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 Hebraic 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. Retribution is not atonement either. 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 preventing us 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 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 biblical passage, says anything about the sacrifice being a payment for sin. That is a complete misunderstanding, as will be explained. We also read nothing about the suffering and death of the animal as part of the atonement, nor about the animal literally or symbolically absorbing God’s wrath against sin. 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 which was intended to display a desire to maintain a covenantal relationship. The word for “covenant” in Hebrew is “berith”, which literally means “a cutting”, which of course brings forth blood. In the case of the sacrifice, the animal was cut, bringing out the blood, and this blood was used in the ritual of atonement, of reconciliation. Blood was not thought of as a magical substance with the power to delete guilt or sin from a person’s record, it was to be thought of in terms of a covenant.

Perhaps in today’s world an approximation of what a day of atonement, that is, reconciliation, would be like is when a married couple chooses to renew their vows, perhaps after a period of marital estrangement. In this case, there is no blood involved, but the renewing of the vows is like making an official recommitment to the marriage covenant after offenses have damaged the relationship. The renewing of the vows is likely to incorporate some degree of ceremony that has meaning to the individuals involved. The ceremonies of the day of atonement would be a renewing of the vow on the part of the party which no doubt had offended God, and the sprinkling of the blood may be compared to putting wedding rings back on the fingers to symbolize the recommitment to the vow. The ceremony is not about a payment or a retribution, it is about remaining committed to a vow.

Many people link expiation and/or propitiation to the sacrifices in the Old Testament. These ideas and perspectives are debated by various individuals. Expiation involves the removal, cancellation, or annulment of a sin record, typically by means of doing something good that compensates for the wrong which has been done. Propitiation involves doing something to appease, placate, or satisfy an offended party.

Within the topic of atonement, propitiation is commonly considered as 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 there are some difficulties with pressing this claim too far. For instance, not one of the passages about atonement directly link propitiating, appeasing, God’s wrath with the atonement process. Nor were the biblical priests sacrificial agents whose job was to appease God. This is not to deny that God can and does have an end to His patience and mercy and will at some point allow His 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. In fact, propitiation is typically 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. Acting on His wrath is His last resort, not His normal daily activity.

Propitiation can be used within a biblical context if we are careful to link it with those passages where God explicitly states what He wants, which is that the wicked turn away from sin and humbly submit. The concept of propitiation is biblical even if the term is not used, but only if it is used properly and carefully, so as to not lead the reader or listener to think in pagan terms of appeasement by means of sacrifices or bribery. What appeases, what propitiates, the one true God of the Bible? Not payments, and not sacrifices, but obedience. “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” 1 Samuel 15:22, or, “By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, And by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil.” Proverbs 16:6 NASB. Numerous other passages about God begging people to stop their sin can be listed, including those that state that this is more pleasing than sacrifices. Isaiah 1:11-20 is a good start.

Any person who wishes to do so may 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 that links atonement to God’s wrath, so propitiation of wrath is not the primary, direct, intent, 2. Nothing is said about sacrifices being used as a form of payment, 3. Some of these sacrifices for sin did not involve any blood, 4. Some were for individuals only and some applied to the entire community, 5. The primary point of the sacrifice is not the act of shedding blood, but rather the restoration and affirmation of a relationship with God. 6. The idea of Penal Substitution is totally absent unless the reader inserts the concept into the texts. To the degree sin is involved, the atonement process presumes a prior repentance (a turning away from sin), and a final restoration (Psalm 51:10-19, for example). Propitiation in the sense of sacrificing on an altar as a direct appeasement of 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 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.

The sin offerings were often combined with other offerings like food and drink that were pleasing to God. What we see here is not God getting paid or some other form of appeasement or satisfaction as with an angry deity, but we see a bigger version of what was already a social practice of reconciliation, of recommitment, a renewing a covenantal relationship, or requesting that mistakes (or sin) in the relationship be covered (atoned), indicating that this relationship was still active. The ceremony involved food offered to God, people eating, and everyone enjoying the benefits and blessings that came from having a healthy relationship with God. The entire event was involved, not simply a procedure to appease an angry God.

Many teachers fail to grasp the greater covenantal social context and thus fail to understand that there are several things going on in sacrifices for sin:

  1. The covering (atonement) was not so God would be appeased (propitiated). God never said anything like, “If you sin but do this I will be appeased”, so that is not what is happening, at least not in a direct way (perhaps it could be perceived as being in the background, but is never stated as such).
  2. The entire event of the sacrifice for sin was understood by the offeror to be a final component of reconciliation, a promise, a renewal or refreshing of a commitment to God, which of course includes committing to not sin. This is how the person was considered purified – purified from any intent to sin again, and forgiven for what had been committed. (Comparable, perhaps, to a husband who gives flowers to his wife as a final act of demonstrating his commitment to her after having offended and having already obtained reconciliation.)
  3. The covering (atonement) was not about getting a clean slate, a blank ledger. It was a personal dedication to be faithful to the covenantal relationship with God. This assumes that offenses have ceased, as it is on this basis that the relationship can be restored and perpetuated. A genuine ongoing relationship requires not only overlooking past failures, but also a commitment to strive to not fail again. This causes a cleansing of sinful, offensive behavior.
  4. When blood was used as part of the atonement ceremony (instead of flour (Leviticus 5:11-13)), the killing, suffering, and death of the sacrificial victim played no role of meaningful significance in the atonement event. The point of the ceremony was a relational commitment sealed in blood, not a payment to compensate God for misdeeds, nor a torturing of the sacrificial victim as a form of substitutionary, vicarious, retribution.

Today, the typical explanation of Old Testament sin offerings gives the impression that before extending forgiveness, God wanted to see a dead sacrificial animal and blood on the altar. However, this is not a good explanation of what an Israelite would have thought he was doing in offering a sin offering, and not certainly not what God had in mind either.

“Also one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you. You shall offer these besides the burnt offering of the morning, which is for a regular burnt offering. In the same way you shall offer daily, for seven days, the food of a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. It shall be offered besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.” Numbers 28:22-24

“…a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to the LORD…” Numbers 29:2

“and their drink offering, according to the rule for them, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD.” Numbers 29:6

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 of atonement 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),a and has seated him at His right hand as the mediator between God and men (Philippians 2:8-11).

Atonement as a propitiation – appeasing an angry God – is mostly, if not completely, absent in the New Testament, just as in the Old. Granted, there are four verses, depending on the translation, where various translators have used the word “propitiation” based on their theological training, but many scholars question if this is the meaning of the underlying text. There are grounds to suspect that using with the word “propitiation” in these texts 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.