WAS THE ATONEMENT COMPLETE OR NOT COMPLETE ON THE CROSS?
Written by Slawomir Gromadzki
The evangelical Churches furiously attack Adventist doctrine about Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary because they believe it denies the fact that the atonement was complete at the cross. To prove their point, they quote the following scripture:
“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:9 11).
Also even among Seventh-day Adventists, there are two groups that oppose each other with regard to the understanding of Christ’s atonement (reconciliation). Some of them claim the atonement was finished at the cross while others oppose this idea because they believe it contradicts the truth about Christ’s atoning work in the heavenly sanctuary which hasn’t finished yet.
This lack of unity has been also contributed by the fact that in both, the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, we can find two groups of statements that seem to contradict each other, as they state that the atonement was complete and at the same time suggest it wasn’t complete.
ELLEN WHITE QUOTES SUGGESTING THAT THE ATONEMENT WAS COMPLETED AT THE CROSS
“[Christ] planted the cross between heaven and earth, and when the Father beheld the sacrifice of His Son, He bowed before it in recognition of its perfection. ‘It is enough,’ He said. ‘The atonement is complete’” RH September 24, 1901, par. 11.
“Our great High Priest completed the sacrificial offering of Himself when He suffered without the gate. Then a perfect atonement was made for the sins of the people” 7BC 913.3.
“Christ’s sacrifice in behalf of man was full and complete. The condition of the atonement had been fulfilled. The work for which He had come to this world had been accomplished” AA 29.2.
“When Christ on the cross cried out, ‘It is finished,’ He addressed the Father. The agreement had been fully carried out. Now He declared, ‘Father, I have completed the work of redemption.’ ‘I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am’.” (John 17:24). Desire of Ages (498)
“The Lord would have His people sound in the faith—not ignorant of the great salvation so abundantly provided for them. They are not to look forward, thinking that at some future time, a great work is to be done for them; for the work is now complete” 1SM 394.3.
ELLEN WHITE QUOTES SUGGESTING THAT THE ATONEMENT WAS NOT COMPLETE AT THE CROSS
“Instead of … Daniel 8:14 referring to the purifying of the earth, it was now plain that it pointed to the closing work of our High Priest in heaven, the finishing of the atonement, and the preparing of the people to abide the day of His coming” (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 58).
“Jesus entered the most holy of the heavenly (sanctuary), at the end of the 2300 days of Daniel 8, in 1844, to make a final atonement for all who could be benefited by His mediation” (Early Writings, p. 253).
“Our Saviour is in the Sanctuary pleading in our behalf. He is our interceding High Priest, making an atoning sacrifice for us, pleading in our behalf the efficacy of His blood.” Fundamentals of Christian Education, 370.
“Today He [Christ] is making an atonement for us before the Father. ‘If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’” Manuscript 21, 1895.
“As in the typical service, there was a work of atonement at the close of the year, so before Christ’s work for the redemption of man is completed there is a work of atonement for the removal of sin from the Sanctuary. This is the service which began when the 2300 days ended.” Great Controversy, 421.
IS THERE A CONTRADICTION BETWEEN THESE TWO GROUPS OF STATEMENTS?
Well, the answer to the question lies in the fact that those two groups of statements appear as if they contradict each other only because they deal with different aspects of Christ’s atoning ministry. The word “atonement” (or reconciliation) in those two groups of statements refers to different aspects of salvation from sin.
In a similar way, the Word of God uses three different tenses (past, present and future) with regard to our salvation. It states that believers are already saved or were saved in the past tense, it says they are being now saved in the present continuous tense, and it also states they will be saved in the future. Does it prove the Bible contradicts itself? No, it only points to the fact that it refers to different aspects of salvation from sin.
We have been already saved (past tense) from punishment and condemnation of sin (justification) because we are in Christ and not under the law but under grace; We are being delivered from the power of sin (from sinning) now in the present continuous tense (which is our continuous process sanctification); And finally, in the future, we will be saved, delivered from the presence of sin (from our sinful nature and the indwelling law of sin and selfishness) at the second coming of Christ (glorification).
And it is exactly the same when we deal with the subject of atonement, which is synonymous with salvation from sin, and involves different aspects of the sin problem.
MEANING OF THE WORD “ATONEMENT”
SDA theology places a significantly broader definition on the word “atonement” than do other denominations. For most Christians, the word “atonement” means the work of Christ on the cross. For most Adventists, the word atonement means two things: the atonement of the cross, and the final atonement.
The atonement of the cross refers to the fact that at the cross “God was in Christ reconciling (atoning) the world to Himself” (2Cor 5:19). It means that at the cross God actually saved all sinners (the entire world) in Jesus from condemnation, and therefore, in this sense, the atonement was finished at the cross. That is why Lord Jesus cried out, “it is finished”.
However, this salvation (atonement) is not automatically enforced upon anyone, because it is a gift and as it is with any gift, in order to enjoy it and make this salvation effective, it must be accepted with true faith which makes such believer spiritually alive (born from the Spirit).
On the other hand, the atonement that was accomplished at the cross didn’t completely solve the problem of the power of sin and the believer’s slavery to sin, the still ongoing presence of the sinful nature (including the “law of sin”) in the believers.
The cross didn’t also solve the issue of responsibility for introducing sin in the perfect and holy universe and previously sinless planet Earth, and responsibility for leading born-again Christians to sin. It is the final atonement that is going to deal with these aspects of sin. And that is the very reason why both the Bible as well as Spirit of Prophecy (Ellen White) clearly suggest that the atonement in this sense is not complete yet.
The final atonement refers to the time when God will clean us and the entire universe from every aspect, effect and trace of sin, bringing the entire universe into perfect harmony as it was before sin appeared.
Since Jesus’ death on the cross did not bring the universe into perfect harmony we can say that in a sense the atonement is not complete, and therefore, the same Savior continues His atoning work now in the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary until it is finished in due time.
However, speaking of the atonement in the sense of salvation from the condemnation and punishment for sin (from eternal death) which brings the sinner assurance of salvation, it is perfect, fully complete, and nothing can be added to it. The only thing we can do is to make sure we are born from the Spirit (spiritually alive) by accepting Christ’s cross and righteousness as our only ticket to heaven by true faith, and according to the Bible, we also must maintain true faith till the end.
Therefore, since there are certain aspects of sin the atonement that our Savior accomplished at the cross didn’t deal with it is not a denial of the cross to teach that Jesus continues His work of atonement in heaven.