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ATONEMENT (ă-tōn'mĕnt). The root meaning in English, “reparation,” leads to the secondary meaning of reconciliation, or “at-one-ment,” the bringing together into harmony of those who have been separated, enemies. This double meaning brings a basic biblical concept into focus. But at the same time it leaves unanswered the really crucial questions: What has caused the separation? What has brought about peace? How has it been accomplished?

The ritual of the Day of Atonement should be studied, and in particular the part played by the two goats (Lev.16.15-Lev.16.17, Lev.16.20-Lev.16.22). The Lord wanted his people to know the significance of what had happened in secret when the high priest sprinkled the blood on the “atonement cover” (Heb. kappōreth). Therefore he commanded the ceremony of the live goat so that they might actually see their sins being laid on another and see their sins being borne away never to return again. See also Day of Atonement; Laying on of Hands.

In Christian theology, atonement is the central doctrine of faith and can properly include all that Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. It was a vicarious (substitutionary) atonement. On the Day of Atonement, the goat that was substituted was in some sense not as valuable as a person, though the goat had never sinned; but God in his matchless grace provided a Substitute who was infinitely better than the sinner, absolutely sinless and holy, and dearer to the Father than all creation. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom.6.23) and “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor.5.21).

Bibliography: L. Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement Through Christ, 1936; B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, 1950; J. Denney, The Death of Christ, 1951; Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 1955; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, 1962; I. H. Marshall, The Work of Christ, 1968; R. S. Wallace, The Atoning Death of Christ, 1981.

This is one of the few theological terms of Anglo-Saxon origin. It means “at-one-ment” and signifies the process of making God and man one after the tragedy of man's sin had separated them (Isa. 59:2) and made them enemies (Col. 1:21). The NT has much to say about the way Christ's death brings them together, and in the literal sense the Atonement is the crucial doctrine of Christianity.

The Christian Church has never accepted any one way of viewing the Atonement as the orthodox way. There is no doctrine of the Atonement equivalent to the two-natures doctrine in Christology, for example. The result is that there are many ways in which Christians have answered the question, “How does the death of Christ long ago and so far away save me here and now?” We can detect three broad trends in the multiplicity of theories of atonement emerging during nineteen centuries of church history.

The first trend is seen in what Gustav Aulén has called the “classic” or “dramatic” view. It leans heavily on those biblical passages which speak of the Atonement as a ransom. It sees sinners as justly belonging to Satan because of their sin. But in the death of His Son God paid the price of their redemption. Satan accepted Jesus in place of sinners but he could not hold Him. On Easter Day Jesus rose triumphant, leaving Satan without either his original captives or their ransom. Aulén maintains that the essential point is not the grotesque imagery in which the Fathers expressed this theory but the authentic note of victory. He sees the essence of the Atonement as a process of victory over all the forces of death and evil. Most agree that victory is important, but they do not see this as the whole story.

The second group of theories may be said to have originated with Anselm of Canterbury, who saw sin as dishonor to the majesty of God. On the cross the God-man rendered satisfaction for this dishonor. Along similar lines the Reformers thought that Christ paid the penalty sinners incurred when they broke God's law. The strong points of this theory are its agreement with biblical teaching (e.g., on justification) and its insistence that the moral law cannot be disregarded in the process of forgiveness.

The third group of theories (especially linked with the name of Abelard) sees the Atonement in the effect on man of what Christ did. When we contemplate the love of God shown in the death of his Son we are moved to repent and to love Him in return. We are thus transformed. All is subjective.

All three theories have something to say to us. Each is inadequate by itself (especially the third, for it sees Christ as doing nothing except setting an example; the real salvation is worked out by sinners themselves). But taken together they help us to see a little of Christ's great work for men.

J. Denney, The Death of Christ (1905); idem, The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (1918); R.S. Franks, The Work of Christ (1962); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1965); idem, The Cross in the New Testament (1965).

ATONEMENT (כָּפַר, H4105, cover; ἱλάσκομαι, G2661; καταλλάσσω, G2904, reconcile). Etymologically the word atonement signifies a harmonious relationship or that which brings about such a relationship, i.e., a reconciliation. It is principally used of the reconciliation between God and man effected by the work of Christ. The necessity for such reconciliation is the breach in the primal relationship between the Creator and the creature occasioned by man’s sinful rebellion.

Behind the Eng. word “atonement” there are several Heb. and Gr. words which do not correspond exactly one to another. (The circle of theological ideas is compatible however.) Turning to the Biblical vocabulary, the initial question is the crucial one regarding the meaning of the root kāphar. The fundamental idea of this frequently employed Heb. word seems to be “to cover,” or “to wipe away,” i.e., one’s sin, hence “to expiate,” “to placate.” It is used to describe the effect of the sacrifices at the consecration of the high priest and the altar (Exod 29:36; Lev 8:14; Ezek 43:20); and of the annual sacrifices for the renewal of the consecration of the priest, the people, and the Tabernacle offered on the day called “the Day of Atonement.” It is used also of the sacrifices offered on behalf of the individual, esp. the sin and trespass offerings (Lev 4:20; Num 5:8) when the one sacrificing acknowledges his guilt and defilement. Sometimes tr. “to make reconciliation,” “to purge away,” or “to reconcile,” the term is closely connected with the word hātā, which designates doing that by which atonement is realized. The basic Gr. terms are the various forms of hiláskomai, “to make propitiation,” or “to make a reconciliation,” “to atone for,” and the verb katāllāsso, meaning “to reconcile.”

