The English word “atonement” is derived from the expression “at one” and, as applied Biblically, means a covering of sins. In the Hebrew Scriptures terms pertaining to atonement appear many times, especially in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Ka·pharʹ is the Hebrew word for making atonement, and probably it originally meant “cover,” though “wipe off” has also been suggested.
Man’s Need for Atonement. Man is in need of sin covering, or atonement, due to inherited sin (1Ki 8:46; Ps 51:5; Ec 7:20; Ro 3:23), responsibility for which rests, not with God, but with man himself. (De 32:4, 5) Adam, who lost everlasting life in human perfection, bequeathed sin and death to his offspring (Ro 5:12), and Adam’s descendants therefore came under condemnation to death. If humankind was to regain the opportunity to enjoy everlasting life, then, in harmony with a legal principle that Jehovah later included in the Mosaic Law, namely, that like must go for like, exact atonement would be required for what had been lost by Adam.—De 19:21.
As used in the Bible, “atonement” has the basic thought of “cover” or “exchange,” and that which is given in exchange for, or as a “cover” for, another thing must be its duplicate. Thus, anything making satisfaction for something that is lost or forfeited must be “at one” with that other thing, completely covering it as its exact equivalent. There must be no overlapping and no coming short. No imperfect human could provide such a covering or atonement to restore perfect human life to any or all of mankind. (Ps 49:7, 8) To make adequate atonement for what was forfeited by Adam, a sin offering having the precise value of a perfect human life would have to be provided.
Jehovah God instituted an arrangement for atonement among the Israelites that typified a greater atonement provision. It is Jehovah and not man who is to be credited with determining and revealing the means of atonement for covering inherited sin and providing relief from the resulting condemnation to death.
Atonement Sacrifices. As God directed, the Israelites were to offer sacrifices as sin offerings in order to make atonement. (Ex 29:36; Le 4:20) Of particular significance was the annual Atonement Day, when Israel’s high priest offered animal sacrifices and made atonement for himself, for the other Levites, and for the nonpriestly tribes of Israel. (Le 16) Sacrificial animals were to be unblemished, indicating the necessity of perfection on the part of their antitype. Also, that atonement is a costly matter is shown in that the victim’s life was given, its blood being shed to make atonement. (Le 17:11) Sin offerings made by the Israelites and the various features of the yearly Day of Atonement undoubtedly impressed upon their minds the seriousness of their sinful state and their great need of complete atonement. However, animal sacrifices could not completely atone for human sin because beasts are inferior to man, who was given dominion over them.—Ge 1:28; Ps 8:4-8; Heb 10:1-4; see ATONEMENT DAY; OFFERINGS.
Fulfillment in Christ Jesus. The Christian Greek Scriptures plainly link complete atonement for human sins with Jesus Christ. In him the types and shadows of the Mosaic Law find fulfillment, since he is the very One to whom the various animal sacrifices thereof pointed forward. As a perfect, sinless human, Jesus was the sin offering for all of Adam’s descendants who eventually are delivered from inherited sin and death. (2Co 5:21) Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins perpetually” (Heb 10:12), and he is unquestionably “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” (Joh 1:29, 36; 1Co 5:7; Re 5:12; 13:8; compare Isa 53:7.) Forgiveness is dependent on the pouring out of blood (Heb 9:22), and Christians who are walking in the light are assured that “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin.”—1Jo 1:7; Heb 9:13, 14; Re 1:5.
Jesus’ perfect human life offered in sacrifice is the antitypical sin offering. It is the valuable thing that accomplishes the purchase of mankind, redeeming them from inherited sin and death. (Tit 2:13, 14; Heb 2:9) Christ himself declared: “The Son of man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his soul a ransom [Gr., lyʹtron] in exchange for many.” (Mr 10:45; see RANSOM.) His sacrifice atoned exactly for what was forfeited by the sinner Adam, since Jesus was perfect and hence Adam’s equal prior to the first man’s sin.—1Ti 2:5, 6; Eph 1:7.
Reconciliation made possible. Human sin causes division between God and man, for Jehovah does not approve of sin. The breach between man and his Creator could be healed only by fulfillment of the requisite of a true “covering,” or atonement, for such sin. (Isa 59:2; Hab 1:13; Eph 2:3) But Jehovah God has made reconciliation between himself and sinful mankind possible through the perfect man Jesus Christ. Thus, the apostle Paul wrote: “We are also exulting in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” (Ro 5:11; see RECONCILIATION.) To come into Jehovah’s favor, it is necessary to accept God’s provision for reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Only by this means is it possible to come into a position comparable to that of Adam prior to his sin. God’s love is displayed in making such reconciliation possible.—Ro 5:6-10.
Justice satisfied by propitiation. Still, justice required satisfaction. Man, though created perfect, fell from that state through sin and thus Adam and his offspring came under God’s condemnation. Justice and fidelity to principles of righteousness necessitated that God execute the sentence of his law against disobedient Adam. But love moved God to purpose a substitutional arrangement whereby justice would be satisfied, and yet without any violation of justice, repentant offspring of sinner Adam could be forgiven and could achieve peace with God. (Col 1:19-23) Therefore, Jehovah “sent forth his Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.” (1Jo 4:10; Heb 2:17) Propitiation is that which makes propitious, or favorable. Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice removes the reason for God to condemn a human creature and makes possible the extending to him of God’s favor and mercy. This propitiation removes the charge of sin and the resulting condemnation to death in the case of spiritual Israel and all others availing themselves of it.—1Jo 2:1, 2; Ro 6:23.
The idea of substitution is prominent in certain Biblical texts relating to atonement. For instance, Paul observed that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3), and that “Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us [Jews], because it is written: ‘Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake.’” (Ga 3:13; De 21:23) Peter commented: “He himself bore our sins in his own body upon the stake, in order that we might be done with sins and live to righteousness. And ‘by his stripes you were healed.’” (1Pe 2:24; Isa 53:5) Peter also wrote: “Christ died once for all time concerning sins, a righteous person for unrighteous ones, that he might lead you to God.”—1Pe 3:18.
Loving provision calls for response of faith. Love has been exemplified by God and Christ in connection with the provision of complete atonement for inherited human sins. (Joh 3:16; Ro 8:32; 1Jo 3:16) However, to benefit therefrom a person must be truly repentant and he must exercise faith. Jehovah was not pleased with Judah’s sacrifices when offered without the proper attitude. (Isa 1:10-17) God sent Christ forth “as an offering for propitiation through faith in his blood.” (Ro 3:21-26) Those who in faith accept God’s provision for atonement through Jesus Christ can gain salvation; those who spurn it cannot. (Ac 4:12) And, for any who “practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment.”—Heb 10:26-31.