February 10, 2020

How Substitutionary Atonement Affects Ministry to the Poor

“Without the cross of Jesus Christ there is no gospel. There simply is no good news without the cross. Indeed, any attempt to preach the gospel, minus the cross, is to offer people a placebo rather than the very medicine they require.” (Alistair Begg)

There can be a misapprehension in some circles about how we minister effectively to the poor. I was at a conference once, and the discussion centred around handing out food and other necessities. My frustration was that this is often the apex of help given to the poor and needy, when what is needed is a much more comprehensive approach to this kind of ministry.


The poor need to be taught as part of our service to them. They need to hear the gospel, and when some respond (as they will) they need to be taught in order for them to grow, mature, and be allowed to move into positions of leadership. Of course, all doctrine and teaching is important, but here are some reasons why I believe teaching the doctrine of the atonement is vital to ministry among the poor.

1. It gets our foundation right in terms of understanding the human condition. We have offended our Holy God, and His wrath rests upon the guilty sinner. God must and will punish the guilty sinner, and His full wrath will be brought to bear. If He did not spare His own Son, then we have no justification whatsoever for thinking that there will be some sort of ‘get out clause’ at the end for the poor and destitute.

2. It helps us to understand the seriousness of the task at hand. We are preaching to people lost in sin and under the just condemnation of God. It is easy to forget that and make excuses, especially in places full of the ‘disadvantaged’. There’s no special dispensation for those of us who have had a crap life. We must take responsibility for our sins. What sinners need above all else is to be humbled by the gospel and not to have their self-esteem boosted by self-help nonsense.

3. It teaches our people proper theology and doctrine’. The popular Christian mantra that ‘Jesus loves you’, whilst a truism, is not the good news on its own. We need to explain how Jesus has loved us—He loved us to the point of death on the cross. His atoning sacrifice is how His love was made manifest. He died because of the seriousness of our sin. Wrath currently rests upon the sinner, and, in love, God has made a way possible to escape this. We must not confuse this, otherwise sin gets diluted along with the gospel.

4. It gives us a greater appreciation of the gospel. I was once accused by somebody of ‘always preaching Jesus in your sermons’. Whilst not meant as a compliment, I can tell you that I was well chuffed! As I said on that day—and as I always say to this kind of ‘criticism’—“I am afraid I have got nothing else to pull out of the bag.”

How can I not preach Christ in light of the atonement? Such great love and such a great cost at the expense of such a great sinner. What else am I supposed to talk about in my sermons? What else am I supposed to talk about in my life? The doctrine of the atonement drives us into the arms of God and causes us to marvel at His grace and glory.

5. It reminds us of the importance of solid, doctrinal, biblical preaching. This is the big pressure in our context. Time and again I am met with baffled looks in Christian circles when I explain that we operate a systematic, expository ministry on a Sunday in Niddrie. I can sometimes see people physically wince with disappointment. Give people what they want—that’s the undertone. Preach to the issues brother! Fine. The atonement is the issue! If people do not understand the cross and its necessity, then they understand nothing.

6. It keep us from preaching moralism. It’s easy for law to overtake grace in housing schemes. This is the silent killer here. People live such chaotic lives that it is easy to send them away with a ‘to do’ list rather than continually preach grace to them. It is easy for Christians to put their assurance for salvation in the things they do for Jesus rather than in the Son of God himself.

I woke up this morning confident of heaven. Not because I had a great devotional or because my prayers were on fire, but because Jesus died on the cross for my sin. He absorbed the wrath that was duly mine. He paid a price that I could not afford. He has been raised to the right hand of God the Father where he intercedes for me, even now. The atonement was His glorious, bloody idea from start to finish.

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11–14)

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