For many years the Protestant churches accused the Seventh-day Adventist Church of being a cult because they did not believe, as did the Protestants, that the atonement was completed at the cross. Adventists believe that the Day of Atonement began on October 22, 1844.
There were leading Adventist ministers in the 1950s who wanted to remove the cult status. These ministers talked to the evangelicals of the Martin-Barnhouse conferences in the middle ’50s saying that Adventists did believe that the atonement was finished at the cross and it is just the benefits of that sacrifice that are now being administered. The book, Questions on Doctrine, was written to prove this. I have personally heard Elder R. A. Anderson, one of the principle persons involved, explain explicitly and publicly the reason for this book—to lose the cult status.
The word atonement in inspired writings means more than one thing. It is used in at least two or three different ways, which is part of the reason for the controversy and has at least two meanings. The first is the sacrifice that was necessary, not only to forgive the sinner, but to take away or remove his sins. Ellen White uses the word atonement in that way in The Review and Herald, September 24, 1901. She wrote, “… when the Father beheld the sacrifice of His Son, He bowed before it in recognition of its perfection. ‘It is enough,’ He said. ‘The atonement is complete.’ ”
Atonement in that sentence is used in regard to the atonement sacrifice which was complete. The book of Hebrews is very clear that that sacrifice will never have to be made again. Under the old covenant many sacrifices were offered, but under the new covenant there was one atonement sacrifice for all.
In The Signs of the Times, June 28, 1899, it states: “When He offered Himself on the cross, a perfect atonement was made for the sins of the people.” It was perfect, complete and never need be repeated, throughout all eternal ages.
The second meaning of the word atonement is to cleanse or remove from a person, or a group of people, both the guilt and the power of sin. We call it the blotting out of sin that began when Jesus moved from the Holy Place to the Most Holy on October 22, 1844. Using the word atonement in that sense, Ellen White wrote in “Ellen G. White Comments,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 481: “Today He [Christ] is making an atonement for us before the Father.”
“We are now living in the great day of atonement.” The Great Controversy, 489. We have been living in the antitypical Day of Atonement since October 22, 1844, when the investigative judgment began. The investigative judgment and the atonement, or blotting out of sins, are two separate things. The atonement occurs at the end of the Day of Atonement when the sins will be blotted out. In the typical service, the high priest entered into the Most Holy Place, dipped his finger in the blood and sprinkled it seven times on the mercy seat which represented the blotting out of sin from God’s people. Then the high priest took those sins upon himself, went out, and confessed them over the head of the scapegoat, which was then separated from the children of God forever. (See Leviticus 16.)
Ellen White states in The Signs of the Times, March 14, 1878: “Those only who acknowledge the binding claim of the moral law can explain the nature of the atonement.”
We are told: “The whole world needs to be instructed in the oracles of God, to understand the object of the atonement, the at-one-ment, with God. The object of this atonement was that the divine law and government might be maintained.” The Signs of the Times, March 20, 1901.
Since the fall, Satan has attacked the law of God and His government. The atonement was to maintain the authority of the divine law and God’s government.
Let us review some descriptive words used throughout the Spirit of Prophecy concerning God’s law so we can better understand the atonement.
The law of God is eternal – it has no beginning and no ending. It did not begin at Mount Sinai as some of our Christian friends teach. It was in existence before the creation of the world and before the uprising in heaven that caused the expulsion of Satan and his angels. Nothing that has been created, neither angels nor man, can be eternal because all have had a beginning.
The law of God is immutable – Immutable means something that you cannot change. It is no longer a commonly used word.
“The law of God stands immutable, eternal as His throne.
“There is no such thing as weakening or strengthening the law of Jehovah. As it has always been, so it is. It cannot be repealed or changed in one principle. It is eternal, immutable as God Himself.” The Signs of the Times, March 20, 1901.
The law of God is imperishable – It can never pass away. “All the opposition cannot, for one moment, drag down that holy law. It is eternal, imperishable as the throne of God.” The Review and Herald, May 25, 1876. Any attempt to destroy the law is an attempt to destroy the throne of God.
God’s law is irrevocable – When a person makes out a revocable trust, he can change it anytime before he dies. An irrevocable trust means it cannot be changed and there are strict state laws governing it.
It is indestructible – No matter what you do, you can’t destroy it. “The law of God maintains its binding claims, notwithstanding the fact that men claim to have refuted every argument in its favor. The truth still lives; the light still shines; it cannot be put out. In the Dark Ages the Bible was set aside; it was burned. Men tried to banish it from the earth; but how signally they failed! The law of God may be ignored, despised, rejected, trampled upon, but it is still the great standard of righteousness, immutable and indestructible. It is eternal.” The Review and Herald, May 28, 1901.
“… these rejecters of truth cannot always remain deaf to the claims of God’s law, for it is eternal and irrevocable.” The Review and Herald, May 18, 1897. It is the standard of righteousness.
The law of God is complete – “The law of Jehovah was always holy, just, and good, and complete in itself.” The Signs of the Times, March 20, 1901.
The law of God is perfect – See Psalm 19. “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (verse 9 KJV).
