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What Does "Atonement" Mean?

[This article is extracted in large part from GV Growcott's "Atonement: The Use and Meaning of the Word", Ber 65:309-313.]

The word 'atonement' occurs eighty-one times in the Old Testament, and once in the New, in the AV.

English definitions

According to Webster, the English meaning of 'atonement' is:

  1. reconciliation, the restoration of friendly relations (this is the original meaning, now obsolete);
  2. a theological doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and man;
  3. reparation, or satisfaction (that is, the doing of something, or the paying of some penalty, to compensate for some wrong action).
It should be noted that originally atonement simply meant reconciliation, was not a theological word, and did not in itself convey the idea of reparation, expiation, or some compensating action or payment.

This (original) meaning [ie, #1 above] appears to be the AV meaning. From other extra-Biblical uses of the English word at the time the AV was translated, this appears to have been the meaning of the word in the 1600s. This somewhat clarifies the Scriptural use, and removes one aspect of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For we should remove from the word the idea of compensation or reparation, which is the basis of the orthodox theory of substitution. The introduction of this theory appears to have corrupted the original common meaning of the word. (This should not be surprising. The apostasy's false teachings have corrupted the meanings of many good Bible words: baptism, hell, soul, kingdom, devil, Holy Spirit, and so forth.)

But even 'reconciliation' does not represent properly the Hebrew word translated 'atonement', for 'reconciliation' as we commonly use it implies a moral relation and personal estrangement, whereas the Hebrew has no such implication. (Accountants do use 'reconciliation' in strictly non-moral, inanimate connections, as 'reconciling' a bank statement, for example. Here the sense is simply to bring into factual or material conformity, without any moral implications whatsoever.)

So much for the meanings of the English words, which are not important in themselves in searching out Scriptural meanings, but only insofar as they color -- correctly or incorrectly -- our understanding of the Scriptural terms.

Bible definitions

The Hebrew word, wherever 'atonement' occurs in the AV, is "kaphar" (root meaning: 'to cover') or "kippoorim" (plural 'coverings'). [See Aside.] This has the same root; as "kapporeth", the 'lid' or 'cover' of the ark always in the AV translated "mercy seat". [See Aside 2.]

[Aside: "Cover" is almost universally regarded as the root meaning of "kaphar", and this fits with its literal use in Gen 6:14, but some consider the root meaning to be "wash away" or "cleanse". This, if correct, would be even more fitting in its symbolic use. In many of the examples to be cited in the text this idea of cleansing is the basic one, and the AV several times uses "cleanse" or "purge" in translation of "kaphar". Certainly Christ is both a "cover" and a "cleansing" for his people. These are related concepts, but "cleanse" seems to be the deeper one.]

[Aside 2: "Mercy seat" was first used by Tyndale, literally translating Luther's "Gnadenstuhl", from the LXX "hilasterion", place of reconciliation.]

The first use of "kaphar" is in Gen 6:14, where it is translated "pitch", but in the sense of 'cover with pitch'. This is the only place where "kaphar" is used literally and neutrally as 'cover'. In all other places it is used of a figurative covering, and in relation to some uncleanness in a thing or person.

Thus "kaphar" is not restricted to moral relations, or to the need for repentance and forgiveness and personal reconciliation. It does not necessarily imply guilt or error. It is used for the figurative or ceremonial cleansing and purifying of inanimate objects, as concerning the original cleansing of the altar when it was first constructed: "And thou shalt offer every day a bullock for a sin offering for atonement: and thou shalt cleanse the altar, when thou hast made an atonement for it" (Exo 29:36).

In Lev 14:34-53 are instructions for the cleansing of an infection-defiled house, and in this case there is no direct relation to any sin or guilt: "And he shall take to cleanse the house two birds, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop... and he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird... but he shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open fields, and make an atonement for the house" (vv 49.52,53).

Other instances of inanimate atonements are as follows:

As applied to people, "kaphar" may imply recognition in the moral sense, and involve the gaining of forgiveness. There are many examples of this in Lev 4; 5. However, when applied to people it may be merely a cleansing without any hint of personal guilt or need for forgiveness. This is most strikingly illustrated in the requirement of atonement for the uncleanness of childbirth:

"If a woman have... born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, she shall bring... a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement (kaphar) for her, and she shall be clean" (Lev 12:2,6,8). The most notable and significant case of this very type of atonement is Mary, who was "highly favored" and "blessed among women": "And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem... to offer a sacrifice" (Luk 2:22-24). Notice in Lev 12 that this is called a sin offering for atonement, although clearly there was no guilt or moral alienation involved here.

"Kaphar" is almost always translated 'atonement', but other renderings (besides those already mentioned) are:

  1. Deu 21:8: "Be merciful ('kaphar'), O LORD, unto Thy people... And the blood shall be forgiven ('kaphar') them."
  2. Deu 32:43: "(God) will be merciful ('kaphar') unto His land,"
  3. Psa 65:3: "...our transgressions. Thou shalt purge ('kaphar') them away."
  4. Psa 78:38: "He... forgave ('kaphar') their iniquity."
  5. Pro 16:6: "By mercy and truth iniquity is purged ('kaphar')."
  6. Eze 16:63: "...when I (God) am pacified toward ('kaphar') thee."
  7. Eze 45:17: " make reconciliation ('kaphar') for the house of Israel."
  8. Dan 9:24: " make reconciliation ('kaphar') for iniquity."
The right connotation

It has been shown that the English word 'atonement' is not a very good representation of the Hebrew "kaphar", and carries connotations not in the original. Today 'atone' and 'atonement' carry, to most people, the ideas of (1) moral culpability, and (2) expiation and a required compensation of some sort.

