The Atonement, What Is It and Why Is It Important?

The serious student of the atonement is likely to be perplexed when he consults the Spirit of Prophecy to find two sets of apparently contradictory statements in regard to the atonement. He will find that when Christ “offered Himself on the cross, a perfect atonement was made for the sins of the people.” Signs of the Times, June 28, 1899. He will find that the Father bowed before the cross “in recognition of its perfection. ‘It is enough,’ He said, ‘the atonement is complete.’” Review and Herald, September 24, 1901.

But he will find this: “At the conclusion of the 2300 days, in 1844, Christ entered the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary, to perform the closing work of the atonement.” The Great Controversy, 422. We also read that tins will “stand on record in the sanctuary until the final atonement [in 1844.]” Patriarchs and Prophets, 357. [All emphasis supplied.] It is also stated that in “the final atonement the sins of the truly penitent are to be blotted from the records of heaven.” Ibid., 358. “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.” Early Writings, 253.

The first set of statements says that the atonement was made on the cross; the other says that the final atonement was made 1800 years later. I have found seven statements that the atonement was made on the cross; I have twenty-two statements that the final atonement was made in heaven. Though both of these figures are doubtless incomplete, it is evident that one cannot accept one set of statements and reject the other if they wish to arrive at truth. The question, therefore is, How can these statements be harmonized?

In the February issue of the Ministry, 1957, the statement appeared that “the sacrificial act of the cross (was) a complete, perfect, and final atonement.” This was a distinct contradiction to Mrs. White’s pronouncement that the final atonement began in 1844. I found that this was not a misprint but an official and approved statement. If we still hold the Spirit of Prophecy as having authority, we have two contradictory beliefs: the final atonement was made at the cross; the final atonement began in 1844.

Definition of Atonement

I have listened to several discussion of the meaning of the Hebrew word kaphar, which is the word used in the original for atonement, but have received little help. The best definition I have found is a short explanatory phrase in Patriarchs and Prophets, 358, which simply states that the atonement, “this great work of atonement, or blotting out of sins, was represented by the services of the Day of Atonement.”

This definition is in harmony with Leviticus 16:30 which says, “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” Atonement is here equated with being “clean from all your sins.” As sin was the cause of separation between God and man, the removing of sin would remove the separation between God and man.

The definition of atonement is consisting of three words—at-one-ment—is by some considered obsolete, but it nevertheless represents vital truth. Mrs. White thus uses it. Says she: “Unless they accept the atonement provided for them in the remedial sacrifice of Jesus Christ who is our Atonement, at-one-ment, with God.” In Heavenly Places, 146.

God’s plan is that in the “fullness of time He might gather together in one all things in Christ.” Ephesians 1:10. When this is done, “the family of heaven and the family of earth are one.” The Desire of Ages, 835. Then, “One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation.” The Great Controversy, 678. At least the atonement is complete.

Two Phases of the Atonement

Much confusion in regard to the atonement arises from a neglect to recognize the two divisions of the atonement. Note what is said of John the Baptist. “He did not distinguish clearly the two phases of Christ’s work, —as a suffering sacrifice and a conquering king.” The Desire of Ages, 136, 137. The book Questions on Doctrine makes the same mistake. It does not distinguish clearly; in fact, it does not distinguish at all; it does not seem to know of the two phases; hence the confusion.

The First Phase

The first phase of Christ’s atonement was of a suffering sacrifice. This began before the world was and included the incarnation, Christ’s life on earth, the temptation in the wilderness, Gethsemane, and Golgotha, and ended when God’s voice called Christ from the “stony prison house of death.” Isaiah 53 is a vivid picture of this.

Satan had overcome Adam in the Garden of Eden; and in a short time; nearly the whole world had come under his sway. At the time of Noah, there were only eight souls who entered the ark. Satan claimed to be prince of this world, and no one had challenged him.

But God did not recognize Satan’s claim to dominion; and when Christ came to earth, the Father “gave the world into the hands of the Son, that through His mediatorial work He may completely vindicate the holiness and the binding claims of every precept of the dine law.” Bible Echo, January, 1887. This was a challenge to Satan’s claim, and thus began in earnest the great controversy between Christ and Satan.

“The great work of redemption could be carried out only by the Redeemer taking the place of fallen Adam. With the sins of the world laid upon Him, He would go over the ground where Adam stumbled.” Review and Herald, February 24, 1874. “Jesus volunteered to meet the highest claims of the law.” Ibid., September 2, 1890. “By pledging His own life, Christ has made Himself responsible for every man and woman on the earth.” Ibid., February 27, 1900.

As Satan claimed ownership of the earth, it was necessary for Christ to overcome Satan before He could take possession of His kingdom. Satan knew this, and hence made an attempt to kill Christ as soon as He was born.

The first real encounter between Christ and Satan took place in the wilderness. After forty days of fasting, Christ was weak and emaciated, at death’s door. At this time, Satan made his attack. But Christ resisted, and Satan was compelled to retire defeated. But he did not give up. Throughout Christ’s ministry, Satan dogged His footsteps and made every moment a hard battle.


