Atonement Then & Now.
Christians love coming up with clever acronyms and word-play to explain points of theology. One I heard was someone trying to help others understand what atonement meant. Think of it as ‘at-one-ment’, they said. Like we’re now at a moment of oneness with God. It was a nice formula. Unfortunately, that’s not what it means.
Atonement means dealing with sin. It’s the act by which redress is made, making good for a wrong that’s been done. It involves confession, repentance and cleansing. Payment must be made, and the end result is reconciliation between the person who’s done the wrong and the person who’s been wronged. ‘At-one-ment’ is the end, but atonement is the means.
Atonement is one of the key concepts of the Bible. That’s because it’s simultaneously necessitated by our fallen human nature and demanded by God’s perfect holiness. Because we’re fallen, selfish and imperfect we sin repeatedly and in all sorts of ways. And because God is holy and cannot tolerate the sight or presence of sin, our sins must be dealt with. These two immutable facts mean that atonement has always been necessary, and will always be so, until Jesus comes again. The alternative is for us to be forever cut off from God.
Both Leviticus and the Gospels reveal a God for whom that is not an option. He didn’t want to live without us, and wanted us back so badly that He made a way. There was atonement then (pre-Jesus), and atonement now (post-Jesus). Those two different stages of atonement are both quite similar and very different.
They’re very similar because they both involve making a way for our sins to be made good. They deal with the same basic problem (our sinfulness) and the same desired end goal (relationship with God). Both in Leviticus literally, and the Bible more widely, atonement is the central act and theme. The whole book of Leviticus hinges around the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, structured to lead up to it and unpack its implications. It was the high point of the Israelites’ year and the fullest expression of God’s grace. For one day of the year only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, to atone for the sins of the people with the blood of a sacrificial animal. With infinite precautions, and in an extraordinary encounter with the living God, all the people’s sins were dealt with at a stroke.
In the same way Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the central act of the entire Bible, with everything before leading up to it and everything since looking back on it. It’s the cornerstone of our belief system. Again, precious blood was shed and the sins of many people were dealt with instantaneously on one very special day. Reconciliation between us and God was achieved by both acts.
But the atonement provided by animals and the atonement provided by Jesus are also very different. The Levitical system was for one nation and for one year only. It was limited and needed to be repeated annually. The sacrifice of Jesus was to atone for all people and once for all. It is limitless in validity and has no expiry date. Under the old system only one person gained access to God, and in a very limited way; under the new system we all gain access to God with extraordinary intimacy (Eph. 2:18).
So because the first system, Atonement Then, was limited, fading and imperfect, the second system, Atonement Now, was necessary. The one was replaced by the other. This wasn’t a case of Plan A failing and Plan B taking its place, this is more like two acts of the same drama. The first act was designed to show us our need of a Saviour and to take care of our sins until He appeared. The second act freed us from the demands and limitations of the first act.
Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves. Atonement has always been the name of the game, but now, because of Jesus, it’s here to stay, and it’s available free of charge for everyone. All you need to do is believe.
To take away:
Thinking about what atonement really means, thank God every day for providing Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (I John 4:10).