What Does "Atonement" Mean?
[This article is extracted in large part from GV Growcott's
"Atonement: The Use and Meaning of the Word", Ber 65:309-313.]
The word 'atonement' occurs eighty-one times in the Old
Testament, and once in the New, in the AV.
According to Webster, the English meaning of 'atonement'
It should be noted that originally atonement simply meant
reconciliation, was not a theological word, and did not in itself convey the
idea of reparation, expiation, or some compensating action or payment.
- reconciliation, the restoration of friendly relations (this is the original
meaning, now obsolete);
- a theological doctrine concerning the reconciliation
of God and man;
- reparation, or satisfaction (that is, the doing of
something, or the paying of some penalty, to compensate for some wrong action).
This (original) meaning [ie, #1 above] appears to be the AV
meaning. From other extra-Biblical uses of the English word at the time the AV
was translated, this appears to have been the meaning of the word in the 1600s.
This somewhat clarifies the Scriptural use, and removes one aspect of
misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For we should remove from the word the
idea of compensation or reparation, which is the basis of the orthodox theory of
substitution. The introduction of this theory appears to have corrupted the
original common meaning of the word. (This should not be surprising. The
apostasy's false teachings have corrupted the meanings of many good Bible words:
baptism, hell, soul, kingdom, devil, Holy Spirit, and so forth.)
But even 'reconciliation' does not represent properly the
Hebrew word translated 'atonement', for 'reconciliation' as we commonly use it
implies a moral relation and personal estrangement, whereas the Hebrew has no
such implication. (Accountants do use 'reconciliation' in strictly non-moral,
inanimate connections, as 'reconciling' a bank statement, for example. Here the
sense is simply to bring into factual or material conformity, without any moral
So much for the meanings of the English words, which are not
important in themselves in searching out Scriptural meanings, but only insofar
as they color -- correctly or incorrectly -- our understanding of the Scriptural
The Hebrew word, wherever 'atonement' occurs in the AV, is
"kaphar" (root meaning: 'to cover') or "kippoorim" (plural 'coverings'). [See
Aside.] This has the same root; as "kapporeth", the 'lid' or 'cover' of the
ark always in the AV translated "mercy seat". [See Aside 2.]
[Aside: "Cover" is almost universally regarded as the root
meaning of "kaphar", and this fits with its literal use in Gen 6:14, but some
consider the root meaning to be "wash away" or "cleanse". This, if correct,
would be even more fitting in its symbolic use. In many of the examples to be
cited in the text this idea of cleansing is the basic one, and the AV several
times uses "cleanse" or "purge" in translation of "kaphar". Certainly Christ is
both a "cover" and a "cleansing" for his people. These are related concepts, but
"cleanse" seems to be the deeper one.]
[Aside 2: "Mercy seat" was first used by Tyndale, literally
translating Luther's "Gnadenstuhl", from the LXX "hilasterion", place of
The first use of "kaphar" is in Gen 6:14, where it is
translated "pitch", but in the sense of 'cover with pitch'. This is the only
place where "kaphar" is used literally and neutrally as 'cover'. In all other
places it is used of a figurative covering, and in relation to some uncleanness
in a thing or person.
Thus "kaphar" is not restricted to moral relations, or to the
need for repentance and forgiveness and personal reconciliation. It does not
necessarily imply guilt or error. It is used for the figurative or ceremonial
cleansing and purifying of inanimate objects, as concerning the original
cleansing of the altar when it was first constructed: "And thou shalt offer
every day a bullock for a sin offering for atonement: and thou shalt cleanse the
altar, when thou hast made an atonement for it" (Exo 29:36).
In Lev 14:34-53 are instructions for the cleansing of an
infection-defiled house, and in this case there is no direct relation to any sin
or guilt: "And he shall take to cleanse the house two birds, and cedar wood, and
scarlet, and hyssop... and he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the
bird... but he shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open
fields, and make an atonement for the house" (vv 49.52,53).
Other instances of inanimate atonements are as
As applied to people, "kaphar" may imply recognition in the
moral sense, and involve the gaining of forgiveness. There are many examples of
this in Lev 4; 5. However, when applied to people it may be merely a cleansing
without any hint of personal guilt or need for forgiveness. This is most
strikingly illustrated in the requirement of atonement for the uncleanness of
- Exo 30:10: the altar of incense
- Lev 16:16: the holy place
- Lev 16:18: the altar
- Lev 16:33: the holy sanctuary, the tabernacle,
- Num 35:33: the land itself (the word
"cleansed" here translates "kaphar")
- Eze 43:20:
the horns of the altar (the word "purge" here translates
- Eze 43:26: the altar (as for v 20).
"If a woman have... born a man child: then she shall be
unclean seven days; when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, she shall
bring... a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement (kaphar) for
her, and she shall be clean" (Lev 12:2,6,8). The most notable and significant
case of this very type of atonement is Mary, who was "highly favored" and
"blessed among women": "And when the days of her purification according to the
law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem... to offer a
sacrifice" (Luk 2:22-24). Notice in Lev 12 that this is called a sin offering
for atonement, although clearly there was no guilt or moral alienation involved
"Kaphar" is almost always translated 'atonement', but other
renderings (besides those already mentioned) are:
The right connotation
- Deu 21:8: "Be merciful ('kaphar'), O LORD, unto Thy people... And the blood
shall be forgiven ('kaphar') them."
- Deu 32:43: "(God) will be merciful
('kaphar') unto His land,"
- Psa 65:3: "...our transgressions. Thou shalt
purge ('kaphar') them away."
