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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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

DocReits October 15, 2014 at 10:39 am

Excellent exposition Pastor Jack. The problem I see today is that many(most?) refuse to acknowledge that they have anything that needs to be “repented” of. We even see Pope Francis “revising” the Catholic canon(to be determined this Saturday, 10/18) and admitting homosexuals, adulterers, and fornicators to be baptized “Catholic” and to become members of the church in good standing. One of the clergy(I believe a Bishop) stated that “after all what would Jesus do. Wouldn’t He show them mercy?”…uh no, God is going to treatt practiced sin as “worthy” of damnation.

Yes, all sinners, of which I am chief, are welcome into the church, where we seek mercy and forgiveness as we repent of our sins, knowing that we are imperfect, and will sin again. BUT we continue to repent and ask forgiveness, attempting with God’s help to forsake sin. Where is that preached today…forsaking sin?? We are in a fountain of blood, poured out from Calvary(we are “in” Christ at salvation) where we seek continual cleansing, within the fount……not embracing sin, as the Pope is doing.

So how can there be any significance in “atonement” when folks think they are OK, and have no need of cleansing from sin…where sin is embraced and raised to a life style that is to be encouraged and embraced? Where are the Christian voices decrying the abomination of gay marriage, of abortion. Are all clergy and churches going to be marginalized(as now the Catholic Church) into the corner of not wanting to be seen as “haters”, bigots, and out of date with the times?

After all, “the Bible needs to change with the times”. Jesus would have had mercy upon the gay community”. Of course He would have!! But He told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more”. I’ll be quiet now…;-)

Great article and I thank you for it,



Jack Wellman October 15, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Doc, you are such a treasure to me. I did a sermon on whether homosexuals should be allowed in the church. I said, yes, just like adulterers and murderers, and thieves…as long as they have repented. I am so saddened by the apostasy that I see growing in the Catholic Church and in many American churches. They are not interested in showing that we need to repent daily but accepting people as they are so that they can feel the pews and make people feel good about themselves but what were the first words Jesus said at the beginning of His ministry? Mark 1:15-16 “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” We don’t hear much about repentance today but I try to preach the cross, repentance, the wrath of God on sinners, trust in Christ, and the whole gospel to the whole church using the whole Word.

You make an excellent point my friend. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery “Now, go and sin no more” not, you are accepted as you are. If we say that homosexuality is okay which is listed in Eph 5 and Gal 5 among the sins that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God then I guess that means “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21) are okay too then, by their reasoning. So if homosexuality is acceptable, this so is “impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy drunkenness, orgies”, right?! Wow…it has come to this…we don’t want to preach repentance, we water down and actually teach another gospel, and it has come true.

Satan has his own preachers in many of the churches today. Why else would Jesus tell us to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15)? They were “sheep’s clothing” because they are supposed to be shepherds and may even look like the sheep they are tending but inwardly, they “are ravenous wolves.” Why ravenous? Because they want to devour the flock and lead them astray and without teaching them about repentance and faith, will ultimately allow them to enter into utter destruction. Billy Graham once said that there are many false converts in American churches today. Some believe they are saved and they are not. They prayed a prayer, they walked the aisle, they filled out a decision card but that is not how someone is saved. That only gives people false assurance and even with the sincerity of their decision there is no transformed life. They could be sincere but sincerely wrong! This has created thousands of false converts and today the tares and the wheat sit right next to each other in church and no one is warning them of the coming wrath of God! To see why Jesus said that “many” are headed down the wide gates and the path is broad and “many” will say “Lord, Lord” but He will say to them, “Depart from Me for I never knew you!?” For more on this please check out this much needed scathing rebuke on many of the pastors of disaster today at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/10/14/wide-is-the-gate-broad-is-the-path-to-destruction-a-bible-study-on-matthew-7/ where I wrote an article called “Wide is the Gate; Broad is the Path to Destruction: A Bible Study on Matthew 7” and, God willing, I am preaching this on this coming Sunday at church. Coveting such men of God like you Doc at the church where I am the under-shepherd to the Great Shepherd.


Jerry J Cowley Sr October 21, 2014 at 1:16 am

I would like to receive some articles on Christian living and get a Biblical veiw on the things happening in this world that go against God,s Holy Scriptures.Thankyou in Christ.


Jack Wellman October 21, 2014 at 6:59 am

Thank you sir for your interest in reading more from us. Here is a link on where to subscribe to our mailing list at: http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/ebook/ and also, if you like, we can send you another free eBook called 50 Promises of God that will Change Your Life at: http://faithinthenews.com/free-e-book-50-bible-promises/


Robert korir June 3, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Well answered by your text, thanks.


Cottie Griffith October 2, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Am so bless


Rich February 20, 2017 at 7:30 pm

Stay true & faithful to the Gospel of The Lord Jesus Christ!
He knows His own!
They listen to His voice!
Do not move to the left or the right,
Even if it costs our lives:
We overcome by His blood & the word of our testimony!


David Mefford April 1, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Some very good thoughts about the love of god and his atonement. I would caution about refraining from accepting sinners into the church until they have fully repented. There should be a committment to repent and intent to do so, but if people must become perfect to enter the church, then everyone who slips at all must also be blotted out and cast out of the church until they become perfect. That would quickly empty all the churches and defeat the plan of salvation. The church of God is not a resort for the righteous, but a hospital for the sinners.


Claudio Pubill October 10, 2017 at 2:41 pm

I have a question, I live in a city where being a Homosexual is not a problem As a matter a fact, it’s embraced. That being said, if we Christians are told not to judge people, aren’t we judging others who believe Homosexality is ok? Shouldn’t we just leave judging to God on judgement day? I’m just so confused on this issue. Can someone clarify. Thank you,
Clyde God Bless


Jack Wellman October 10, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Hello Claudio. It is not we who judge but we must speak what God says in His Word and it is God’s Word that says it is sin. If we fail to tell others about sin and that they must repent (from homosexuality, from drunkenness, from adultery, and so on) then we are failing to be faithful witnesses. Should we be silent and by our silence condone or approve of it? And, it’s not us who judge but we must tell them that God will judge them for this sin and all sin unless they repent. To remain silent about what God says, is to not care if people go to hell. I don’t judge anyone…God’s Word does.


Henry Staffotd May 21, 2019 at 5:43 am

You miss it about sin, mercy and grace, and what Yeshua accomplished on the cross. It’s not sin that sends you to hell it is the rejection of Yeshua and that alone. We come home to Him through his sacrifice and then all our sin past, present and future are already forgiven. I don’t have to keep asking for forgiveness and being condemned, I say thank you Father my Daddyv for forgiving me my sin,, thank you Yeshua for justifying me to the Father. Scripture days when,I am born again, then just as Yeshua is in heaven so am I there is no more guilt and I am not a sinner any longer. Yeshua is not a sinner and I am in him so I am not. I am in my Fathers family not a religion or denomination. He is my Daddy and I am his Kid, that’s how my relationship is.


Jack Wellman May 21, 2019 at 9:51 am

Hello Mr. Staffotd. You are being a bit unfair sir. If you sin, don’t you ask God to forgive you? if you offend or sin against someone, you don’t ask them for forgiveness? That seems very harsh to you. The Bible says nothing un-pure will enter the kingdom (Rev 22) and Jesus is the reason we enter the kingdom with no sin. All are sinners…so says the Bible. So do you never sin anymore? Even once? I can’t believe you don’t sin anymore as we all do! Please study this subject better as you are in great error and I pray you are not teaching/misleading others into error or into the ditch! Call your pastor. Get your theologly right.


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