What Does Atonement Mean? Bible Definition of Atonement

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

Maybe you’ve heard the word “atonement” and wondered what it means.  What is the biblical definition of the word atonement?

Atonement is…

The English word for atonement originally meant “at one-ment” or “at one with” like being in harmony with someone and in this case it means to be at one with God through the atonement that was made possible by the substitutionary death of Christ on our behalf.  The Hebrew Word for atonement is “kipur” with the verb form being “kaphar” and means “to cover, purge, make reconciliation” and “to cover with or coat with pitch.”  That last definition is very interesting because the same Hebrew word used for pitch is “kaphar” and that is what the Ark was covered with.  When God commanded Noah to build an Ark to save him, his family, and many of the animals from the coming judgment of the flood, he was commanded to cover the Ark with pitch or “kaphar” which is to cover, make reconciliation with, or to purge.  Since the floodwaters were indicative of the judgment of God on fallen, sinful mankind, it is not ironic that God used the word “kaphar” in telling Noah to cover the Ark with pitch. Thus, the Ark is seen as symbolic of God’s salvation and the atonement or covering from God’s judgment (of the floodwaters) as seen in the pitch that Noah applied to the outside of the Ark whereby God sparred Noah and his family from the judgment of sin by an atoning, reconciling covering or cover that the pitch was known for.  This is indicative of salvation being fully a work of God and not of man (Eph 2:8-9).

What does atonement mean


The word you haven’t likely heard used very much is propitiation which means satisfaction.  This is usually referred to as Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross where His substitutionary death was the satisfaction, covering, or pacifying of the wrath of God.  The Father was satisfied in His judgment on sin that we truly deserved by the wrath of God being placed on Christ.  This is called the mercy of God…where we do not get what we truly deserved so that He can give us what we do not deserve (called grace).   Jesus’ death atoned for our sins (Hebrew “piel”), covering or purging them (Hebrew “kaphar”) in His own body.  This gave us a legal justification or right standing before God as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement has great symbolic representation of Jesus’ death having atoned for our sins and was a shadow of what was to come and now has finally come in Jesus’ payment on the cross.  The Day of Atonement is the holiest day of the year to Orthodox Jews.  They traditionally observed this day with fasting and prayer.  The Day of Atonement or Yom (day) Kippur (Atonement) is a holy day and no work is to be done on that day and it falls on the tenth day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar.  One young bull was sacrificed along with a ram and seven lambs who are one year old but there was also a lone, male goat that was sacrificed which was designated “L Adonai” or “to the Lord.”  Then another goat was selected by lottery as representing the “Azazel goat” and hands were laid upon or confessed over the goat’s head by the priest (Lev 16) and the sins of the people were attributed to the goat and this goat, also called the Scapegoat, was either released into the wilderness or killed.

The Holy of Holies

The Day of Atonement was the only day of the year that the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, which was forbidden at any other time and by anyone else except the high priest.  He took the blood of the bulls and sprinkled it inside of the veil where the Holy of Holies is located. The “shoresh” which is the root word for “Kippur” or “kafar” may derive from the word for “ransom” and also appears in the “Kapporet” which is the name for the so-called “Mercy Seat.”

The Shadow and the Reality

If you look at all the holy days or feast days of the Old Testament they all pointed to Jesus Christ.  These were a shadow of the coming reality that was ultimately found in Christ Jesus.  The shadow is no longer needed since the Son is now fully shining on those who have been saved.  These typified the plan of salvation that was made possible by and fulfilled in Christ’s perfect, sinless life, His perfection in keeping the Law that we couldn’t, His death which was the atonement (purging, covering, reconciliation) that God required to enter the kingdom, His death paying in full the wages we had due from our sins and ransoming us from eternal death (Rom 3:23; 6:23) and His resurrection ensured that we too will be raised someday to eternal life.  He literally ransomed us from Satan who was our god and our father by dying on the cross for us while we were still not only sinners (Rom 5:8) but still His enemies (Rom 5:10). That’s what atonement is all about.  It is His purging us, making reconciliation with God and covering our sins with His righteousness (2 Cor 5:21) and ransoming us from the penalty we owed in having to pay it by an eternal death.


If you have not yet repented and trusted in Christ, here is what Jesus says to you: “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18b) and you not only “shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on you” (John 3:36).  You must either trust in Christ and have your sins placed upon Him at the cross or you must pay for your own sins and that is called “the second death, the lake of fire.  And if [your] name [is] not found written in the book of life, [you will be] thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14b-15).  I pray that is not your eternal state after Christ returns to judge the world.  May God forbid that happen to you.  If you haven’t yet repented and trusted in Him, I beg you to repent today and place your faith in Jesus Christ and be saved from the coming wrath of God (John 3:16-17).

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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