The Meaning of Atonement

Brief Bible studies in the light of the original meaning of atonement.

By W. E. HOWELL, Secretary to the President, General Conference

To Christian and sinner alike there is no sweeter-toned note in all the Scriptures than the word atonement. It attracts the sinner from his evil way, and inspires hope in his breast for a better life. It sustains the Christian in the hour of trial, and cheers him as he trudges along the strait and nar­row way. It forms the link that binds heaven and earth together. It sanctifies fellowship in the church and sweetens the personal and fam­ily life in the home.

Atonement is the theme of holy converse among the unf alien beings of heaven and of the universe. It mellows the music of the heavenly harpers. It deepens the joy of cheru­bim and seraphim in their unceasing service in the courts above. It speeds the flight of celestial messengers as they wing their way from heaven to earth in their ministry of love to the sons of men.

Atoning grace fills the courts of the heavenly sanctuary with radiant glory. It forms a sacred halo about the thorn-pierced brow of the Lamb as He pleads for sinners at the golden altar. It heightens the joy of His lov­ing ministry as the prayers of the saints come up before Him like sweet-smelling in­cense. The atonement will be the science and the song of the redeemed through the cease­less ages of eternity. It should have a large part in our meditations as we battle with sin from day to day, as we look and long and pray for the coming of our Lord and for His kingdom.

The subject of the atonement may well be the first of a brief series of intensive studies on a few of the great key words of the ever­lasting gospel in the light of the original lan­guages in which they come to us. Let me say first of all that the preservation to our day of Hebrew and Greek—the two principal lan­guages in which the Scriptures were originally written—is but little short of the marvelous. It can be attributed only to the faithfulness of God's people and to the providence of Him who gave us the Holy Word for our learning and our life.

According to the authorities, Hebrew, in which most of the Old Testament was written, is regarded as among the most primitive of languages in which human speech was reduced to writing. Its hardihood and persistence are remarkable. It is well attested that in structure and vocabulary there is little varia­tion in the Hebrew language through the generations and centuries from Moses to Malachi. It is a thrilling thought that we may today read and contemplate the very words uttered and penned millenniums ago by holy men of old as they were moved by the Holy Spirit—some of these words spoken by God Himself in the hearing of the people.

In the case of the Greek language, too, we must look back through the ages to 800 B.c. and earlier to find its meager but virile be­ginnings. It reached a classic stage by 400 B.C. By the time of Christ, it was vying for supremacy with the Hebrew dialect, Aramaic, and with Latin, and it became the vehicle of the inspired writings of the New Testament. In virility as a spoken and printed language, it surpasses the Hebrew in that it is the mother tongue of a hundred million people today. In its musical cadences we may contemplate the very words uttered by Jesus and the apostles, recorded for our learning. Its enduring qual­ities make it a fitting medium for the reposi­tory of truth contained in the Septuagint and the New Testament.

We must first notice the word atonement in our mother tongue, since this is the me­dium on which we must depend for our under­standing. It is a bit unusual in its formation, as it is an amalgam of Old English and Latin elements. At on comes to us as at one, and retains its idiomatic force—being in agree­ment, being at one. The suffix ment from the Latin denotes state. Hence the meaningful significance, state of being at one, of being in complete accord, of coming together after separation.

Sin has brought about a great separation between God and man. "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God." Some­thing must take place to bring us together. That something is atonement. Sin is an in­dividual matter. So must atonement be an individual experience. God has provided a means that is available to all, but it must be personally and individually accepted and ap­plied in order to be efficacious.

Now this wonderful word of so much mean­ing is used freely in the Old Testament, espe­cially in the Levitical books, but also in Samuel, the Chronicles, and Ezekiel. It is never used in its simple verb form atone, but always "make an atonement." In the Hebrew, it is the simple verb kaphar, the corresponding noun form of which occurs in a few instances in the plural, as in the phrase "Day of Atone­ment" (literally, "atonements").

What is the meaning of this great key word to salvation? It is simply "to cover." But, oh, how much it covers ! How blessed is the covering! The Word of Inspiration declares, "Blessed is he whose . . . sin is covered." So far-reaching and significant is this covering that Paul quotes the text Psalms 32:1, both emphasizing and interpreting it by saying: "David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works." Rom. 4:6. Then the cover­ing, which is the basic idea of atonement, is the covering of sin by righteousness without works, and this is none other than the right­eousness of Christ. When sin is thus covered, it is in the fullest sense forgiven, for when the pure eye of God looks down upon the sinner whose sin is thus covered, He sees only the righteousness of Christ. He sees the sin­ner at one" with Himself.

In the typical sanctuary service, there was the great and solemn "Day of Atonement" (atonements), day of coverings, once a year, when the sins of the year were all finally covered. The Jews of today still observe that annual ordinance, calling it, as anyone may observe in the daily press, Yom Kippur—day of covering. But covering with what ?—Not the righteousness of Christ. Sad to say, they are still looking forward to a Christ yet to come.

