Why Did Christ Mention His Atonement So Rarely?

Fulness is more important that frequency. And so full are these references that Christ mentions every possible blessing connected with the atonement.

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.”

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.