The Biblical Doctrine of Atonement


The British philosopher A. J. Ayer once summarized his objections to the Christian faith by singling out the doctrines of original sin and the vicarious suffering and death of Christ. There is an intimate connection between both doctrines. Since man cannot redeem himself, the Son of God, as man, surrendered Himself unto death. Atonement by the blood of Jesus Christ belongs to the essence of the Christian faith. Such is the testimony of the church’s creeds.

Can this confession be substantiated in light of Scripture? What do the Scriptures have to say about the atonement? Availing myself of a number of works that have been published during the last few years, I wish to present some exegetical considerations in this first installment. In the second installment, I will focus on how the significance of the cross of Christ has been addressed throughout the history of the Christian church.

Atonement in the Pentateuch

The laws of the Pentateuch do not belong to the most popular portions of Scripture. Many a reader of the Bible does not sufficiently realize that the cross of Christ, divorced from the legislation of the Pentateuch, is incomprehensible. It is against the background of this legislation that the New Testament can speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

The Old Testament sanctuary was a reflection of the nature, reputation, and authority of the LORD. The sins of the people of Israel were incompatible with His justice. For the Lord to dwell continually in the midst of His people, His justice had to be vindicated repeatedly. This was particularly the case on the great Day of Atonement, which provided the people with an affirmation that forgiveness had been granted them.

The fact that the Law of Moses uses various words to designate sin (e.g., trans­gression, unrighteous-ness, uncleanness) is one of the indications that Israel (taking her lead from the Lord Himself) took sin seriously. The Mosaic laws make it clear to us that atonement and forgiveness of sin will never become a reality apart from confession of sin and, ultimately, restitution for the transgression committed. Leviticus 17:11 is a key text in the Pentateuch.

Does the atonement referred to there come about by means of the soul (i.e., life), or for and/or instead of the soul? External to the context of the atonement, the preposition that precedes the nouns life or soul also has the meaning of instead of or on behalf of. This is evident, for instance, in Genesis 29:18, where Jacob says that he has worked seven years for Rachel.

Therefore, the notion that blood yields atonement for the soul is at least a possibility. However, when Leviticus 17:11 states that blood is the life or soul of the flesh, it would probably be preferable to interpret Leviticus 17:11 to mean that the shedding of blood yields atonement because of the life inherent in it.

Whatever the case may be, it is the sacrificial blood of the animal that serves as a substitute for the one who brings the sacrifice. The atonement also yields purifica­tion, but such purification is only possible because blood is substituted for the guilty sinner. Regarding the ritual of the Day of Atonement, it is noteworthy that inanimate objects are referred to as the objects of atonement without the use of a preposition, whereas any reference to people is preceded by a preposition.

The verb  כִּפֵּר (to atone) belongs to the very essence of the cultic legislation of the Old Testament, and it reveals to us that the one who participated in the service of the Lord felt the necessity to escape God’s displeasure toward sin. When, for example, we consider this in light of Numbers 16:46–47, it will be evident that the quenching of God’s wrath is one of the components of the concept of the atonement.

By dying vicariously, the sacrificial animal endured the wrath of God toward sin. It was understood that the goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement would be sent to a deserted location; that is, to a place divorced from God’s favor and where it would be subjected to God’s wrath.


The Atonement in the Synoptic Gospels

Approximately 20 percent of the Gospel of Mark is devoted to the gospel of Christ’s passion. If, however, we include the journey to Jerusalem, which was in anticipation of His approaching suffering, we arrive at approximately 56 percent. It is obvious that the cross is central in the Gospel of Mark, as well as in the other Gospels. What is the reason for this?

The background of Christ’s death on the cross is man’s bondage to sin. Man can contribute nothing to the redemption of his soul. Jesus, as the Son of Man, surrendered Himself vicariously to death. His suffering and dying must be viewed within the context of the eschatological and messianic tribulation that will precede the full deployment of the coming of God’s kingdom, but His suffering is, however, unique. His substitution is exclusive. He has emptied the cup of God’s wrath. No one was capable of doing that.

