Why Did Christ Mention His Atonement So Rarely?

How many times did Christ mention his atonement?

So few times that heretics have often used this to argue against Christ’s death being an atoning sacrifice for sin. Christ did not believe this himself, they say; rather it was a later addition or perversion by the apostles.

In Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, George Smeaton takes on this dangerous error and begins by acknowledging that Christ refers to the atonement fewer times that we might wish. But he then offers an apologetic on this point.

Weigh rather than Count
First, although Christ did not refer to his atonement frequently, due to the amount and variety of information each one conveys about the atonement, his sayings should be weighed rather than counted. Fulness is more important that frequency. And so full are these references that Christ mentions every possible blessing connected with the atonement. What the Apostles do is not so much develop the doctrine of the atonement but apply it to the various problems and practices of the New Testament churches.

Obsolete Doctrine
Second, Smeaton argues that apart from a few such as John the Baptist, Simeon, and Zachariah, the idea of a suffering Messiah filling a priestly office had grown obselete among the Jews. Christ had therefore to take a backward step, as did John the Baptist, and teach the spirituality of the law:

They must learn their needs as sinners; acknowledge their defects; and have awakened in them a desire for pardon, before they could learn much of the nature of His vicarious death, or, indeed, be capable of receiving it.

Binding his Disciples
Third, he wanted to bind his hearers to him by establishing their faith in him as a divine person with a unique calling, before revealing the necessity and nature of his death. Christ still taught them about his atonement, though it was often incidental and indirect.

More than Revealed
Fourth, Smeaton allows the possibility that Christ may have spoken of his atonement more than is revealed and recorded in Scripture. For example, Christ said of  Mary’s anointing: “She did it for my burial” (Matt. 26:12). She seems to have been taught by him concerning his death and accepted his words.

Post Resurrection
Fifth, it was not until his atoning death was an accomplished fact, that Christ could teach them about his person and work with fulness and freedom, which is what he seems to have done frequently after his resurrection.

He spake copiously on that theme, to which they would not listen before; and He said much that is not recorded, when He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself, beginning at Moses and all the prophets (Luke 24:27)….His great design was to unfold the necessity, nature, and design of His vicarious death, and to open their understandings to understand the Scriptures; and we cannot but conclude, when we put all the hints together, that Jesus must then have said more to the disciples on the subject of His death for the remission of sins, than in all His previous communications addressed to them. The work was done, and it could now be fully understood

Having said all that, Smeaton still insists that Christ’s own testimony to the atonement provides “such a full and rounded outline of the atonement, as to leave almost no corner of the doctrine untouched.”

Previous Posts in this Series on the Atonement

Was Jesus ever ill?

The Most Sympathetic Man in the World

What did Christ believe about the atonement?

The Four Essentials of a Successful Atonement


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Reformation Women

This is a guest post by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, author of Reformation Women.


Reformation-Women-2

Most Christians are familiar with the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). But I wonder if the church today realizes the gift that it is. We can often feel like we are running our race, way down at the bottom of the huge stadium, and all the saints triumphant are way up in the stands, so distant that we can’t see their faces. And the race can be so hard that sometimes we can’t hear the cheers.

But the cloud of witnesses watching us are not spectators who show up in the hope that they get to see someone break a record. They are not there to be impressed or intimidate. They are there to encourage. It’s not like someone buying tickets to a professional sports event to enjoy the crowd and the hot dogs. It’s like a mother at the track meet cheering on a nervous daughter who is working hard. God gave us the cloud of witnesses partly because it helps to know that another Christian walked the same, hard road and made it safely to glory. It helps to have great grandmothers in the faith.

