Something stirs our souls when we watch someone willingly die for another—it moves and breaks us simultaneously. Why? It’s because our souls were formed by a Creator who sacrificed himself for us. We may deny atonement with our heads, but our hearts can’t be fooled.
In a recent sermon, I preached on substitutionary atonement—the belief that Christ absorbed God’s wrath for sinners through his death on the cross. While eager to teach this precious truth, I knew many people today find it untenable and unpalatable.
Modern people balk at the bloodiness of the cross. Why would God kill his own Son? Some even label it “divine child abuse.” One author describes God as a “bratty violent murderer who . . . desperately needed his son’s blood in order to save all the rotten humans he accidentally created.” Some emphasize other atonement theories that deal less with sin and sacrifice (i.e., Christus Victor, or Christ as example). These theories have merit, revealing implications of Christ’s death, but too often they’re wielded to oppose substitutionary atonement, not supplement it.
In this environment of skepticism, how do we preach Christ crucified? The obvious answer is: preach the Word. “Let the lion loose,” Charles Spurgeon said. But alongside clear exegesis is one of the preacher’s sharpest tools: illustration. We explain the truth, in part, by painting word pictures. We want people to hear, but also to see. Along these lines, John Piper writes:
Experience and Scripture teach that the heart is most powerfully touched not when the mind is entertaining abstract ideas, but when it is filled with vivid images of amazing reality.
Illustrations carry doctrines down from the unreachable heavens into our hands, where we can examine them. Illustrations persuade, not through manipulation but demonstration. They make truth more visible, graspable, concrete. Hence Jesus, master teacher, used them constantly.
Illustrations of Everyday Atonement
As I preached on the atonement, I used four illustrations from everyday life:
Food demonstrates how everyone benefits from a form of atonement, whether they acknowledge it or not. Everything we eat—whether plant or animal—was once alive. It had to be plucked from the tree, pulled from the earth, or slaughtered in order to sustain you. Every meal is a testament to the fact that other things must die, if you are to live.