Complexity arises in some minds respecting the use of the word atonement and this is due to certain facts.
1. In the Old Testament. So far as the English translation is concerned, the use of the term atonement—excepting the mistranslation of Romans 5:11—is restricted to the Old Testament. Though there it is a translation of two Hebrew words, but one of them, kaphar, is generally in view and it is used about seventy times. Its meaning is 'to cover.' This, the distinct and limited meaning of the Hebrew word, should not be invested with New Testament ideas, which contemplate a finished or completed work. Under the Old Testament provision the one who had sinned was himself fully forgiven and released, but the ground upon which it could be wrought was itself only typical and not actual. God forgave and restored where sin was only covered by animal sacrifices, but the true basis upon which forgiveness could ever be granted was the intention on God's part to take up the sin later that He had forgiven and deal with it righteously and effectively through the sacrificial death of His Son on the cross. That efficacious death was typified in the required animal sacrifice. According to Romans 3:25—"Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God"—the fact that Christ bore the sins which were committed before, which sins had already been forgiven on the typical ground that they were covered, ranks as one of the major accomplishments of His death. It is as though unnumbered promissory notes had been handed to Christ for Him to pay. If the notes are paid as promised, God is thereby proved to have been righteous in the forgiving of sin with no other demands having been made upon the sinner than that an offering be brought which, regardless of how much it was understood by that sinner, was in God's sight an anticipation and recognition of His final meeting of every holy demand against sin by the efficacious blood of Christ. In other words, God pretermitted or passed over the sins, not judging them finally at the time they were forgiven. Such a course, it is obvious, would be a very unrighteous dealing if those sins were not in due time to be brought into judgment. All sins of the Mosaic age were thus shown to have been "covered" but not "taken away." In contrast to this temporary expedient, all sin which God forgives has been and is now "taken away." In two New Testament passages that vital contrast appears. It is written: "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. ... And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:4, 11-14). Added to this is the direct statement of John 1:29, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." This great declaration from John was a doctrinal innovation of immeasurable proportions. The same contrast between the divine dealings with sin in the past dispensation and in the present dispensation is indicated again at Acts 17:30.
2. In the New Testament. Though appearing once by an unfortunate translation in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 5:11), the word atonement is not really found in the New Testament. It is as though the Holy Spirit in jealousy for the truth is not allowing room for such an error respecting the divine plan of dealing with sin in the present age. The etymological meaning of atonement is 'at-one-ment'; those once estranged are brought into agreement. The New Testament word for this great truth is reconciliation. There would be no doctrinal error committed should at-one-ment be substituted for reconciliation, but the careful student must be much influenced by the fact that 'atonement' as such is confined to the old order and is not used by the Spirit respecting any feature of the new order in Christianity.
3. In Theology. By common usage and yet with little reason, modern theologians have seized upon the word atonement as a term to represent all that Christ did on the cross. In earlier portions of this work (Vol. III) upwards of fourteen stupendous achievements by Christ in His death have been indicated. These reach beyond all present time into other ages and past human situations into angelic spheres. It is not possible that the limitless outreach of Christ's death should be represented in any single one or a dozen words; and from the fact that the term in question does not belong to the New Testament vocabulary and from the fact that it is employed in the Old Testament to represent one idea wholly foreign to and superseded in the New Testament, no word related to Christ's death is more inapt as a reference to that which He really wrought for men of the present age. As the extent of Christ's death is understood, so, correspondingly, the use of the term atonement will cease.
This discussion may be summarized by quoting from an extended article on the theme to be found in the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia:
In the English New Testament the word "atonement" is found only at Romans 5:11 and the American Revised Version changes this to "reconciliation." While in strict etymology this word need signify only the active or conscious exercise of unity of life or harmony of relations, the causative idea probably belongs to the original use of the term, as it certainly is present in all current Christian use of the term. As employed in Christian theology, both practical and technical, the term includes with more or less distinctness: (a) the fact of union with God, and this always looked upon as (b) a broken union to be restored or an ideal union to be realized, (c) the procuring cause of atonement, variously defined, (d) the crucial act wherein the union is effected, the work of God and the response of the soul in which the union becomes actual. Inasmuch as the reconciliation between man and God is always conceived of as effected through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:1821) the expression, "the Atonement of Christ," is one of the most frequent in Christian theology. Questions and controversies have turned mainly on the procuring cause of atonement, (c) above, and at this point have arisen the various "theories of the Atonement" (I, 321, 1915 edition).
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