Question: God sacrificed His only son, Jesus, to redeem us from sin. This seems to be a basic idea in Christianity, but I cannot understand its meaning. In a sacrifice, there is the one who sacrifices (the sacrificer), the one who is sacrificed (the offering), the one to whom the sacrifice is offered, and possibly a benefit sought from the one to whom the sacrifice is offered. For example, Abraham sacrificed a ram to God. But when God Himself was the sacrificer and Jesus was His offering, to whom can that sacrifice have been offered? It was offered to redeem us from sin, and surely it is God Who redeems us. Therefore God must have sacrificed Jesus to God! But that makes no sense to me.

Answer: What you have described is the glorious beauty of the orthodox Christian view of the atonement. I used the adjective "orthodox" ("right teaching") because there are various others views of the atonement that Christians hold that fall outside of orthodoxy.

The various views of the atonement of Christ are:

  • The Ransom Theory – One of the earliest views of the atonement. In this view, the atonement of Christ is seen as a ransom (cf. Mark 10:45). What was unclear in the early church was to whom this ransom was paid. Many believed the ransom was paid to Satan.
  • The Recapitulation Theory – This view originated with Irenaeus. In this view, Christ is seen as 'undoing' the wrong done by Adam in the Garden. Christ "recapitulates" (or "sums up") human life.
  • The Satisfaction Theory – This view was espoused by Anselm of Canterbury who taught that the atonement of Christ "satisfies" the offended honor of God. Rather than a 'ransom' paid to Satan, Christ is offered up to satisfy God on behalf of sinners.
  • The Penal-Substitution Theory – This the view of the Protestant Reformers. In this view, the atonement of Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of God's elect. Like Anselm, the atonement in this view is a sacrifice offered to God.
  • The Moral Example Theory – In this view, the atonement was simply to provide mankind with an example of moral behavior designed for the improvement of the species. There is, in this view, no concept of satisfaction or justice. The atonement was not directed toward God, but toward man to exhort him to a life of piety.
  • The Government Theory – In this view, the atonement was an example of God's great displeasure toward our sin. His displeasure toward our sin was so great that his Son died as the bearer of God's wrath. Note in this view, there is no concept of God's justice toward our sin debt being relieved.

The view of orthodoxy is the Penal-Substitution view of the atonement. All of the views leading up to this one (Ransom Theory, Recapitulation Theory and Satisfaction Theory) all build up to the Penal-Substitution theory; and as such, all have an air of truth to them. The two views subsequent to the orthodox view are aberrations that detract from the propitiatory nature (i.e., satisfaction of God's wrath against our sin) of the atonement.

So what you have in the Penal-Substitution view is the OT concept of the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16). The Day of Atonement was an annual observance for the people of Israel in which a sacrifice was made on behalf of God's people to God to atone for their collective sins. After going through very elaborate purification rituals, the high priest would be presented with two goats. The first goat would be killed and its blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat (the lid to the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of God's presence among the people). This would be the only time that year the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies. Once that ritual was complete, the high priest would then lay his hands on the remaining goat and confess the sins of the people. That goat (called the "scapegoat") would then be released into the wilderness — symbolizing the removal of the people's sins.

Now Jesus, our Great High Priest, is not only the one offering the sacrifice (as High Priest), but he is the sacrifice as well. The writer of Hebrews says this beautifully when he writes:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves bu by the means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)

If Christ is truly seen as the fulfillment of the law (cf. Matthew 5:17), then it would stand to reason that Christ is the fulfillment of the OT Day of Atonement. That sacrifice which was performed annually throughout the history of Israel is now obsolete thanks to the "once for all time" sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

I like how the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:

The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given to him. (WCF, 8.5)

This speaks directly to your question above: The sacrifice of Christ was the obedient act of Jesus to his Father in order to satisfy the righteous wrath of the Father for our sins.

It is interesting that you point to the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Recall that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice "his son, his only son, Isaac." As Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son's heart, an angel interrupts the ceremony; Abraham had passed the testing of his faith. In lieu of Isaac, God provides a ram who was caught in a nearby thicket. Did you catch that? God provided the ram for the sacrifice, not Abraham. Likewise, in the cross, God provides the sacrifice that his law demands.

Soli Deo Gloria!