Article of Faith #6 – “The Atonement”

Article of Faith #6 – The Atonement
Date: Sunday, July 11, 2004
Author: Rev. Jonathan K. Twitchell

Experts can’t agree if the following is a true story or if it should be written down next to the tale of George  Washington and the Cherry Tree.  While there is no concrete evidence of its truth, there is enough anecdotal evidence that the story has been in existence long enough to quite possibly be true.  Regardless, I submit to you the following story about Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

In the middle of the Great Depression, New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, strived to live with the people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with orphans. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter’s husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.  “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor.  “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.”  But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.  Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing  so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

I share this story primarily to illustrate the difference between two key terms: mercy and grace.

It is said that mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.”  Often, mercy is used to refer to not getting the punishment we deserve.  Children play that game called “mercy” when they try to bend each others’ hands over backwards.  The game is over when one child begs for “mercy,” asking the other child to stop.  Our story illustrates “mercy” in that Mayor LaGuardia paid the fine for the woman.  Justice was served, in that the fine was paid…but mercy also reigned—for the woman could not pay her fine herself, so LaGuardia paid it for her. Mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.”

Grace, on the other hand, is when we “get what we don’t deserve.”  While mercy is “Not getting the bad things that we deserve,” grace is about “getting the good things that we don’t deserve.”  The grace evidenced in the story was not the forgiveness of the debt, but the additional assessment of a $.50 cent fine on every member in the courtroom.  The grace was the $47.50 that this woman received.  $47.50 that she did not deserve.

As Christians, we understand mercy as being the forgiveness of sins, the removal of the punishment.  We deserve eternal death and separation from God – “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death.”  Mercy is the forgiveness of our sins, and the removal of the punishment.  On the other hand, grace (receiving what we don’t deserve) is the gift of new life, the gift of right relationship with God, the gift of eternal life in heaven—“the gift of God is eternal life in Christ  Jesus our Lord.”

And yet, there’s one more element that’s needed.  Justice must still be served.  We know that God is a just God.  Justice is not merely dismissed in the interest of grace or mercy.  Had Mayor LaGuardia simply forgiven the fine, then the shopkeeper would have received no compensation for the stolen loaf of bread.  And so, Mayor LaGuardia had mercy on the woman, not by forgiving her debt, but by paying for her debt.

Paul speaks of the justice of God in Romans chapter 3.  I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Romans, and you may wish to keep your Bibles open there for the remainder of our study.  Hear these words from Romans 3, beginning in verse 21.

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by  his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance  he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

May  God add His blessing to the reading of His Word.

We learn from this passage that God is a just God, and at the same time He is a merciful God.  God cannot contradict His own nature, and so could not sacrifice His Justice in favor of His Mercy, or sacrifice His Mercy in favor His Justice.  Therefore, we understand that God must be fully just and fully merciful.  And so, He made the only move that could be made to release us from bondage… He gave us His Son as an atonement for our sins.

And so, God did not simply have mercy upon us, He went ahead and paid the debt that we could not pay.  He did this through what we call “The Atonement.”  We continue our study on the Nazarene Articles of Faith, and today look at the sixth article of faith—the Atonement.  You’ll find this article and its supporting scripture references in the inside flap of your worship folder.

We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin, and that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, and that it is sufficient for every individual of Adam ’s race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of the irresponsible and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe.

I have to be honest with you, I think that this article seems to be full of some twenty-dollar words, so I think we’d better break down a couple of them for the sake of making sure that we’re all on the same page.

We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin,  This portion seems fairly straightforward.  We understand that Jesus (the Divine Son of God who took on human flesh) suffered, bled, and died for our sin.  To Atone for something is to make amends, or to reconcile. 

Last week, we learned that sin primarily violates the law of love.  In other words, Sin breaks relationship.  Because of our sin, we can’t be in right relationship with God…we can’t even approach the throne in an effort to make amends for our sin.  In fact, if it weren’t for God’s grace, we wouldn’t even be aware of our sins or the broken relationship between us and God.  And so, it becomes impossible for us to atone for our own sin.  Just like the woman who stole the bread, we can’t possibly offer an atonement that would be sufficient.  But “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  In so doing, Jesus provides reconciliation—the repairing of broken relationship.  

And so, we understand that the death of Jesus on the cross is the atonement for our sins.  We believe in a “Full Atonement” that is sufficient for all.  As we are created in the Image of God, we have the self-sovereignty to accept, neglect, or reject that Atonement and the Salvation which it provides.

We believe that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, for Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It is only through the Atonement—the death of Christ on the cross, that any of us have hope of a reconciled relationship with God.

Before we continue looking closely at the Article of Faith, there are two words which deserve explanation: “sufficient” and “efficacious.”  American Heritage defines “Sufficient” as “Being as much as is needed.”  Webster ’s adds in “Enough, ample, competent.”  “Efficacious” on the other hand is defined as “capable of producing the desired effect.”  Synonyms for “Efficacious” are “Effective, able, active, useful.”  There’s a very slight, but ever important, distinction between the two words.  Something can be sufficient (enough) without being efficacious (useful or active).

Perhaps we can best illustrate the difference like this.  Two weeks ago was the Pastors’ Conference in Boston .  I had agreed to ride with Pastor Jim to the conference.  Let’s say that it takes about ten gallons of gas to get to Boston and back.  Pastor Jim bought enough gas to get us there, the gas was sufficient.  However, since the starter in his car needed to be replaced, the gas was not efficacious in getting us to our destination.  And so, Pastor Jim had to borrow his sister’s car.  There was sufficient gas in the tank—enough gas, but the gas was not efficacious—effective, useful, active—to achieve the desired result.

The Full Atonement is the same thing— Christ ’s blood is enough for all.  It is sufficient.  Nothing else is needed to atone for our sins.  However, it is only efficacious—effective—when coupled with our faith.  Christ ’s blood is enough for the unrepentant sinner (no sin is too big to outlast Christ ’s blood), but it is only effective for salvation when coupled with repentance and belief.

Here is how we’ve worded that in our article of faith: and that it (the Atonement) is sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of the irresponsible and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe.

We see present in our doctrine of The Atonement all three elements: mercy, grace, and justice.  We receive mercy by the forgiveness of our sins.  We receive grace through the gift of new life.  Justice is still served, as the penalty for sin is still paid.  We see, even in the Atonement, a picture of God’s nature—Holy Love.  Motivated by His great love for His creation, He sought to forgive us.  Restrained by His Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice, He paid the price.  We were redeemed because we were bought back.

Paul clarifies it for us in Romans chapter 5, beginning in verse 6:

6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.   

9Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned– 13for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account  when there is no law. 14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.  17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man,   Jesus Christ.

 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will  be made righteous.

20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is the Good News of Jesus the Christ.     

Last week we learned that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam.  We spoke of the condition or state of original sin, and how that condition causes a tendency for us to commit actual or personal sin.  We spoke of how sin primarily violates the law of love, breaking relationship between us and God.  Disobedience entered the world through Adam… and through that disobedience came death.  But, the good news is that we don’t have to be in bondage to our sin.  We can be confident in God’s justice, mercy and grace…knowing that through the humble obedience of Jesus , we can have new life in Him.

We rejoice today, for we serve a Great God who loves us, who is constantly acting on our behalf, who seeks to redeem us, so that we might be His children, in right relationship with Him.


Benediction:   I Thess 5:23May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through  and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.