The word “atonement” refers to a God-appointed sacrificial offering removing our guilt and the associated punishment we owe to God’s holiness and justice because of our sin. Atonement means to free us from the guilt and deserved penalty for our sin, to appease or remove God’s anger against us because of our sin and to reconcile us to Himself.


Key related features of atonement


The Old Testament reveals that the Biblical concept of atonement is closely related to Biblical teachings on:


         having an innocent perfect substitute take the punishment of death which sinful humans deserve because of their sin (see Leviticus Chapters 1 to 7 and 16). This is called substitution. Leviticus 1:4 is an example of this: “Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”

         being purchased by paying the price of a ransom (see Exodus 30:11-16). This is called redemption by a ransom price.

         God’s anger against sinful humans and their sin being removed or appeased. (Cross reference Numbers 25:11 and 13.) This is called propitiation. Numbers 18:5 reveals that the sacrificing of animals and the other ministries of the Levitical priests prevented God’s anger from manifesting against the Israelites: “And you shall attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the duties of the altar, that there may be no more wrath on the children of Israel.”

         receiving forgiveness of sin (see Leviticus 4:20, 4:31, 5:16, 5:18, 6:7, 19:22, Numbers 15:25 and 15:28) and having our associated guilt and sentence of condemnation removed.

         no longer being God’s enemy but having our relationship restored with Him (see Leviticus 3:1-17, 7:11-21 and 28-34). This is called reconciliation. In the Mosaic Law, the peace offerings are not directly related to atonement for sin. But in Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:14-18 and Colossians 1:20-21, Jesus’ atoning death is linked to our making peace with God and being reconciled to Him.

Ephesians 2:14-18 says: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”

Isaiah 53:5 prophesies our peace with God is provided for by Jesus’ death: “…The chastisement for our peace was upon Him…”

God’s perfect holiness and justice demands an atoning death


Genesis 2:16-17, Romans 1:32, 5:12-15, 5:17, 6:21-23, 8:2, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 15:56 and James 1:15 reveal that the penalty God in His perfect holiness and justice decrees for sin is death. This death relates to physically dying and to being spiritually cut off from God Who is the source of all spiritual life.

Isaiah 59:2 and 6:5 show sin separates humans from God. Isaiah 59:2 says: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God.”

All sin is based on a lack of love for God and other people. God cannot tolerate anything not centred on love. He has decreed a physical and eternal spiritual death sentence on anyone who does not walk in perfect love.

God cannot forgive any human of even one sin unless a human who is totally innocent pays an equivalent penalty as a substitute for them. Hebrews 9:22 emphasises: “And according to the law almost all things are purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.” The word “remission” here refers to “pardon, cancellation of a punishment or guilt”. [1]

Leviticus 17:11 brings out the fact that God accepts the death (symbolised by the shedding of blood) of a substitute as an appropriate payment for the punishment humans deserve because of their sin: “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.”

Numbers 8:19 shows God should severely punish even believers when they try to approach Him without the appropriate atonement for their sin having been made: “And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the work for the children of Israel in the tabernacle of meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel, that there be no plague among the children of Israel when the children of Israel come near the sanctuary.”


Provided by God because of His mercy and grace


Atonement for our sin is provided by God Himself. It is not something we can earn or deserve.

If God was not perfectly loving, gracious and merciful, He would not have provided atonement for our sins. He would have allowed us to remain in a state of being spiritually dead – cut off from His Spirit and eternal life. Also, He would have in perfect justice punished us all immediately with physical death and sent us to hell for eternity.

But because He loves us perfectly, He provided through Jesus’ death atonement for every one of our sins and for the sin we inherited from Adam. Romans 5:8-9 relates to this: “ But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”

Proverbs 16:6 shows atonement is based on God’s mercy or lovingkindness: “In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity…”

Atonement is for sins and sinners


Atonement is provided by God for our specific sins (see Psalm 79:9). Atonement is also provided for sinners (see Leviticus 4:20). Atonement relates to the removal of the guilt of our sins in the sense that God no longer holds them against us.

