Atonement – definition

Atonement means at-one-ment
Correctly understanding these terms leads to a better
understanding of the character of God and the Gospel.

Traditional Legal Model – atonement is understood to be the satisfaction of God’s justice by the payment of a legally-imposed penalty, that penalty being death – “… the wages of sin is death …” (Rom 6:23).

Biblical Healing Model – the process of becoming one with God (atonement as a verb) or the state of being at one with God (atonement as a noun).

It is important to understand that the meaning of the word “atonement” has changed from what it was in the past. Here is a 2-minute audio description of the history of that change by Graham Maxwell, who was a Biblical scholar well-versed in the original languages:

 “What does atonement mean? Now, commonly, in the last century or two or three, it has come to mean ‘making amends, paying a penalty, to meet legal demands, that adjustment in legal standing may be justly accomplished.’ That is not the original meaning of the term, and it is definitely not the meaning of the biblical word. The biblical word in Greek is ‘kattalage’. There’s no hint of making amends there. It’s ‘reconciliation’. All the dictionaries agree that this word ‘atonement’ is a made‐up word – ‘at‐one-ment’. Now, that seems almost too cute to be true. But that’s the way it started. But it was based on a verb, ‘to one’. Two people are fighting, and you are sent out to ‘one’ them. Not ‘win’ them, to ‘one’ them; o-n‐e. And then when you had succeeded in ‘one‐ing’ people, then, hopefully, they would remain in a state of oneness. And the state of being ‘at one’, in harmony, is ‘atonement’. Now, if you want to read the history of the word, there’s only one dictionary that really does it, that’s a multi‐volume Oxford English Dictionary. And if you look in there for the history of the word, it’s very colorful. It shows how for a long time it was used in its original sense of being at one, reconciling people to harmony; friendship is often mentioned, unity, and so on. Now, later on somehow, it was changed to mean ‘making amends, paying penalty’, and that’s the way it’s commonly used now. But that is not the original word and that is not the meaning of the Greek. That’s the way a word can develop.” (Graham Maxwell)

 That the meaning has changed can be shown by comparing dictionaries:

 From a Modern Dictionary:
Atonement (noun)

  1. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.
  2. (sometimes initial capital letter) Theology. the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, especially as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.
  3. Christian Science. the experience of humankind’s unity with God exemplified by Jesus Christ.
  4. Archaic. reconciliation; agreement.
    (, accessed Nov. 15, 2017)

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

  1. Agreement; concord; reconciliation, after enmity or controversy. Romans 5:11.
  • He seeks to make atonement
  • Between the Duke of Glo’ster and your brothers. Shak.
  1. Expiation; satisfaction or reparation made by giving an equivalent for an injury, or by doing or suffering that which is received in satisfaction for an offense or injury; with for.
  • And Moses said to Aaron, go to the altar, and offer thy sin-offering, and thy burnt-offering, and make an atonement for thyself and for the people. Leviticus 9:7.
  • When a man has been guilty of any vice, the best atonement he can make for it is, to warn others not to fall into the like.
  • The Phocians behaved with so much gallantry, that they were thought to have made a sufficient atonement for their former offense.
  1. In theology, the expiation of sin made by the obedience and personal sufferings of Christ.
    (, accessed Nov, 15, 2017)

Notice that the modern dictionary includes “reconciliation” in its fourth definition and calls it “archaic” whereas Websters’ dictionary has “reconciliation” in its first meaning.

Atonement’s Original Meaning

So atonement, originally, meant reconciliation or agreement (the first definition in Webster’s 1828 dictionary) whereas now it has changed to mean more like: pay back or penalty and the original meaning has been shifted to fourth place (in the modern dictionary quoted above) and labelled as “archaic.” No one wants to be labelled as archaic in how they talk but, in this case, being archaic is being true to the original, intended meaning.

While the meaning of the word atonement has changed over time, there have also been a variety of theories of how the atonement works. These are summarized in the first four minutes of this video  (11 min) by Dr. Timothy Jennings.

 Go to The Character of God and the Gospel Glossary

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