It is important to note with respect to the sacrifices of the OT that they bear witness to the rupture of fellowship between God and man the sinner, that they acknowledge the righteousness of the divine judgment upon man as sinner, and, finally, that they constitute a provision for man’s forgiveness and reconciliation to God which has been divinely appointed. All of these ideas are basic to the thinking of the writers of the NT. Of course, in the NT the thought is added that the sacrifice of bulls and goats could never finally cleanse the conscience from the defilement of sin and appease an offended deity. Therefore the OT sacrifices have their fulfillment in the death of Christ, who is the true Lamb of God (John 1:36) whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood (Rom 3:23-26); it is He who has obtained eternal redemption for mankind by His own blood, having entered once for all into the holy place not made with hands (Heb 9:11).

One may then say that sacrifice is the basic NT category used to describe the death of Christ. Because this is true, atonement—which the OT sacrifices wrought in a ceremonial way—is the term commonly employed by theologians to describe the work of Christ. By the same token, because the meaning of Christ’s death is central in the NT, a much wider range of Biblical teaching than that bearing on sacrifice has been included in the theological discussion of atonement. What the Scriptures have to say about the nature of God, the significance of the law, the character of sin, the power of demonic forces, the meaning of salvation, and the final eschatological redemption of the world—all these are Scriptural themes which have been more or less central in the various “theories” of the Atonement.

OT Day of Atonement.

Before elaborating this larger congeries of ideas involved in interpreting the meaning of the death of Christ as an atonement, one must deal in a cursory way with the meaning of atonement in the OT, which is foundational to the NT doctrine of Christ’s atoning work. The crucial material in this regard concerns the Day of Atonement, which has aptly been called the “Good Friday of the OT.” Of the several passages alluding to this day (cf. Lev 23:26-32; Num 18; 29:7-11), Leviticus 16 is of capital importance. There is a detailed set of instructions, given by the Lord to Moses, concerning the preparations and ceremonies enacted on this day. The distinctive ceremonial involves many details, some of which are no longer perspicuous, but it is eminently clear that on this day there was the highest exercise of the high priest’s mediatorial office. Being a sinner himself and representing a sinful people, he discarded his gorgeous high priestly garments and, having bathed himself, assumed an attire which was destitute of all ornament as fitting a suppliant suing for forgiveness. This attire was becomingly white, symbolizing the purity required of those who would enter into the presence of the Holy One of Israel. Being thus prepared and properly accoutered, he performed the sacrifices which climax the whole system of purification in Leviticus. By these sacrifices, which involved the confession of sin (the priest laid his hands on the head of the scapegoat, confessing Israel’s transgressions, so putting them upon the head of the goat, Lev 16:21), and the sprinkling of the shed blood seven times toward the mercy seat where the presence of the Lord dwelt, the priest made atonement for the sins of the people. Thus, by a ceremonial act at the central sanctuary, peace and fellowship with the God of the covenant were restored. The entire removal of the cause of God’s alienation was symbolically set forth, both by the giving of the life of one animal and the sending of another into the wilderness.

Atonement in the NT.

It is this ceremonial of the Day of Atonement which constitutes the principal paradigm for the author of Hebrews in his interpretation of the death of Christ. In his use of the Levitical materials to illumine the meaning of Christ’s death, one has a striking example of the continuity-in-movement of redemptive history. What Christ did is analogous to what the high priest did in the OT. The author of this epistle knew nothing of the approach which contrasts the supposed OT view of God, as an angry Deity appeased by the shedding of blood, with the NT God of Jesus, who as a loving Father dispenses the favor of forgiveness freely to all His erring children. Rather, without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins (Heb 9:22). All the symbols and ceremonies in the OT teaching the Atonement find their true meaning and fulfillment in the new covenant in Christ’s blood (Matt 26:28; Heb 12:24). He is the suffering servant of the Lord who brings redemption to all mankind. Along with this fundamental continuity of redemptive revelation there is discontinuity, a change brought about by the movement of history. The covenant in Christ’s blood is a new covenant. The writer to the Hebrews sharply contrasts the work of the high priest in the OT with that of Christ in the NT, particularly in terms of its efficacy. Whereas every year the ritual of the Day of Atonement was re-enacted as the priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of the appointed victim, Christ has entered once and for all into the true sanctuary, not made with hands, into the presence of God, to make intercession for us with His own blood. He has secured a lasting deliverance for mankind. Access to God is no longer granted to the high priest alone, who himself was limited to restrictions of time, place, and circumstance. Rather Christ, the great 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. Having made atonement for sin, He has reconciled man to God (cf. Heb 7-10).

The doctrine of the Atonement.

Its reason.