Hebrews 8:12 says: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Even after we receive atonement through Jesus Christ, God is still aware of our sins. But He does not remember them in the sense of intending to punish us eternally for them or being angry with us about them.


Atonement related to burnt, sin and guilt offerings


The Hebrew word “kapar” meaning “atonement” is used in the Mosaic Covenant period of the Old Testament Scriptures in connection with:


         burnt offerings (see Leviticus 1:4, 9:7, 12:6-8, 15:15, 16:24, Numbers 6:11 and 8:12). Burnt offerings related to atonement for every type of sin (see Leviticus 1:4 and 16:24).

         sin offerings (see Exodus 29:37, 30:10, Leviticus 4:20, 4:31, 9:7, 10:17, 12:6-8, 15:15, 16:6, 16:11, 16:15-16, 16:27, Numbers 6:11, 8:12, 15:25, 15:27-28, 28:22, 29:5, 29:11 and Nehemiah 10:33). Sin offerings related to atonement for sins committed unknowingly, especially where no restitution was possible. Restitution will be defined in the next point.

         trespass (or guilt) offerings (see Leviticus 5:6, 5:16, 5:18, 6:7, 7:7 and 19:22). Trespass offerings related to atonement for sins committed unknowingly where restitution was possible (see Leviticus 5:14-6:7). Restitution involved paying money to the victim of our unintentional wrong to the value of the victim’s loss plus on extra 20% (see Leviticus 6:5). If the unintentional sin was against God, the priest would set the restitution amount plus an extra 20% (see Leviticus 5:15-16).


Peace offerings


The Mosaic Law also commanded the Israelites to make peace offerings to the Lord (see Leviticus 3:1-17, 7:11-21 and 7:28-34). The peace offerings were not given for atonement for sins but to express one of the main results of atonement – the fact that the relationship between the Lord and His people had been restored to a state of peace.

The peace offerings signified that reconciliation between God and humans had been provided by the removal of human guilt and God’s anger against them through atoning sacrifice. Peace offerings are also called fellowship offerings because they relate to the restoration of fellowship and communion between humans and God.

There were three types of peace offerings:


1.       The thank offering was given to God to express thankfulness for any unexpected blessing or deliverance (see Leviticus 7:12-15).

2.       The voluntary or votive offering was given to the Lord to express thanks or gratitude for any God-granted deliverance or blessing which related to a previous vow (see Leviticus 7:16-18).

3.       The freewill offering was given to God to express thankfulness to Him in general without any concentration on any specific blessing or deliverance (see Leviticus 22:18, 21 and 23).


Grain offerings


The Mosaic Covenant also instructed the Israelites to make grain offerings. But these do not relate to atonement for sin. Grain offerings were given to God as memorials to Him (see Leviticus 6:15) or as expressions of thanksgiving accompanying peace offerings (see Leviticus 7:11-14) or for bringing the sin of adultery to remembrance (see Numbers 5:15). Grain offerings are referred to in Leviticus 2:1-16, 6:14-18, 7:12-13, Numbers 15:1-21 and many other verses in the Old Testament.

The Bread of Presence placed on the table before the Lord in the Holy Place every Sabbath was a grain offering (see Leviticus 24:5-9).

Ezekiel 45:15-17 relates burnt, sin, peace and grain offerings to atonement. But note out of these only the burnt and sin offerings relate to the providing of atonement for sins. The peace offerings relate to one of the results of atonement. The grain offerings partly refer to giving thanks for atonement.


Symbolic of Jesus’ death


Hebrews 10:1-12 reveals the burnt, sin and trespass offerings in the Law of Moses symbolised Jesus’ death. Hebrews 10:1, 4-7 and 9-12 states: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when He came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, But a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come – In the volume of the book it is written of Me – To do Your will, O God.”’ He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”

By being a fulfillment of the burnt, sin and trespass offerings, Jesus’ death paid the required penalty for all sin – intentional and unintentional. Isaiah 53:5-6, 8 and 10-12 prophesy the Sin-Bearing Servant – Jesus Christ - would take the death penalty for all transgressions, iniquities and sins. Jesus died for all our intentional and unintentional sins.

