Why do we use the word “atonement” to speak of the sacrifice of Christ for His people? Is it appropriate to do so? Where does this word come from and what does it mean? These are good and profitable questions that deserve a moment of attention, especially in view of their centrality to the Savior’s greatest work – His death on the cross. Clearly, this is an important matter, as affirmed by the prince of preachers:
“It is truly so, that Jesus seeks and saves that which is lost. He died and made a real atonement for real sinners. When men are not playing with words or calling themselves “miserable sinners,” out of mere compliment, I feel overjoyed to meet with them. I would be glad to talk all night to bona fide sinners. The inn of mercy never closes its doors upon such, neither weekdays nor Sunday. Our Lord Jesus did not die for imaginary sins, but His heart’s blood was spilt to wash out deep crimson stains, which nothing else can remove.” Spurgeon, C. H. (1983; Published in electronis form by Christian Classics Foundation, 1996). All of grace : An earnest word with those who are seeking salvation by the Lord Jesus Christ. Index created by Christian Classics Foundation. (electronic ed.). Springdale PA: Whitaker House.
This important word “atonement” is one that is used to represent the Hebrew word kappar which is used 171 times in the O.T. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, this word in its root form, along with its variants, can mean atonement, reconciliation, ransom or a gift to secure favor. What is interesting to note is the manner in which this O.T. term is conceptually sustained in the N.T. Scriptures in several ways. Consider for a moment G. T. Shedd’s very important thoughts on this matter, as he discusses the objective nature of the atonement:
Atonement as Objective: It follows from this discussion that atonement is objective in its essential nature. An atonement makes its primary impression upon the party to whom it is made, not upon the party by whom it is made. When a man does a wrong to a fellow man and renders satisfaction for the wrong, this satisfaction is intended to influence the object not the subject, to produce an effect upon the man who has suffered the wrong not the man who did the wrong. Subjective atonement is a contradiction. Atoning to oneself is like lifting oneself. The objective nature of atonement is wrought into the very phraseology of Scripture, as the analysis of the biblical terms just made clearly shows. To “cover” sin is to cover it from the sight of God, not of the sinner. To “propitiate” is to propitiate God, not man. The Septuagint idea of “propitiation,” rather than the Hebrew idea of “covering over,” is prominent in the New Testament and consequently passed into the soteriology of the primitive church and from this into both the Romish and the Protestant soteriology. The difference between the two is not essential, since both terms are objective; but there is a difference. Hebrew kāppar denotes that the sacrificial victim produces an effect upon sin. It covers it up. But the corresponding Septuagint term hilaskomai denotes that the sacrificial victim produces an effect upon God. It propitiates his holy displeasure. When St. John (1 John 2:2; 4:10) asserts that “Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins” and that God “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” the implication is that the divine nature is capable of being conciliated by some propitiating act. This propitiating act under the old dispensation was, typically and provisionally, the offering of a lamb or goat as emblematic of the future offering of the Lamb of God; and under the new dispensation it is the actual offering of the body of Jesus Christ, who takes the sinner’s place and performs for him the propitiating and reconciling act. The objective nature of atonement appears, again, in the New Testament term katallagē and the verb katallassein. These two words occur nine times in the New Testament with reference to Christ’s atoning work (Rom. 5:10-11, 15; 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In the Authorized Version, katallagē is translated “atonement” in Rom. 5:11; but in the other instances “reconciliation” and “reconcile” are the terms employed. The verb katallassein primarily signifies “to pay the exchange or difference” and secondarily “to conciliate or appease.” Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. (2003). Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) (Page 699). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.
