Skip to content

Improve your biblical word power 4: Atonement

From the Sola Panel:

This post is the fourth in a series designed to help you to get to know and love some of the important words used in the Bible. Today we’ll learn the basic meaning of the word ‘atonement’.

Atonement: a definition

Let’s start with a definition of the word ‘atonement’:

Atonement = dealing with any obstacle to a relationship, especially between God and human beings.

Two obstacles to our relationship with God

What obstacles are there to our relationship with God? According to the Bible, there are two serious obstacles, and both of these obstacles are closely related to each other.

The first obstacle is our sin. Sin, as an attitude and an action, is our rebellious, wicked response to God’s rule and love. Our sin is an obstacle to our relationship with God. Sin is something that needs to be dealt with. Atonement is about dealing with sin—particularly by forgiving sin, and “wiping the slate clean”, so to speak.

But there is a second, related obstacle to our relationship with God: God’s wrath. Because God is a holy, righteous God, he is justly angry with us because of our sin. Atonement also deals with God’s wrath (his righteous anger against sin). Atonement satisfies and removes God’s wrath against sin.

Atonement, then, deals with the obstacles to our relationship with God from both sides: our side (sin) and God’s side (wrath).

The place and means of atonement

In the Old Testament, atonement happens in a particular place: the tabernacle/temple. In Exodus 25, Moses is told to make a “mercy seat” or ‘atonement cover’ on the ark. The mercy seat is the place where God meets with his people—that is, the place the relationship between God and people is restored.

Atonement happens through sacrifice. The temple was a messy place. In Leviticus especially, we read about all the different ways that animals were slaughtered to provide atonement.

In the New Testament, we see that the place and means of atonement is the death of Jesus Christ. He is the perfect sacrifice for sin—the means by which our sin is forgiven and God’s anger is dealt with (e.g. Rom 3:25).

Some history of the English word

The English word ‘atonement’ was coined almost 500 years ago by the English Bible translator and reformer, William Tyndale. Tyndale’s great task was to translate the Bible into the English language so that anybody could read it. (Previously the Bible had only been available to scholars—in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.) Tyndale realized that there was no English word to translate the underlying Hebrew concept of atonement, so he created a new word: ‘at’-‘one’-‘ment’, indicating the restoration of a relationship (‘at one’).

Expiation

Last century, there were some who found the idea of God’s wrath repulsive. They thought that atonement could not involve the removal of God’s wrath, because God couldn’t be angry in the first place! They believed that the biblical idea of atonement was only about dealing with the problem from our side—sin. Hence they used the word ‘expiation’ to translate the word for atonement in certain key passages (see Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10 in the RSV). Why did they choose the word ‘expiation’? Because expiation focusses on the first side of atonement:

Expiation = dealing with sin.

Technically, ‘expiation’ is a biblical concept. Atonement certainly involves expiation (dealing with sin). However, in both Old and New Testaments, it is quite clear that the reason that sin needs to be dealt with is because God is angry at sin! So it is incorrect to exclude God’s wrath from the picture of atonement.

Propitiation

Other translations of the Bible attempt to restore the idea that atonement is about dealing with God’s wrath, by using the word ‘propitiation’ (see Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10 in the ESV). Propitiation focusses on the second side of atonement:

Propitiation = dealing with God’s anger against sin.

Other translations of the Bible (e.g. the NIV), use the more general term ‘atoning sacrifice’, or ‘sacrifice of atonement’, because both expiation and propitiation are included in the concept of atonement. You might notice that the NIV even adds a little footnote in Romans 3:25 (“Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin”) just to make it perfectly clear that both concepts (propitiation and expiation) are in view.

More to come in my next post …

Published inAtonementThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?
  • Bible and the horizon. Photo by Aaron Burden on UnsplashRejoicing in the blessing of others (Ephesians 1:11–12)
    Although the Bible is always relevant to us, not every sentence is directly about us. When we realise this, we can rejoice in God’s blessings even more.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor