The Atonement and the Sanctuary

The Spirit of the Lord has given pointed warnings concerning the doctrine of the atonement.

“The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment should be clearly understood by the people of God. All need a knowledge for themselves of the position and work of their great High Priest. Otherwise it will be impossible for them to exercise the faith which is essential at this time or to occupy the position which God designs them to fill.” The Great Controversy, 488.

“Satan is striving continually to bring in fanciful suppositions in regard to the sanctuary, degrading the wonderful representations of God and the ministry of Christ for our salvation into something that suits the carnal mind. He removes its presiding power from the hearts of believers, and supplies its place with fantastic theories invented to make void the truths of the atonement, and destroy our confidence in the doctrines which we have held sacred since the third angel’s message was first given. Thus he would rob us of our faith in the very message that has made us a separate people, and has given character and power to our work.” Evangelism, 225.

These words are being fulfilled before our very eyes today. The word atonement is mentioned only once in the King James translation of the New Testament and reads: “Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:9–11). However, the word reconciliation or its derivative (translated from the same Greek word or its derivative) is found nine times, five of which are found in 2 Corinthians 5:18–20 and two in Romans 5:10. The other two (1 Corinthians 7:11 and Romans 11:15) do not pertain to the cross of Christ.

Speaking of the reconciliation, Paul says, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). Paul says God has reconciled us and the world and given to us the ministry of reconciliation to go forth as ambassadors, taking the word of reconciliation, which is a call to be reconciled. How can people who have been reconciled be called to be reconciled?

When we think of the atonement or reconciliation, we usually limit our understanding to the cross. Yet we are told that Jesus is ministering as our High Priest, not the sacrifice, to make reconciliation. “Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). This word is primarily different from the previous word in that it does not carry the connotation of being restored to divine favor, but denotes the mercy received through Christ as our “propitiation.”

“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14–16).

Although the word atonement is found only once in the New Testament, it is mentioned 80 times in the Old Testament (10 times in Exodus, 49 times in Leviticus, 17 times in Numbers, and once each in 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, and Nehemiah). Over half of these are found in the book of Leviticus and pertain to the sanctuary service. Therefore, to fully understand the atonement, we must also understand the biblical doctrine of the sanctuary. There is only one people in the whole wide world that even remotely understand this great Bible truth, and many of them have but clouded concepts of this glorious doctrine.

Most Christians have come to believe that the atonement is based solely upon the cross. But what good would the sacrifice of Jesus have been, if He had remained in the grave? You see, the atonement consists of much more than many are aware. “It was not alone His [Christ’s] betrayal in the garden or His agony upon the cross that constituted the atonement. The humiliation of which His poverty formed a part was included in His great sacrifice. The whole series of sorrows which compassed humanity Christ bore upon His divine soul.” “Ellen G. White Comments,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, 1103.

The atonement is as much an ongoing process as is salvation. Under the Levitical law, when the animal was sacrificed, was not the person forgiven? Was not an atonement made? Why then did the blood have to be taken into the sanctuary? Why was it necessary that there be a yearly “cleansing of the sanctuary” if a full and final atonement had already been made in the death of the sacrifice?

Notice what Scripture says: “And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with Him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:7–10).

If the death alone was sufficient, why did the blood have to be carried into the sanctuary? Why was an atonement made as much as a year after the sacrifice? Because it took more than the sacrifice. This is what Paul meant when he said, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain” and “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19).

On the surface the popular evangelical view of the atonement sounds so good, and thus we join in thought with the errors of evangelicalism and claim that it all happened 2000 years ago; that the atonement is finished, over, final, and complete. However, this presents a real problem, for where does that leave us? Where does it leave Jesus? Where is Jesus now? What is He doing? What are we to be doing? Why are we still here? Why hasn’t Jesus come back? These are questions that find no satisfactory answer if one holds the common view conveyed to Christianity through Catholicism.

We find the parallel to the ministry of Jesus, our high priest, in the heavenly sanctuary in the services of the earthly sanctuary. God gave the following instruction for the earthly high priest on the day of atonement. “And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:20–22).

While here on this earth Jesus was declared to be “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” and more than 700 years before His birth, the prophet Isaiah had declared that He was to be “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (John 1:29; Isaiah 53:7).

Beyond any doubt, the Son of the Living God became our Sacrifice to cleanse us from sin, for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But the good news of the Gospel of Christ is that He was more than just a Sacrifice. He did more than just die for us. He now lives for us as well. He burst forth from that tomb victorious and He declares: “I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore” (Revelation 1:18).

Death could not hold the Son of God, who is now “set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Hebrews 8:1). “Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Herein lies our hope, for there is but “one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6).

Jesus died as our Sacrifice, but more than this, He ascended to heaven to minister as our Intercessor, our Mediator in the heavenly sanctuary. There He began the first apartment phase of His ministry—that of the forgiveness of our sins through the merits of His own shed blood.

Without this ministry of Jesus where would we be? “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But praise God, Jesus is there, and “if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” and “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 2:1; 1:9).

This ministry of Jesus had its parallel in the daily ministry of the priests in the holy place of the earthly sanctuary and “For eighteen centuries this work of ministration continued in the first apartment of the sanctuary. The blood of Christ, pleaded in behalf of penitent believers, secured their pardon and acceptance with the Father, yet their sins still remained upon the books of record. As in the typical service there was a work of atonement at the close of the year, so before Christ’s work for the redemption of men is completed, there is a work of atonement for the removal of sin from the sanctuary. This is the service which began when the 2300 days ended. At that time, as foretold by Daniel the prophet, our High Priest entered the most holy, to perform the last division of his solemn work—to cleanse the sanctuary.

