The Theological Significance of the Atonement

Daniel H. King
The idea of atonement in the Bible has to do with the relationship between God and men. It assumes that a breach has occurred, i.e., sin has been committed, and something must be done to bring about a reconciliation. The word “atonement” itself signifies that which brings about a harmonious relationship between the two parties. Atonement is what makes the Creator and his creature able to get along once more, in spite of past acts of rebellion.

Terminology in the Original Languages
In the Hebrew Bible “atonement” is described by several terms. The word kaphar, which is used frequently in contexts having to do with this theological process, means “to cover,” “to wipe away,” “to expiate,” or “to placate.” It is used in general to describe the effect of the various sacrifices offered in the Old Testament (cf. Exod. 29:36; Lev. 4:20; 8:14; Num. 5:8; Ezek. 43:20). Sometimes translated “to make reconciliation” or “to reconcile,” the term is often closely allied with the word hata, which designates doing that by which an atonement is accomplished.

Likewise, in the Greek New Testament, several words describe this process. The various forms of hilaskomai, “to appease,” “to make reconciliation,” and “to atone for” provide one side of the formulation. Another term, katallasso, which means “to change, exchange,” “to restore to favor,” or “to reconcile,” provides the other. The former series of words sets forward the notion of appeasement, while the second emphasizes the idea of reconciliation.

Sacrifice as the Central Concept
The sacrifices of the Old Testament, of course, lay the groundwork for the New Testament concept of atonement. These offerings put before the mind of the reader several important truths: (1) That there exists a rupture in the relationship between man and his God; (2) That the divine judgment upon man as sinner is just; and, (3) That the sacrifices themselves constitute a provision for man’s forgiveness and reconciliation to God. In the New Testament these ideas are all assumed, and they are assumed to be correct.

The New Testament, however, adds the thought that the Old Testament sacrifices, given the nature of the sacrifices themselves (bulls and goats, etc.), did not possess the intrinsic value which made them capable of finally cleansing the human conscience from the defilement of sin and appeasing an offended deity. Therefore, according to New Testament thought, all the Old Testament sacrifices have their ultimate fulfillment in the death of Jesus Christ, who is the true Lamb of God (John 1:36) whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood (Rom. 3:23-26). It is his sacrifice which has obtained eternal redemption for the human race when he offered it to God as an atonement for human transgression (cf. Heb. 9:11).

Old Testament Atonement
No doubt the central event of the OT sacrificial system was the Day of Atonement. This grand occasion is described in several passages in the Law and one in the Prophets (cf. Exod. 30:10; Lev. 16; 23:26-32; 25:9; Num. 18; 29:7-11; and Ezek. 45:18). Leviticus 16, though, is the most important of the accounts that are given, since it includes detailed instructions which the Lord provided to Moses concerning the preparations and ceremonies of that important day. The Day of Atonement represented the highest exercise of the high priest’s mediatorial duties, and this is aptly illustrated by the description found in this account of the events of the day.

The high priest on that special day discarded his usual beautiful garments of office, and having bathed himself carefully, he donned an attire that was destitute of all its customary ornament. Instead, he put on a simple white garment symbolizing purity and becoming to one who was himself a sinner and fitting for a suppliant suing for forgiveness. He then performed three important high priestly acts, namely, the sacrifice and sprinkling of the blood of a single bullock, the killing of the goat of the sin offering and sprinkling of its blood, and the sending off of the scapegoat. These highly meaningful ceremonies were intended to cleanse the nation, the priesthood, and the sanctuary from sin. It is fair to conclude from the very fact of the Day of Atonement itself within the sacrificial ritual that in spite of all the daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices of Israel’s religious year, sin was not fully atoned for. Further, the offerings for sin throughout the year could not provide for or cover unknown (“secret”) sins. Yet by such transgressions the sanctuary, the land, and the people were all rendered unclean. Thus, the Day of Atonement was instituted for the annual accomplishment of a complete atonement for all sin (Lev. 16:33).

New Testament Atonement
The OT sacrifices in general and the Day of Atonement in particular provide the backdrop of the doctrine of atonement in the New Testament. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews draws heavily upon the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement for his interpretation of the death of Christ. To this author there is no possibility of forgiveness for sinful man without the shedding of the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:22). The entire OT sacrificial system is summed up in the work performed by Jesus as the high priest of the new covenant era (cf. Matt. 26:28; Heb. 12:28). The major distinction, however, between the OT and the New in terms of this atoning sacrifice, is the efficacy of the sacrifice itself. Several points are set forth in Hebrews chapters 7-10 which show how superior the sacrifice of Jesus is to those proffered under the old system. To begin with, the ritual of the Day of Atonement had to be carried out each year, whereas Christ entered once and for all into the true sanctuary to make intercession for humankind with his own blood. The new high priest has opened a new and living way to God, a way by which all whose hearts are purged from the guilt of sin may at all times have free access to the Father. Access to God is no longer granted to the high priest alone, who was himself a sinner, ever limited as to time and place and circumstance. Christ, on the other hand, having provided an atonement for sins by entering into heaven with his own blood, has reconciled man to God and provided for him an open door to God.

Although not so heavily dependent upon OT allusions to the Day of Atonement and the sacrificial system generally, the rest of the New Testament agrees perfectly with the Hebrew writer’s view of the atonement. Jesus said he came to give his life a “ransom” for many (Matt. 20:28). Paul says that Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to God by the cross (Eph. 2:16), and that he has made peace by the blood of his cross, reconciling man to God in the body of his flesh through death (Col. 1:20-22). He tells us that we are justified by the blood of Christ, for God has set forth Christ to be a propitiation (or expiation) through faith in his blood (Rom. 5:9; 3:25). Peter explains that Christ suffered for all, bearing our sins in his own body on the tree, and that by his stripes we are healed (1 Pet. 2:24). John says that he is worthy of praise who “loves us and loosed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5, 6).