In Mark 10:45 Christ testifies that He as the Son of Man will as a ransom (λύτροv) for many. The background is the slave trade. By way of the ransom that Christ paid, many will be delivered from the wrath of God and all its consequences. Based on the payment paid for him the sinner is set free to serve God. The tribulation referred to in Mark 13, as well as in Matthew 24 and 25, must first of all be viewed in connection to the eve of the Passover. The “abomination of desolation” refers to the dying on the cross of the Son of God. The coming of the Son of God that follows refers in the first place to His ascension. This does not mean that the description of the great tribulation will not be fulfilled beyond that; we must think here also of the fall of Jerusalem and ultimately the perishing of the world itself.

The death of Christ must be viewed as the inauguration of the new exodus. From that moment forward, the ransomed of Zion will return. Just as the Passover meal preceded the first exodus, such is also the case with the second exodus. As the messianic Shepherd, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. There He set a process in motion that would lead to the cross. As the Passover Lamb and the messianic Shepherd, Christ’s death on the cross resulted in deliverance from the wrath of God and yielded forgiveness.

Christ died for others. The gospels give us a portrait of who some of these others are: Levi, who was called away from the receipt of custom; Bartimaeus, who cried out to Jesus as the Son of David, asking Him to have mercy upon him; Mary Magdalene, who was delivered from seven devils; and the thief on the cross.


The Atonement in the Gospel of John

By using the word lamb in the well-known passage from the Gospel of John (“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]), a reference was made to the lamb that was sacrificed daily in the temple as well as to the paschal lamb. As atonement for guilt was made by the sacrificial lamb in the temple, such is true in the fullest sense of the word for Christ as the Lamb of God. As the Passover Lamb, He submitted Himself to the wrath of God that should have been poured out upon His people.

John 1:29 is also an indirect reference to Isaiah 53, where we read of the Servant of the Lord being led as a lamb to the slaughter. A connection is already established between the work of this Servant on the one hand, and the function of the lamb as a daily sacrifice and as the Passover lamb on the other hand.

In connection with this, it is noteworthy that, in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, a relationship is established between the glory of the LORD Himself in Isaiah 6 and that of His Servant in Isaiah 52:12. In both Scripture passages, we encounter the words exalted and extolled. Isaiah 6 establishes a relationship between the high and exalted throne of the LORD and His כָּבֹוד , that is, His glory.

The Septuagint generally translates the word כָּבֹוד with δόξα. This is also true for the word הָדָר , which is used in Isaiah 53:2 to refer to the Servant of the LORD. The relationship between Isaiah 6 and 53 is defined even more closely than in the Hebrew text: it is the glory of the LORD Himself that is unveiled in the conduct of His Servant.

Our eyes need to be opened spiritually in order to understand the glory and the conduct of the LORD’s servant; such an understanding is of great importance in order to grasp the message of John’s gospel. When John begins his Gospel by saying, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”(John 1:14), he wishes to indicate that he had grasped the glory of the crucified Christ.

The instruction John gives us in his Gospel is that Jesus, the exact fulfillment of the sacrificial and Passover lamb, died as the Good Shepherd for His sheep (cf. John 10). He became their Substitute because, according to John 13:1, He loved them to the end. The Greek expression εἰς τέλος in this text encompasses both ideas.

The complete love of Christ for His own was demonstrated in His death on the cross. Therefore, we can speak of Christ’s death as Him being glorified — a death that may, however, never be divorced from the exaltation that followed. A true theology of glory will be a theology of the cross. Using words given to John in his Revelation, a Christian glories in Christ as “a Lamb as it had been slain” (Rev. 5:7).

The Atonement in the Letters of Paul

In Romans 3:25 Paul uses the word ἱλαστήριον to unfold the mystery of the cross. God the Father put the So forward as a ἱλαστήριον by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. In the Septuagint ἱλαστήριον is almost exclusively used as translation for the mercy seat in the sanctuary.

