Our sin is a problem. Our sin brought death. Our souls are dead, separated from God, from conception. Our bodies will die (unless Christ comes first). Unless our souls are given life before our bodies die, our souls will be eternally separated from God.
Consider what it means to be eternally separated from God. All that is good comes from God. Anything in our lives that brings joy, peace, and contentment comes from God. God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the lost and the saved. Now imagine what life would be if there was never any joy, peace, or contentment. Consider what life would be like if God withdrew all that is good from us. Then, imagine sorrow, conflict, and turmoil without end. That is our destiny in sin and death.
God, however, does not want us to be eternally separated from Him. We really can’t explain nor does God tell us in Scripture why God chose to do things as He did. We only know that sin separates us from God, that God does not want us to separated from Him, and that God came to us for us in Christ Jesus to provide the solution to our sin problem. God has given us many images, many terms, to help us understand what He did for us: redemption, propitiation, transformation, re-creation, reconciliation.
Redemption comes from the world of slavery. When someone bought a slave with the intent and purpose to give the slave freedom, the slave was redeemed. We are conceived slaves to sin and death. Jesus used His shed blood to buy us from our slavery to sin and death and to set us free from that slavery. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:22a-24 ESV).
Propitiation is a sacrificial system word. God is angry at sin. God demonstrated His wrath against our rebellion by condemning us to eternal separation. Death is what we earn with our sin. A propitiation is a sacrifice to appease wrath. Jesus offered Himself as the sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. Then, instead of demonstrating His wrath, God has mercy on us and gives us the righteousness of Christ through faith. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1, 2).
When God forgives us, He also changes us. He puts to death the old nature and brings to life a new nature. We are transformed. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Or we might say we are re-created. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17.)
Reconciliation is about the restoration of friendship. God was best friends with Adam and Eve in the Garden. When they sinned, they failed to trust that everything God had given them was enough. They listened to the devil and broke trust. The friendship was destroyed. But God wants to be our best friend, so through Jesus He reconciles us to Himself. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19).
We have given all these terms another label. We call what God did for us through Jesus Christ the vicarious or substitutionary atonement. We deserve death and condemnation. Jesus became our sin and died our death so that we could be redeemed, propitiated, transformed, re-created, reconciled. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).