- Psa 78:38: "He... forgave ('kaphar') their
- Pro 16:6: "By mercy and truth iniquity is purged
- Eze 16:63: "...when I (God) am pacified toward ('kaphar')
- Eze 45:17: "...to make reconciliation ('kaphar') for the house of
- Dan 9:24: "...to make reconciliation ('kaphar') for
It has been shown that the English word 'atonement' is not a
very good representation of the Hebrew "kaphar", and carries connotations not in
the original. Today 'atone' and 'atonement' carry, to most people, the ideas of
(1) moral culpability, and (2) expiation and a required compensation of some
Guilt, and payment for that guilt, are secondary and acquired
meanings, even for the English word. They are not part of the original English
meaning, which was simply 'atonement' -- a bringing into unity. And these ideas
of guilt of sin, and payment for sin, are certainly not inherent in the Hebrew
word "kaphar", which, as seen, can apply to the cleansing of inanimate objects,
or of uncleannesses of people which do not involve any personal guilt.
It would probably be simpler, less misleading, and more
understandable, if we used 'covering' or 'cleansing' wherever 'atonement'
occurs, being guided by the context as to whether it involved a moral
reconciliation or whether it was simply a physical (or legal and ceremonial)
The Scriptural concepts of covering and cleansing turn our
minds profitably in the direction of what must occur within us, through and as a
result of the required atonement. The orthodox ideas attached to 'atonement' --
someone else being required to pay for our guilt, to suffer instead of us for
our sins -- tends to dull our consciences and turn our minds away from our own
real need for cleansing and purifying.
It is the blood of Christ, the perfect sacrifice, that first
'covers', then 'cleanses' us -- not ritually, but practically and gloriously. He
did not die to 'atone' for our sins in the orthodox sense. He lived and died to
become a cleansing medium by which our sins are first mercifully covered, and
then, progressively and at last completely and perfectly, cleansed from us:
Atonement, then, as it occurs in the AV, does not mean an
external payment or compensation, that is, something done outside of ourselves,
something substitutionary. This is a corrupted orthodox meaning. Instead, it
means an internal covering, cleansing, purifying, and putting right -- something
done not so much for us as in us.
The sacrifices of the Bible were not to pay for sins; nor were
they substitutes to suffer and die in the place of the sinner, as orthodoxy
teaches. The sacrifices of the Bible were a humble recognition that the only
condition acceptable to God is purity and perfection; that sin is uncleanness;
and that sinful man can be reconciled to God only by being covered by, and
washed in the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the
The sacrifices had to be "without blemish", a "perfect" life
poured out unto death. There was to be a recognition that the flesh must he cut
off and the body of sin destroyed, the ultimate submission and subjection of
humanity to God.
The required perfection of (he sacrifices is the key to their
meaning; the perfection of Christ, which can cover weak sinful man. if man will
humbly and obediently accept the covering in the way appointed and live in the
way required to maintain possession of this covering.
The sacrifices were a manifestation of faith in the
deliverance from sin that God had promised and would provide: the Seed of the
woman to crush the serpent's head (Gen 3:15).
[For an in-depth study of this foundation verse in all the
"The Serpent and the Woman's Seed": Genesis 3:15 in all the Bible".]
New Testament atonement
The AV has introduced 'atonement' only once into the New
Testament (Rom 5:11), and there the RV has correctly changed it to
"reconciliation", consistent with the AV rendering of the same noun (katallage)
and its related verb (katallasso) everywhere else.
In the New Testament we read much of reconciliation,
redemption, sanctification, purification, cleansing, and so forth. All of these,
in harmony with "kaphar", turn our minds to the state and condition of the
recipient rather than to something done externally to him and as a substitute
for him, as the orthodox idea of atonement has it. [Also see Lesson,
[Aside: Scriptural atonement ("kaphar") is, truly, always
related in some way to the physical condition arising from the general
constitution of sin that has come upon the world through Adam. That is the
unifying idea behind all its uses.]
Of Christ's own need of, and participation in, the cleansing
benefits of his sacrificial death, we therefore read:
"It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the
heavens should he purified with these (animal sacrifices): but the heavenly
things themselves with better sacrifices than these" (Heb 9:23);
"By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place,
having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12) -- not "for us" as in the AV, but
"for himself" in the first instance.
Concerning that blood of Christ, as it relates to us, we
Cleansing, purifying, sanctifying (making holy), and redeeming
from (rescuing from the bondage to) Sin -- this is the picture throughout. It is
a process which must, in one sense, be done for us and to us, for we can 'of our
own selves do nothing', and "it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do
of His good pleasure". But the process also demands our complete devotion and
desire, and our utmost effort, for the immediately preceding verse commands:
"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phi 2:12,13).
- "Ye are washed... ye are sanctified" (1Co 6:11);
- "We have redemption
through his blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Eph 1:7: also Col 1:14);
the blood of bulls and of goats... sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
how much more shall the blood of Christ... purge your conscience...?" (Heb
- "...that he (Jesus) might sanctify the people with his own blood"
- "Ye were... redeemed... with (the precious blood of Christ)"
- "The blood of Jesus Christ... cleanseth us" (1Jo
- "Unto him that loved us. and washed us from our sins in his own
blood..." (Rev 1:5);
- "Thou... hast redeemed us to God by thy blood" (Rev
It is not in contradiction, but in beautiful harmony, that the
washing is attributed, not only to the blood, but also to the Word:
"... that the might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the
word" (Eph 5:26).
There must be a constant washing, a total immersion in this
Divine water of life, if the great work of 'at-one-ment' -- making all things
one in Christ -- is to have any meaning for us.