In this all too brief survey of the Biblical materials, we shall venture to outline a doctrine of the Atonement, touching upon the questions commonly discussed by the theologians. The first point to be made is that the Atonement originated with God; it was He who provided it. However one may trace the development of blood sacrifice among the Hebrews, there can be no doubt that in both the priestly and prophetic writings of the OT it is God who appointed the various rites, giving to Moses and those who followed him instructions concerning the manner in which they were to be rendered and the benefits which they secured to the worshiper. So it is in the NT. The atonement for sin provided by the death of Christ had its source in God. It is He who “was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The ultimate reason for this initiative is not to be found in any necessity laid upon Him, but in His free and sovereign love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is the ultimate of revelation; i.e., the Atonement finds its ultimate explanation in an unfathomable urge in God toward His sinful and alienated creatures. He has been pleased, for reasons known only to Himself, to set His love upon those who are unworthy. The Lord has loved men with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3), and in due time commended that love to them in that while they were yet sinners Christ died for them (Rom 5:8). This, then, is the final reason for the Atonement. When Scripture says that God is love (1 John 4:7, 8), it teaches that love is no incidental aspect of God’s being, something which He may choose to be or not to be at His pleasure. Rather, it is the essence of His being. Though people can discover no reason in themselves, no value or worth which would evoke that love, yet He loves them because He is God who is love. 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 7:6-8). That is, He loved them because He loved them; the reason for His love is hidden in Himself whose name is, “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14).

The principal word which the NT uses for the divine love is agape. Significantly, eros, the virile word for love in Gr. philosophy, does not occur. The most plausible explanation is that erotic love, whether it describes the relation of the sexes or, as in Plato, the aspiration of the soul for the ideas, is the love of the worthy, a love based on value. By contrast, God’s covenant love for His people (agape), which moved Him to provide an atonement for sin, is a love for the unworthy. Even when His people, like an unfaithful wife, went whoring after other gods, the Lord loved them still (Hos 11:8, 9). “In this is love,” wrote John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This “love divine, all loves excelling” cannot be frustrated at last; it is a love, says Paul, from which nothing can separate us (Rom 8:38, 39). The reason for this is that this love is not dependent upon anything in man; it is a love which is sovereign and free.

Its nature.

If love is the reason for the Atonement, one may still ask why love should have taken this mode of fulfilling its urgent purpose. In answer to this question, the ancient fathers of the Church placed great stress on a saying of Jesus recorded in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28. “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (lutron) for many.” To ransom someone means to redeem him by purchasing his release through the payment of a price. It was assumed that Christ gave His soul, in lieu of man’s, to the devil and paid the ransom price of the delivery from his powers. The theory was that since the first parents had sold their souls to the devil, he had a legal claim over men, which God, in justice, must satisfy. Hence, Jesus gave His soul as the ransom price for man’s release and “descended into hell,” as the Apostles’ Creed says. But having kept His bargain, it was impossible for Satan to hold Him in hell. The third day He rose in triumph, taking with Him all whom He had redeemed.

Of course Jesus did not say that He came to give His life a ransom to the devil, and nowhere does the NT, in elaborating this redemption motif, make such an affirmation. It is true that the concept of ransom presupposes bondage, the need of release, and the payment of a price to obtain this release. But the primary emphasis of Scripture is upon what men are redeemed from, rather than to whom the ransom is paid. The overall implication of Scripture is that Christ’s atoning work finds its ultimate objective in God; it is God who is reconciled. It is most natural, when thinking of Christ’s death as a ransom, to assume that the payment is to God in the sense that men owe Him an uncompromised obedience, a debt which sinners cannot render, but one which is paid by Christ on man’s behalf, through His own obedience unto death “even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

Though Scripture does not spell out a “ransom-paid-to-the-devil” theory, it does teach that the redeemed are safe from the power of the devil; this is the truth contained in the ancient or “classic view” of the Atonement as Christus Victor. The devil has sinners under his power; as a cruel taskmaster he drives them to sin. But Christ by His death redeemed man from this thralldom. (Note Bunyan’s theological exactitude in the Holy War, in describing how Diabolus began to tremble at the prospect of Emmanuel’s imminent victory and clandestinely stole out to the gate of the city by night to hold a colloquy with the Prince. His claim to a right over the city of Mansoul was repudiated, and his effort to strike a bargain rebuffed. He was denounced as a usurper and forced to abdicate.) Hebrews 2:14 says that Christ partook of mankind’s flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil. Paul referred to the triumph which Christ obtained over principalities and powers at the cross, making an open display of them (Col 2:15).

The question concerning why God’s love expresses itself by way of atonement, which the ancient Fathers answered in terms of the ransom theory, was deeply probed by Anselm of Canterbury (late 11th, early 12th cent.) in his classic work Cur Deus Homo. His answer was that though prompted by His love to redeem us, God must do so in a manner consistent with His justice. The necessity of the Atonement, then, is an inference from the character of God. Sin is a revolt against God, and He must inevitably react against it with wrath. Sin really creates an awful liability and the inexorable demands of the divine justice must be met. The truth that God is love does not stand alone in the Bible. The God of the Bible keeps wrath for His enemies (Nah 1:2); he is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab 1:13). The God of Jesus is to be feared as one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). “The wrath of God,” wrote Paul, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men” (Rom 1:18).

