What Does Atonement Mean?

Ryan Warnock

Theology 101: Atonement

This is the first in a series in which I will be clarifying important biblical and theological terms. My desire is to help the reader to better understand the larger redemptive plan throughout the entire Bible.

Beginning this series on the atonement is both foolish and necessary. Foolish because it is the most complex and in-depth concept a person can study. But necessary because it is at the heart of the Bible and our relationship with God. Atonement is God’s provision for our sin to bring us back into right relationship with Him. Satisfaction, appeasement, reconciliation, and propitiation (a word I will get into later) are all ways of describing the broader concept of atonement.

Atonement is first seen in Genesis 3:21 when God makes coverings for Adam and Eve with animal skins. The sin committed by Adam and Eve caused them to experience shame in the nakedness for the first time. God provided a covering for them and set the stage for the greatest act of love ever known.

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement. I want to strongly recommend you read the entire chapter, but the pinnacle of this chapter is when Aaron places the sins of Israel on the head of a goat and sent it off into the wilderness. We see two reoccurring themes in the Old Testament when it comes to atonement. First, we see something taking the place of something else. In this case, it is a goat taking on the sins of the people. Bulls, rams, and goats are often used for different ceremonies. We also see lots of blood. A disturbing amount of blood. Why?

We see the answer to this bloody question in Leviticus 17:11 and 14.

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”

“For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life."

This brings us back to the Genesis account where God used animal skins to cover Adam and Eve. Those skins came from some place… an animal; one who died for the sake of providing those skins. So we must recognize the high cost of sin right from the start. Sin brings death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23; James 1:15) so it makes sense that atonement for sin requires payment of life.

But how can the blood of animals atone for human beings? We know human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and animals were not. Therefore humanity has a much higher value to it. How can the blood of an animal pay for the sin of humanity? As always, we turn to God’s revealed word for the answer:

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. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices, there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. -Hebrews 10:1-4

The blood of animals is only a temporary atonement and cannot fully pay for the sins of mankind. We need something more. And we find that perfect atonement in the work of the God-man, Jesus the Christ.

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” -2 Corinthians 5:21

“and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” -1 John 2:2

“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” -1 John 4:9-10

Your fancy theology word of the day is “propitiation.” In this context, the term refers to “A sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.”1 We don’t like to think that we were under the wrath of God, or in any way His enemy, but we were. Apart from the atoning work of Christ, we are all enemies of God.

It’s interesting that in Matthew 5:44 Jesus tells us to love our enemies. So in the greatest act of cosmic “practice what you preach,” God sent His son to die for the sins of His enemies- us, so that we may enter into a right relationship with Him.

Atonement is a theme found throughout the entire Bible, and you can go so much further in your study of it. But the story of atonement can be understood simply in that God has always made provisions for us to come back to Him. His provision has never and will never be more clearly displayed than the finished work of Christ on the cross.

More posts by Ryan: (Bio Below)

Ryan is always on the lookout for a chance to read a good book or see a new movie. He is finishing his Bachelors in Biblical Studies through Moody Bible Institute and plans to move on with a Masters in Theology. Ryan is 30 and has given presentations on Pro-Life apologetics, homosexuality and the Bible, and teaches Church History and Historical Theology at Allendale Baptist Church. Ryan has been married to his wife Stephanie for ten years and they have four children: James, Lael, Lydia, and Isaiah.

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