The climax of Christ’s struggle with Satan came in the garden of Gethsemane. Hitherto Christ had been upheld by the knowledge of the approval of the Father. But now He “was overpowered by the terrible fear that God was removing His presence from Him.” Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, 95. If God should forsake Him, could He still resist Satan and die rather than yield? “Three times His humanity shrank from the last, crowing sacrifice. . . . The fate of humanity trembled in the balance.” Ibid., 99. “As the Father’s presence was withdrawn, they saw Him sorrowful with a bitterness of sorrow exceeding that of the last great struggle with death.” The Desire of Ages, 759. “Having made the decision, He fell dying to the ground;” but with His last ounce of strength He murmured, “If this cup may not pass from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.” “A heavenly peace rested upon His bloodstained face. He had borne that which no human being could ever bear; He had tasted the sufferings of death for every man.” Ibid., 693, 694. In His death, He was victor.

When Christ said, “It is finished,” God responded, “’It is finished. The human race shall have another trial. The redemption price was paid,’ and Satan fell like lightning from heaven.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 12. 409.

“As the Father beheld the cross, he was satisfied. He said, ‘It is enough; the offering is complete.’” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5, 1137. It was necessary, however, that there should be given the world a stern manifestation of the wrath of God; so, “in the grave Christ was the captive of divine justice.” Signs of the Times, November 15, 1899. It must be abundantly attested that Christ’s death was real, so He must “remain in the grave the allotted period of time.” Review and Herald, April 26, 1898. When the time was expired, a messenger was sent to “relieve the Son of God from the debt for which He had become responsible, and for which he had made full atonement.” The youth’s Instructor, May 2, 1901.

“In the intercessory prayer of Jesus with His Father, He claimed that He had fulfilled the conditions which made it obligatory upon the Father to fulfill His part of the contract made in heaven, with regard to fallen man. He prayed: ‘I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.’ That is, He had wrought out a righteous character on earth as an example for men to follow.” Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, 260.a

The contract between the Father and the Son made in heaven included the following:

  • The Son was to work our a “righteous character on earth as an example for man to follow.”


  • Not only was Christ to work out such a character, but He was to demonstrate that man also could do this; and thus man would become “more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.”


  • If Christ thus could present man as a new creature in Christ Jesus, then God was to “receive repentant and obedient men, and would love them even as He loves His Son.” Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, 260; Isaiah 13:12; The Desire of Ages, 790.

Christ had “fulfilled one phase of His priesthood by dying on the cross for the fallen race. He is now fulfilling another phase by pleading before the Father the case of the repenting, believing sinner, presenting to God the offerings of His people.” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 929. “In His incarnation He had reached the prescribed limit as a sacrifice, but not as a Redeemer.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 12, 409. On Golgotha He was the victim, the sacrifice. That was as far as He could go as a sacrifice. But now His work as Redeemer began. “When Christ cried, ‘It is finished,’ God’s unseen hand rent the strong fabric composing the veil of the temple from top to bottom. The way into the Holiest of all was made manifest.” Ibid.

With the cross, the first phase of Christ’s work as the “suffering sacrifice” ended. He had gone the “prescribed limit” as a sacrifice. He had finished His work “thus far.” And now, with the Father’s approval of the sacrifice, He was empowered to be the Saviour of mankind. At the ensuing coronation forty days later, He was given all power in heaven and earth and officially installed as High Priest.

The Second Phase

“After His ascension, our Saviour began His work as our High Priest. . . . In harmony with the typical service, He began His ministration in the holy place; and at the termination of the prophetic days in 1844, . . . He entered the most holy to perform the last division of His solemn work, —to cleanse the sanctuary.” Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, 265, 266. On the same page, Sister White repeats, apparently for emphasis, “at the termination of the 2300 days in 1844, Christ then entered the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary, into the presence of God, to perform the closing work of atonement, preparatory to His coming.” The reader cannot fail to note how clearly and emphatically this is stated. John the Baptist “did not distinguish clearly the two phases of Christ’s work, —as a suffering sacrifice and a conquering king.” The Desire of Ages, 136. Our theologians are making the same mistake today—and are not inexcusable. They have light which John did not have.

In studying this part of the atonement, we are entering a field that is distinctly Adventist and in which we differ from all other denominations. This is our unique contribution to religion and theology, that which “has made us a separate people, and has given character and power to our work.” Counsels to Editors and Writers, 54. In the same place, she warns us against making “void the truths of the atonement, and destroying our confidence in the doctrines which we have held sacred since the Third Angel’s Message was first given.”

This is vital counsel and written for this very time when efforts are being made by some among us to have others believe that we are like the churches about us, an evangelical body and not a sect. Paul, in his day, had the same heresy to meet. He was accused of being a “pestilent fellow,” a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Acts 24:5. In his answer before Felix, Paul confessed that after the “way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of our fathers, believing all things are according to the law and which are written in the prophets.” Acts 24:14, R.V. In those days, men spoke sneeringly of the true church as a sect, as men do now. Paul was not disturbed by this. We have no record that he attempted to have the church of the living God recognized as an evangelical body by men who trampled the law of God in the dust. On the contrary, whatever they might call him and his “sect,” he confessed that he believed “all things which are written in the law and the prophets.” Verse. 14.

Source Material – Letters to the Churches, Letter No. 6, The Atonement, pages 71-85.