Therefore the death of Christ is the way in which God shows that He is righteous in forgiving sins and justifying him who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:24-26). God justly demands satisfaction for one’s sins, and since by Christ’s death satisfaction is given, the sinner is forgiven and the punishment remitted. The essence of Anselm’s theory of the Atonement, vicarious or substitutionary satisfaction, is the theory which has dominated the orthodox tradition.

The basic objections to this view drive one back to a kind of theological watershed, and it would take one far beyond the scope of this article to explore all aspects of the question. For one, it is argued that the idea of satisfaction is inimical to the fundamental insight that God is love, a sort of vestigial remnant from the imperfect view of the angry Deity portrayed in the OT. Furthermore, it is alleged, the notion of vicarious suffering is unethical. How could someone else merit the divine favor for men? Anselm, it must be said, never contemplated these questions seriously. For him it was assumed, on the basis of Scripture, that the character of God requires atonement. As for vicarious atonement, he reasoned that only the God-man could render such atonement, since it is man who has offended and God against whom the offense was directed.

In the last analysis, the question is whether one believes the fundamental thought forms of Scripture to be a permanent and final revelation. For all the limitations in Anselm’s formulation, it appears to this writer that he grasped an essential aspect of the teaching of Scripture. According to Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed. In the same vein is Paul’s affirmation that He “who knew no sin” was made sin for us, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21 KJV). Christ was not made a sinner in the sense of being inwardly polluted. Rather He was reckoned a sinner; man’s sin was imputed to Him, even as His righteousness was imputed to men. In Himself He bore the condemnation of sin so that to those who are in Christ Jesus there is now no condemnation (Rom 8:1). He was made “a curse for us,” in order to make man the righteousness of God in Him (Gal 3:13). Christ rendered a vicarious satisfaction for sin. It was not by substituting something in the place of the penalty, but rather by a vicarious enduring of the penalty. This is the essential point in Anselm’s theory.

It should be noted that Anselm conceived of the satisfaction rendered by Christ solely in terms of His death; Calvary was the one great supererogatory act of history which relieved God of any necessity to punish the sinner. It is true that Scripture places the emphasis on Christ’s death, but it should not be overlooked that His death, according to Scripture, is the climax of His life of perfect obedience. “He...became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). In Romans 5:12-19 there is an express reference to Christ’s one act of obedience, in contrast to the disobedience of the first Adam, an act of obedience by which the many are made righteous. And so Christ becomes the perfect High Priest, having not only removed the sanction of the broken law by being made a curse, but also having fulfilled the requirements of the law by His sinless life, thus achieving a perfect righteousness.

A third theory of the Atonement, sometimes referred to as the “moral influence theory,” has its roots in the teaching of Abelard (1079-1142) and its flower in Protestant liberalism. According to this view, the basic meaning of atonement is what Schleiermacher has called “moral uplift,” a new attitude toward life. There is no objective enmity on God’s part; Christ’s death has nothing to do with atonement in the sense of removal of divine alienation. Rather, Christ’s faithfulness, even unto death, revealed the divine love and dissipated man’s mistrust of God which is based on a misunderstanding of God’s character. Thus men are justified by Christ’s death, in the sense that through Calvary love is stirred up in men’s hearts and they are led to repent of their sins.

Judged by the teaching of Scripture, this view is defective and inadequate; the very essence of the doctrine of the Atonement is lost. Yet there is an essential element of truth, for the death of Christ has a profound influence on the beneficiaries. Because God is reconciled to the sinner in Christ, men are admonished to be reconciled to God. The Christian response to the death of Christ is to “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (cf. Rom 5:8-11). Hence Paul can describe his work in the beautiful figure of a ministry of reconciliation. As an ambassador of Christ who had been entrusted with the message of reconciliation, he besought all men, on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18-21). If the Atonement is to become a personal reality in the individual life, there must be this radical, inward change, the response of love to love on the part of the sinner.

Its perfection.

There are many aspects of the Biblical doctrine of the Atonement which may be included under this heading. Historically Roman Catholics and Protestants have been divided over the need of rendering a temporal satisfaction for post-baptismal sins, the former teaching that such satisfaction is rendered either in penance or purgatory. Protestants believe that Christ has rendered a full and complete satisfaction for all sins, so that such a teaching impinges the perfection of Christ’s atoning work. Protestants have also urged the perfection of Christ’s work against the sacrament of the mass which is allegedly a real, though not literal, reiteration of the sacrifice of Calvary. While they believe that the efficacy of Christ’s atonement is continuously applied throughout the centuries, they do not believe that it is possible to enhance its efficacy by a constant repetition. In fact, the writer of Hebrews scores the inadequacy of the older order in that the sacrifices of the Aaronic priesthood had constantly to be repeated, bringing no final solution to the sin problem. But now Christ has once and for all put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, and by this one offering He has perfected forever those who are sanctified (Heb 9:26; 10:14).

