Atonement for Sins

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement [Heb. כָּפַר kaphar] for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement [Heb. כָּפַר  kaphar].  (Lev. 17:11)

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  (Heb. 9:22)

       Sacrificial LambAtonement is a very important concept in the Old Testament.  The word atonement translates the Hebrew verb כָּפַר (kaphar) which means to “cover over, pacify, propitiate, [or] atone for sin.”[1]  The animal sacrificial system—which was part of the Mosaic Law—taught that sin must be atoned for.  The idea of substitution was clearly taught as the sinner laid his hands on the animal that died in his place (Lev. 4:15, 24; 16:21).  The innocent animal paid the price of death on behalf of the guilty sinner.  God established the Levitical animal sacrificial system as a way of teaching that human sin must be atoned for.  The atoning animal sacrifices were performed daily by the Jewish temple priests on behalf of Israelites who committed sins in ignorance (Lev. 4:1-4, 20, 26, 31).  More serious sins—those deliberately committed—were atoned for once a year on the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur—by the High Priest who would enter the Holy of Holies in the temple and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat on the mercy seat which was on the top of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:14-15).  There were two sacrifices on the Day of Atonement: a bull was sacrificed for the sins of the High Priest (Lev. 16:6, 11), and two goats for the sins of the nation (Lev. 16:7-10).  The sacrifice of the goats were “to make atonement [כָּפַר kaphar] for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year” (Lev. 16:34).  One goat shed its blood on the altar, and the other was sent away into the wilderness after the High Priest had laid his hands on it and confessed over it “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins” (Lev. 16:21).  The innocent animals died in place of those who were guilty of sin.  

Atonement means making amends, blotting out the offense, and giving satisfaction for wrong done; thus reconciling to oneself the alienated other and restoring the disrupted relationship. Scripture depicts all human beings as needing to atone for their sins but lacking all power and resources for doing so. We have offended our holy Creator, whose nature it is to hate sin (Jer. 44:4; Hab. 1:13) and to punish it (Ps. 5:4-6; Rom. 1:18; 2:5-9). No acceptance by, or fellowship with, such a God can be expected unless atonement is made, and since there is sin in even our best actions, anything we do in hopes of making amends can only increase our guilt or worsen our situation. This makes it ruinous folly to seek to establish one’s own righteousness before God (Job 15:14-16; Rom. 10:2-3); it simply cannot be done.[2]

       The animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law taught that God is holy, man is sinful, and that God was willing to judge an innocent creature as a substitute in place of the sinner.  The animal that shed its blood gave up its life in place of the one who had offended God, and it was only through the shed blood that atonement was made.  A life for a life.  The whole animal sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law was highly symbolic, temporary, and pointed forward to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The Levitical priests would regularly perform their temple sacrifices on behalf of the people to God, but being a symbolic system, the animal sacrifices could never “make perfect those who draw near” to Him, for the simple reason that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1, 4).  For nearly fourteen centuries the temple priests kept “offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11), until finally Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” and through that one offering “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” by it (Heb. 10:12, 14).  What the Mosaic Law could never accomplish through the sacrifice of symbols, Christ did once and for all time through His substitutionary death on the cross when he died in the place of sinners. 

       Jesus’ death on the cross was a satisfactory sacrifice to God which completely paid the price for our sin.  We owed a debt to God that we could never pay, and Jesus paid that debt in full when He died on the cross and bore the punishment that rightfully belonged to us.  In Romans 3:25 Paul used the Greek word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion)—translated propitiation—to show that Jesus’ shed blood completely satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin, with the result that there is nothing more for the sinner to pay to God.  Jesus paid our sin-debt in full.  There’s nothing for us to pay.  The Apostle John tells us “He Himself is the propitiation [ἱλασμός hilasmos – the satisfactory sacrifice] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. 4:10).  Jesus’ death on the cross forever satisfied God’s righteous demands toward the sins of everyone for all time!  God has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).  Regarding Christ’s death, J. Dwight Pentecost states:

You can be adjusted to God’s standard, because God made Christ to become sin for us.  The One who knew no sin, the One in whose lips had never been found guile, took upon Himself our sin in order that He might bear our sins to the cross and offer Himself as an acceptable substitute to God for us—on our behalf, in our place.  And when Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinners and went to the cross on their behalf and in their place, He was making possible the doctrine of reconciliation.  He was making it possible for God to conform the world to Himself, to adjust the world to His standard so that sinners in the world might find salvation because “Jesus paid it all.”  You can be adjusted to God, to God’s standard, through Christ, by His death, by His cross, by His blood, and by His identification with sinners.[3]

       Atonement for sins is the basis for reconciliation, because God has judged our sins in the Person of Christ who died on the cross in our place.  The death of Christ has forever satisfied God’s righteous demands for our sin and it is on this basis that He can accept sinners before His throne of grace.  The blood of Christ is the only coin in the heavenly realm that God accepts as payment for our sin-debt, and Christ paid our sin debt in full!  That’s good news! 

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:18-19)

       Because Jesus’ death satisfies God’s righteousness demands for sin, the sinner can approach God who welcomes him in love.  God has cleared the way for sinners to come to Him for a new relationship, and this is based completely on the substitutionary work of Christ.  God has done everything to reconcile us to Himself.  The sin debt that we owed to God has been paid in full by the blood of Christ. 

This article in an excerpt from my book: The Cross of Christ: Sufficient to Save

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

[1] Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers 1979), 497.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995), 138.

[3] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mi., Kregel Publications, 1965), 89.

About Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2017 from Tyndale Theological Seminary. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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