A recent dispute over the meaning of the atonement has sparked an outbreak of charges, and countercharges, among Protestant leaders. This particular dispute, not unlike so many in Christian history, arose from a line in a popular song. At issue are various theories of the atonement, not the simple confession made by all Christians from the earliest Christian era. We hear this simple faith confessed in the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
That’s it – pretty simple and straightforward: Jesus Christ suffered under Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. It would be some time later, indeed centuries later in many cases, before major debates arose about the meaning of these simple words.
Today the atonement is often a matter for intense debate, especially among conservative Protestants. More than fifteen centuries of time have allowed Christian thinkers to offer various doctrinal interpretations of what “Christ’s death” meant. These are all attempts to explain the meaning and necessity of his death. This newest debate is another in a long line of such debates. Sadly, name calling and schism are again the tragic result.
I believe the term atonement, at least in Christian circles, is generally understood to refer to the reconciliation of God and human beings brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus. The word “atonement” is actually quite rare in the New Testament, occurring only once in the King James Version in Romans 5:11. Most translations do not translate Romans 5:11 this way. There appear to be good reasons for this choice. The word atonement might be rare but the concept behind it is not. It seems clear enough that what God did in Christ’s death enabled sinners to approach him and enter into his blessings and gracious forgiveness.
Interestingly, the NRSV, has 80 occurrences of the word “atonement.” Most of these occur in Leviticus and Numbers, where they are clearly connected with the sacrifices that God commanded of Israel to cover their sin.
The New Testament itself includes only two uses of the actual word atonement. Here are the two verses, as they appear in context the NRSV:
21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement* [or a place of atonement, as in footnote] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
The second use of atonement occurs n Hebrews 2:17:
14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters* in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 2:14-18).
This limited use of the actual word “atonement” should not lead us to the overly simplistic conclusion, as I’ve already noted, that the idea behind the word is completely absent. References to the “mercy seat,” and related terms, all suggest the same thing as the word “atonement.”