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’).
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.
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 …