner. The kilaskomai and hilasmos words in the Septuagint and NT were used to convey appeasing and propitiation of wrath. Several passages teach that God’s wrath has been appeased/propitiated: 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Heb. 2:17.
- Finally, the reconciliation language in the New Testament confirms the objectivity of the atonement. Katalasso and katalage are used to signify the reconciliation of men to God. Christ actually, objectively reconciled a people to God: Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20.
Problems with Denial of Objectivity
If the work of Christ did not actually, objectively purchase for Himself a bride, then Christ is changed into a mere exemplar instead of a savior. Bavinck notes:
“In that case the high priesthood of Christ changes into an example, the Christian religion into an exercise in pedagogics, and the church into a school…Thus the objective satisfaction is transformed into subjective reconciliation. True and genuine reconciliation occurs only when a person follows Jesus’ example and changes himself or herself. Believers under the old covenant did not yet have Jesus’ example and were therefore either all lost or saved in a different way than we, and Christ is not the only name given under heaven by which one can be saved. Remaining unexplained in the above theories is, above all, the connection Scripture forges between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.”
Application of the Doctrine
So why does this doctrine of objectivity matter? Of what practical meaning does this have, other than filling the dusty old tomes of academics? I submit to you that there are several key areas of immediate application.
- First, to know that Christ actually and objectively has satisfied the wrath of God on your behalf is an immensely freeing doctrine. For the poor believer who sits in your office shaking under the terrors of the law and some misplaced guilt, pastors can assure the believer that they have truly been forgiven and that the Father no more looks on them with disdain than He looks upon His own Son. We are truly set free from the reign of sin and condemnation when the Son sets us free (John 8:36).
- Second, the objectivity of the atonement guards against a faulty synergistic idea of salvation. That is, when we realize that Christ has actually done all the work, we remove the possibility of joining our own works in the mix. Justification cannot be merited in any way by us if Christ has objectively satisfied the law on our behalf.
- Finally, the objectivity of Christ’s atonement induces us to praise our Savior. Nothing is left for us to do but, by faith, raise open hands to accept the gift of our Savior’s sacrifice. He willingly, personally, and lovingly accepted the cross on our behalf; “Christ’s suffering and death were not his ‘lot’ but his deed.” Who can’t help but worship a groom that saves His bride in such a way?
In closing, read through this song by Augustus Toplady. I think it does a great job capturing the biblical understanding of the atonement:
Now Why This Fear?
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost Thou hast paid
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood?
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest!
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty;
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.
 Definition adapted from: Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 6th edition. (Banner of Truth, 1959), 373. Much of my discussion will be drawn from this work. There are many presuppositions behind this definition that this blog post will not allow me time to defend (e.g., the character of God, His holiness, the covenantal structure of redemption, the nature and role of the law). However, each of these is important and in some measure denied or ignored by many of the opponents of a penal substitutionary view of the atonement.
 Ibid. I am not denying the subjective (or “mystical”) union of Christ and the believer. Bavinck is helpful in describing the proper relationship between the objective and the subjective: “This mystical union between Christ and believers is an essential and indispensable constituent in the work of salvation. Yet it is not the only and the first relation that exists between Christ and his own. In Scripture this relation is built on the federal [i.e., covenantal] relation…When it is separated from that federal relation, it loses the foundation on which it has to rest, looks for support in pantheism, which changes re-creation into a process, and increasingly alters objective atonement into subjective redemption,” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, (Baker, 2006), 3.405).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.393.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.385.