It’s Time for New Thinking on Atonement, Part 1: Definition

This eight-part series introduces the new perspective of Realistic Substitution, which unties the knots and answers the questions that previous theories could not. It is the ancient Realistic view of Adam further developed and applied to Christ.

The Traditionalist contends that Jesus died for everyone. The Calvinist counters that since not all will be saved, not all were atoned for. Both assume that when Jesus died, atonement was—right then—made for sinners. Thus, the endless debate over whose sins were atoned for, and the contradiction of separating atonement from “application.” But this is not the biblical picture. Atonement is not in the shedding of blood, but in the application of the blood to the sinner.

1 John 1:7 ESV
7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Rev. 7:14b ESV
14 …And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

When were your robes “washed in the blood of the Lamb?” What a vivid picture of spiritual realities! Our human spirit as our garment—our robe—as we stand before God. The stains of our guilt were evident. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” We come by faith to Christ, and His shed blood cleanses us from sin—making our robes white. This is atonement. But let’s expound it further…

Old Testament Definition of Atonement
What precisely is atonement? To discover this we must look to the Old Testament.

Lev. 17:11 ESV
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Lev. 1:4 ESV
He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.

(See also Ex. 29:33-37; 30:10-16; 32:30; Lev. 4:20-35; 5:6-18; 7:7; 34; 9:7; 10:17; 12:7-31, 53; 15:15, 30; 16:6-34; 19:22; 23:27-28; 25:9; Num. 5:8; 6:11; 8:12-21; 15:25-28; 16:46; 25:13; 28:22-30; 29:5-11; 31:50).

The word translated as atonement is kâphar (כָּפַר), which literally means, to cover over (completely, as if by painting or immersion), as with pitch or tar. It refers to the sinner (and his sin) being covered in (or by) the blood of the substitute. Bleeding that did not result in death would not atone. The blood that is needed for atonement represents (by metonymy) the sacrificial death of the substitute. When the sinner is covered in this sense, then God who looks down on him will instead see the substitute, blocking the sinner from His view. In this picture, we find the definition:

Atonement is the interposition of the sacrificial substitute between God and the sinner, the suffering and death interposed between the sinner and the wrath, propitiating God.

This interposing is God’s chosen response to the proper fulfilling of His requirements for atonement.

William Tyndale coined the word “atonement” in his early translation of the Bible into English. By using at-one-ment to translate kâphar, Tyndale was basically translating it as reconciliation—man becoming “at one” with God. Thus, he also used “atonement” to translate katallagē (καταλλαγή), the word from Rom. 5:11 that means reconciliation. But he conflated the cause with the effect. Reconciliation is one effect of a blood sacrifice being accepted by God, but so is forgiveness. But reconciliation can only happen because of and based on the propitiation that occurs when one is covered by the blood of an accepted sacrifice.

When the Jews produced the Septuagint, translating the Old Testament into Greek (in the third century B.C.), they used the word exilaskomai (ἱλάσκομαι), which means to propitiate, to translate the word kâphar in contexts of blood sacrifice.[2] They did not use katallagē , the word from Rom. 5:11. This concept (kâphar) is better understood as propitiation rather than its effect, reconciliation. And this is why the Church has, over the centuries, understood a meaning for atonement that goes far beyond mere at-one-ment or reconciliation. An atoning sacrifice is a propitiating sacrifice.

Since kâphar is an idea that goes a little further than merely to propitiate, since it is propitiation resulting from the covering of the sinner by the blood of a sacrificial victim, then it is appropriate that a different word is used (“atonement”), but only if that different word is understood to mean what is intended. Atonement has come to have that meaning in spite of its English etymology, which is of little use in understanding kâphar.

[1] More on the Realistic view of Adam can be found in my article, “Realism & The Fall: A Response to Steve Farish,” at

[2] William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, (P & R: Phillipsburg, 2003), 3rd ed., p. 697.