How Atonement Works

Chris L: How do you believe atonement actually works? It’s the bedrock of Christianity but I still can’t wrap my mind around it. I can recite the basic explanation, but to me, it leaves a lot of questions. So many aspects seem assumed – sin separates us from God (which is how we love to explain ‘death’) but can be atoned for by a perfect person “dying” in our place who then ‘defeated’ death by having God bring Him back to life? It’s like we are talking a different language where no one knows why anything works the way it does.

Dave: You’ve asked a deep question to which we can only see the answer in part. I think you are asking why Christ’s blood sacrifice has the power to bring humanity into God’s perfection. I think Christ’s atonement works because of an eternal truth that maintains without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22). Why blood?  Because it contains the essence of life (Lev 17:11). Who knows, perhaps there are some laws of physics behind all this that we can never know while on earth in fleshly bodies. We must be ever mindful of how limited mankind’s science is. For every new discovery of what God has made, there are “ten” more questions we can now ask which we couldn’t ask before…and we won’t know those answers for some time. If and when we do answer them, there will always be more new questions to ask. So where does man’s science end? It’s as frustrating as the little kid who keeps asking “why” to every answer the dad comes up with. It just keeps going forever. We can always ask why did God set up the truths of life and ultimately we must admit our ignorance, but at least this revelation gives us enough to understand why Jesus had to give His life blood for us rather than simply living a perfect life and then disappear into the heavens. We must be careful not to get carried away with the never-ending scientific inquiry cycle because we can always learn more about the structure of life and the universe, but that does not mean we will come closer to our Creator (2 Timothy 3:7).


ML: I think all these questions are faith issues. I think it is really easy to see that atonement works. We hear the story of the drunkard or the heroin addict falling to his knees and crying out to God for His forgiveness and in an instant those chains are thrown off and in many cases that addiction is gone. A new life begins. Jesus paid the price for those sins, and only He can forgive and restore that person as He paid the price for those sins. That (person) is God, only He has the right due to being the perfect sacrifice who freely gave His life to reconcile us to God. It’s no different than believing the virgin birth, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lions den. It’s ultimately getting close enough to God that, even though you can’t explain it, you know that you know God is who He says He is. If there is one untruth in the Bible then it is all garbage. Would it be fair to say that when we say “it leaves a lot of questions” we could say I have a lot of doubts?  If that is the conclusion, it is not an intellectual question but a heart question.

Cindi L: Yes, we ever balance between knowledge that puffs up and love that edifies. My “end” to the knowledge I gain always challenges whether it leads me to fruit towards others (love). Same with revelation of attributes of God. I have always asked throughout childhood why would God set it up this way and have to die such a cruel death and shed blood this way…it always bothered me.  

Additional thoughts from Chris:

Chris L: I’m still left with lots of questions regarding the general atonement process. The comparative story about a man the switching of the clothes of a condemned prisoner in order to fake authorities into executing the innocent man was interesting and dynamically told, but not very clear to me. The authorities would just say ‘oh, we didn’t execute the right person.’ Why would the wrong person dying save the one condemned to death?  I’m often frustrated at hearing general principles told as if they are self-evident. Like “God is Just, therefore the penalty of sin is death, which is separation from God, but He can forgive sins if someone who lived a perfect life dies for everyone else, because this cancels out the sin-penalty of the entire world, but this sin-debt-cancelation is only available if you ‘believe’ it”.

I’m not trying to sound dismissive – but in the many, many sermons I’ve heard, at the heart of it, it’s not really explained that well to me and often gets broken down into some set of unexplained principles like the above. And then when I ask certain questions, they are just answered by reference to these principles. Why can’t God forgive sins without Jesus dying? Because He is just, which requires death…  How does Jesus dying save me? Because Jesus took the penalty by living a perfect life, which allows that sort of death to account for all the sin-death penalties in the world. Why can’t I die for someone else’s sin and save them? Cause I am not perfect.

The answers I get generally don’t go deeper than that. It doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘just’ in my understanding of justice for an innocent man’s death to wipe out everyone else’s penalty. If someone says ‘hey, I know that man just murdered someone, but don’t worry, I am innocent of that crime and I will die in his place’, society would say that’s crazy talk – the murderer is one the one at fault, not you, and his penalty is his penalty.

It also doesn’t strike me as logical that, having somehow taken the penalty, belief would be necessary to receive justification. If I pay your debt, you no longer have debt, period. You don’t have to believe anything – by this law you are debtless.  So, if we view sin as like a debt, it doesn’t seem just that someone can pay it, and it doesn’t make sense if someone could pay it, you’d have to accept it in order to have it paid.

Unless, of course, ‘those are the rules.’ Which is what it comes back to frequently. A lot of emotional stories about people sacrificing their lives for others as examples of what Christ did for us, lessons in how to draw a picture of salvation in five minutes (God on one side, me on the other, sin in between, and the cross bridging the gap), etc.

What frustrates me is not the principles, but the way they are often presented as self-evident.  Like ‘duh, it makes total and complete sense, can’t you realize that?’ when I am honestly very confused by it all.

And I’m not even sure all the disciples and apostles had it completely figured out.  They refer to the mystery of salvation, and it’s not like the mechanics of salvation are set out text-book style too clearly.  I know Romans is maybe pretty darn close, but even that isn’t super clear on all the questions and mechanics, at least to me.  And Paul still talks about it as a mystery at times.

