This post looks at the major Scriptures about the atonement. It also asks whether the atonement is for everyone (potentially) or for just the elect few.
Atonement literally means in English at-one-ment or being one with God or being reconciled to him (the -ment suffix means “the result of”).
It is the extensive and costly process of reconciling sinners to God.
Let’s use the Question-and-Answer format and number the main points for clarity and conciseness.
I.. What is the problem to overcome?
This question asks, why was atonement necessary?
The Hebrew verb is kapar (used 102 times) and is generally translated as “to atone,” “to wipe clean,” and “to appease.” In Gen. 32:20, Jacob sent gifts ahead of him to “wipe” (atone) the anger off his brother Esau’s face. As it turned out, Esau was not angry because time healed his wounds, and he was prosperous. The main point, however, is that sacrifice and gifts atone for or wipe away just wrath. The sacrifice of an animal during the sin offering (Lev. 4:1-5:13), for example, was to atone for the worshiper’s own sins, by blood manipulation primarily. Then God’s judicial wrath would be lifted and he would smile on his people again. Jacob and Esau were reconciled, and God and his people were reconciled.
The NT Greek nouns are hilasmos (used twice and pronounced hih-lahs-moss) and hilastērion (also used twice and pronounced he-lah-stay-ree-own). The first noun appears in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 and means “an atoning sacrifice, propitiation.” Propitiation means “satisfaction” or “appeasement.” Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for sins. Our sins destroyed and separated us from God, but the sacrifice of Jesus reconciles us to God (1 John 1:6-7).
For more information, please click on this post:
To forestall objections that falsely accuse God of being primitive or petty, please see this post:
Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?
Is. 6 is a wonderful passage that describes a holy man—Isaiah—in the very presence of God, and he saw himself as undone and ruined, because he was an unclean man living among an unclean people. God reached out to him and put a coal on his lips to speak with power and anointing. God cleansed him.
Is. 27:9 talks about the extreme need of Israel’s sins to be removed, and one way to do this was to cut down fertility poles and crush altars to false gods. But this would not bring about reconciliation for all of humanity, forever, but the need for it is clear.
Dan. 9:24 speaks of Israel living in exile seventy years to finish transgression and atone for their wickedness. The verb “atone” means to “wipe away” or appease or placate God’s righteous demands.
John 1:29 shows John the Baptist proclaiming to the people about Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”
So the problem to be overcome is the sinfulness of humanity that separates humans from God. Now how do they become reconciled?
II.. How is atonement done?
1.. Blood must be shed.
Lev. 16:11 and 18 requires blood to be shed for the high priest on the Day of Atonement before he can enter the tabernacle.
Heb. 9:19-22 says that Moses sprinkled the items in the tabernacle and the tabernacle itself with the blood of animals, to cleanse it, for without the shedding of blood, there is no remission (release) from sins.
The New Testament trims these requirements to the sacrifice of Christ, but this once-and-for-all sacrifice has an OT background. The atonement of Christ on the cross on which he shed his blood is eternal, not yearly or daily.
2.. A substitutionary sacrifice must be offered.
Lev. 4:13-26 says that when the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally or a man sins unintentionally or a leader does the same, then he must sacrifice an animal, and the leader is to place his hands on it, so the sin is transferred, and the animal stands in for the human.
Lev. 5:5-10 teaches that if anyone—a man or woman—sins, he or she must bring an animal to pay the penalty for his or her sin and he or she must confess his or her sin.
Is. 53:4-7 speaks of the Suffering Servant—who, it will turn out to be—is Jesus the Messiah, who took our infirmities and bore our suffering, and we considered him punished and stricken by God and pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
1 John 2:2 is clear: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins alone, but for the sins of the whole world.
So now it is clear where the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement comes from. Perfectly righteous Jesus stood in place of perfectly unrighteous humanity, and paid the penalty for our sins, as our substitute on the cross. We should have been on the cross, not him.
And now it is clear why his blood must be shed. It is for the remission of sins.
III.. How does Christ provide atonement for the sins of humanity?
1.. He is symbolized in Old Testament sacrifices.
The blood of Passover lamb was used to put on the doorpost of the ancient Israelites living in Egypt, and when the death angel saw it, he would “pass over” the house and not wreak God’s judgment on the people. And the lamb had to be without defect (Exod. 12:1-7, 12-13).
