HOUSMAIL No HM#113 -- WHAT DO YOU MEAN -- ATONEMENT?                                              22 Jan 2004

In the Bible, "Atonement" is a word which is used to describe what happens when sinners are reconciled to God through a process of repentance and forgiveness. Although some tender hearts have great difficulty with the concept of "blood sacrifice" of any kind, (and others make rather too much of it!) it is nevertheless true that in the Bible, forgiveness of sin, and payment of a "ransom" by a "blood sacrifice" are inextricably bound together. So also are the requirements for an appropriate heart's response to the conditional offer of forgiveness, with its non negotiable call to radical obedience, as taught by Jesus in His Gospel. (Good News)

It is unfortunate that what Jesus managed to say in just a few one line quotes, and Paul and Peter later "explained" in a handful of verses scattered over several epistles, has since been "expanded" by so called "scholars" into countless thousands of pages of conflicting theories about how it works. I simply cannot believe that one must read and sort out the tangle of all that complicated theological gobbledegook, in order to be "saved". It has to be much simpler that that.

It is interesting to note that the word «atonement» appears in the NT ONLY ONCE! Jesus Himself did not use the word at all, when preaching the Good News! Of course that does not mean that he said nothing about being reconciled to God! Nor does it mean that it is not in the Bible elsewhere. Nor does it mean that it is not important. But it does mean that Jesus thought He could preach the Gospel to "babes" (Matt 11:25; Luke 10:21) without using the word itself! (makes you think doesn't it!)

To understand what the Bible says about this subject, we should start with the meaning of the word itself.

Our English word AT-ONE-MENT, comes from OLD ENGLISH which means the state of being AT ONE. i.e. those so related, have a common cause. It is thus a fitting word to describe what Christ has achieved for us. If we accept its conditions we can be at one with God -- in heart, mind, and will!!

In the Old Testament, it is two Hebrew words (KAPHAR and KIPPUR) which mean "cover" or "covering".

KAPHAR refers more specifically to the personal blood sacrifices which were required from individual sinners, as part of the process by which they could be forgiven.

KIPPUR does have other uses, but the best known is a reference to a special annual Jewish religious festival, called the "Day of Atonement". (Yom Kippur) This was a feast ordained by God, when an annual blood sacrifice was offered by the High Priest, to "cover" the sins of the nation.

We don't have space here to discuss all of this in detail. However it might be helpful to consider briefly the personal blood sacrifices made by individuals, in order to receive forgiveness and pardon. Leviticus 1:1-4 tells us that the repentant sinner was required to bring an animal from his herd, lay his hand on its head and kill it before the LORD. It was then to be laid on the altar and consumed completely as a burnt offering.

It is not difficult to see the intended meaning. By laying his hand on its head, the sinner identified himself with the animal about to be slaughtered. He was offering the animal in place of himself. He was confronted with the reality of death! He was confessing that in truth, he was the one who should be dead, just like the animal he was offering. And instead, through accepting the death of the animal in his place, God was forgiving his sin and pardoning him from the penalty which would otherwise be his. Problem though! An animal life is NOT an equal exchange for a human! Solution? We read in Hebrews, that it all pointed forward to the reality of Jesus as the HUMAN fulfilment of the prophecy which lay behind the symbols in those OT ritual sacrifices.

In the New Testament «Atonement» is a Greek word (Katallage) which appears in the Greek text four times, but is translated as "atonement" only once. (Romans 5:11) On the other three occasions it is translated "reconciliation", (twice), and "reconciling", (once). According to Thayers Greek Lexicon, the basic meaning is "exchange". It has to do with the business of money changers, and the exchange of currencies to equivalent values in others. It is thus a fitting word to describe what happens when a sinner is "translated" from the "dominion of darkness" to the "Kingdom of Christ" through a change in inner spiritual nature. (Colossians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:21-24)

The common "Scholar's mistake" is to concentrate too much on the "mechanical" theory of HOW IT WORKS. However, reconciliation with God is a practical living relationship -- NOT mental assent to a technical theory. It's usefulness is to be measured by whether or not the desired results have been achieved in actual real life practice. Has God really come down from Heaven to make His home with us? (John 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18) The Good News is meant to teach us how to make that happen.

Atonement has the following specific goals:

1. It is God's response to the convicted and repentant sinner's heart's cry for forgiveness and reconciliation.

2. It is God's way of changing our heart's attitude towards Himself in order to establish a friendly personal relationship -- but it can do that only if we believe and respond to the commandments inherent in the Good News preached by Jesus.

3. It is God's doorway of entry to a life of discipleship, in which Jesus can prepare us to share His inheritance in the Kingdom which will be established on earth, in the "Age to Come".

4. It is the public confession that the sinner has broken God's law, and that a death penalty has been incurred.

5. It is God's provision for the sinner to be forgiven, and thereby be released from the overwhelming burden of a guilty conscience.

6. It is the public confession that what has happened to the sacrificial animal, offered in "blood sacrifice", is a demonstration of what should really happen to the sinner, if the sacrifice is not accepted.

7. It is the outward token and expression of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. (Psalm 51:17)

8. It is the means by which sin is forgiven, a pardon is granted, and the penalty is cancelled. (Note that all three of these are part of the "process". None of them can stand alone without the others)

9. It is the means by which God publicly expresses the justice of His past and continuing "forbearance", while the sinner is permitted to work out his probation for conditional immortality. (Romans 2:6-9; 3:23-25)


At its simplest "beginner's version" bottom line, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the meaning behind His use of the word «ransom» (Mark 10:45) can probably be condensed to THREE simple questions and answers.
Q1. Who was on the cross?
A. Jesus.
Q2. Who should have been on the cross?
A. If I got what my sins deserved, I should have been there on that cross! -- NOT Jesus.
     His death has been accepted as the price He paid to ransom me from that! (Mark 10:45; 1Peter 3:18)
Q3. What has it achieved?
A. At this point each of us must speak personally and honestly before God for ourselves.
     My heart has been broken, my spirit has become contrite, my sins have been forgiven, (Psalm 51:23)
     and I have been pardoned from the penalty I incurred for my sins. (Ezekiel 33:16)
     I have been spiritually "born again" as a child of God. (John 1:12;3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23)
     It has engaged my affections to love Him, and turned my heart to obedience. (John 14:15,19-24)
     THAT makes it possible for me to inherit the Kingdom of God.
The bottom line is that the Atonement is meant to reconcile us to God , and if we are truly Brethren, it is also supposed to reconcile us with each other -- sacrificially! (John 13:34)
Note that both of these are necessary! They are the TWO most important commandments of all! (Matt 22:36-39; Luke 10:25-28) You cannot have one without the other! (1 John 4:20-21) Our heart's attitude towards our brother, is a mirror of the quality of our love for God.
If it hasn't done THAT for us, we haven't understood it yet at all! And we certainly haven't believed it in a way which could save us from enslavement to our sins, and from the penalty which is reserved for unrepentant sinners at the final Judgement.

In John's Gospel, Jesus allows the WORLD the right to judge the quality of our Discipleship -- by that simple test. God is LOVE -- the presence of that sort of love in us is the evidence that God lives within the temple of our bodies. PRAISE GOD! The fulfilment of that Gospel promise lies at the very heart of all the rest of it!