Speaking of the perfection of the Atonement, a word should be said about divine healing. Healing is commonly associated with faith, but ultimately it has to do with the Atonement. “Faith healing” presupposes that in the Atonement our Lord contemplated the body as well as the soul. So those who stress healing of the body, if they spell out their doctrine beyond a general faith in God, would say that the faith which heals is a faith in the Savior who Himself “took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt 8:17). Not to trust Christ for deliverance from the afflictions of the body, as well as the sins of the soul, is to impugn the perfection of His atoning work. Evangelicals have never doubted the efficacy of the Atonement for the whole man, affirming the resurrection of the body, so that Christ’s death becomes the “death of deaths,” for all who die in Him. But the obvious fact that all men die in a physical way, even those who proclaim faith healing, has lead the Church as a whole to conclude that the redemptive benefits of the Atonement, as far as the body is concerned, must await the eschaton, when there shall be no more curse, neither sorrow nor crying nor any such thing (Rev 21:4).

Its extent.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the Atonement today is its extent, which is also an aspect of its perfection. In the older Calvinistic-Arminian debate this question eventuated ultimately in the same result. Not all men are finally redeemed by Christ’s death, but only those who believe (Arminians), who are the elect of God (Calvinists). For those who die outside of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God.

In contemporary theology there has been much emphasis placed on the universal or cosmic scope of the Atonement, and in many instances this universalism advocates in a forthright manner the restitution of every fallen, alienated creature to the fellowship of God. Unlike the older universalism which made all religions equally valid efforts to have fellowship with God, the new universalism is confessedly Christian; men are reconciled to God only by Christ. But all men are reconciled, and sooner or later they will be made to realize it. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Cor 5:19); in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor 15:22); for He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). This strand of universalism is stressed as pointing to the time of the restitution of all things (apokatastasis) of which Peter spoke in the first Christian sermon (Acts 3:21). It is sometimes admitted that all men do not depart this life reconciled to God. But eventually they will be, it is averred, even though the reconciliation be delayed until they are “deep in eternity.” However there is no clear warranty in Scripture for this affirmation. In fact the uniform thrust of Scripture, for those who have come under the shadow of the cross, is that “now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). As for those who have not heard, they are described by Paul as “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Unless one is ready, therefore, rather radically to amend the apostolic tradition and eliminate hell, it would seem that one must not press the universal language of Scripture absolutely. While one could desire that the Atonement should embrace all men absolute ly, it would appear that in the minds of the writers of Scripture the Atonement is universal in the sense that men from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue shall one day stand before the Lamb clothed in white with palms of victory in their hands (Rev 7:9). It is in this sense, then, that one should conceive the perfection of Christ’s atoning work. See also Salvation.


G. Aulén, Christus Victor (1951); J. Denney, The Death of Christ (1951); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955); G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

a-ton’-ment: Translates kaphar; chaTa’; ratsah, the last employed only of human relations (1Sa 29:4); translates the following Greek stems hilas-, simple and compounded with various prepositions; allag- in composition only, but with numerous prepositions and even two at a time, e. g. Mt 5:24; lip- rarely (Da 9:24).

I. Terms Employed. 1. Hebrew and Greek Words:

The root meanings of the Hebrew words, taking them in the order cited above, are, to "cover," hence expiate, condone, cancel, placate; to "offer," or "receive a sin offering," hence, make atonement, appease, propitiate; "effect reconciliation," i. e. by some conduct, or course of action. Of the Greek words the meanings, in order, are "to be," or "cause to be, friendly"; "to render other," hence to restore; "to leave" and with preposition to leave off, i. e. enmity, or evil, etc. ; "to render holy," "to set apart for"; hence, of the Deity, to appropriate or accept for Himself.

2. The English Word:

It is obvious that the English word "atonement" does not correspond etymologically with any Hebrew or Greek word which it translates. Furthermore, the Greek words in both Septuagint and New Testament do not correspond exactly to the Hebrew words; especially is it true that the root idea of the most frequently employed Hebrew word, "cover," is not found in any of the Greek words employed. These remarks apply to both verbs and substantives The English word is derived from the phrase "at one," and signifies, etymologically, harmony of relationship or unity of life, etc. It is a rare instance of an AS theological term; and, like all purely English terms employed in theology, takes its meaning, not from its origin, but from theological content of the thinking of the Continental and Latin-speaking Schoolmen who employed such English terms as seemed most nearly to convey to the hearers and readers their ideas. Not only was no effort made to convey the original Hebrew and Greek meanings by means of English words, but no effort was made toward uniformity in translating of Hebrew and Greek words by their English equivalents.

3. Not to Be Settled by Lexicon Merely:

It is at once clear that no mere word-study can determine the Bible teaching concerning atonement. Even when first employed for expressing Hebrew and Christian thought, these terms, like all other religious terms, already had a content that had grown up with their use, and it is by no means easy to tell how far heathen conceptions might be imported into our theology by a rigidly etymological study of terms employed. In any case such a study could only yield a dictionary of terms, whereas what we seek is a body of teaching, a circle of ideas, whatever words and phrases, or combinations of words and phrases, have been employed to express the teaching.

