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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Primarily in the Old Testament, atonement refers to the process God established whereby humans could make an offering to God to restore fellowship with God. Such offerings, including both live and dead animals, incense, and money, were required to remove the bad effects of human sin.
The only fast day stipulated in the Mosaic law was the annual day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), observed on the tenth day of Tishri (September-October) at the conclusion of ten days of penitence. The day of Atonement was the only day of the year that the priest entered the holy of holies to make sin offerings for himself, his family, and the “assembly of Israel.” After making these offerings, the nation's sins were symbolically laid on the scapegoat “Azazel” that was released into the wilderness to die.
While atonement in the Old Testament most frequently refers to humans offering sacrifices to God for their wrongdoing, several references are made to God making atonement. In Psalm 78:38 , the Hebrew for “atoned for” is used where the KJV translates “forgave” as is also true in Deuteronomy 21:8 . Because God “atones for” or “covers” human sin, atonement is best understood as expiation, that is removing the barrier that sin creates rather than propitiation or appeasing an angry God, though both views of atonement continue to be taught by Bible students.
New Testament The New Testament rarely uses a word for atonement. The basic Greek word is katallasso , usually translated “to reconcile,” and the corresponding noun, katallage , meaning “reconciliation.” The basic meaning is to establish friendship. This is used in human relationships in 1 Corinthians 7:11 , referring to the restoration of relationship between an estranged husband and wife. Paul used the term in reference to Christ's work of salvation in Romans 5:10-11; Romans 11:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 . The Greek term hilaskomai , “to forgive” or “show mercy” along with the nouns hilasmos , “means of forgiveness,” and hilasterion , “means or place of forgiveness” are the important words in the discussion of expiation and propitiation. They occur in Luke 18:13; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 9:5; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10 .
Atonement and the Cross The focal point of God's atoning work is Christ's death on the cross. Paul wrote that “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ). These words not only define the meaning of atonement, they reveal the heart of the gospel as well.
The primacy of the cross is emphasized throughout the New Testament. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was identified as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ). The purpose of His coming was “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ). He explained His death in terms of the “blood of the new testament, which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24 ).
The relation of the cross to forgiveness of sins was implicit in the earliest Christian preaching (Acts 2:21; Acts 3:6 ,Acts 3:6,3:19; Acts 4:13; Acts 5:31; Acts 8:35; Acts 10:43 ). Paul proclaimed that “Christ died for our sins”(1 Corinthians 15:3 ), that He was a “propitiation” (Romans 3:25 KJV; “sacrifice of atonement,” NRSV, NIV; “expiation,” RSV), that He became “a curse for us” ( Galatians 3:13 ), and that those “who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ). Furthermore, “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28 ) and has become “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20 ) into God's presence. He is the one who “bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24 ).
Though atonement is focused in the cross, the New Testament makes clear that Christ's death is the climax of His perfect obedience. He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8 ). “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8 ). Romans 5:12-19 contrasts Christ's obedience with Adam's disobedience. His sinless obedience qualified Him to be the perfect Sacrifice for sin ( Hebrews 6:8-10 ).
Furthermore, the New Testament interprets the cross in light of the resurrection. “At-one-ment” is the achievement of Christ crucified and risen. So important is this emphasis that Paul affirms, “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17 ).
The Necessity of Atonement The necessity for Christ's atoning work is occasioned by the breach in the relationship between the Creator and the creature. This breach is the result of humanity's sinful rebellion. “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2 ). Thus, in their unreconciled state people are God's “enemies” (Romans 5:10 ), have “enmity against God” (Romans 8:7 ), and have “no hope” (Ephesians 2:12 ). There is no difference between Jew and Gentile in this respect, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ).
The Origin of Atonement The atonement for sin provided by Christ's death had its origin in divine love. No other reason can explain why “God reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18 ). The anthem that continuously peals from the Bible is that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16; see 1 John 4:9-10 ). This does not mean that God loves us because Christ died for us. Rather, Christ died for us because God loves us. Thus, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ). Because atonement issues from love, it is always seen as a divine gift, never as human achievement.
