What Is Atonement? Biblical Meaning and Definition

In Christianity, atonement refers to the needed reconciliation between sinful mankind and the holy God. This reconciliation is possible through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as expressed in Romans 3:25, Romans 5:11, and Romans 5:19. Atonement is the Bible’s central message.
Ruthie Gray
What Is Atonement? Biblical Meaning and Definition

Atonement Definition

In Christianity, atonement refers to the needed reconciliation between sinful mankind and the holy God. This reconciliation is possible through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as expressed in Romans 3:25, Romans 5:11, and Romans 5:19. Atonement is the Bible’s central message.

“Receiving the atonement is our actual reconciliation to God in justification, grounded upon Christ's satisfaction,” according to Matthew Henry’s Commentary. “We Christians, we believers, have now, now in gospel times, or now in this life, received the atonement, which was typified by the sacrifices under the law, and is an earnest of our happiness in heaven.” 

Atonement in the Bible

Atonement is an often-used Old Testament term representing a sacrifice for sin. Leviticus 16 describes atonement on many levels by many actions. The whole process was quite detailed but necessary for the people of God to be holy before God, and thus at one with God. They were a set-apart nation, and as such, observed these rituals of atonement.

Atonement for the Priest

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house.” (Leviticus 16:6)

Here, the bull offering was specifically for the priest (Aaron) and his family as an offering for any sins committed.

Atonement for the People

Next came the goat offering for the sins of the people. “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.” (Leviticus 16:15-16).

Atonement for Objects

These are just a couple examples of purification rituals for not only the Israelites, but often for inanimate objects. The Lord also instructed the priest on making atonement for “the holy sanctuary,” “the tabernacle of the congregation,” “and for the alter” (Leviticus 16: 33).

Atonement in the New Testament

In the King James Version of the Bible, the word atonement is only used once in the New Testament – in Romans 5:11. However, most otherversions have translated the word “atonement” to “reconciliation” because that is the literal interpretation of the word.

“Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” (Romans 5:9-11)

This passage states that believers are justified and reconciled by the atonement of Christ.

The Meaning of Atonement

Adam’s (and subsequently all man’s) choice to sin made everyone guilty before God, without hope. But then, Christ stepped in, making atonement for sin.Christ, the sinless lamb, took upon Himself the sins of many, that they might receive the atonement for sins and be reconciled to God.

“For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19).

To accept Christ’s atonement for sin is to acknowledge one’s sin and receive His sacrifice. And not only that, but to live a grace-filled life of abundance. There is no more barrier between the believer and God, for they have received Christ’s atoning power and God’s satisfaction of acceptance through that atonement and thus, reconciliation.

Ruthie Gray is a wife, Gigi, and mom of four (who lived to tell about it). Since Ruthie’s passion is mentoring moms to find joy in motherhood, she provides weekly parenting advice through humor and practical application of Scripture at Ruthie Gray.Mom. Ruthie is the author of Stepping Stones; 8 Mindsets for the mom who thinks she’s failing at motherhood, and  Count to Nine; 9 Liberating Steps for Mom Frustration and Anger. Click to download her Wife and Mommy Survival Kit here.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/JoshuaEarle


Originally published April 16, 2019.