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The Atonement

Last time we began the doctrine of salvation. We looked at the OT and NT terms that are used to speak of salvation.

We didn’t start developing the doctrine itself, but hopefully from a simple examination of the terms used, we were able to show it is not only a very large topic, but also a nuanced one.

Today we’re going to get into the doctrine itself, and begin to develop it-- and we are going to begin with the doctrine of atonement.

Now, this is a pretty massive topic in its own right. We have already done an episode on the various theories of atonement, so we will simply point you to that one.

But today, we are going to dive into the concept of atonement.

Now, there is a rich OT theology of the atonement.

To properly understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross (when we say that He atoned for our sin), you have to rightly understand the OT background.

We are going to begin by examining some of the OT data, and then we’ll take a look at the New.

The Biblical Data:


The root kaphar is used some 150 times. It has been much discussed. There is an equivalent Arabic root, meaning "cover" or "conceal." On the strength of this connection it has been supposed that the Hebrew word means “to cover over sin,” and therefore pacify the deity, making an atonemen.

It has been suggested that the OT ritual symbolized a covering over of sin until it was dealt with in fact by the atonement of Christ. There is, however, very little evidence for this view. The connection of the Arabic word is weak and the Hebrew root is not used to mean ‘’cover.’

Wenhem notes, “... despite the terms frequent occurrence, its etymology and its meaning are uncertain. One possible derivation is from the Akkadian verb kuppuru, 'to cleanse' or 'to wipe...'

Alternatively kaphar, ‘to make atonement’ may be derived from the Hebrew word “koper,” meaning ‘ransom price.’ A koper is the money a man condemned to death can pay to escape the death penalty (Ex. 21:30). kaphar , ‘to make atonement,’ could then be literally translated, ‘to pay a ransom (for one’s life)’... Such an understanding is compatible with most of the passages that speak of sacrifice as a ‘making atonement’ for someone. Through the animal’s death and the subsequent rituals, men are ransomed from the death that their sin and uncleanness merit” (NICOT, Leviticus, Wenhem).

There is a helpful observation regarding the word kopar and kaphar.

“The meaning can be better understood as meaning “to atone by offering a substitute.” The great majority of the usages concern the priestly ritual of sprinkling of the sacrificial blood, therefore, “making an atonement” for the worshiper. There are forty-nine instances of this usage in Leviticus alone and no other meaning there is witnessed.

The verb is always used in connection with the removal of sin or defilement, except for a few exceptions. It seems clear the word aptly illustrates the theology of reconciliation in the OT. The life of the sacrificial animal specifically, symbolized by its blood, was required in exchange for the life of the worshiper. Sacrifice of animals in OT theology was not merely an expression of thanks to the deity by cattle raising people. It was the symbolic expression of innocent life given for guilty life. This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshiper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice and confessing his sins over the animal, which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoat” (NICOT, Leviticus, Wehnem).

How are these terms used? (-- Two major usages)

Cultic and Non-cultic

The term “cultic” in theological writings refers to specific religious rituals and ways of worship. There are times in which the term for “atonement” is used, but is not related to religion (or a religious practice).

Examples: Ex. 30:32; Deut. 32:40, et. at.

But there are also many cutlic uses.

By far, this is the common usage in the OT for the idea of atonement.

The key text is Lev. 17:11, “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.”

In Leviticus 4 we see a ritual (or cultic) of atonement that is in 4 steps.-

-One for the priest.

- One for the congregation.

- One for the leader.

- One for the ordinary Israelite.

What is important, though, is that through the manipulation of the blood of animals, then sin can become forgiven.

For as the writer of Hebrews says (quoting Lev. 17), “without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sin.”

So what we see when looking at the OT uses of atonement is that God gave the people, both individually and nationally, a ritual that would repair the damage done when they sinned against Him.

What did the OT sacrifices actually do?

There is a lot of discussion regarding the efficacy of the sacrifices in the OT. At issue, here, is whether the death of these animals produced forgiveness of sins, or were they merely foreshadows of the one true sacrifice in Christ?

A common perspective is seen in Grudem’s writings: “Then what about believers in the OT? How could they come to God through Jesus the mediator? The answer is that the work of Jesus as our mediator was foreshadowed by the sacrificial system and the offerings made by the priests in the temple. There was no saving merit inherent in that system of sacrifices, however. Through the sacrificial system believers were accepted by God only on the basis of the future work of Christ foreshadowed by that system.” (Grudem, ST).

“The second factor often overlooked in OT sacrifice is that sacrifice was not to the Hebrews some crude, temporary, and merely typical institution, nor a substitute for that dispensation until better things were provided by revelation. But rather, as will be shown, sacrifice was then the only sufficient means of remaining in harmonious relation to God. It was adequate for the period in which God intended it should serve. This is not the same as saying Levitical sacrifice was equal with the sacrifice of Christ, nor that the blood of bulls and goats could, from God’s side, take away sins; but it is recognizing the reality of the divine institution of Mosaic worship, and looking, as too often OT interpreters fail to do, at sacrifice from the viewpoint of the Hebrew in the OT dispensation. Sacrifice, to the pious Hebrew, was not something unimportant, or simply a perfunctory ritual, but it was an important element in his moral obedience to the revealed will of God. Sacrifice was by its very nature intensely personal, ethical, moral, and spiritual, because it was intended to reflect the attitude of the heart and will toward God” (Hobart Freeman).

So when the biblical data is considered, there is no doubt that from the perspective of the OT there was forgiveness found in these sacrifices. There is no indication that they were all killing these animals looking forward to the time when the true sacrifice was accomplished.

Example passages:

Lev. 19:22 - “'The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.