1 Cor. 5:7 says that Christ the Passover lamb has been sacrificed; therefore the Corinthians (and we too) needed to get rid of the yeast or sin. This teaches that the atonement produces righteousness and godly living. But the main point is that Christ stood in our place and held back God’s judgment. Now we can go free from our own personal Egypt. Jesus was also without defect (sin) (Heb. 4:15).
Is. 53:7 says that a lamb was led to the slaughter, and this was the Suffering Servant, Jesus.
As noted, John 1:29 says that Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And John the Baptist once again calls him the lamb of God (John 1:36).
In a magnificent passage, 1 Peter 1:18-19, Peter teaches us that Christ, who is the unblemished lamb of God, redeemed us through his precious blood. As noted, the Passover lamb had to be without defect.
In Rev. 5:6-7, John sees a vision of the slain lamb that was worthy to open the scroll. When the lamb took the scroll, the angels sang a song of praise which began: “Worthy is the lamb!”
2.. He fulfills the Day of Atonement.
Heb. 9:7-14 and 23-28 says that Christ is both the high priest and sacrifice. He did the sacrifice once and for all, which lasts eternally and brought through the eternal Spirit redemption for humanity.
The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective
IV.. What does the New Testament teach about Christ’s atonement?
1.. Christ is our atoning sacrifice.
Rom. 3:25 is the clearest verse on Christ’s sacrificial atonement. It says God himself presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood. This atoning sacrifice is to be received by faith, not by law keeping or by your own penance or your own sacrifices of righteous acts.
2.. His atoning sacrifice is eternal, not daily or yearly.
Heb. 9:28 says that Christ was sacrificed once and for all to take away the sins of the many.
1 John 4:10 instructs about God’s love. The greatest proof or demonstration about his love is not that we love God, but that he loved us. How deep does his love go? He sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
3.. It is for everyone who receive it by faith, not just for the elect.
How so? Matthew 20:28 says he came to give his life as a ransom for many. The Greek noun is lutron (pronounced loo-tron), and in Greek writings at the time, it most often referred to the purchase price for freeing slaves. It is their emancipation from slavery and into freedom. Jesus was the price that was paid to free his people and many others from their enslavement. Yes, it is true that there is never any mention in the NT of the person who was paid, but maybe we can say that it refers to our sin nature. He paid the price by becoming vicariously a sin offering and thereby paying the penalty for our sin, which was death. So the price and penalty merged, and it was death, and he paid that price by becoming a ransom. Remember: Jesus had just spoken of his death (Matt. 20:17-19).
The christological aspect is the best-known issue in this verse. “Ransom” [lutron] has its background in the OT idea of the kinsman redeemer (Boaz and Ruth) but mainly in the idea of the payment made to redeem the firstborn (Num. 3:46-47; 18:15) as well as the Hellenistic idea of freeing a slave or buying freedom of a prisoner of war. It denotes a “ransom” payment and has two connotations here and in the parallel apolutrōsis passages (“redemption” –e.g. Gal 4:5; Eph 1:7, 14; cf. Rom 3:24; Heb 9:12), the payment (the “blood” of Jesus) and the freedom from sin that it purchases for people. (Grant R. Osborne, comment on 20:28)
The background to this verse is Is. 53. There the Suffering Servant would suffer for his people. Is. 53:10, 12 talks about paying and suffering for the nation. He was the offering for guilt.
… Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt, (Is. 53:10, ESV)
For more discussion about the Suffering Servant being a guilt offering, see this post about Leviticus:
The Guilt Offering from a NT Perspective
And Is. 53:12 says that he bore the sins of many:
… he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Is. 53:12, ESV)
See my posts:
What Is Redemption in the Bible?
“for” is the preposition “anti” (pronounced ahn-tee), and it typically means “in place of” or “instead of.” It means a substitution. So here we have a basic verse about the substitutionary theory of the atonement.
As for the word many, commentator Richard France is spot on when he interprets Matt. 20:28 and many, as follows:
That Jesus’s death is “in the place of many” should not be taken as a deliberate contrast to “a ransom for all” in 1 Tim. 2:6 (cf., e.g., 2 Cor 5:14-15). The use of “many” derives from the Isa. 53 background and sets up a contrast between the one who dies and the many who benefit. A theology of “limited atonement” is far from the intention of the passage and would be anachronistic in this context (p. 763)
In note 27, France further says that Rom 5:12-19 has the play of “many” v. “all.” In vv. 12 and 18, “all” is used, yet in vv. 15 and 19 “many” appears. In other words, the two terms “many” and “all” mean the same thing both in Rom. 5:12-19 and here in Matt. 20:28. In simpler terms: “Many” and “all” in contexts like these are synonyms, as the verses in Romans and Isaiah demonstrate.
Commentator Craig Blomberg is right: it refers to all who accept Jesus’s call of forgiveness: “‘Many’ refers to all who accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, made possible by his death, and who commit their lives to him in discipleship” (comment on 20:28).
Grammarian Wesley G. Olmstead is right, as he quotes two earlier commentators (Davies and Allison): “Because, however, the variant of our saying in 1 Tim 2:6 has [all], because [many] elsewhere in the NT sometimes seem to mean ‘all’ (e.g. Rom 5:15, 19), and because one can identify the ‘many’ as all except the Son of man, one should probably give [many] comprehensive meaning” (p. 143).
Here is the parallel in 1 Tim. 2:5-6:
5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (NIV, emphasis added)
Making too much of the term “many,” literally, overworks the text and is a clunky interpretation. It is best to take the word as comprehensive or “all.”
It is never a good idea to “limit” his atonement by indirect reasoning.
Example: (a) people can never resist his grace for salvation; (b) not all people are saved; (c) therefore his grace for salvation is not offered to everyone; and (d) therefore his salvation done on the cross (atonement) is limited to the elect or those who were called by grace; (e) and therefore, finally, the atonement is limited to the elect. Convoluted and indirect.
It is better to look directly at verses covering Christ’s atoning death on the cross—and he died for all. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV, emphasis added). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding off his blood—to be received by faith (Rom. 3:23-25, NIV, emphasis added). This redemption and atonement is received by faith.
Therefore, the door is open to anyone and everyone—all—who have faith to receive his grace, which leads to redemption and the atonement being applied to anyone and everyone—all—who have faith! The initiative begins with God, and our faith responds to his freely offered grace—offered to anyone and everyone—all. His grace is efficacious or effective to the everyone who believes or has faith, and Christ’s sacrifice of atonement is received by faith.
As I read things, the call of the gospel goes to all, but some won’t respond in saving faith, but many will. Grace is resistible. God gave each person a significant measure of free will, enough to resist the gospel call, but not enough to save himself. For salvation, he needs the Spirit-energized gospel to awaken his saving faith.
V.. What are the benefits or results of Christ’s atonement?
1.. Our guilt is transferred over to the sacrificial offering.
Lev. 1:3-4 and 16:21-22 teach the ancient Israelite was to lay his hand on the animal, in a transference of the sin and guilt from the human to the animal.
1 Cor. 5:20-21 is a great passage to illustrate how Christ became a sin offering, so we can become the righteousness of God. Then in v. 20, Paul had written: “Be reconciled to God.” So reconciliation and atonement are related.
Heb. 9:14 and 10:22 says Christ’s blood cleanses our guilty conscience from our sin.
These passages teach us that our guilt is transferred over to Christ, and his righteousness is transferred over to us. It is called the Great Exchange.
2.. Our sins are forgiven.
In Lev. 4:26, 31, and 35, the man who offered the animals in various sacrifices has made appropriate atonement, and his sins are forgiven.
Heb. 3:23-27 is rich in meaning, and it could be studied in various translations. But one main point is that God declaring us righteous says that our sins are forgiven.
Heb. 9:22 says that without the shedding of blood there is no remission or forgiveness of sins, or stated positively: with the shedding of blood there is forgiveness of sins.
Eph. 1:7 says that in Christ we have redemption through his blood and forgiveness of sin, and his rich grace must be extended—and it is right now.
3.. Our sins are purified.
1 John 1:7 says his blood purifies us from our sins.
This goes back to the Old Testament that says sprinkled blood cleanses the objects in the tabernacle and the tabernacle itself and the people. Christ fulfills this process, and now we receive it by faith.
4.. We are freed from sins.
Rev. 1:5 says it clearly that we are freed from our sins by his blood. This means that sin no longer has power over us. Old habits and addictions can be broken by the blood of Christ, and the blood stands in for the entire sacrifice process.
5.. We are redeemed.
Rom. 3:24-25 says that we have been justified freely—without our paying a price—or declared us righteous through the Christ’s sacrifice of atonement and redemption.
