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

  • From temple to meat market in ancient Pompeii
    A very quick journey from the temple of Jupiter in Pompeii to the meat market. This helps us to understand 1 Corinthians 8-10 and probably also Romans 14.
  • TogetherThe formation of gentile Christ-believing identity vis-à-vis Israel in Ephesians and Barnabas
    Article in the journal Biblica et Patristica Thoruniensia. Keywords: Ephesians; Barnabas; Israel; replacement theology; collective memory; ethnic identity
  • Where they burn books…
    A reflection on “Bibliothek", the memorial to the Nazi book-burning of 10 May 1933 in Berlin. Could we ever end up in a similar situation?
  • Reformation sights in Oxford UK
    Some sights in Oxford UK, that are especially significant for Reformation history and the deaths of the Oxford Martyrs Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer.
  • Lift Your EyesLift Your Eyes: Introducing Ephesians
    The central message of Ephesians is that the God of the universe has an amazing plan, which is being put into effect through the preaching of the gospel.
  • Luke 5:1-32 SermonWho is Jesus for?
    Who are the right kind of people according to Jesus? Is Jesus just for one kind of person in our world: Christians versus everyone else? Is Jesus for you?
  • TogetherThe formation of gentile Christ-believing identity vis-à-vis Israel in Ephesians and Barnabas
    Article in the journal Biblica et Patristica Thoruniensia. Keywords: Ephesians; Barnabas; Israel; replacement theology; collective memory; ethnic identity
  • Is God Green? By Lionel WindsorIs God Green?
    A short book about what the Bible says about the environment: why the world is in a mess, where it's headed, and what to do about it in the here and now.
  • Donald RobinsonVale Donald Robinson
    From SydneyAnglicans: One of the towering figures of Anglicanism in the 20th century and former Archbishop of Sydney Bishop Donald Robinson, has died at the age of 95. … The first to pay
  • Interview with Sydney Anglicans about the War on Waste
    I was interviewed by SydneyAnglicans.net about the TV series War on Waste: "Our cause should be the gospel, and that gospel will reshape everything"

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor