The Bible and Atonement

Defining a key concept in God's plan to save His people.

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The doctrine of atonement is a key element in God's plan of salvation, which means "atonement" is a word people often encounter when studying God's Word, listening to a sermon, singing a hymn, and so on. However, it's possible to understand the general idea that atonement is part of our salvation without understanding the specifics of what atonement actually means in terms of our relationship with God.

One of the reasons people often feel confused about the concept of atonement is that the meaning of that word can shift slightly depending on whether you are talking about atonement in the Old Testament or atonement in the New Testament. Therefore, below you'll find a quick definition of atonement, along with a brief tour of how that definition plays out throughout God's Word.

The Definition

When we use the word "atone" in a secular sense, we are typically talking about making amends in the context of a relationship. If I do something to hurt my wife's feelings, for example, I may bring her flowers and chocolate in order to atone for my actions. In doing so, I am seeking to repair the damage that was done to our relationship.

There is a similar sense of meaning in the biblical definition of atonement. When we as human beings are corrupted by sin, we lose our connection with God. Sin cuts us off from God, because God is holy.

Because sin always damages our relationship with God, we need a way to repair that damage and restore that relationship. We need atonement. Before we can repair our relationship with God, however, we need a way to remove the sin that separated us from God in the first place.

Biblical atonement, then, is the removal of sin in order to restore the relationship between a person (or people) and God.

Atonement in the Old Testament

When we talk about forgiveness or the removal of sin in the Old Testament, we need to start with one word: sacrifice. The act of sacrificing an animal in obedience to God was the only method of removing the corruption of sin from among God's people.

God Himself explained why this was so in the Book of Leviticus:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
Leviticus 17:11

We know from the Scriptures that the wages of sin is death. The corruption of sin is what brought death into our world in the first place (see Genesis 3). Therefore, the presence of sin always leads to death. By setting up the sacrificial system, however, God allowed the death of animals to cover for the sins of human beings. By shedding the blood of an ox, goat, sheep, or pigeon, the Israelites were able to transfer the consequences of their sin (death) to the animal.

This concept was powerfully illustrated through a yearly ritual known as the Day of Atonement. As part of this ritual, the High Priest would select two goats from among the community. One of these goats would be slaughtered and sacrificed in order to make atonement for the peoples' sins. The other goat, however, served a symbolic purpose:

20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:20-22

The use of two goats was important for this ritual. The live goat offered a picture of the peoples' sins being carried out of the community -- it was a reminder of their need to have their sins taken away. The second goat was slaughtered in order to satisfy the penalty for those sins, which is death.

Once the sin had been removed from the community, the people were able to make amends in their relationship with God. This was atonement.

Atonement in the New Testament

You've probably noticed that followers of Jesus don't make ritual sacrifices today in order to atone for their sins. Things have changed because of Christ's death on the cross and resurrection.

However, it's important to remember that the basic principle of atonement has not changed. The wages of sin is still death, which means death and sacrifice are still necessary in order for us to atone for our sins. The writer of Hebrews made that clear in the New Testament:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Hebrews 9:22

The difference between atonement in the Old Testament and atonement in the New Testament centers on what is being sacrificed. Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty for sin once and for all -- His death covers all the sins of all the people who have ever lived.

In other words, the shedding of Jesus' blood is all that is necessary in order for us to make atonement for our sin:

12 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. 13 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. 14 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!
15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
Hebrews 9:12-15

Remember the biblical definition of atonement: the removal of sin in order to restore the relationship between people and God. By taking the punishment for our sin upon Himself, Jesus has opened the door for all people to make amends with God for their sin and once again enjoy a relationship with Him.

That is the promise of salvation according to God's Word.