This same simple word that means so much, kaphar, to cover, is rendered "make an atone­ment for," 64 out of the 92 times it occurs in the Old Testament. Yet, as not infrequently happens in the King James Version, it is varied to read "reconcile" in Leviticus 6:30 and Eze­kiel 45:20, and "reconciliation" in Leviticus 8:15, 16:20, 2 Chronicles 29:24, Ezekiel 45: 15, 17, and notably in Daniel 9:24. In a few instances it is translated "purge," or "forgive," or "be merciful."

Turning now to the New Testament, that great volume of fulfilled promises and types, of historical facts and realities, we look for our great key word, "atonement." But, singu­lar to say, we find it but once—in Romans 5 :ii—and in that one instance it is rendered "reconciliation" in the margin. The text of the Revised Version gives "reconciliation" also. We must therefore look into this word for the atonement idea.

First, it ought to be said that in the Septua­gint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made before the New Testament was written—the Hebrew word kaphar is quite uniformly rendered exilaskomai in Greek. This word is well chosen, for the Greek word for "mercy seat" is hilasterion, from the same root. Hence the idea of atonement is carried over from "to cover" in Hebrew to "to extend mercy" in Greek. The extension of mercy is essentially the idea in atonement, for the covering of sin with the righteousness of Christ is a veritable act of mercy. When mercy is extended and sin is covered, the re­sult is reconciliation. The New Testament writers delight in contemplating the work of atonement in the light of its effect.

This same word hilasterion, of the Septua­gint, is found also in the New Testament in two places—in Hebrews 9:5 to designate the mercy scat, and in Romans 3:25 to designate the office of Christ as the dispenser of mercy through faith in His blood. The verb hila­skornai likewise occurs in the New Testament in two places. Hebrews 2:17 is one place, where "to make reconciliation" could be very properly rendered "to make atonement," since it is the same word used in the Old Testament to render kaphar, "to make atonement." In fact, this is the only instance in the New Testament in which the word "atonement" could be so fittingly used, for as we shall see in a moment, the New Testament word is "reconciliation." The other place where hilaskornai is used is in Luke 18:13, where it is translated outright "be merciful," and very fittingly so, in the prayer of the publican sin­ner who felt the need of mercy and the cover­ing atonement.

John uses a word derived from hilaskomai, namely, hilasmos, to designate Jesus as the propitiation (atonement) for our sins, See John 2:2 and 4:10.

Wonderfully, then, is the great key idea of the atonement carried over from the Old Tes­tament to the New Testament as represented in the terms used. It is entirely natural, as well as providential, that it is so, for the Septuagint was used freely by the New Tes­tament writers, being "the Scriptures" to them in Greek, as most of them, if not all, wrote in Greek. It is providentially so, to preserve the essential link between Old Testament promise and type and New Testa­ment fulfillment and historical reality, in the great provision that we call atonement.

But we must not forget that this same ful­fillment and reality in New Testament times engendered a sense of understanding and ap­preciation of the great atonement that those of old who saw it afar off could not so fully fathom. The apostles had been witnesses to the historical death of Christ, and had experi­enced the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit power. They went forth in that power to do wonderful works of the kind that Jesus had done. Primary in their preaching was the ministry of the reconciliation that had been effected on the cross. Hence it was that they could discern the great change that had been wrought through the cross, both in their per­sonal life and in their ministry. How fitting it was that the new experience should be ex­pressed by a new term.

We must now examine that new word—used not to the exclusion of hilaskomai, but much more freely. That word is katallasso—to ef­fect a great change, to reconcile. It is a most interesting word. Its simple form is allasso —"to change." Compounded with kata, its meaning is intensified, "to make a great change." In this form and sense it is used four times in 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19—twice in its verbal form and twice in its derived noun form—all rendered with the word "rec­oncile" or "reconciliation."

Again in that intense experience defined in Ephesians 2 :16, this strong verb is still more intensified by prefixing another word, apo, to this compound, signifying a complete trans­ference from one state to another. The same form apokatallasso is again used in Colossians 1 :20, 21, to express the all-comprehensiveness of the great change effected by the Father through His Son.

Now all this change—this great change, this superchange—is brought about in your life and mine if we only open our hearts fully to the working of this great grace through the mercy of God. It does not matter so much whether we call it atonement or reconciliation or pro­pitiation, its wonder-working love and mercy and power can transfer us completely from the bondage of sin into the glorious freedom wherewith Christ hath set us free. How much we need this gracious covering of all our sins! How many, many sins we have from our youth up that need to be mercifully covered! The thought of them causes one's heart to break out in the familiar song-prayer:

"Cover with His life, whiter than snow, Fullness of His life then shall I know ; My life of scarlet, my sin and woe, Cover with His life, whiter than snow."

How sweet, then, is the sound of the word atonement! How much sweeter is its mean­ing, At-one-ment with God, as a note of victory in our struggle with the problem of sin from day to day.

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By W. E. HOWELL, Secretary to the President, General Conference

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