God’s law is the foundation of His government – “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face” (Psalm 89:14).
God’s law is the standard of righteousness – David said, “All Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172).
When a person understands the principles and holiness of the law, he will be prepared intellectually to begin to understand something about the atonement sacrifice that was required to save people who had broken that law.
We have previously covered the purpose of the atonement. The object of the atonement was to preserve the divine law and the divine government. Here we will see the only way that an atonement could be provided.
Remember this law is eternal and is as sacred as God Himself. There has never been a time when it didn’t exist. The only one able to make an atonement for such a law that had been broken would be somebody who was sinless and perfectly spotless.
“Christ could not have done this work had He not been personally spotless. Only One who was Himself perfection could be at once the sin bearer and the sin pardoner. … from the time that He was born an infant in Bethlehem till He hung on the cross of Calvary, and cried in a voice that shook the universe, ‘It is finished,’ the Saviour was pure and spotless.” “Ellen G. White Comments,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 461.
When Jesus went to the cross, He did not have one murmuring thought. The people conducting the trial, the torture and the crucifixion of Jesus were all stirred up by the devil.
Throughout His life, Jesus had never lost patience once while the devil kept trying to defeat the plan of salvation, right up until the time He died. While hanging on the cross some called out to Him, “If you are the Son of God, come down now.” It was within His power that He could, but had He done that, it would have broken up the plan of salvation. It was the same in the wilderness of temptation when Jesus had fasted for 40 days. If the devil had succeeded to get Him to throw Himself down from the temple, the plan of salvation would have been over and we would be eternally lost.
From the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem until He died on the cross, He was perfectly sinless and spotless, otherwise His sacrifice would not have atoned for our sins. You see, the law of God is perfect. To atone for a law like that takes a perfect person.
Only One who was of superior value to Adam as he existed in paradise could make an atonement for a broken law like this.
Only One who was divine could make an atonement for this broken law. “God himself became man, and bore all the wrath that sin had provoked. This problem, How could God be just and yet the justifier of sinners? baffled all finite intelligence.” The Youth’s Instructor, August 31, 1887.
Nobody in the universe other than the Godhead could answer that question. How could God be just and also justify the sinner? “A divine person alone could mediate between God and man.” Ibid. The arch-angel of heaven could not do it. Only a divine person, One who possessed the before-mentioned qualifications could do it. Jesus volunteered to be that One.
Let’s just think that through for a moment. It would not be just for an innocent person to pay the price of the guilty if he was forced to do it. That wouldn’t be just and there would be no atonement in that. The only way there could be any atonement was if Jesus Christ volunteered to do it. He was not pushed into doing it. He was not pressed into doing it. He willingly offered Himself.
Ellen White talks about the red heifer, which symbolized Christ and was to be an animal upon whom had never been a yoke. Ellen White explains it this way: “It must be without spot or blemish, and one that had never borne a yoke. Here, again, Christ was typified. The Son of God came voluntarily to accomplish the work of atonement. There was no obligatory yoke upon Him, for He was independent and above all law.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 120.
Only One who was equal with God could do this. “The broken law of God demanded the life of the sinner. In all the universe there was but One who could, in behalf of man, satisfy its claims. Since the divine law is as sacred as God Himself, only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression.” The Signs of the Times, November 4, 1908.
Only Jesus Christ is equal with God. He is the only Person who could make an atonement. Just before He was crucified Jesus said to His disciples, “No man comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6, literal translation).
Jesus said, “nor does anyone know the Father except the Son” (Matthew 11:27, last part). He told the Jews that if they knew the Father they would know Him whom the Father had sent. All who claim to worship God that do not know His Son are worshiping another God.
Only the One who had created man could make atonement for him. Only the One who was independent and above all law could make atonement for man. Only One who had divine perfection of character could make atonement for man.
To come to the realization that a Being like that would stoop to such a depth to save a wretch such as I makes one feel like a worm. But that is how much God loves us. He withheld nothing, even His only beloved Son, so man could be saved out of his wretchedness.
We often talk of looking forward to heaven to be reunited with our loved ones who have passed, but the main reason to be in heaven is to be with Jesus, the One who made all of this possible by His sacrificial love and concern over His lost creation and tell Him how we appreciate what He has done for us.
Throughout eternity the saints will marvel at the love and sacrifice of our Saviour. The love of Christ, the apostle Paul said, is beyond knowledge. There is nobody who can explain it, for it is beyond anything that can be explained. But once you have experience it, you will want nothing else.
After the apostle Paul experienced it, he didn’t want anything else. He said that he had lost everything else because of it and counted that rubbish in comparison to the love of Christ. If he could just know Jesus, that was enough.
When I started studying about the atonement, I was so aghast. I said, Lord, I cannot comprehend this. We do not understand how great Jesus is. If we did, we would be so astonished at the plan of salvation that we would walk in awe the rest of our lives.
The Christian religion is true. The evidence is overwhelming. It is historical. It is a fact. One day soon we are going to face our Creator. The goal of my life is just to be ready for that day. I pray that the Lord will help us to understand the plan of salvation, in a practical way, and to realize that it was done for each one of us individually.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.