And, as noted, 1 Pet. 1:18 says we have been redeemed by the precious blood of the unblemished lamb.
Redemption means God purchased us or bought us out of our enslavement to sin, and the price paid is the blood of Christ. Who was paid? Satan? Probably not, but the Scriptures are not clear, but most theologians say God’s justice was paid because God himself presented Christ as an atoning sacrifice. He demanded justice and he himself paid it for us, since we could never pay it; our own sins put us far below the price range. A working-class man can never buy a huge mansion, but what if the owner gave it to him?
6.. We are saved.
Rom. 5:9 teaches that we have been justified by his blood. That means he paid for our justification or our being declared righteous. Justification means a declaration of righteousness.
7.. We are reconciled to God.
Rom 5:10 follows 5:9 in the previous point. Christ’s blood reconciled us to God.
Col. 1:20 says that the fullness of deity lived in Christ, and through him God reconciled all things to himself by making peace through his blood on the cross.
In reconciliation, God did not move (morally speaking). We did. We rebelled, and now he is on a long search to bring humanity back to himself. However, the sins of humanity have to be atoned for, because God’s justice demands payment for our wrongs, much like a criminal has to pay for his wrongs. After he does, then he can be reconciled back into society. However, Christ stepped in and paid the penalty by going through his sacrifice in our place. Now we are reconciled to God through him.
8.. We have peace with God.
Col. 1:20 says this at the end of the verse (see the previous point).
9.. We are made holy.
Heb. 13:12 says Jesus died outside the camp to make us holy by his blood. This refers to burning the sin offering outside the camp, because it is a sin offering (Exod. 29:14). The presence of sin must be ceremoniously removed from God’s holy people. And the burning refers to God’s justice-wrath-judgment. By this offering the people were made holy or separated from the world, the flesh (sin nature), and the devil. They were consecrated to God.
10.. We are reconciled to other Christians of different cultures.
Eph. 2:14-18 is another rich passage that can be studied for hours. We used to have a wall of hostility between each other, but Christ’s peace destroyed it, by setting aside the in his sacrificial flesh the laws and its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create one new humanity, in one body—his own—and reconcile them through the cross.
This reconciliation must be done in Christ, not in other cultures.
11.. The power of the devil is disarmed and broken.
Col. 2:15 says that Jesus disarmed the spiritual authorities in the heavenly realm through the cross.
Heb. 2:14-15 instructs us about Christ’s death. He shared in our humanity so that by his death he would deliver us from the power of the devil that held sway over death and free us who feared death.
VII.. Is healing in the atonement?
I have moved this question and answer to a new post:
Why Doesn’t Divine Healing Happen One Hundred Percent of the Time in This Age?
Is Christ’s Death on the Cross Divine Child Abuse?
I have moved this question and answer to this post:
Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?
How does this post bring me closer to Jesus?
The atonement doctrine has fallen out of “fashion” for postmodern man. Why can’t he just ask for forgiveness and get it? He can, but he has to realize that Christ paid the penalty for humankind’s sin, so that the man or woman can even have a legal standing before God. Without Christ, humankind has no opportunity to ask in the first place. Self-atonement is deficient.
But why did Christ have to go through his sacrificial death? Why couldn’t God just decree it? Man committed great wrong. Justice had to be paid—much like a criminal today has to pay for his wrongs. But what if someone stepped in and paid the penalty for the wrongs? Jesus did that on the cross for us. Now justice is satisfied.
But why the bloody sacrificial death on the cross? Why not just do something else? The problem with that idea is that the Old Testament is full of sacrifices and the shedding of blood.
It is arrogant to sneer at the first-century writers of the New Testament because they did not ignore the fact that animal sacrifices were still going on in the temple at Jerusalem as the priests followed the Old Testament system. This was the system that God himself set up. And God himself presented Christ as the atoning sacrifice to fulfill it. We omit following the teaching of the apostolic community’s teaching at our own peril.
Let’s never abandon Christ on the cross. He did so much for us on Calvary that our condescension towards him is just plain fatal at judgment.
Now the old has given way to the new. Christ through his blood established the New Covenant (Matt. 26:28 // Mark 14:24 // Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:20).
Now by faith we accept his once-and-for-all, eternally applied sacrifice.
Atonement: Bible Basics
The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective
At that link, look for the NIV Study Bible