What is atonement and why do we need it?
Atonement is proof of God’s incredible love and mercy. Read what implications it has for us.
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What is atonement?
Atonement means doing what is necessary to bring about reconciliation or the reuniting of two parties who are at odds. It involves making amends, or paying compensation for a transgression, a wrong or an injury. It is levelling out an imbalance created by wrongdoing.
A transgression of law needs to be compensated for, for example by paying a fine or serving a prison sentence. In some countries, an especially serious crime must even be atoned for by the death of the perpetrator. This is an attempt to restore the imbalance that was caused by the crime.
Why do we need atonement?
Sin is transgression of God’s law and will and is therefore irreconcilable with God and eternal life. (Romans 8:6-8; 1 John 3:4-10)
The good relationship between God and people was severely damaged when they disobeyed Him. The damage was almost irreparable, affecting all generations – including you and me. Sin had come between God and people, so they could not have the intimatethat they had before, and that God so dearly wanted.
When we live in sin, we agree with it and let it rule over us. It becomes part of our life. If we have willfully let sin into our lives, we are condemned to be destroyed (die) along with the sin. (Romans 8:13) “For the wages of sin is death …” Romans 6:23. This is not only physical death, but a spiritual death of eternal separation from God in our spirit.
“There is none righteous, no, not one … They have all turned aside … There is none who does good, no, not one … There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-18. In other words, we are all guilty sinners, our relationship with God is broken, and we all deserve death. That’s how serious it is. And it doesn’t specify only the big, obvious sins, but all sin, all transgression of God’s will.
How do we receive atonement?
There is only one thing that will appease God’s fury against sin: death over sin. But if God were to put to death every sinner on earth to atone for the sins they had committed, that would be the end of humanity. However, God is a merciful, longsuffering God who loves His creation, and human beings most of all. He does not want them to perish but wants to restore His relationship with them and have fellowship with them.
Atonement under the Old Covenant law
In the Old Covenant, people could bring an animal like a lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. The animal had to be perfect and without blemish. The death of the animal in their stead atoned for the people’s sins and they were forgiven. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Leviticus 17:11.
However, the blood of animals was a token but could not stop people from transgressing. Atonement had to be made again and again. (Hebrews 10:1-4) It was clear that something needed to change.
Atonement and propitiation through Jesus in the New Covenant
The change came through Jesus, who was the Son of God but “emptied Himself” and became a human being with the same human nature as all of us, meaning He was tempted in all points as we are. But Jesus was also born of God’s Spirit, and this Spirit accompanied Him His whole life, giving Him the will and the strength to overcome temptation, so He never sinned. (Matthew 1:18-22; Luke 1:30-35; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 4:15; Isaiah 61:1-3)
However, in the end Jesus, the only human being in all history who was completely pure and without sin, was crucified as a criminal. In doing so, He took upon Himself the punishment for the sins of the whole world, the Lamb of God without blemish, the ultimate sacrifice! Jesus became the propitiation for our sins, meaning that God’s great anger against sin was turned away from all those who believe in Him. He gave them the gift of eternal life instead! (Isaiah 53:4-11; John 3:14-17: 1 John 2:2)
Read more here: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
A gift of grace
We cannot do anything of ourselves to deserve forgiveness and salvation. (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9 etc.) Atonement through forgiveness is a free gift, entirely through God’s grace and love and longsuffering, which we must receive by faith. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23.
We can never fathom the overwhelming significance of the gift of grace that is atonement, but to even begin to understand it we need to come to a deep self-acknowledgment. The truth is, we are all sinners, we have all transgressed, we are all selfish and egotistical by nature. We also have to understand God’s view of sin. Sin has no future at all in eternity and we would have no chance without the mercy and love of Jesus Christ who gave His life to pay for our sins. However, through His gift of grace we have been given a new chance, a new lease on life – eternal life! We can never thank or worship Him enough for that!
What happens after we receive atonement?
The Old Covenant animal sacrifices only covered specific sins committed since “last time” and they didn’t remove the root cause of sin – the lusts and desires to sin in human nature. People were weak and transgressed again and again so the cycle of sin and forgiveness never ceased.
In the New Covenant, Jesus’ sacrifice covered all the sins of the whole world! But it was how His life and death made this possible that is of crucial importance for all those who believe in Him and want to be His disciples. Jesus’ authority over sin and death came by His faithfulness in obeying God’s will, always denying His own will (the lusts and desires in His human nature) in temptation, taking up his cross daily, and “putting to death” the root cause of sin in His own life. In Jesus, God could do what the Old Covenant law and sacrifices couldn’t do: He could condemn sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3; Hebrews 2:14)
Why is this so significant for us? Jesus Himself told us that we can follow Him. (Luke 14:26-27) In other words, if we do these things, we can be His disciples and live that same life. Atonement gave us the opportunity to start with a clean slate, and Jesus’ example and the Holy Spirit whom He has given us give us the possibility to overcome as He overcame and to inherit all things with Him! (Revelation 21:7)
You may be interested in reading more on our topic page about Forgiveness, or in these selected articles:
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®, unless otherwise specified. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.