Yet, divine love is not sentimental or merely emotional. It is a righteous love which blazes out against all that opposes God's will. The New Testament affirms that “God is love” (1 John 4:8 ); it also affirms that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29 ). Thus, the cross is simultaneously a manifestation of God's will to save and of His wrath against sin.
Atonement: Representation and Substitution In His atoning work Christ is both representative and substitute. As representative, Christ acted on behalf of His race. An example of representation is Paul's contrast between Adam and Christ (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 ). Adam and Christ represent two heads of two races of people. Adam is the head of the race of fallen persons. Sin and death came into the world through him. Because of our fallenness, all people belong to Adam's race, the old humanity.
Christ, the last Adam, represents a new race of people. These are the people who have been saved from sin. Where Adam failed, Christ succeeded. Those who belong to Christ through faith belong to the new humanity He created (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:14-22 ).
As substitute, Christ acted in our place . Whereas representation emphasizes Christ's relation to the race, substitution stresses His relation to the individual. He experienced as substitute the suffering and death each person deserved. Substitution is implied in such references as 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24 .
In thinking of Christ as substitute, however, His oneness with the Father must be emphasized. Christ is not a third party who comes between God and humanity to absorb all the punishment God can inflict. Substitution means that in Christ, God Himself bears the consequences of human sin. God reconciles people at great cost to Himself, not at cost to a third party.
Images of Atonement To describe the meaning of atonement New Testament writers used images drawn from different areas of experience. Each image says something important about the cross. No one image, however, is adequate by itself. Each image needs the others to produce the whole picture.
1. Atonement and ransom. Ransom is an image drawn from ancient economic life. The picture is a slave market or prison. People are in bondage and cannot free themselves. Someone comes and pays the price (provides the ransom) to redeem those in captivity.
The New Testament emphasizes both the fact of deliverance and the ransom price. Jesus said that He came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ). Paul wrote, “ye are not your own; For ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; compare 1 Corinthians 7:23 ). Peter declared that “ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, But with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19 ). The main idea in this imagery is rescue from bondage through the costly self-giving of Jesus.
2. Atonement and victory. In this imagery, Satan, the head of evil forces and archenemy of God, has humanity in his power. Christ is the Warrior of God who enters the battle, defeats the devil, and rescues humanity.
This conflict motif pervades the gospels (Matthew 4:1-11; Matthew 12:28; Mark 3:27; John 12:31 ). The warfare between Jesus and Satan was real. Yet, divine victory was so certain that Jesus could say in anticipation, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18 ).
Victory imagery is also prominent in the epistles. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 ). Christ came so “that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15 ). That Christ triumphed is clear: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15 ).
3. Atonement and sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the atoning power of Christ's death is often expressed in terms drawn from Old Testament sacrificial practices. Thus, Christ's death is called a “sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12 ) and a “sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2 ). Christ is variously identified with the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7 ), the sacrifice which initiates the new covenant (Luke 22:20 ), and the sin offering (Hebrews 9:14 ,Hebrews 9:14,9:25-28 ).
Sacrificial imagery is another way of expressing the costliness of Christ's atoning work. It is a continual reminder that divine love has assumed the shape of the cross (Galatians 2:20 ). Furthermore, sacrifice witnesses to the effectiveness of Christ's death. Through it, sin is forgiven (Ephesians 1:7 ), and the conscience is cleansed (Hebrews 9:14 ).
4. Atonement and glory. In much of the New Testament the glorification of Jesus is associated with His resurrection and ascension. John's Gospel shifts perspective. The whole life and work of Jesus is a revelation of divine glory. This glorification climaxes in Jesus' death on the cross (John 12:23-24; John 13:31-32 ).
Consistent with this theme is the emphasis on the cross as “lifting up.” This verb has the double meaning of “to lift up on a cross” and “to exalt.” The meanings are combined in John's Gospel. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.' This he said, signifying what death he should die.” (John 12:32-33; compare John 3:14; John 8:28 ). The meaning is not that Jesus was glorified as a reward for His death. Rather it means that divine glory was revealed in the death He died for sins. See Propitiation; Expiation; Redeem; and the Atonement chart that follows.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Atonement'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/atonement.html. 1991.