Theological Issues Related To Atonement
One of the important theological questions which arises when we consider the biblical doctrine of atonement is the reason for it. What is the rationale for an atonement? What is the justification for its having been necessary in the first place, and why was it carried through in precisely the way that was chosen? The answers to these questions are found in Scripture and are given in a rather straightforward fashion, but the contemporary philosophical and cultural climate has led to difficulty in what are clearly rather simple theological matters.

From beginning to end, in both Old Testament and New, the origin and source of the notion of atonement lies with God. In both the legal and prophetic literature of the OT it is God who reveals the need and method of the sacrificial system. It is God who through Moses appointed the various rites and explained the benefits which they secured for the worshiper. Leviticus 16, the chapter which details the events of the Day of Atonement in the OT, begins with the words, “And the Lord spake unto Moses . . .” (v. 1), and continues with, “And the Lord said unto Moses . . .” (v. 2). At the end of the chapter, the author concludes thus: “And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And he did as the Lord commanded Moses” (v. 34). The New Testament likewise puts God at the helm in the process of atonement. As Paul says, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18, 19).

The Bible is also clear in its explanation of the provision of an atonement for his fallen children. The prophet Jeremiah best expresses the OT rationale: “The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3). In the NT John states it most profoundly: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The basis of the doctrine of atonement in the Bible is found in God’s inexplicable love for his people, in spite of their sinful ways: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9, 10). The love of God is not to be explained by any justification other than the fact that it is his nature to love (cf. 1 John 4:7, 8). As Paul Jewett wrote: “The Lord says that he set his love upon his people, not because they were greater in number than any other — for they were the fewest — but because he loved them (Deut. 7:6-7). That is, he loved them because he loved them; the reason for his love is hidden in himself . . .” So, nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38, 39).

Now, as to why God’s love should have taken the particular direction that it did, namely, sending Jesus to the cross to die a cruel death and then rise again, is a question which is more easily asked than answered. This issue has been resolved in the minds of Bible students through the years by the contemplation of several aspects of the scriptural revelation regarding the atonement, with different students placing emphasis upon particular texts and the special contribution which they offer for our understanding. Each theory which has arisen has therefore had something to commend it, even though if taken by itself it offers an incomplete view of the whole.

The Ransom Theory takes its inspiration from Matthew 20:28, where Jesus says: “The Son of man also came . . . to give his life a ransom for many.”  To ransom someone involves his redemption by purchasing his release through payment of a price. Some have theorized from this statement that Christ gave his life as payment to the devil to reclaim the human race. But it must be remembered that the text does not say that he gave his life a ransom to the devil, and that no other passage in the New Testament says anything of the kind. It is more likely that Jesus intends us to understand that the payment is to God, for man owes him perfect obedience, a debt which sinful man has never been capable of paying. The Bible intends us to appreciate the death of Christ as having paid that debt with his blood, while at the same time having destroyed the work of the devil (Heb. 2:14; Col. 2:15).

The Theory of Substitutionary Satisfaction, made popular by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th-12th century, sees the atonement as the method whereby God satisfies his own sense of divine justice through a substitutionary satisfaction. Since God is holy (Hab. 1:13) and demands satisfaction from his enemies (Nah. 1:2) for all their transgressions (Rom. 1:18), the death of Christ was the way he provided in keeping with his own just nature to forgive those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:24-26). Modern theologians have attacked the two basic premises of this theory: the idea of satisfaction, saying it is inimical to the fundamental insight that God is love, and the idea of vicarious suffering, arguing that it is unethical that one should die for the wrongs of another. In both cases, however, they find themselves at odds with Scripture. Both concepts are taught very plainly in the Bible, and their denial is tantamount to a denial of God’s own Word about the atonement!

The Moral Influence Theory was first introduced by Abelard in the 11th-12th century also. According to this view the death of Christ provides man with a beautiful picture of God’s love for the human family, leading him to repent of his sins and love God in return. As the Lord himself said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-17), and again, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). The drawing power of God’s love demonstrated at Calvary attracts men to God and stirs up in them the desire to love God in return and turn away from sin.

This latter view has become the only aspect of the idea of atonement which modern liberal theologians are willing to entertain. According to Schleiermacher the “moral uplift” brought about by this sort of “atonement” should create in the convert a new attitude toward life. It must be remembered, though, that liberal thought rejects outright the ideas of ransom and substitutionary suffering on the part of Christ. And, while we recognize the validity of those passages which clearly bring out moral influence in the redemptive process, still it is clear that there is equal legitimacy to those texts which teach the ransom doctrine as well as the vicarious substitution doctrine. In our view all three are genuine characteristics of the process and no one of them should be minimized as we talk about the atonement. However, if it might be said that precedence belongs to any one of them it would surely not be the moral influence aspect, and assuredly not to the neglect of the others as is the case in the approach taken by liberal theorists.

In sum, the Bible teaches that God sought to bring his erring children back into relationship with him through a process called “atonement.” He set the stage in the OT for the ultimate deliverance of his people by means of a system of sacrifices which was punctuated by the annual Israelite observance of the Day of Atonement which focused specifically upon the problem of sin and its solution. In the NT God sent his Son to be the chosen Lamb, the perfect sin-offering which accomplished three spiritual goals. First, he provided a ransom or redemption price, paying the debt that man could not afford. Second, he became the substitute victim who suffered vicariously on man’s behalf. He died that we might live. Third, he willingly and lovingly died in such a cruel and heart-rending fashion that he motivates the tender heart to repent and turn to God, loving him in return.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 1 p 20 January 2000