Num. 15:25 - “Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.”

So when these passages (and others like them) are considered in their own context, there seems to be little room to debate the efficacy of these sacrifices.

The “problem” in the NT:

As you begin to read through the book of Hebrews, various passages start to create some legitimate questions regarding the OT sacrificial system.

Heb. 9:9-14 “Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

Heb. 10:1-4 "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.”

Now there is a great temptation to read Hebrews back into the OT data, and therefore make all the sacrifices and statements regarding forgiveness on both a national and individual level simply go away. However, that is not exegesis, but eisegesis.

A Solution:

There is a lot of discussion on this that is not conducive for a short episode on this.

Suffice it to say that the interpreter has to deal with the OT phrase… “and the sin which he has been committed will be forgiven” (c.f., Lev. 19:22, Num. 15:25; et. al).

So the question becomes, what is meant by that phrase?

It would take a lot of work to make it not say what it is clearly saying.

The best way to understand it is both/and. In one sense, the sin is forgiven, but in another sense, sin is not being “taken away” or “cleansed.”

In fact, nowhere in the OT will you read of sin being removed or cleansed through the sacrificial system. Rather, the emphasis is always upon forgiveness.

In the context of the old covenant, the forgiveness that came about through the sacrificial system allowed for the covenant between God and the nation to remain intact. Without forgiveness, the covenant is broken. But that is not the same thing as saying sin has been removed, or the violator cleansed of his sin.

That is the point of the passages in Hebrews. In Jesus Christ, not only is sin forgiven, but it is also cleansed. Both the violation and presence of sin are fully dealt with.

All of this, then, brings up another issue: The controversy over whether atonement was expiatory or propitiatory.

“Expiation” means to make amends for a violation of an offense.

“Propitiation” includes the making of amends, but also involves a relationship aspect where God is appeased and His wrath is averted.

The best understanding is the second view. God’s wrath is present when one sins, and so it is through atonement that it is appeased. God is not merely “fixing” the sin, but also restoring a relationship as well.

The concept of Atonement in the NT:

The word “atonement” is not found in the NT. Rather, it is more the concept that we see. And this creates a bit of a challenge because it requires a person to consider the many different word groups that are used to define and express atonement.

Commercial Terms:

"Agoradzo" group

The basic meaning here is to purchase (or buy back) in a market place. And so there is a soteriological usage that involves the idea of purchasing out of sin (or to redeem). Sometimes it can refer to purchasing in a slave market.

Examples: 1 Cor. 6:20; Gal. 3:13; Rev. 5:9, 14:3.

Rev. 5:9 - “And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

Note: Here, the preposition "ek" is used. So there is an aspect of election, here, because the purchase is extracting us out of the mass of humanity.


This word is explicitly a slave-market term that speaks of being purchased out of that condition and position. The meaning is to be redeemed or be set free.

Examples: Matt. 20:28; Rom. 3:24, 1 Cor. 1:30.

Appeasement Terms:

"Hilasmos (hilaskomai)"

Friberg’s lexicon shows the basic meanings to be: (1) show kindness and compassion toward one who does not deserve it, have mercy on, pardon, forgive… (2) bring about reconciliation, make acceptable to, provide for forgiveness, with focus on the means of reconciliation.

Examples: Lk. 18:13; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:15, 9:5.

Changed Relationship Terms:

"Allossō" group

There are four forms that this word takes, each of them adding a prepositional prefix.

"Katallassw (kata +allassō)"

Carries the idea of restoring relationships between individuals, or between God and man.  It is to reconcile, or to change from enemity to friendship.

This term will often be in the passive voice -- showing we have been reconciled to God. It shows God is the reconciler in this relationship (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18).

"Katallagay (kata + allagay)"

Literally to exchange, or profit from exchange. Figuratively in the NT, it is used to speak of re-establishing personal relations in the sense of changing from enmity to friendship.

Examples: Rom 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:18.

"Apo-katallassō (apo + allassō)"

To strictly transfer from one state to another. So it speaks of broken interpersonal relations that have been restored-- again, from enmity to favor.

Examples: Col. 1:20; Eph. 2:16.

"Diallassō (dia + allassō)"

Dealing with mutual hostility, and changing from enmity to friendship. Only used in the passive voice in the NT. So it is to be made to be reconciled, or to be made at peace with someone. Again, God is the active person in this relationship.


When you consider the various terms and how they are used, you find that they’re all building upon the OT sacrificial system. This is an important study because it helps pave the way for a proper view of the atonement. 

Now we already did an episode on the various theories of atonement, so instead of going through that again, we will simply say that you should go back and listen to it if you are interested.

Our basic conclusion is that the best theory of atonement is something known as penal substitutionary -- where Christ paid our penalty (penal), and He did it in our place (substitution). 

By far, this is how the OT sacrificial system functioned, and therefore, what it was pointing to.

Again, while the OT sacrifices didn’t remove the sin of the people, it did provide a sense of forgiveness, which allowed for the covenant between God and His people to remain intact.

In the NT, Jesus accomplishes this is an eternal sense, where not only is forgiveness provided, but also the removal of sin-- which will be fully realized in the New Heavens and Earth.

There are aspects of the other theories that we would hold to as well.

Christus Victor: Christ is victorious over the evil powers and forces (Col. 1:13). 

Satisfaction Theory

Irenaeus’ Recapitulation Theory, etc.

The main way to understand the atonement is Penal Substitution. There are many implications to that, and we fleshed some of that out in that earlier episode. So check it out!

Next time we’ll start talking about the motive and method of salvation. As well as, start our discussion on how salvation is functionally worked out-- beginning, of course, with the whole concept of election.


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