The word ἱλαστήριον has been translated both as ‘propitiation’ and ‘expiation’. Pure linguistically both translations are possible. But in the light of the context we must choose without any reservation for ‘propitiation’. The background of the ἱλαστήριον accomplished by the work of Christ on the cross is the revelation of the wrath of God against human sin (Romans 1:18). Expiation means the washing away of sin and propitiation means the taking away of the wrath of God. Expiation does not include propitiation but propitiation includes expiation.

When considering the significance of Christ’s death on the cross and the atonement connected with it, the important question that needs to be answered is whether atonement consists merely in the blotting out of sin or also in the quenching of God’s wrath. C. H. Dodd emphatically defended the first proposition as being true. However, the only way he could sustain this argument was by insisting that God’s wrath was not related to His Person. The word ἱλάσκομαι refers to the quenching of God’s wrath. In this way the estrangement between God and man is eliminated.

In the letters of Paul, however, the wrath of God is a reality that is most intimately connected with God Himself. Being reconciled with God is not less, but rather more than the blotting out of sin. Divorced from the wrath of God toward sin, Christ’s death on the cross becomes incomprehensible. By way of His death on the cross, Christ delivered from the wrath to come those who believe in Him. The fact that the death of Christ was necessary in connection with God’s wrath toward sin does not diminish the demonstration of the Father’s love in giving His Son.

What sort of atonement does Paul have in mind when he writes in Romans 3:25 that God has set forth Christ “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood”? Does this refer to the means whereby the atonement is secured or to the mercy seat? The first option ought to be our choice here, even though the second is a possibility. It is, however, beyond doubt that Israel’s worship in the Old Testament constitutes the backdrop for Paul speaking of the atonement by way of Christ’s blood.

In order to define the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, an occasional reference is made to the atoning significance of the death of martyrs—such as, for example, in the fourth of the apocryphal books, the Book of the Maccabees. The atoning value

being ascribed to the death of a martyr can, however, only be understood in light of the cultic system. In the New Testament, there is a close relationship between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of those who belong to Him; however, only the suffering and death of Christ makes atonement for sin. Herein lies the difference between the suffering of Christ and that of His people.

The verb ἱλάσκομαι has as its background the sanctuary with its sacrifices. Paul uses the verb never and the related noun ἱλαστήριον only once. Writing about the cross of Christ Paul usually uses the verb (ἀπο)καταλλάσσω. The background of this verb is not the cult but estrangement in human relations.

In English we can make the difference between ἱλάσκομαι and (ἀπο)καταλλάσσω by translating the first verb as ‘atone’ and the second as ‘reconcile’. Then we have in this case to translate more concordantly than the KJV. By his death and blood reconciled enemies to God. The cross of Christ is the basis of the peace with God.  


The reality of the atonement is related to the seriousness of sin. The Bible speaks of the atonement for sin in various ways. Christ brought the sacrifice of His very own life; He redeemed His own by taking their place in God’s tribunal. The vocabulary and metaphors related to this are derived from the ceremonial law, the slave trade, and the courtroom.

When using the word metaphor, we need to clarify its meaning, for one might get the impression that we are not dealing with an objective reality when discussing the atonement. This is not the case. Guilt and sin are two very real and objective matters which truly separate us from God and make us objects of His wrath. Being reconciled with God is also a reality whereby man becomes an object of God’s favor rather than of His wrath. If Christ, by His suffering and death, did not truly bring about reconciliation, there would be no salvation.

The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury said that whoever is blind to this has not yet been sufficiently convinced of the weightiness of sin. Only against the background of the weightiness of sin will we understand the wonder of the atonement and of grace.


Grayston, Kenneth. Atonement and Martyrdom in Early Christian Thought in

its Jewish Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Bolt, Peter G. The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel

(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Hill, Charles E., and Frank A. James III, eds., The Glory of the Atonement

(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Pitre, Brant. Jesus, the Tribulation and the End Exile, WUNT 204, (Tübingen:

Mohr Siebeck, 2005).

Gane, Roy E. Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement and

Theodicy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005).

Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi. Leviticus, AOCT (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity

Press, 2007).

Jeffery, Steve, Mike Overy, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions:

Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Leicester: InterVarsity

Press, 2007).

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