Was Christ’s Atonement for God or for Man? Key Differences Between the Character and Meaning of “Atonement” and “Reconciliation”

Excerpt taken and adapted from, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation”
Written by, A.W. Pink

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 In seeking to ascertain more precisely the nature and character of reconciliation…

…we must carefully distinguish between cause and effect, between the means and end. Many are confused at this point, supposing that “atonement”and “reconciliation” are one and the same—the sound of the English word “at-one-ment” leading them to miss its true sense. Unfortunately this confusion is fostered by the only verse in the Authorized Version of the N. T. where it occurs: “by whom (namely, Jesus Christ) we have received the atonement”(Rom 5:11)—unhappily few avail themselves of the marginal alternative (generally the better rendition) where it is rightly given as “reconciliation.” To speak of our “receiving” the Atonement does not make sense, for it was God and not ourselves who required an atonement or satisfaction, but it is correct to say that believers “receive” the reconciliation which Christ effected for them.

To “atone” is to placate or appease, to make reparation for injury or amends for wrong done another. “Atonement” simply signifies that a satisfaction has been made, that the demands of the Divine Law have been met, that justice has been honored, that God has been propitiated. The literal force of the Heb. “kaphar” (generally rendered atonement in the O. T.) is a “covering,” and thus its appropriateness for this usage is clear—the sacrificial blood covered what was an affront to the offended eye of God by means of an adequate compensation. The term is applied to the “mercy-seat” which was the lid or cover of the ark of the covenant—and therefore a Divinely-appointed symbol closely connected with the presentation of sacrifices on the day of expiation. Thus there can be no objection to rendering “Christ Jesus: whom God has set forth a mercy-seat through faith in His blood”(Rom. 3:25) so long as its purport be explained and the “blood” be duly emphasized.

The principal idea, then, expressed by the word “kaphar”—”atonement” is that of averting vengeance by means of a placating offering. It is rendered “appease” in Genesis 32:20. When Jacob was about to make the dreaded meeting with Esau, he sent his servants with droves of animals before him, saying, “I will appease (“kaphar”) him with this present that goes before me!” In Numbers 16:31 it is written, “He shall take no satisfaction (no “kaphar”) for the life of a murderer which is guilty of death. But he shall surely be put to death,”which again helps us to ascertain the force of this most-important Hebrew word, the word “satisfaction” meaning, of course, a legal compensation—none such being allowed in case of murder. Vengeance must take its course. “Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer and put fire in it from off the altar and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation and make an atonement for them, for there is wrath gone out from the Lord, the plague is begun” (Num. 16:46)—here we see that “atonement” was plainly the means for propitiating Jehovah, for turning away His vengeance.

Now such was the Atonement made unto God by the Lord Jesus Christ. His sacrifice was offered for the satisfying of Divine justice, for the averting of Divine wrath from His people. God sent His Son to be “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The judicial displeasure of God was turned away from His Church by means of the substitutionary interposition of the Lamb, who was slain in their stead. The righteous vengeance of God was appeased by the Surety, pouring out His soul unto death. Certain effects or results followed from that. The sins of God’s elect were blotted out, they were redeemed from the curse of the Law, God was reconciled to them. The Atonement was the cause, the means, the root; reconciliation was the effect, the end, the fruit. Thus the two things are clearly distinguished and should never be confounded. The very fact that the N. T. employs two entirely different words (“hilasmos” 1 John 2:2; 4:10 and “katallage” Rom. 5:11) shows plainly they are not the same—the latter resulting from the former.

It is a pity that the honorable translators of the Authorized Version did not always preserve that important distinction. Another verse which has served to cloud the judgment of English readers is Hebrews 2:17, where we are told the Son became incarnate that “He might be merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people,” which is correctly rendered (as Owen and others of the Puritans long ago insisted that it should be) in the R.V. that is, “make propitiation for the sins of the people.”Because Christ made propitiation for their sins, the wrath of God was turned away from them and reconciliation was the outcome: “having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20) sums it up, and shows both the end and the means by which it was accomplished. That our English word “at-one” signifies to reconcile and not to “propitiate” is evident from Acts 7:26—”Moses would have set them at one again” that is, restore them to amity—the Greek word being rendered “peace” elsewhere.

But at this point we need to be careful in guarding against a misconception and the drawing of a wrong conclusion. While the atonement of Christ was an appeasement, it must not be regarded as an inducement. That is, as a price which the Redeemer had to pay in order to incline God to love His people. Yet it is right here that the enemies of the Gospel have made their main attack upon that aspect of it which we are now considering. They have accused those who maintain the Scriptural doctrine of propitiation in order to reconciliation as denying the Divine benevolence, as arguing that Christ shed His precious blood in order to induce God to love sinners, that those who insist God required an appeasing sacrifice before He would be gracious unto transgressors, are guilty of grievously misrepresenting the Divine character.