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What is the Purpose of the Atonement?

Humanity is a fallen race, estranged from our creator and destined for destruction. But the good news of the gospel is that God loves us anyway. And he has provided for us a savior who gave his life as an atonement for our sins. All who believe in him will escape the destruction that awaits and find eternal life instead. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity and the hope we have.

But is there more to the atonement than forgiveness of sin and a restoration to our pre-fallen state? The atonement has, without question, dealt with our separation from the sovereign God. But I believe it is more than that.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

What Is Atonement?

The subject of atonement is frequent in the Old Testament. The Hebrew verb kapar is used about 100 times. And it means “to cover over, atone, propitiate, pacify.” The first use of this word is in Genesis 6:14, where Noah is told to kapar the ark with pitch. But the vast majority of the time, this word is translated as atonement and is dealing with sin.

The equivalent Greek word is hilaskomai, meaning “to atone, have mercy on, to make atonement for, propitiate.” It is used twice in the New Testament. Once in Luke 18:13, where the tax collector pled that God would “have mercy” on him. The second time is in Hebrews 2:17, where Jesus was said to have made atonement for the sins of the people.

Atonement generally refers to dealing with our sins and making us right with God. It satisfies God’s wrath with our sin, covering it over.

Atonement Theories

Just exactly how the atonement accomplished this has been the subject of various theories. These theories are not scientific in nature. Instead, they are attempts to explain how the atonement restored humanity to a right relationship with God.

The Ransom Theory was popular during the early years of the church and a variant of it, Christus Victor, is popular today. The thought behind the Ransom theory is that humanity was in bondage to Satan and that God paid a ransom to free us from that bondage. Christus Victor envisions a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, with humanity held hostage.

The Satisfaction Theory holds that God’s honor and dignity were offended by our sin. But God’s honor is restored by Christ’s sacrifice of himself on our behalf.

A third is the Penal Substitution Theory. This theory holds humanity is guilty of sin and deserves death. But Christ died in our place as a substitute, paying the penalty for our sins. This is the most commonly held theory among Protestants.

But There’s More

Each of these atonement theories finds support in the Scripture. Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross has resolved the estrangement between God and humanity. But I believe that the atonement was more than just a means to restore humanity to the unfallen state pictured in the early chapters of Genesis.

The picture of God engaged in some form of cosmic battle seems contrary to a God who is sovereign over all of his creation. And the notion of an aggrieved God demanding payment for sin appears at odds with an almighty creator of the whole universe. How could humanity possibly offend God so badly? Especially since he knew before creation what we would do.

As I expressed above, the Scripture is clear concerning the essential nature of the atonement. And that the atonement was crucial in bringing humanity into the relationship with God that he wanted. But it did more than simply restore us to an unfallen state. Through the atonement, God has produced a new humanity that can fully participate in God’s plans for the future of the creation.

God Chose the Cross

Religious thought has been a part of human culture wherever and whenever it has arisen. But whatever form salvation takes in each religion, it involves human effort. In contrast, the way that God has chosen to offer salvation to us is one that humanity considers as foolish. That God would die on a Roman cross to make salvation possible for us is laughable. But it is the way God chose.

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-24 NIV)

The Cross and Atonement

Paul here does not say that God had to use the cross. But that he was pleased to use the cross. God intentionally chose to offer salvation to us in a way that would make no sense to the world. A way that would require faith on our part to accept it. The cross, representing Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others. But to those who believe, it is the power and wisdom of God.

The cross of Jesus was where atonement for sin was made. And the cross has become synonymous with atonement. Jesus’ death on the cross was the atoning sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. But forgiveness of sin is just the beginning of what happened on the cross. The atonement dealt with our sin, wiping the slate clean, and preparing us for transformation into new creatures. And this transformation takes place in two steps. The first happens immediately while the second comes at the Lord’s return.

New Life in Christ

In Romans 6:1-10, while refuting an argument that might encourage a sinful lifestyle, Paul referred to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. His physical death included death to sin while his resurrection was to glory. But this was not just about Jesus. It involves all of those who are in Christ. As a believer, I am in Christ, baptized or immersed into him when I came to faith in Christ. And Jesus’ experience on the cross, in his burial, and in his resurrection become my experience as well. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Outwardly I look the same. And it is hard to detect any inward change. But there is a fundamental change that took place when I came to the cross to partake of Jesus’ atonement. I am not what I was. I am a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus’ atoning sacrifice not only brought about forgiveness for my sin, but it also made me into something I was not before. A child of God with a new heart and mind.

A Sprouted Seed

Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15:42-57 is very helpful in understanding the final step in the process. His focus throughout this fifteenth chapter was on our coming resurrection. And he used the analogy of a seed. It is not possible to look at a seed and derive what it will become. Experience may give you that knowledge. But the appearance of the seed itself gives no clue as to the transformation that will take place when the seed is planted.

And that is true for believers as well. We are like seeds now. And what we will be like in eternity is a mystery to us. Unless the Lord returns first, I will eventually be planted. And when Jesus returns, I will sprout into something totally new. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

This new life is made possible by the atonement. This life is more than what our forebears experienced in the Garden. It is a life that is only made possible by the cross through the power and wisdom of God.

The Power and Wisdom of God

In the passage from 1 Corinthians 2 quoted above, Paul claims that “Christ crucified” is the power and wisdom of God for those that are called. The cross does more than deal with our sin. It transforms us into something that was not possible otherwise, allowing us to participate in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). What that will ultimately look like is beyond our knowing. But we can know that when Christ returns for us, we will in some way be like him (1 John 3:2).

In Genesis 1:26-28, we see God creating humanity in his image to rule over his creation. But this was only the first step in his creation of the humanity he wanted. The second step occurred at the cross. As we come to the cross, experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus for ourselves, we are being transformed into new creatures with an eternal destiny in the presence of God.


The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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This article was originally published on BibleStudyTools.com on April 14, 2022

4 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of the Atonement?”

  1. Thanks for this Ed.

    What do you think about emphasizing the work of God’s Spirit to make us holy- between the second birth and our fulfilment of life in the resurrection? I believe it’s implied here, but not given primary significance?? Dead to sin and alive to Christ is the gospel for our time of sojourn on earth.

    • Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit is essential to my growth toward holiness. This article, though, was focused on the work of Jesus in our redemption.


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