I had pointed out that Deuteronomy 9:16-21 does not make reference to an atonement. Now, Nick has taken the position that “it turns out that the term ‘atonement’ is applied to this event,” citing Exodus 32:30.
The answer here is that Moses overestimated himself. Let’s examine the entire relevant passage:
Exodus 32:30-35Moses apparently offered himself as a victim to atone for the sins of the people, but whether that was what Moses was trying to offer or not, God rejected his offer and plagued the people because they made the calf.
30 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. 31 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. 32 Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.
33 And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. 34 Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. 35 And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.
Christ’s offer to substitute himself for the sins of his people is not refused by the Father. That’s one way in which Christ is much better than Moses.
Hebrews 3:3 For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house.
That would seem to answer Nick’s question, but again, Nick’s question also contains some faulty premises that need to be corrected.
Nick states: “Surely Christ’s ‘unjust sufferings’ were of infinitely more value than what Moses could provide.” There are a few things that should be noted:
(1) Yes, Christ’s sufferings were of more value than anything Moses could provide, because Christ did not deserve to suffer, but Moses did deserve to suffer, and because Christ was both God and man in two distinct natures and one person.
(2) Moses, to the extent that he saved the people in Deuteronomy 9, did not save them from hell: he saved them from immediate destruction. Thus, the nature of the salvation provided is quite different.
(3) Nick’s comment, though, seems to view the sufferings of Christ as the primary source of value, whereas it is by Christ’s death (sometimes called his “blood”) that we are saved.
Romans 3:25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
One can also this principle in the discussion, for example, of Tertullian (a discussion I almost included in responses to others of these questions):
Tertullian - Against Praxeas (Chapter 30)
You have Him exclaiming in the midst of His passion: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" Either, then, the Son suffered, being "forsaken" by the Father, and the Father consequently suffered nothing, inasmuch as He forsook the Son; or else, if it was the Father who suffered, then to what God was it that He addressed His cry? But this was the voice of flesh and soul, that is to say, of man— not of the Word and Spirit, that is to say, not of God; and it was uttered so as to prove the impassibility of God, who "forsook" His Son, so far as He handed over His human substance to the suffering of death. This verity the apostle also perceived, when he writes to this effect: "If the Father spared not His own Son." This did Isaiah before him likewise perceive, when he declared: "And the Lord has delivered Him up for our offences." In this manner He "forsook" Him, in not sparing Him; "forsook" Him, in delivering Him up. In all other respects the Father did not forsake the Son, for it was into His Father's hands that the Son commended His spirit. Indeed, after so commending it, He instantly died; and as the Spirit remained with the flesh, the flesh cannot undergo the full extent of death, i.e., in corruption and decay. For the Son, therefore, to die, amounted to His being forsaken by the Father. The Son, then, both dies and rises again, according to the Scriptures. It is the Son, too, who ascends to the heights of heaven, and also descends to the inner parts of the earth. "He sits at the Father's right hand" — not the Father at His own.As you can see, Tertullian rightly focuses on the “suffering of death” (i.e. dying). There is some interesting ways in which Tertullian also addresses the issue of Jesus being “forsaken” (see Answer to Question 4) and of the Trinitarian and Hypostatic relationships (see Answer to Question 5).
Thus, likewise Augustine – On the Creed:
"Patience of Job, end of the Lord." The patience of Job we know, and the end of the Lord we know. What end of the Lord? "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" They are the words of the Lord hanging on the cross. He did as it were leave Him for present felicity, not leave Him for eternal immortality. In this is "the end of the Lord." The Jews hold Him, the Jews insult, the Jews bind Him, crown Him with thorns, dishonor Him with spitting, scourge Him, overwhelm Him with revilings, hang Him upon the tree, pierce Him with a spear, last of all bury Him.So then, this humiliation up to and including Christ’s death was necessary for our atonement, though not for just any atonement.