Guilt, and payment for that guilt, are secondary and acquired meanings, even for the English word. They are not part of the original English meaning, which was simply 'atonement' -- a bringing into unity. And these ideas of guilt of sin, and payment for sin, are certainly not inherent in the Hebrew word "kaphar", which, as seen, can apply to the cleansing of inanimate objects, or of uncleannesses of people which do not involve any personal guilt.

It would probably be simpler, less misleading, and more understandable, if we used 'covering' or 'cleansing' wherever 'atonement' occurs, being guided by the context as to whether it involved a moral reconciliation or whether it was simply a physical (or legal and ceremonial) cleansing.

The Scriptural concepts of covering and cleansing turn our minds profitably in the direction of what must occur within us, through and as a result of the required atonement. The orthodox ideas attached to 'atonement' -- someone else being required to pay for our guilt, to suffer instead of us for our sins -- tends to dull our consciences and turn our minds away from our own real need for cleansing and purifying.

It is the blood of Christ, the perfect sacrifice, that first 'covers', then 'cleanses' us -- not ritually, but practically and gloriously. He did not die to 'atone' for our sins in the orthodox sense. He lived and died to become a cleansing medium by which our sins are first mercifully covered, and then, progressively and at last completely and perfectly, cleansed from us: 'washed away'.

Atonement, then, as it occurs in the AV, does not mean an external payment or compensation, that is, something done outside of ourselves, something substitutionary. This is a corrupted orthodox meaning. Instead, it means an internal covering, cleansing, purifying, and putting right -- something done not so much for us as in us.

Bible sacrifice

The sacrifices of the Bible were not to pay for sins; nor were they substitutes to suffer and die in the place of the sinner, as orthodoxy teaches. The sacrifices of the Bible were a humble recognition that the only condition acceptable to God is purity and perfection; that sin is uncleanness; and that sinful man can be reconciled to God only by being covered by, and washed in the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

The sacrifices had to be "without blemish", a "perfect" life poured out unto death. There was to be a recognition that the flesh must he cut off and the body of sin destroyed, the ultimate submission and subjection of humanity to God.

The required perfection of (he sacrifices is the key to their meaning; the perfection of Christ, which can cover weak sinful man. if man will humbly and obediently accept the covering in the way appointed and live in the way required to maintain possession of this covering.

The sacrifices were a manifestation of faith in the deliverance from sin that God had promised and would provide: the Seed of the woman to crush the serpent's head (Gen 3:15).

[For an in-depth study of this foundation verse in all the Bible, see "The Serpent and the Woman's Seed": Genesis 3:15 in all the Bible".]

New Testament atonement

The AV has introduced 'atonement' only once into the New Testament (Rom 5:11), and there the RV has correctly changed it to "reconciliation", consistent with the AV rendering of the same noun (katallage) and its related verb (katallasso) everywhere else.

In the New Testament we read much of reconciliation, redemption, sanctification, purification, cleansing, and so forth. All of these, in harmony with "kaphar", turn our minds to the state and condition of the recipient rather than to something done externally to him and as a substitute for him, as the orthodox idea of atonement has it. [Also see Lesson, Redemption]

[Aside: Scriptural atonement ("kaphar") is, truly, always related in some way to the physical condition arising from the general constitution of sin that has come upon the world through Adam. That is the unifying idea behind all its uses.]

Of Christ's own need of, and participation in, the cleansing benefits of his sacrificial death, we therefore read:

"It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should he purified with these (animal sacrifices): but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these" (Heb 9:23);

"By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12) -- not "for us" as in the AV, but "for himself" in the first instance.

Concerning that blood of Christ, as it relates to us, we read:

  1. "Ye are washed... ye are sanctified" (1Co 6:11);
  2. "We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Eph 1:7: also Col 1:14);
  3. "If the blood of bulls and of goats... sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ... purge your conscience...?" (Heb 9:13,14):
  4. "...that he (Jesus) might sanctify the people with his own blood" (Heb 13:12);
  5. "Ye were... redeemed... with (the precious blood of Christ)" (1Pe 1:18.19);
  6. "The blood of Jesus Christ... cleanseth us" (1Jo 1:7);
  7. "Unto him that loved us. and washed us from our sins in his own blood..." (Rev 1:5);
  8. "Thou... hast redeemed us to God by thy blood" (Rev 5:9).
Cleansing, purifying, sanctifying (making holy), and redeeming from (rescuing from the bondage to) Sin -- this is the picture throughout. It is a process which must, in one sense, be done for us and to us, for we can 'of our own selves do nothing', and "it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure". But the process also demands our complete devotion and desire, and our utmost effort, for the immediately preceding verse commands: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phi 2:12,13).

It is not in contradiction, but in beautiful harmony, that the washing is attributed, not only to the blood, but also to the Word:

"... that the might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:26).
There must be a constant washing, a total immersion in this Divine water of life, if the great work of 'at-one-ment' -- making all things one in Christ -- is to have any meaning for us.

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