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Question: I have several questions regarding the atonement:


  1. If Jesus died in place of our sins, literally took the punishment our sins required, why are we still required to die in the rite of baptism? Romans 6:6, 6:3-4, Galatians 2:20, John 3:3-7
  2. How does one death, even though it was exceptionally terrible one, and two days of being dead atone for the sins of every person who has lived, is living and ever will live?
  3. Why did Jesus have to be perfect to be the atonement?

I would be very grateful if you could enlighten me in my spiritual quandaries. Thank you.

Answer: In regards to your first question about death in the rite of baptism, we need to understand the greater point the Apostle Paul was trying to make in these verses. Let’s take Romans 6:3-4 as representative of the passages you referenced. In that passage, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Paul is speaking of a greater, spiritual truth that occurs when the rite of baptism is performed.

In Christianity, the sacraments (baptism and communion) are often referred to as signs and seals. A sign is something that points something else, and a seal is something that attests to the authenticity of something. So now we need to ask, to what does the sign of baptism point? Baptism points to the spiritual reality that occurs when a believer makes a true confession of faith and follows up that confession with Christian baptism; he is identifying himself with Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection. Through faith, it is as if we who profess faith in Christ were there on the cross with him, died with him, were buried with him and rose again with him.

The second question we need to ask is what does baptism seal? Baptism is the seal that marks the believer as a member of the covenant people of God. Through baptism, we are grafted into Christ, the true vine. So it’s best not to think of actually dying in the rite of baptism, but to see this sacrament as a sign and seal of greater, spiritual realities that mark our union with Christ and his church.

Regarding your second question on how Christ’s death could accomplish what it accomplished, we need to look beyond the particulars of Jesus’ physical death. We would all agree that death by crucifixion is not pleasant; in fact, it is quite painful once you factor in the flogging that usually preceded crucifixion. However, it’s not Christ’s physical death that saves us, but what that death signifies. The death of Christ serves as an atoning sacrifice because in that death, Christ was suffering the pains and torments of hell itself in place of his people. When Christ cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was bearing upon himself the full wrath of God in judgment for the sins of his people. It was Jesus’ act of being the sin bearer and taking upon himself the wrath of God that makes his death efficacious in atoning for all the sins of his people – past, present and future.

Regarding your third question, Jesus had to be perfect for the simple reason how could an imperfect sacrifice atone for the sins of God’s chosen people? This cuts to the heart of reason for the incarnation. Since all of our sin is ultimately sin against God himself (cf. Psalm 51:4), our sin places us in debt to God’s justice and holiness. A sin against an infinitely holy and just God will require an equally infinite punishment in return. No finite creature, such as man, can pay this debt. Moreover, since we’re all born in sin (cf. Psalm 51:5), and are sinners by nature (cf. Romans 3:23), there is no way that a human being can atone for his own sin, much less the sins of others.

This is precisely the reason why the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh. By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. By virtue of the virgin birth, Jesus was able to avoid the taint of original sin that comes by way of natural birth. As a sinless being, he fulfills the OT type of the “unblemished lamb” that was required in all of the sacrifices of the OT. Furthermore, as fully human, Jesus can stand in the gap between God and man and represent us as our atoning sacrifice for sin. As fully divine, Christ can make the infinite payment that mortal man cannot. Therefore, in every conceivable way, Jesus Christ provides what is necessary and sufficient to reconcile God and man.