Atonement for Sin

written with the help of Dr. Sam Storms

Have you ever self-injured to atone or "make up for" something bad that you've done? Somehow, even as Christians, we can get the notion that if we punish ourselves for our sins, we've properly paid for them. This idea, however, is completely unscriptural, and it obscures the more beautiful truth that Jesus has already made atonement for us.

Why is it wrong to think we can atone for our own sins? First of all, it is prideful. To think that a finite human being with mixed motives can do something that would appease an infinitely holy God is to think too much of ourselves. How can we, who are human, sufficiently satisfy God, who is divine? Furthermore, God has provided a way for atonement of our sins. What grounds do we have to deny the God-ordained means for atonement? God clearly tells us to trust only in Christ for salvation, and he says in Acts 4:12 that there is "no other name . . . by which we must be saved." (Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 10:28-29; Romans 7:24-25)

It is also absurd to think that we can atone for our own sins. Even though we are finite, sin is committed against an infinite Being (Psalm 51:4) and so takes on an infinite quality. As finite beings, we then cannot atone for sin with its infinite guilt. Moreover, both the Old Testament and the New Testament tell us that it is impossible for us to merit God's favor (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12).

Additionally, if we ourselves could atone for our sins in any way, what kind of a God would have sent Jesus to humble himself by becoming a man (see Philippians 2:6-8) and suffering as he did (see Isaiah 53:3-10)? If we could earn our own righteousness, only a cruel, sadistic God would have allowed—even caused (Isaiah 53:10)—the innocent Jesus' sufferings. It is only if we cannot save ourselves that Christ's suffering becomes an act of compassion rather than an act of brutality (Romans 5:6-8). The glorious truth here is that we cannot save ourselves, no matter what we do, and so we are free to let Jesus' sacrifice cover us with the righteousness that would otherwise be impossible for us to obtain.

What does this mean? Look at Hebrews 10:16-18:

16"This is the covenant I will make with them
   after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts
   and I will write them on their minds."
17Then he adds:
    "Their sins and lawless acts
       I will remember no more."
18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.

Verses 10:16-17 are a prophecy from Jeremiah about what it would be like when the Messiah came. As the writer of Hebrews shows in this and surrounding passages (10:5-14), Christ's coming and his sacrificial death have fulfilled this prophecy.1 Under the old covenant, the people had to make sacrifices every year as an annual reminder of sins (Hebrews 10:3). Now, however, Christ's death has taken away sins forever. If Jeremiah's prophecy has really been fulfilled—if our "sins and lawless acts" have been forgotten forever, and if God's laws have been written on our hearts "along with the will and power to carry them out"2—then there is no need for any more sacrifices. Why be annually reminded of sins if they have been forgiven and even erased from God's memory?

So if even the temple sacrifices, the sacrifices commanded by God himself in Leviticus and Numbers, are obsolete and therefore useless, what good would it be for a person to try to atone for sins by the forbidden "sacrifice" of self-injury? The beautiful and wonderful truth is that Christ's perfect sacrifice has made all other sacrifices obsolete, useless, and unnecessary. When you have sinned, throw yourself upon Christ. Ask for God's mercy, not because of anything you have done, not because of anything you have suffered as a result of your sin, but only because Jesus Christ died to save sinners. Then rest in the assurance that "he is able to save completely those who come to God through him" (Hebrews 7:25).

Perhaps these words from Jonathan Edwards summarize it best: "Though millions of sacrifices had been offered; yet nothing was done to purchase redemption before Christ's incarnation, so nothing was done after His resurrection to purchase redemption for men. Nor will there be anything more done to all eternity."3

Alleluia! Praise be to God!


  1. William L. Lane, "Hebrews 9-13." Word Biblical Commentary, David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), 269.
  2. F.F. Bruce, "The Epistle to the Hebrews," rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 247.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998).

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