Chapter 7 – Biblical Atonement

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

“By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, And by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil.” Proverbs 16:6 NASB

In Hebrew thinking, atonement is the reparation and restoration of a relationship; it is not a payment to purchase forgiveness. If restitution can be made, then it may or may not be a part of atonement, but restitution is not the primary point. The primary point of atonement is to repair and restore a relationship, involving whatever elements are appropriate given a particular situation. Proverbs 16:6 lays out this principle. Lovingkindness and truth in a relationship require humility, restoration, honesty, and a desire to become of the same mind, at-one-ment. Both love and fear of Yahweh are valuable in keeping us away from ever committing an iniquity to begin with, thus keeping us atoned, or of the same mind.

Atonement in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament we read that sacrifices were typically made for atonement with God. The sacrifice could be a one-per-person, or on the Day of Atonement it was one sacrifice for all the people: 

“This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; For it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD.” Leviticus 16:29-30 NASB 

Nothing in this atonement passage, nor in any other passage, says anything about the sacrifice being a payment for sin. We also read nothing about the suffering and death of the animal as part of atonement. Nor do we see the blood applied to or covering the person or persons seeking atonement. The blood was for the altar as part of the symbolic ritual intended to display a desire to maintain a covenantal relationship. Blood is not a magical substance with power to delete guilt or sin from a person’s ledger. 

Propitiation is the idea of man doing something to or for God to propitiate, or appease God in order to prevent His wrath from being poured out. But none of the passages about atonement link this wrath with the atonement process. This is not to deny that God can and does have an end to His patience and mercy and will at some point allow wrath to take place, but there is never a command or even a hint about requiring an atoning sacrifice to appease or propitiate His wrath. Propitiation is actually a pagan view of the gods, where great sacrifices were performed to appease their imagined deity. Yahweh made very clear that He is not like those Gods. Releasing His wrath is His last resort, not His normal daily activity.

Any person who wishes to do so may go read the various passages about atonement sacrifices in the Old Testament system. Here is a list for starters: Exodus 32:30, Leviticus 5:11-13, 16:1-34, Numbers 15:25-31, 29:1-11. Several things should be noted while reading these passages: 1. Nothing is said about wrath, so propitiation of wrath is not the intent, 2. Nothing is said about a payment, 3. Some sacrifices did not involve any blood, 4. Some were for individuals only and some applied to the entire community, 5. The primary point is not the shedding of blood, but rather the restoration and affirmation of a relationship with God. 6. The idea of Penal Substitution is absent unless the reader inserts the concept into the texts. To the degree sin is involved, the atonement process includes expiation (removal of sin from one’s life) with regards to making amends – stopping the sin and making restoration. Propitiation, appeasing an angry God, is not in these texts unless presumed and inserted by the reader.

One specific passage must be mentioned because it is one that at first impression seems to state that blood is mandatory for atonement, and is the one passage most often brought forth by PSA advocates, believing that it proves their theory. This passage is Leviticus 17:11:

“Do not eat food with blood because… “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. 12 Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood.”” Leviticus 17:11-12 NASB

The context of verse 11 is in a section regarding food laws, not sacrifices. It is stating that the reason blood should not be eaten as food is because blood is used as a covering on the altar, a covering for their lives. This does not say anything about blood being a payment for sin, nor that God needs blood to forgive. It is not giving instructions about sin sacrifices. The reason to not eat blood is because blood represents life, not as an exchange of life-for-life, rather it symbolizes a covering for the life of the offeror. Furthermore, the verse does not state that blood is the only thing acceptable for atonement. In the case of sin offerings, flour was also acceptable, Leviticus 5:11-12. It is a mistake to use Leviticus 17:11 out of context to promote a doctrine that is not really there.

New Testament Atonement

The Greek word that most resembles the word “atonement” is “katallage”. It is found in the following passages, most of which are translated more accurately as “reconciliation”: Romans 5:10-11, 11:15, 1 Corinthians 7:11, and 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. (Several of these relate to reconciliation between people.)

Reconciliation is one of the primary themes of the New Testament. Perhaps even the ultimate primary theme, since that is why God sent His only begotten Son, that we through him would become reconciled to God. The topic is not intended to be technical or difficult, it is just God providing His Son as a mediator, a propitiator (not a propitiation) to restore a broken relationship. Sin is the primary problem, and God’s Son exposed the evil of sin. Though a human person,* he demonstrated victory over sin and death. God rewarded him with resurrection from the dead, made him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36) and has seated him at His right hand as the mediator between God and men (Philippians 2:8-11).

Atonement as propitiation – appeasing an angry God – is absent in the New Testament, just as in the Old. Granted, there are four verses, depending on the translation, where translators have used the word “propitiation” based on their theological training, but this is not faithful to the underlying context, nor in the Greek text. Rather, it is a theological assumption and a convenient word choice in spite of other more accurate word choices (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 4:10). For further discussion about each of these passages, see the later chapters that correspond to each of these texts.

*“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Romans 5:15

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:18-19 ESV

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” 1 Corinthians 15:21