4. Not Chiefly a Study in Theology:

There is even greater danger of making the study of the Atonement a study in dogmatic theology. The frequent employment of the expression "the Atonement" shows this tendency. The work of Christ in reconciling the world to God has occupied so central a place in Christian dogmatics that the very term atonement has come to have a theological rather than a practical atmosphere, and it is by no means easy for the student, or even for the seeker after the saving relation with God, to pass beyond the accumulated interpretation of the Atonement and learn of atonement.

5. Notes on Use of Terms:

The history of the explanation of the Atonement and the terms of preaching atonement cannot, of course, be ignored. Nor can the original meaning of the terms employed and the manner of their use be neglected. There are significant features in the use of terms, and we have to take account of the history of interpretation. Only we must not bind ourselves nor the word of God in such forms.

(3) In the English New Testament the word "atonement" is found only at Ro 5:11 and the American Standard Revised Version changes this to "reconciliation." While in strict etymology this word need signify only the active or conscious exercise of unity of life or harmony of relations, the causative idea probably belongs to the original use of the term, as it certainly is present in all current Christian use of the term. As employed in Christian theology, both practical and technical, the term includes with more or less distinctness: (a) the fact of union with God, and this always looked upon as (b) a broken union to be restored or an ideal union to be realized, (c) the procuring cause of atonement, variously defined, (d) the crucial act wherein the union is effected, the work of God and the response of the soul in which the union becomes actual. Inasmuch as the reconciliation between man and God is always conceived of as effected through Jesus Christ (2Co 5:18-21) the expression, "the Atonement of Christ," is one of the most frequent in Christian theology. Questions and controversies have turned mainly on the procuring cause of atonement, (c) above, and at this point have arisen the various "theories of the Atonement."

II. Bible Teaching concerning Atonement in General: The Atonement of Christ must be interpreted in connection with the conception of atonement in general in the Scriptures. This idea of atonement is, moreover, part of the general circle of fundamental ideas of the religion of Yahweh and Jesus. Theories of the Atonement root themselves in conceptions of the nature and character of God, His holiness, love, grace, mercy, etc.; of man, his nature, disposition and capacities; of sin and guilt.

1. Primary Assumption of Unity of God and Man:

The basal conception for the Bible doctrine of atonement is the assumption that God and man are ideally one in life and interests, so far as man’s true life and interest may be conceived as corresponding with those of God. Hence, it is everywhere assumed that God and man should be in all respects in harmonious relations, "at-one." Such is the ideal picture of Adam and Eve in Eden. Such is the assumption in the parable of the Prodigal Son; man ought to be at home with God, at peace in the Father’s house (Lu 15).

Such also is the ideal of Jesus as seen especially in Joh 14-17; compare particularly 17:21ff; compare also Eph 2:11-22; 1Co 15:28. This is quite possibly the underlying idea of all those offerings in which the priests--God’s representatives-and the people joined in eating at a common meal parts of what had been presented to God. The prohibition of the use of blood in food or drink is grounded on the statement that the life is in the blood (Le 17:10 f) or is the blood (Ge 9:4; De 12:23). Blood was used in the consecration of tabernacle, temple, vessels, altars, priests; all things and persons set apart for Yahweh. Then blood was required in offerings made to atone for sin and uncleanness. The reason for all this is not easy to see; but if we seek an explanation that will account for all the facts on a single principle, shall we not find it in the idea that in the life-principle of the blood God’s own life was present? Through this life from God all living beings shared God’s life. The blood passing out of any living being must therefore return to God and not be consumed. In sprinkling blood, the life-element, or certainly the life-symbol, over persons and things set apart for God they were, so to say, visibly taken up into the life of God, and His life extending over them made them essentially of His own person. Finally the blood of sacrifices was the returning to God of the life of the man for whom the beasts stood. And this blood was not burned with the dead sacrifice but poured out beside the holy altar. The now dead sin offering was burned, but the blood, the life, returned to God. In peace-offerings of various sorts there was the common meal in which the common life was typified.

In the claim of the first-fruits of all crops, of all flocks and of all increase, God emphasized the common life in production; asserted His claim to the total life of His people and their products. God claimed the lives of all as belonging essentially to Himself and a man must recognize this by paying a ransom price (Ex 30:12). This did not purchase for the man a right to his own life in separation from God, for it was in no sense an equivalent in value to the man’s time. It the rather committed the man to living the common life with God, without which recognition the man was not fit to live at all. And the use of this recognition-money by the priests in the temple was regarded as placing the man who paid his money in a sort of continuous worshipful service in the tabernacle (or temple) itself (Ex 30:11-16).

