What does atonement mean? How does this impact the life of the believer? Surprisingly this is an incredibly complex issue with different theories. How does one man’s death solve everything? Because of its complexity, it would be impossible to do justice to this topic in limited space. In this article, I hope to touch on biblical words like atonement, ransom, and propitiation. But I do want to touch briefly on what this word means: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The English word atonement comes from Saxon atonen, a contraction of at and one. It literally means to take actions to set things in harmony, or at one. So, two parties have a grievance that comes between them, and one party sets about to cover for that breach. But the Hebrew connotation of atonement is more than about reconciling two hostile parties.
Perhaps the best modern word equivalent is “to cover.” While it might seem something archaic to modern world, we atone (or cover) for our friends all the time. Let us say that a friend and I went out for lunch. After an enjoyable time, we reach to pay but my friend has left his wallet. Suddenly my friend is in a crisis: what do I do as a friend? Well, the only natural thing is to cover for him. That is literally what atonement means in Hebrew: God covers our sin debt with blood.
And in Hebrew to atone for someone meant also that you felt indebted to that person. It would be incredibly rude if that same friend kept misplacing his wallet every time we went out for lunch! Biblical atonement is about covering for sins, but at the expense of an animal’s life: you were supposed to incur the penalty, but the animal was substituted for you. When you think of the gravity of an animal dying for your failure, it ought to prompt you to think twice about leaving your wallet!
So, there were two rituals used for atonement. The first was animal sacrifice where the animal dies as a substitution for your failure. The second atonement is to cover relational vandalism: the land gets polluted, the earth becomes defiled, and it makes it uninhabitable. So, the priest would take blood from the animal and would sprinkle roughly the blood to remove the relational vandalism around the Tabernacle. Blood represents life, and the sprinkling of blood is a representation of how God is cleaning away the indirect consequences of moral failures in our communities. This can be seen throughout Leviticus, but especially Leviticus chapters 4-5, and chapters 14-16.
Ransom and Propitiation
Jesus came as a sacrifice for atonement. Referring to himself, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). The word ransom in Hebrew refers to the price of atonement. Typically, when we use the word “ransom” we refer to the money paid to a hostile person to satisfy demands. But that is not how this word is used in Jesus’ day. If you were to study how the Bible uses the word ransom in the Old Testament, it is associated with ransoms of atonement. The emphasis of ransom was not on the person receiving payment, but that restitution was made. Jesus was not paying anyone the purchase of freedom (Satan or God). Rather he was satisfying the debt that brought relational strain between two hostile parties. Thus Jesus refers to himself as an atonement offering for sin. Even Paul would reflect on Jesus as one “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). This is in connection about how Jesus has satisfied the relational strain between the divine and mundane. He became the ransom for our sin debt, alleviating the relational strain.
Another word used besides ransom for atonement is the word propitiation. Jesus was put forth “as a propitiation” by his blood (Romans 3:25). That is, because of what Jesus did, Jesus’ blood propitiates the relational strain between the divine and mundane. Unfortunately, some Greek philosophy spills over when some talk about propitiate. The word propitiate does not mean that Jesus appeased the wrath of a volatile deity (although the wrath of God was satisfied), incurring the wrath that others deserved. Rather propitiate is talking about relieving relational strain. The only other time this word form is used is in Hebrews 9:5 where it is translated as the “mercy seat.” The mercy seat is where the blood of a vicarious lamb was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement to bring about relational harmony. Yes, Jesus is the propitiation of our sins (1 John 2:2), and for the sins of the whole world! He brings relational harmony as our propitiating substitution.
Love Covers a Multitude of Sins
When Jesus died as our covering, he is not covering the debt for a reluctant, angry God so that an innocent man incurs the divine penalty for all the guilty people. The problem with this view of substitution is this: how does one man’s death, even if it is the Son of God, pay back all the sins of the entire world? Think about that for a moment: take the horrors of the Holocaust. Is one man’s death fair payment? And if a judge sentences an innocent man to die for a guilty man, that would be perverted justice. God does not make things right by doing something wrong. I do not deny the atonement was penal or that it was a substitution: that is God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. But one man dying is not a fair payment to alleviate the horrors of humanity. The emphasis is not on how much an angry God metes out his justice, but on how God so loved the world that he feels his justice is satisfied.
So how did early Christians view the atonement? Can humanity be saved by committing another crime: killing the Son of God? The early Christians used one word to talk about how they viewed atonement: love. In the most famous passage of the Bible, John introduces Jesus as an atonement, “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son” (John 3:16). This is not some random trivia. Atonement is not about payment or punishment. It is about knowing love, about how he laid his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for each other (1 John 3:16; 1 John 4:7-8; John 10:17). He atoned for us in love, we ought to atone for our brothers in love. “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) Again, atonement means “to cover.” And Jesus’ love covers our multitudes of sins. This is not licensing grace to sin but speaks of the volumes of God’s love.
The cross is not a trick or a payment. It is the ultimate expression of God’s love towards a violent and broken world. Love is the key and the cross is where the wrath of God is satisfied. Because God so loved the world, he can look at Jesus and he can graciously cancel our sin debt. Let me close out by saying that there are several different views of atonement and none without its critics. But the bottom line is that Jesus’ atonement prompts us to love God and love our neighbor “for love covers a multitude of sins.”