“As anciently the sins of the people were by faith placed upon the sin offering, and through its blood transferred, in figure, to the earthly sanctuary, so in the new covenant the sins of the repentant are by faith placed upon Christ and transferred, in fact, to the heavenly sanctuary. And as the typical cleansing of the earthly was accomplished by the removal of the sins by which it had been polluted, so the actual cleansing of the heavenly is to be accomplished by the removal, or blotting out, of the sins which are there recorded. But, before this can be accomplished, there must be an examination of the books of record to determine who, through repentance of sin and faith in Christ, are entitled to the benefits of His atonement. The cleansing of the sanctuary therefore involves a work of investigation—a work of judgment. This work must be performed prior to the coming of Christ to redeem His people; for when He comes, His reward is with Him to give to every man according to his works (Revelation 22:12).

“Thus those who followed in the light of the prophetic word saw that, instead of coming to the earth at the termination of the 2300 days in 1844, Christ then entered the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary to perform the closing work of atonement preparatory to His coming.” The Great Controversy, 421, 422.

This has always been the position of Seventh-day Adventists until recently. F. D. Nichol stated in his book Answers to Objections, 408: “We believe that Christ’s work of atonement was begun, rather than completed, at Calvary.”

The cleansing of the sanctuary was the last service to be completed in the yearly round of ministration. It was the closing work of the atonement, the removal of and putting away of the sins of the people, and it prefigured the work of our High Priest in heaven in the removal or blotting out of the sins of His people, which are registered in the heavenly records, as well as the removal of sin from their lives. The atonement is not over, regardless of what Babylon may say.

Notice what God says is to take place when it is over. “Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people” (Leviticus 23:27–30). The word here translated “cut off” means to kill or destroy. (See Exodus 4:24; Hosea 4:6; Daniel 9:26.)

“Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. … While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon earth. This work is more clearly presented in the messages of Revelation 14.

“When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ will be ready for His appearing. … Then the church which our Lord at His coming is to receive to Himself will be a ‘glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing’ (Ephesians 5:27).” The Great Controversy, 425.

The passionate pleas of the prophet should awaken in our hearts and minds a riveting realization of who we are and the tremendous importance of the fact that we are living in the day of atonement.

“Shall we forget our holy calling, brethren? Shall the mournful deterioration of piety be seen among us, that caused the rejection of the Jewish nation? Shall we who have had so great light upon Bible truth let a dry, dead formalism take the place of zeal and faith? … We must arouse and take in the situation. We are in the day of atonement, and we are to work in harmony with Christ’s work of cleansing the sanctuary from the sins of the people. Let no man who desires to be found with the wedding garment on, resist our Lord in His office work. As He is, so will His followers be in this world. We must now set before the people the work which by faith we see our great High-priest accomplishing in the heavenly sanctuary. Those who do not sympathize with Jesus in His work in the heavenly courts, who do not cleanse the soul temple of every defilement, but who engage in some enterprise not in harmony with this work, are joining with the enemy of God and man in leading minds away from the truth and work for this time.” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 21, 1890.

“Christ is in the heavenly sanctuary, and He is there to make an atonement for the people. He is there to present His wounded side and pierced hands to His Father. He is there to plead for His Church that is upon the earth. He is cleansing the sanctuary from the sins of the people. What is our work? It is our work to be in harmony with the work of Christ. By faith we are to work with Him, to be in union with Him.” Ibid., January 28, 1890.

If we accept the Evangelical position on the atonement, we must say there is no such thing as a cleansing of the sanctuary, the day of atonement, or an investigative judgment beginning in 1844. Yet the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy are very clear that we are today living in the great day of final atonement and investigative judgment. When this work of atonement in the heavenly sanctuary has been completed, Jesus will leave the heavenly sanctuary making the awesome pronouncement, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:11, 12), and return to this earth to receive His people.

“As the priest entered the most holy once a year to cleanse the earthly sanctuary, so Jesus entered the most holy of the heavenly, at the end of the 2300 days of Daniel 8, in 1844, to make a final atonement for all who could be benefitted by His mediation, and thus to cleanse the sanctuary.” Early Writings, 253.

“Now, while our great High Priest is making the atonement for us, we should seek to become perfect in Christ. Not even by a thought could our Saviour be brought to yield to the power of temptation. Satan finds in human hearts some point where he can gain a foothold; some sinful desire is cherished, by means of which his temptations assert their power. But Christ declared of Himself, ‘The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me’ (John 14:30). Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain the victory. He had kept His Father’s commandments, and there was no sin in Him that Satan could use to his advantage. This is the condition in which those must be found who shall stand in the time of trouble.

“It is in this life that we are to separate sin from us, through faith in the atoning blood of Christ.” The Great Controversy, 623.

Joe Gresham was raised in an agnostic, humanistic environment and first experienced the life-changing power of the love of God at age 27. His transformation from a life of crime and violence into an international speaker is a miracle of God’s grace. An ordained minister, evangelist, author, radio and TV speaker, Joe served on the staff of Andrews University as adjunct professor of religion.