2. The Breach in the Unity:

In both Old Testament and New Testament the assumption of unity between God and man stands over against the contrasted fact that there is a radical breach in this unity. This breach is recognized in all God’s relations to men; and even when healed it is always subject to new failures which must be provided for, by the daily oblations in the Old Testament, by the continuous intercession of the Christ (Heb 7:25; 9:24) in the New Testament. Even when there is no conscious breach, man is taught to recognize that it may exist and he must avail himself of the appointed means for its healing, e. g. daily sacrifices. This breach is universally attributed to some behavior on man’s part. This may be moral or ceremonial uncleanness on man’s part. He may have broken with God fundamentally in character or conduct and so by committing sin have incurred guilt; or he may have neglected the fitting recognition that his life is in common with God and so by his disregard have incurred uncleanness. After the first breach between God and man it is always necessary that man shall approach God on the assumption that this breach needs healing, and so always come with an offering. In human nature the sin breach is rooted and universal (Ro 3:9-19; 5:12-14).

3. Means for Expressing, Restoring and Maintaining:

Numerous and various means were employed for expressing this essential unity of life, for restoring it since it was broken off in sin, and for maintaining it. These means were primarily spiritual and ethical but made extensive use of material substances, physical acts and symbolical ceremonials; and these tended always to obscure and supplant the spiritual and ethical qualities which it was their function to exhibit. The prophet came to the rescue of the spiritual and ethical and reached his highest insight and function in the doctrine of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh through whom God was to be united with a redeemed race (compare among many passages, Isa 49:1-7; 66:18 ff; Ps 22:27 ff).

Atonement is conceived in both Old Testament and New Testament as partly personal and partly social, extending to the universal conception. The acts and attitudes by which it is procured, restored and maintained are partly those of the individual alone (Ps 51), partly those in which the individual secures the assistance of the priest or the priestly body, and partly such as the priest performs for the whole people on his own account. This involves the distinction that in Israel atonement was both personal and social, as also were both sin and uncleanness. Atonement was made for the group by the priest without specific participation by the people although they were, originally at least, to take cognizance of the fact and at the time. At all the great feasts, especially upon the DAY OF ATONEMENT (which see) the whole group was receptively to take conscious part in the work of atonement (Nu 29:7-11).

The various sacrifices and offerings by means of which atonement was effected in the life and worship of Israel will be found to be discussed under the proper words and are to be spoken of here only summarily. The series of offerings, guilt-offerings, burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, peace-offerings, reveal a sense of the breach with God, a conviction of the sin making the breach and an ethical appreciation of the holiness of God entirely unique among religions of ancient or modern times, and this fact must never be overlooked in interpreting the New Testament Christian doctrine of the Atonement. In the Old Testament there are sins and sinful circumstances for which no atonement is possible. Many passages, indeed, almost seem to provide against atonement for any voluntary wrongdoing (e. g. Le 4:2,13,22,27; 5:14 ff). T

is, no doubt, an extreme interpretation, out of harmony with the general spirit of the Old Testament, but it does show how seriously sin ought to be taken under the Old Testament regime. No atonement for murder could make possible the residence of the murderer again in that section of the land where the murder was done (Nu 35:33), although the land was not by the murder rendered unfit for occupation by others. When Israel sinned in making the golden calf, God refused to accept any atonement (Ex 32:20 ff) until there had been a great loss of life from among the sinners. No repentance could find atonement for the refusal to follow Yahweh’s lead at Kadesh-barnea (Nu 14:20-25), and complete atonement was effected only when all the unbelieving generation had died in the wilderness (Nu 26:65; 32:10 ff); i. e. no atonement was possible, but the people died in that sin, outside the Land of Promise, although the sin was not allowed to cut off finally from Yahweh (Nu 14:29 f).

Permanent uncleanness or confirmed disease of an unclean sort caused permanent separation from the temple and the people of Yahweh (e. g. Le 7:20 f), and every uncleanness must be properly removed (Le 5:2; 17:15; 22:2-8; De 23:10 f). A house in which an unclean disease was found must be cleansed--have atonement made for it (Le 14:53), and in extreme cases must be utterly destroyed (Le 14:43 ff).

After childbirth (Le 12:7 f) and in all cases of hemorrhage (compare Le 15:30) atonement must be effected by prescribed offerings, a loss, diminution, or pollution of blood, wherein is the life, having been suffered. All this elaborate application of the principle of atonement shows the comprehensiveness with which it was sought by the religious teachers to impress the people with the unity of all life in the perfectly holy and majestic God whom they were called upon to serve. Not only must the priests be clean who bear the vessels of the Lord (Isa 52:11), but all the people must be clean also from all defilement of flesh and spirit, seeking perfect holiness in the fear of their God (compare 2Co 7:1).

III. The Atonement of Jesus Christ 1. Preparation for New Testament Doctrine:

All the symbols, doctrine and examples of atonement in the Old Testament among the Hebrews find their counterpart, fulfillment and complete explanation in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ (Mt 26:28; Heb 12:24). By interpreting the inner spirit of the sacrificial system, by insisting on the unity and holiness of God, by passionate pleas for purity in the people, and especially by teaching the principle of vicarious suffering for sin, the Prophets laid the foundation in thought-forms and in religious atmosphere for such a doctrine of atonement as is presented in the life and teaching of Jesus and as is unfolded in the teaching of His apostles.

