This word appears several times in the Bible, and is so unusual in everyday English that we might struggle with what it means. But it means simply bringing back together what has been separated. There is a very easy way to remember this:
At – one – ment = making two parties “at one”.
Imagine two people who don’t get on very well together. One of them has done something nasty to the other, and they’ve been separated. Their friendship has been severed. And then something happens that will bring them back together – another friend comes along and says: “Why aren’t you talking to each other, you used to get on fine! Why don’t you forgive and forget?” This other friend would be bringing them back together, or reconciling them. Reconciliation is a word that means exactly the same thing as atonement, and is used instead in some translations of the Bible.
Have a look at Romans 5 verses 10-11:
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
Jesus Christ is able to bring us back to God by removing our sins. He is like this other friend that just wants to see the two parties brought back together. And that’s what atonement is in the Bible – bringing us back to God and being forgiven of all that we’ve done wrong.
But what happened before Jesus? Could no-one talk to God? Of course they could. But in those days, atonement meant making a diary date to go and offer an animal sacrifice. Have a look at this passage:
“And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall… do no work. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)
There was a special day, once a year, where people could be brought back to God. But if you look closer at this chapter, you can see that this could only be done when an animal was slain. This is the only way sins could be dealt with before Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross – something had to die in order for sin to be forgiven. That’s God’s way of teaching us how awful sin is. On this day of atonement, one goat is killed (see verses 15-16) and one goat is set free to wander off into the desert. This is a symbol of God setting people free from sins. You may have heard the word “scapegoat” – someone taking all the blame when it’s not necessarily their fault? This is where the word comes from. This was the scapegoat (verses 21-22).
So when atonement is made, it’s the same as being cleansed from sin. But something doesn’t sound right: can you really transfer sins onto an animal, who doesn’t understand God, and who has no morals?
Let’s try and solve that problem by looking at the original words. If you use a Hebrew dictionary, you will see that the Old Testament word for atonement means to cover. Whereas a Greek dictionary will tell you that when we read atonement in the New Testament, the original Greek word means an exchange or restoration. This shows us an important difference: in the Old Testament, God was covering people’s sins but not actually taking them away. Whereas in the New Testament they were completely removed.
Imagine a plate of food in a hot country, which you might cover to keep the flies off it. You can still see the shape of the food underneath the covering, so you know it’s still there even though you can’t see it. But as you keep trying to push more food under the covering, it doesn’t work as well, until eventually the plates are showing at the edges. Then you will need to find another covering. It was the same with sins in the Old Testament. They would keep mounting up until that day came round when this symbolic act would happen again.
But why don’t we need to do this today? Because a perfect sacrifice, who was moral and who understood God, came along. God promised to accept that sacrifice for all time, as long as people associated themselves with it. This would be real atonement that would last, as the book of Hebrews tells us:
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins… by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)
So in summary, atonement is a bringing back together between mankind and God. To do this, sin has to be removed first because God cannot associate with sin. And it took the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ to achieve this for all time – before that, it was just a temporary solution. Because of Jesus Christ, if we confess our sins to God, and commit our lives to Him, they really will be forgiven.