Christ didn't 'atone' for our sins, he served as a propitiation.
Wait, before you burn me at the stake and call me a heretic, hear me out. This was a tough pill for me to swallow too, as some of the greatest theologians throughout history would argue against this, and still do. As someone who is definitely reformed in soteriology, this was recently brought to my attention by a dispensationalist, and it would have been easy to just write it off. But as someone who is committed to rightly dividing the Scriptures, I felt I had to look deeper into this. After all, the NIV says in 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” and the King James Version says in Romans 5:11, “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” Even Reformed theology is built around this concept of “atonement,” … or is it?
Wayne Grudem has defined Christ’s “atonement” as follows:
Atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.
And many other modern solid Bible teachers speak of Christ’s “atoning” sacrifice on the cross without giving it a second thought. But let’s look at what atonement really is. The primary definition of atone, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “To make amends, as for a sin or fault.” In the Old Testament, atonement was something man did to make amends for his sins. It was a temporary act, and while God would forgive our sins for making atonement, it was never an act that completely removed our sins. Leviticus 4:20 says:
And he shall do with the bull as he did with the bull as a sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.
Notice, it does not say sins will be removed. The Hebrew word translated as atonement here is kaphar, and primarily means to cover over. The shedding of innocent animal blood was merely an illustration of the deadliness of sin, and simply acted as a temporary bandage for sin, which pointed to the future sacrifice of Christ, which would actually and permanently remove, and wash away our sin.
The word translated as atoning in 1 John 2:2 in the NIV is the Greek Word hilasmos, which means “appeasing,” or “propitiating,” and in Romans 5:11, the word is katallage. Katallage is an interesting word, and was often used in the context of business transaction, meaning an exchange of equal values. Romans 12:19 says:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
The idea here is that Christ’s life, death and resurrection was an exchange, a purchase of our debt. Through this purchase of equal values, (Christ’s infinite holiness, vs our infinite sinfulness) he was able to purchase us with his blood. This is definitely not an “atonement” which was a temporary covering of our sins. Hebrews 10:10-12 says:
By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.
So it is clear that what we need is not an atonement, but a permanent solution. Some translations have more accurately noticed this incorrect usage of the word atonement, and have translated it as propitiation. Propitiate means to appease, or conciliate. Appease means to ease, calm, soothe, and does not carry the idea of making reparations. So, basically what we have is an improper usage of the word “atonement,” which carries with it the idea that it can be used interchangeably with “propitiation.” But this is not correct. Atonement simply carries the idea of making reparations, or repaying for something we did wrong, which we could never fully do. Propitiation carries the idea of exchanging something of equal value for our wrongdoings, also something we could never do. But the difference here is that atonement was a work of man, and propitiation was a work of God. We had nothing to do with God’s work of propitiation, it was an act of Grace that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
Please understand, I’m not saying the teachers or pastors who speak of Christ’s “atoning” death or sacrifice are false teachers. The word has been used interchangeably for so long that it has taken on the incorrect definition, and has come to mean something that it doesn’t. Similar to how Kleenex has come to mean tissue, or in the South, Coke means soda. It has become so commonplace that it’s not even contested, and is used in the pulpit, in seminaries, and even in systematic theology books. Christ’s sacrifice is never spoken of in Scripture as an atonement, nor is a sin offering ever spoken of as a propitiation. So if you really take the time to look into it, you may not have any choice but to come to the same conclusion. Thoughts?