Shedd helps us to understand that the N.T. concepts of atonement are clearly carried over from the Hebrew word kappar, but with the understanding that Christ’s atoning work is greater than that of the O.T. sacrificial system. While it may seem odd to some that the English word atonement is absent from modern translations of the N.T., this actually presents no real problem or conflict because the broad concepts of atonement are entirely preserved in both testaments, thus showing the continuity of a blood atonement. In fact, let me suggest that the word atonement is not only legitimate, but is needful for a few reasons:
The word atonement, when used of Christ’s sacrifice, points to the absolute fulfilment of God’s promises: King David’s expressed hope for atonement for his transgressions (Psalm 65:3) would ultimately be fulfilled by the One who would “offer Himself as a guilt offering” to God for the sins of His people (Isaiah 53:10) – for the Lord will cause the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:6). All of the O.T. references to blood atonement pointed to the greater promise concerning the suffering Servant Who would be crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5) in His substitutionary sacrifice for our sin. Consider Spurgeon’s thoughts on this – “In none of the Jewish ceremonies were sins, even typically, removed without blood-shedding. In no case, by no means can sin be pardoned without atonement. It is clear, then, that there is no hope for me out of Christ; for there is no other blood-shedding which is worth a thought as an atonement for sin. Am I, then, believing in him? Is the blood of his atonement truly applied to my soul? All men are on a level as to their need of him. If we be never so moral, generous, amiable, or patriotic, the rule will not be altered to make an exception for us. Sin will yield to nothing less potent than the blood of him whom God hath set forth as a propitiation. What a blessing that there is the one way of pardon! Why should we seek another?” Spurgeon, C. H. (1995). Morning and evening : Daily readings (February 2 AM). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The word atonement, when used of Christ’s sacrifice, points to the reality of the New Covenant in His blood: The Old Covenant references to blood atonement were designed to point to a single blood atonement made by the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Thus, Christ established the New Covenant in His blood as the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices. As we move from the O.T. to the N.T., we also move from the shadow of the O.T. passover to the substance of Christ: Luke 22:14-20: 14 When the hour had come, He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him. 15 And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
The word atonement, when used of Christ’s sacrifice, reminds us of the supremacy of the Savior’s work over all: Hebrews 10:1-10: 1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me; 6 In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. 7 “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’ “ 8 After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” If there is one clear theme in the book of Hebrews, it is to show the supremacy of Jesus Christ in every way – to include His singular sacrifice on the cross which does not need to be repeated like the sacrifices of old. As Spurgeon has said: “No mean miracle was wrought in the rending of so strong and thick a veil; but it was not intended merely as a display of power-many lessons were herein taught us. The old law of ordinances was put away, and like a worn-out vesture, rent and laid aside. When Jesus died, the sacrifices were all finished, because all fulfilled in him, and therefore the place of their presentation was marked with an evident token of decay. That rent also revealed all the hidden things of the old dispensation: the mercy-seat could now be seen, and the glory of God gleamed forth above it. By the death of our Lord Jesus we have a clear revelation of God, for he was “not as Moses, who put a veil over his face.” Life and immortality are now brought to light, and things which have been hidden since the foundation of the world are manifest in him. The annual ceremony of atonement was thus abolished. The atoning blood which was once every year sprinkled within the veil, was now offered once for all by the great High Priest, and therefore the place of the symbolical rite was broken up. No blood of bullocks or of lambs is needed now, for Jesus has entered within the veil with his own blood.” [Spurgeon, C. H. (1995). Morning and evening : Daily readings (April 19 AM). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., underline mine]
For those who desire to research this more, I would recommend the following works to you:
A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Bible Topics, Chapter 25 – The Atonement: Its Nature, Necessity, Perfection, and Extent.
G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Section 6 [Christ’s Mediatorial Offices & Atonement].
Stephen Charnock, Christ Crucified, A Puritan’s View of Atonement.
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Part III Chapter 9, Theories of the Atonement.*Hodge, A., Hodge, C., & Hodge, A. (1996). The confession of faith : With questions for theological students and Bible classes [Chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator].
*Hodge, Theories of the Atonement: Orthodox View: The first is that which has been for ages regarded as the orthodox doctrine; in its essential features common to the Latin, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. This is the doctrine which the writer has endeavoured to exhibit and vindicate in the preceding pages. According to this doctrine the work of Christ is a real satisfaction, of infinite inherent merit, to the vindicator justice of God; so that He saves his people by doing for them, and in their stead, what they were unable to do for themselves, satisfying the demands of the law in their behalf, and bearing its penalty in their stead; whereby they are reconciled to God, receive the Holy Ghost, and are made partakers of the life of Christ to their present sanctification and eternal salvation. This doctrine provides for both the great objects above mentioned. It shows how the curse of the law is removed by Christ’s being made a curse for us; and how in virtue of this reconciliation with God we become, through the Spirit, partakers of the life of Christ. He is made unto us not only righteousness, but sanctification. We are cleansed by his blood from guilt, and renewed by his Spirit after the image of God. Having died in Him, we live in Him. Participation of his death secures participation of his life. Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic theology. Originally published 1872. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.