Hebrews 10:2-4 and 10:11 previously quoted emphasise that the burnt, sin and trespass offerings commanded in the Law did not actually result in the taking away of the guilt of sin. These offerings were merely a symbol of Jesus’ later death which would provide believing Israelites with forgiveness of sin and other benefits linked to atonement.

Daniel 9:24-25 contains a marvellous prophecy about Jesus Christ: “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince …” Note verse 24 uses the word “atonement” in relation to what Christ would achieve.


The Day of Atonement


The Day of Atonement which is commanded in the Law of Moses teaches us much about Jesus Christ's atonement. Leviticus 16:1-34 and 23:26-32 give instructions about the Day of Atonement.

Note Leviticus 16:2 shows the High Priests could only enter God’s Presence in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle at certain times. Hebrews 9:7-8 indicates the High Priest could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year by himself. No other human was allowed into God’s Presence in the Holy of Holies in the Old or Mosaic Covenant period. This was meant to show sin had separated every human from God.

The death of animal substitutes on the Day of Atonement symbolised the fact no human could approach God except through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 10:1-10).

The Day of Atonement taught the perfection and holiness of God, His hatred of all sin and how extremely serious sin is in His eyes.

The Day of Atonement related to every sin of believing Israelites, including those missed by the regular burnt, sin and guilt offerings sacrificed on other days. Leviticus 16:30 and 34 stress the Day of Atonement sacrifices provided atonement for all sins. The Day of Atonement related to both individual and national sins.

Hebrews 9:7-9 says the Day of Atonement shows that other sacrifices commanded in the Law of Moses did not remove all sin. Hebrews 10:1-4 shows even the Day of Atonement could not remove sin. The fact the Day of Atonement had to be repeated year after year shows how limited it was. Hebrews 7:27, 9:2, 9:26, 9:28, 10:10, 10:12, 10:14 and 10:18 emphasise Jesus Christ died once for all sins. The Day of Atonement was merely a limited reflection of His death.

The fact Leviticus 16:21, 29 and 31 stressed the Day of Atonement required Israelites to confess their sins and humble themselves before God shows He required a heart response from the Israelites to these outward ceremonies. A mere participation in the outward ceremonies without a true humble faith response would have not brought forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God.

Believing Israelites participating in the Day of Atonement received forgiveness of sin, the removal of God’s anger against them and reconciliation to Him on the basis of Jesus’ future death being the complete fulfillment of the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

This day symbolised that the death of an innocent substitute provided both forgiveness of sin and access to God’s Presence. Hebrews 9:22 says without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness or pardoning of the guilt of sin. Ephesians 2:14-18 and Hebrews 10:19-22 reveal Jesus Christ's atoning death provided believers with perfect access to God’s Presence.

Leviticus 16:5-6 says: “ And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house.”

The sacrifice of the ram or uncastrated male sheep or the goat for the sins of the people was one atoning sacrifice with different aspects (see Leviticus 16:5, 10, 15, 18, 21-22 and 24). Because the High Priest was a sinner himself he needed to have a bull sacrificed as a substitute for himself (see Leviticus 16:6 and 11). The burnt offering of the ram was for the sin of the Israelites in general. The sin offering of the goat was for the unintentional sin of the Israelites.

The two goats symbolised two different things. The slain goat symbolised Jesus dying for sin and taking its penalty (see Isaiah 53:10). The scapegoat or escape goat typified the accounting of our guilt and punishment to Jesus Christ our Substitute (see Leviticus 16:20-21) and the total removal of our guilt and deserved punishment from us (see Leviticus 16:22).

The accounting or debiting of the believers’ guilt and punishment to the innocent animal sacrificial substitute (the first goat) was symbolised in the laying of the High Priest’s hands on the scapegoat (the second goat) while he confessed the sins of the people.

The High Priest acted as the representative for the people before God (see Hebrews 5:1). The releasing of the scapegoat into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16:22) symbolised the removal of the guilt and penalty for sin.


The blood is proof of the death of the substitute


Someone may argue that Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11 and Deuteronomy 12:23-24 show the atonement of Jesus Christ involved the offering of some mystical life contained in blood. But this is wrong. The atonement instead involved the presenting of the blood as clear proof of the death of the sacrificial victim. Because blood fills all of the human body and carries life to every cell of the body, it is an exceptionally appropriate representation of the death of that particular physical body.

