The apostle John said: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10 English Standard Version). The New International Version translators and editors thought the word “propitiation” was too obscure, and translated that verse: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In my experience, the word atonement is almost as obscure as the word propitiation for most people in our generation.
The meaning of atonement can be explained as “at-one-ment” or being “at one” with someone. When the relationship between a husband and wife has broken down to the point of separation and something happens to bring them back together, we talk about “reconciliation”. We don’t usually think of whatever it was that made it possible for them to be reconciled as an atonement. But if the cause of their estrangement is addressed and forgiveness is granted, they are once again “at one” with each other because atonement has been made through the asking and granting of forgiveness.
When a human being is estranged from God by sin, it gets more complicated. How can sinful people be reconciled to a holy God? Sin creates a legal debt, and God is a just judge. The debt must be paid if there is to be reconciliation between God and a sinner. Justice will only be satisfied with the punishment of the sinner by death.
When God gave Israel the law through Moses, he also gave instructions for making atonement. The law forced people to see the truth of their sin and the death they deserved as sinners. But God’s grace was revealed in his willingness to provide atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice: a lamb died in the place of the guilty person or the guilty nation (on the national Day of Atonement). An innocent substitute died as the sinner deserved to die. The debt incurred by sin was paid for in that death and God was reconciled to the sinner.
The New Testament calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” because his death in the place of sinners fulfilled what was prefigured by all those sacrificial lambs from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus. As Paul explains, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [an atoning sacrifice] by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a). It took the death of Jesus in our place for us to have “at-one-ment” with God. It was the love and mercy of God that moved him to provide atonement for us by punishing Jesus with death and hell in our place.
I came across an interesting illustration of atonement a while back while reading an account of a Presbyterian Missionary in the late 1800’s. Samual Young spent a summer exploring the South-East Alaskan coast with the famous Scottish-born American naturalist and preservationist, John Muir. Muir was studying and mapping glaciers. Young was visiting Indian tribes to see which villages were open to having a missionary come to live and teach in their village. In his account of that summer, John Muir wrote this story while they were visiting a group of Thlinkit Indians known as the Stickeens:
The Thlinkit tribes give a hearty welcome to Christian missionaries. In particular they are quick to accept the doctrine of the atonement, because they themselves practice it, although to many of the civilized whites it is a stumbling-block and rock of offense. As an example of their own doctrine of atonement they told Mr. Young and me one evening that twenty or thirty years ago there was a bitter war between their own and the Sitka tribe, great fighters, and pretty evenly matched. After fighting all summer in a desultory, squabbling way, fighting now under cover, now in the open, watching for every chance for a shot, none of the women dared venture to the salmon streams or berry fields to procure their winter stock of food. At this crisis one of the Stickeen chiefs came out of his block-house fort into an open space midway between their fortified camps, and shouted that he wished to speak to the leader of the Sitkas. When the Sitka chief appeared he said: “My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon streams or berry fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer most of my people will die of hunger. We have fought long enough; let us make peace. You brave Sitka warriors go home, and we will go home, and we will all set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late.” The Sitka chief replied: “You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You have killed ten more of my tribe than we have killed of yours. Give us ten Stickeen men to balance our blood-account; then, and not till then, will we make peace and go home.” “Very well,” replied the Stickeen chief, “you know my rank. You know that I am worth ten common men and more. Take me and make peace.” This noble offer was promptly accepted; the Stickeen chief stepped forward and was shot down in sight of the fighting bands. Peace was thus established, and all made haste to their homes and ordinary work.
That chief literally gave himself a sacrifice for his people. He died that they might live. Therefore, when missionaries preached the doctrine of atonement, explaining that when all mankind had gone astray, had broken God’s laws and deserved to die, God’s Son came forward, and, like the Stickeen chief, offered himself as a sacrifice to heal the cause of God’s wrath and set all people of the world free, the doctrine was readily accepted. “Yes, your words are good,” they said. “The Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, the Maker of all the world, must be worth more than all mankind put together; therefore, when His blood was shed, the salvation of the world was made sure.”
An illustration is worth a thousand words!