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Atonement may be defined as that act of dealing with sin whereby sin’s penalty is paid and sinners are brought into a right relation with God. In the Old Testament the word is used mainly in connection with the offering of sacrifices for sin. The word does not occur in most versions of the New Testament, but it is used broadly in the language of theology in relation to the sacrificial death of Christ.

One result of universal human sin is that all people are under God’s judgment. They are guilty, the penalty is death, and they cannot, by their own efforts, escape this penalty. They are cut off from God and there is no way they can bring themselves back to God (Psalms 14:3; Isaiah 59:2; Romans 1:18; Romans 3:20; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23; see SIN). God, however, gives them a way by which they may obtain forgiveness and be brought back to God. This is through the blood of a sacrifice, where blood is symbolic of the life of the innocent victim laid down as substitute for the guilty sinner (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22; 1 John 4:10; see BLOOD).

Atonement is therefore not something that people can achieve by their own efforts, but something that God provides. Whether in Old or New Testament times, forgiveness is solely by God’s grace and sinners receive it by faith (Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51:17; Micah 7:18; Ephesians 2:8). The Old Testament sacrifices were not a way of salvation. They were a means by which repentant sinners could demonstrate their faith in God and at the same time see what their atonement involved. The sacrifices showed them how it was possible for God to act rightly in punishing sin while forgiving repentant sinners. (See JUSTIFICATION; PROPITIATION; RECONCILIATION; REDEMPTION; SACRIFICE; SANCTIFICATION.)

The sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed to the one great sacrifice that is the only basis on which God can forgive a person’s sins, the death of Christ. Through that death God is able justly to forgive the sins of all who turn to him in faith, no matter what era they might have lived in (Matthew 26:28; Romans 3:25-26; Romans 4:25; Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 2:24). (See also DAY OF ATONEMENT.)

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Atonement'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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