The atonement involved much more than just sprinkling blood. It involved the offering to God of an innocent sacrifice who acts as a substitute for the guilty sinner. The blood is a vivid proof of the death of the victim in the place of the condemned sinner.


Self-righteous attempts to atone for sin


Throughout human history, there have been many who self-righteously thought God would let them atone for their own sins. For example, many have thought that if they punished their bodies in various ways by acts of penance, engaged in acts of great self-sacrifice, prayed hundreds of prayers or gave large amounts of money to God or the poor, this would atone for their sins.

For example, the Apocryphal book Tobit 12:9 teaches the false legalistic idea that almsgiving – giving money to the poor – atones for sin and delivers people from the penalty of sin – death. Tobit 12:9 says: For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin…” The Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus 3:30 also wrongly teaches almsgiving atones for sin. [2]

Such religious nonsense fails to understand every sinning human has an eternal death sentence already pronounced by God against them. Romans 6:23 simply states this: “For the wages of sin is death…” This death sentence includes remaining in hell or the lake of fire (also called the second death) eternally. Revelation 20:14-15 relates to this.

Just giving money to the poor or punishing your body or engaging in acts of penance or self-sacrifice or praying hundreds of prayers or giving tithes and offerings to God will never have any effect in reducing an eternal death sentence. It is then little wonder that in Matthew 16:21, Jesus said He must go to Jerusalem to suffer, die and be resurrected on the third day: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”

If Jesus had not died, no human could have had their guilt and deserved sentence to eternal punishment removed by God.


A perfectly completed work resulting in us being complete in Him


Hebrews 10:14 is a verse with awesome implications for believers: “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” In the original Greek, the words “He has perfected” here is a form of the word “teleioo” which means “to bring an activity to a successful finish”. [3] “Teleioo” is a word from the same family of words as the word “teleo” used by John in John 19:28 and by Jesus in John 19:30 when referring to the perfection or completeness of Jesus’ work in His death.

Note the words “He has perfected” in Hebrews 10:14 is in the perfect tense in Greek. The perfect tense refers to completed actions which have continuing effects or to states resulting from previous actions. Also, the addition of the word “forever” to “have perfected” adds to the absolute completeness of what Christ’s death has achieved for us.

Hebrews 2:10 refers to Christ – the perfect or complete Man: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Because Christ is the perfect or complete Man or Human, believers are perfect or complete in Him. We are not complete in ourselves.

We are complete only in Him as Colossians 2:10 says: “And you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” This completeness in Christ is only available to us because of His death as Hebrews 10:14 shows.


Bible Study Questions


1.         Describe what atonement means?

2.         To which Biblical teachings is the Biblical concept of atonement closely related? Provide Bible verses as proof for your answer.

3.         Why do humans need to have their sins atoned for?

4.         What does Proverbs 16:6 reveal about atonement?

5.         Which verses reveal atonement is for

a)             specific sins and

b)             sinners themselves?

6.         Describe what the following Mosaic Law practices relate to:

a)             burnt offerings

b)             sin offerings and

c)             trespass or guilt offerings.

7.         What were the peace offerings commanded in the Mosaic Law?

8.         What are the three different types of peace offerings?

9.         Explain what grain offerings under the Mosaic Covenant were.

10.     What does Hebrews 10:1-12 teach us about the relationship between Jesus’ death and the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law?

11.     List the main aspects of the Day of Atonement under the Mosaic Covenant.

12.     Of what is the presenting of the blood involved in atoning sacrifices clear proof?

13.     What false legalistic attitude does the Apocryphal writing Tobit 12:9 teach?

14.     Explain what Hebrews 10:14 teaches.



[1] Bauer, page 125.

[2] The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches wrongly include Tobit and Ecclesiasticus as parts of the Old Testament (Mircea Eliade – Editor-in-Chief, “The Encyclopedia of Religion”, Volume 2, page 174).

[3] Louw and Nida, page 658.



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