The personal, parabolic sufferings of Hosea, the remarkable elaboration of the redemption of spiritual Israel through a Suffering Servant of Yahweh and the extension of that redemption to all mankind as presented in Isa 40-66, and the same element in such psalms as Ps 22, constitute a key to the understanding of the work of the Christ that unifies the entire revelation of God’s righteousness in passing over human sins (Ro 3:24 f). Yet it is remarkable that such a conception of the way of atonement was as far as possible from the general and average Jewish mind when Jesus came. In no sense can the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement be said to be the product of the thought and spirit of the times.

2. The One Clear Fact:

However much theologians may disagree as to the rationale of the Atonement, there is, as there can be, no question that Jesus and all His interpreters in the New Testament represent the Atonement between God and men as somehow accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is also an agreed fact in exegesis that Jesus and His apostles understood His death to be radically connected with this Atonement.

3. How Shall We Understand the Atonement? When we come to systematize the teaching concerning the Atonement we find, as in all doctrine, that definite system is not offered us in the New Testament, but all system, if it is to have any value for Christianity, must find its materials and principles in the New Testament. Proceeding in this way some features may be stated positively and finally, while others must be presented interrogatively, recognizing that interpretations may differ.

(1) An initial consideration is that the Atonement originates with God who "was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (2Co 5:19), and whose love gave Jesus to redeem sinful men (Joh 3:16; Ro 5:8, etc. ). In all atonement in Old Testament and New Testament the initiative is of God who not only devises and reveals the way to reconciliation, but by means of angels, prophets, priests and ultimately His only begotten Son applies the means of atonement and persuades men to accept the proffered reconciliation. Nothing in the speculation concerning the Atonement can be more false to its true nature than making a breach between God and His Christ in their attitude toward sinful men.

(2) It follows that atonement is fundamental in the nature of God in His relations to men, and that redemption is in the heart of God’s dealing in history. The "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Re 13:8 the King James Version and the English Revised Version; compare Re 5:5-7) is the interpreter of the seven-sealed book of God’s providence in historyú In Jesus we behold the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world (Joh 1:29).

(3) The question will arise in the analysis of the doctrine: How does the death of Christ save us? No specific answer has ever been generally satisfactory. We have numerous theories of the Atonement. We have already intimated that the answer to this question will depend upon our idea of the nature of God, the nature of sin, the content of salvation, the nature of man, and our idea of Satan and evil spirits. We ought at once to dismiss all merely quantitative and commercial conceptions of exchange of merit. There is no longer any question that the doctrines of imputation, both of Adam’s sin and of Christ’s righteousness, were overwrought and applied by the early theologians with a fatal exclusiveness, without warrant in the Word of God. On the other hand no theory can hold much weight that presupposes that sin is a thing of light consequence in the nature of man and in the economy of God. Unless one is prepared to resist unto blood striving against sin (Heb 12:2-4), he cannot know the meaning of the Christ. Again, it may be said that the notion that the death of Christ is to be considered apart from His life, eternal and incarnate life, as the atoning work, is far too narrow to express the teaching of the Bible and far too shallow to meet the demands of an ethical conscience.

It would serve clearness if we reminded ourselves that the question of how in the Atonement may involve various elements. We may inquire: (a) for the ground on which God may righteously receive the sinner; (b) for the means by which God places the restoration within the reach of the sinner; (c) for the influence by which the sinner is persuaded to accept the reconciliation; (d) for the attitude or exercise of the sinner toward God in Christ wherein he actually enters the state of restored union with God. The various theories have seemed to be exclusive, or at least mutually antagonistic, largely because they have taken partial views of the whole subject and have emphasized some one feature of the whole content. All serious theories partly express the truth and all together are inadequate fully to declare how the Daystar from on high doth guide our feet into the way of peace (Lu 1:79).

(4) Another question over which theologians have sorely vexed themselves and each other concerns the extent of the Atonement, whether it is available for all men or only for certain particular, elect ones. That controversy may now be passed by. It is no longer possible to read the Bible and suppose that God relates himself sympathetically with only a part of the race. All segregated passages of Scripture formerly employed in support of such a view have now taken their place in the progressive self-interpretation of God to men through Christ who is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 Joh 2:2). No man cometh unto the Father but by Him (Joh 14:6): but whosoever does thus call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Joe 2:32; Ac 2:21).


LITERATURE. In the vast literature on this subject the following is suggested: Articles by Orr in HDB; by Mackenzie in Standard Bible Dictionary; in the Catholic Encyclopedia; in Jewish Encyclopedia; by Simpson in Hastings, DCG; J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement; John Champion, The Living Atonement; W. M. Clow, The Cross in Christian Experience; T. J. Crawford, The Doctrine of Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement; R. W. Dale, The Atonement; J. Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament, and The Atonement and the Modern Mind; W. P. DuBose, The Soteriology of the New Testament; P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross; J. Scott Lidgett, The Spiritual Principle of the Atonement; Oxenham, The Catholic Doctrine of the Atonement; A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, I, II; Riviere, Le dogme de la redemption; D. W. Simon, Reconciliation by Incarnation; W. L. Walker, The Cross and the Kingdom; various writers, The Atonement and Modern Religious Thought.

William Owen Carver