It is a bold move to highlight a sentence by a famous theologian and to claim that this one statement summarizes what that theologian represents. Nevertheless, I have often said that Rousas J. Rushdoony made his greatest statement during an interview by the Fire on the Mountain newsletter in December of 1989, in which he said that the meaning of the atonement was that the law of God was violated by man. A portion of the interview follows:
The meaning of the atonement was that the law of God was violated by man. Man could not make restitution for what he did. Therefore Jesus Christ, very God of very God and very man of very man, had to make atonement. Only so could the law of God be satisfied. This means that God’s law was very important.
…Take away the atonement and its centrality and you take away the law of God and you take away the purpose of the law in society. You take away the backbone of society and you have a jellyfish culture. Which is what we have today. What we have is a vagueapprobation of the atonement — without any relationship as to what that means to a society.
We have to restore the meaning of the atonement to restore the meaning of the law in our society so that we can save our culture from becoming a jellyfish culture in which there are no standards, no backbones, and everything goes.
The meaning of the atonement was that the law of God was violated by man. Notice: Rushdoony does not glorify God’s law to the exclusion of Christ’s blood. Instead, he magnifies God’s law so that he can uphold the atonement. The cross proves that the law of God is sacred. True redemptive preaching must therefore focus upon the cross as a judicial transaction in which God’s righteous law is vindicated.
Sin is defined in the Bible as lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). If sin is desecrating God’s law, and if sinners are under condemnation because of their lawlessness, then God’s law is inviolable — “that which cannot be broken.”
Understanding the link between atonement and the law enables us to apply God’s law to our culture.
Preaching the Law in the Atonement
When I was first converted, my pastor was discussing Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 when he asked me: “Why didn’t Peter preach the gospel on the day of Pentecost?” At the time I had no answer. He seemed to think that if John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son....”) was not there, thenthe gospel was absent. Years later, I have a definitive answer for him.
My answer will magnify the judicial features of Peter’s sermon. Peter preached that the Jews betrayed Christ by their own “lawless hands” (Acts 2:23). The Greek word for “lawless” is anomos, meaning “without law.” So, the explanation for Christ’s death is linked to a violation of God’s law. Peter presupposes a violation of the Sixth Commandment when he makes the accusation that the Jews had “killed the Prince of life…” (Acts 3:15). They compounded their sin by requesting the release of a law-breaker (Barabbas) instead of Him who perfectly kept God’s law (Acts 3:14).
But how does their homicide relate to the gospel atonement? The 3,000 converts on the Day of Pentecost were convicted of Deicide (i.e., putting Christ to death). Their need for forgiveness stemmed from their law-breaking. For Christ to save them justly, He needed to carry the guilt of their lawlessness. As Paul said: Christ became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). This means that He became murder for us, yet without becoming a sinner Himself. The exaggerated language of the Puritan Thomas Brooks explains: “Christ was the greatest of sinners in terms of reputation and imputation.”
Translating the language of imputation into the language of law, we assert that Christ became blasphemy, murder, sacrilege, covetousness, etc., for us. In short, every infraction of God’s holy law committed by the 3,000 Pentecostal converts was fully atoned for. Christ became lawlessness for them (and for us!).
The words of the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian James Buchanan ties God’s law to Christ’s atonement. He wrote:
The law points the eye of the convinced sinner to the cross; but the cross throws in upon his conscience a flood of light which sheds a reflex luster on the law. We believe that the Gospel of Christ, and especially the doctrine of the cross of Christ, is the most powerful instrument for impressing the conscience of the sinner, and for turning his convictions into genuine contrition of heart. And this is because the Gospel, and especially the doctrine of the cross, contains in it the spirit and essence of the law; it recognizes and proceeds upon the moral principles of God’s government; and it affords a new and most impressive manifestation of the holiness of the Lawgiver, and the turpitude of sin…. (Emphasis added.)
Buchanan wrote again:
The cross — the cross of a crucified Savior — is the most powerful, the most impressive demonstration of sin, and righteousness, and judgment…. It is the law by which we obtain the knowledge of sin; but the law is magnified in the cross; and it is the law in the cross that carries home to every awakened conscience the most alarming convictions of guilt. (Emphasis added.)
The cross throws “reflex luster” upon the law so that the law is magnified in the cross (not apart from the cross). Christ’s atonement is a trumpet blast about the sanctity of desecrated law. As Rushdoony said: “The meaning of the atonement was that the law of God was violated by man.”
God’s Law and Society
Understanding the link between the atonement and the law enables us to avoid becoming a culture without a spiritual backbone. If God’s law was so important that Christ came to die in our place, then its message to every sphere of life must be unquestionably received. The easy yoke of God’s law legislates for the family, the Church, civil government, and every sphere of our existence, including art, economics, athletics, business, etc. If we remove or soft-pedal the cross, then we have abrogated “the law in the cross.” The result is a “jellyfish” culture in which “everything goes.”
The meaning of the atonement is not mush or sentiment. “The meaning of the atonement was that the law of God was violated by man.”
- Jim West
Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!