Maybe I’m way off, but my concern is really not that these principles are false. It’s that there must be some really, really deep stuff going on, and to me, it cheapens it when some messages dismiss the complications. I think it might take the mystery out of the mystery. As weird as it sounds, I actually feel better with adding “and this part is an amazing mystery!” next to parts of the salvation story rather than a presentation that acts like it has it all figured out.

At the same time, I know God is asking me to seek out answers and be able to defend the faith with reason, so I shouldn’t be content with ‘it’s a mystery”…

Anyway, I’ll stop rambling. Thanks again! Your favorite nephew, Chris 

Dave: Thanks for elaborating your intellectual frustrations. Believe it or not, I share some of them.

You asked, “How does Jesus dying save me?” One flash my mind received as I read those words was…Because Jesus obeyed everything the Father told Him to do and because He was willing to go the the nth degree to demonstrate the Father’s love, if any soul would see or hear what happened and side with Jesus (believe He is the Savior), then that has the power to cancel all of God’s Wrath toward the sinner. It’s maybe like God saying to a newly saved person, “My boy! You did it! I produced the most dramatic, extreme example of love and you embraced it! Now I have more plans for you (in eternity). It’s like little Charlie winning the grand prize in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Unlike the other kids, Charlie loved Wonka and believed he was good and had the best for his kingdom, the Factory. When Charlie showed his faith by giving Wonka what Charlie thought was a candy bar that could put Wonka out of business if put in the wrong hands, Wonka knew that he found someone he could use. Scripture speaks of “ages to come” in Ephesians 2:7. Notice the plural on “age.” I view our lives as only Phase One. In order for God to advance to Phase 2, a weeding out of evil had to take place, and that’s what I think the purpose of the Lake of Fire actually is. Not a place of eternal torment, but of punishment based on what a soul knew and how much rejection of Truth was done. Then they go out of existence. It is called by Revelation the second death. So if they die after physical death, I don’t see much room for living eternally in hell. This is now getting way off your topic, but it follows logically.

I don’t think we humans can totally grasp what you want to grasp, but I do think you may have not considered that “wrath piece” and I think it may help you somewhat with your grappling. I can picture God melting with tears of joy when He considers Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. I actually do think that the first “question” God asks souls when they face Him is. “What did you do with My Son? You know I pulled out all the stops for you.” For many, that will be a big [gulp!]. Bottom  line, no one is worthy of heaven unless they have “kissed the Son” (look at Psalms 2:12 for revelation).

Your Affectionate Uncle,


Chris: – Good to hear I’m not going crazy 🙂 Thanks for the email! That is a neat explanation.  Sort of puts Heaven as a real beginning, not some sort of end-destination.  There must be something to that idea that God needs us to embrace Jesus – that sort of character that permits God to change us.  That feeds into a whole other interesting phenomenon too – the free will thing. Does God do everything or do we have a role to play? Sometimes I read the scriptures and feel that God needs us to believe both, even though they seem contradictory.  God does everything – He controls all things, everything – nothing is outside of His plan, design, control, predestination, etc. and any time we start to think that we can control things we stray dangerously close to pride and self-delusion. God saves us – we don’t save ourselves.  Yet, at the very same time, He tells us that we are supposed to do things, make changes, and that our choices have consequences.  We are supposed to believe, pray, do good works, use our ‘talents’ for good.  It feels contradictory. Explanations I’ve heard for either side rejecting the other feel shortchanged.  I’m trying to embrace the contradiction – realize the God does everything, I control nothing, and prevent my pride from thinking I “do” anything to “earn” salvation while simultaneously trying to do good, praying for His Kingdom to come, trying to be a positive influence, and recognizing that my choices really do effect eternity. Hard for me to do though, and then I can stray into almost apathy at times.

That idea about being someone God can use…I like it. Thanks!

Dave: Good, glad it helped. Yes, heaven is just the beginning to more ages and God has prepared much for each saved soul – 1 Cor 2:9 – but just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.”

About doing good and how much of a role does God play in our good works. First, Scripture says, “Cease striving and know that I am God” (Ps.46:10). I don’t think it’s a good idea to strive to be good. If our salvation was accomplished in the spirit, so then our good works should automatically follow a truly regenerated heart and be wrought by the spirit. Loving Him first in all things and loving others will keep us walking in the spirit so that we will not carry out the deeds of the flesh (Gal.5:16). In other words, let go and let God have His way with you daily, depending upon His Spirit to perform works through you…and give him the credit for it. Perhaps the only aspect that we do ourselves is to decide to allow His Spirit to take us over. John 15 definitely speaks about humans needing to depend on Him. We mature when we constantly bathe ourselves with the reality of life is not about us, it’s about Him.

In His Love,

Your affectionate Uncle


Dear Chris,

I’ve been further contemplating your question about why believing in Jesus’ sacrifice for own sin and His resurrection has the power or authority to make salvation happen. Lucifer’s pathway to sin was his allowance of pride to infect him. So God performs the extreme opposite of that via the Cross. When someone accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior by faith, they are admitting their lack of ability to save themselves, and that takes humility. Jesus did say unless one humbles themselves as a child they cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven. Because pride and humility are opposites, perhaps this truth causes faith in Jesus to contain the power to save.


  1. I like this web site so much, saved to bookmarks.

  2. dscheer

    November 4, 2018 at 12:32 am

    So glad you like it Cierra, Hope it helps. sorry it took me so long to reply. I need to click on “comments” more often!

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