Question: "What is the meaning of atonement?"

Answer: A number of important words are used in the Bible that speak of the way sinners are made right with God. Salvation, justification, forgiveness, and adoption are several words used quite often, and most people probably have an adequate understanding of them because they are used in non-theological settings as well. Atonement is also an important word, but many people probably have little understanding of what it means since it is almost exclusively theological. A popular definition is that atonement is “at-one-ment”; in other words, it is the way that we are made one with God when we used to be alienated from Him by our sins. At the heart of the matter, that is correct. Atonement was, at one time, not a theological term but simply a common term that meant “reconciliation” and could be used of the transaction between any two parties. Over time, it took on a more exclusively theological meaning.

The word translated “atone” literally meant “to cover,” but in the Old Testament, it appears to have taken on the theological meaning of “to take away.” Even today, we can use the word cover to mean “take away”: if a person says, “Let me give you $20 to cover the bill,” this does not mean that debt will be merely covered or hidden or “swept under the rug” but that it will be paid and the obligation removed.

The word atonement is used over 100 times in the Old Testament, primarily in the Pentateuch, and it is usually in the context of a sacrifice, either a blood sacrifice or the payment of a certain amount of money. The idea is that a person or thing is unclean due to sin or some other defilement. Then, with a payment or sacrifice, atonement is made for that person or thing, and it is now holy or acceptable.

Under the law, atonement could be used to cleanse objects. For instance, one must make atonement for a house that has been cleared of mold (Leviticus 14:53).

More often, the idea of atonement concerns cleansing a person who has sinned or become defiled in some way: for a woman after childbirth (Leviticus 12:8), a leper who had been healed (Leviticus 14:18–19), or a Nazirite who had broken his vows, even accidentally (Numbers 6:11). The most common uses of atonement have to do with sacrifices for an individual sinner (Numbers 5:7–9), a group such as the Levites before they perform temple services (Numbers 8:12), and even the nation as a whole. Leviticus 16 explains the Day of Atonement when the sins of the whole nation are dealt with by a sacrifice.

The word atonement is not used in the New Testament; however, the concept is there. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says that a central truth of the gospel is that Christ died “for our sins.” Likewise, Galatians 1:4 says that Christ gave Himself “for our sins.” Before the death of Christ, our sins separated us from God. After His death for our sins, we can be reconciled to God. Just as on the Day of Atonement the sins of the nation were transferred to the sacrifice (Leviticus 16), our sins were transferred to Christ, and He “bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).

Because of the sacrifice of Christ, we can be saved, justified, forgiven, and adopted into God’s family. No single word can adequately summarize all the blessings we have in Christ. Even though atonement is not used in the New Testament, it is clear that atonement in the Old Testament is the background for the sacrifice of Christ for sinners.