That is what I hope the figures in Reformation Women become for many Christians today. In a day when gender and identity are confused and confusing, these women bring us clarity. We tend to think of our own time—this era of church history—as unique in its problem of sorting out women’s roles. Different churches and denominations have different approaches—even for groups that are complementarian, there can be large differences and disagreements. But the church has dealt with this matter before: the Reformation was a period of huge social adjustment as Roman Catholic tradition dealing with women’s roles fell apart under a scriptural examination. Runaway nuns, female mystics, and powerful Roman Catholic queens revealed real issues confronting early Protestantism.

As the church developed a biblical understanding of womanhood, Protestant women lived out the full scope and power of that womanhood in Christian witness. Women educated themselves and their children. They wrote and published theological works. They rebuked heretics. They ruled. They directed armies, fighting wars to defend religious freedom for their Church. They understood their Bibles, creeds, and theology; critical Roman Catholics were often silenced by biblical examples and principles that gave these women a holy legitimacy.

A range of personalities, abilities, and positions give us a sample spectrum of what faithful, strong service to Christ and His Church looked like then. These same principles and examples are invaluable for helping women today bear fruit within the broad boundaries that God gives us in His Word.

But these women are not just examples; their lives are encouragements to us. Few 21st century women will ever lead an army or lecture in Latin. But our daily struggles are the struggles of women since Eve. It is hard to find a situation in today’s church that a believing woman did not have to deal with in the 1500’s. Sexual, physical, and spiritual abuse; abandonment; difficult marriage; infertility; dead babies; apostate children; poverty; church conflict; chronic illness; war; slander—someone went through it then, and went through it faithfully. We don’t face any temptations today that aren’t common to women through history (1 Cor. 10:13). When we see others’ lives, we can often see how God used suffering to sanctify them and build up the church. It give us perspective, models, and comfort.

This should be a huge encouragement for us. God gave us these women’s stories as part of our spiritual heritage. They weren’t perfect, but they were striving after the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). We can enjoy their stories and learn from them, knowing that they see us walk through many of the same things and cheer us on in faithfulness. Thank the Lord for giving us people whom we can follow as they followed Christ.

Buy Reformation Women by Rebecca VanDoodewaard here.


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The Four Essentials of a Successful Atonement

What are the key ingredients of any successful atonement for sin?

In Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement George Smeaton identifies four vital components, and proves that the Gospels set these forth.

1. They must be faultless sufferings, corresponding to the character of Him to whom the satisfaction required to be made;

2. They must be painful and ignominious to the last degree.

3. They must have an unlimited worth or value derived from the dignity of the sufferer.

4. They must accurately correspond to the declarations of God.

Smeaton then demonstrates how the Gospels were written to prove how Christ’s atonement met all four requirements

1. Christ’s faultless sufferings are proven by the declarations of innocence by Pilate, Pilate’s wife, Herod, and Judas.

2. The painful ignominy is established by the Gospels’ descriptions of all the indignities heaped upon Christ at his trial, and in the way the sentence was carried out.

3. The immeasurable dignity of the sufferer is confirmed by Christ’s priestly prayers and sacrifice, as well as the salvation of the thief on the cross. It is also seen in his royal flattening of his enemies in the garden, his protection of his disciples, and the centurion’s exclamation, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

4. Christ’s atoning death matches the Old Testament prophecies, as the Gospel writers repeatedly record.

Smeaton’s point here is to prove that it’s not just the Epistles that explain the atonement but that the Gospels do too, primarily by the historical facts that they narrate, more than by doctrinal discourse.

However, the Gospels don’t rely exclusively on historical narrative. The evangelists also record the sayings of Christ which express his own thoughts on his atoning death, and indicate the design, aim, and motive of his actions.

Smeaton says that these sayings supply “not only an objective outline of His work in its nature and results, but also a glimpse of the very heart of His activity…they disclose His inner thoughts, and convey the absolute truth upon the subject of the atonement.”

If, as Smeaton says, “[Christ's] work was fully and adequately known only to His own mind,” should we not pay particular attention to Christ’s doctrine of the atonement? That’s what Smeaton invites us to do in Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (buy at RHB or free ebook at Monergism).


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