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God’s Nature: The Basis for Atonement

We learn atonement concepts from an early age. I pulled my sister’s hair, so I got no pocket money that week to atone for my sin. I missed my mother’s birthday, so I rushed out to spend that week’s pocket money on flowers to atone for my negligence. I smashed the kitchen window with a poorly aimed cricket ball and made amends by doing the dishes for a week, in atonement. So we know all about atonement, right?

In that well-worn phrase that all too often applies to concepts theological, “everything you know is wrong.” Especially when it comes to the atonement.

Responding to the comment that we were about to spend a whole quarter discussing the atonement, a good friend responded “it’s about time!” The central issues of how we are brought back to God, saved into harmony with him once more, are not (or should not be!) dry formulas, but vital to our Christian experience. The at-one-ment God seeks is based on his very character. Concepts of God are variable and reflect the fact that God’s nature and actions are at the center conflict in the Great Controversy. So it’s not surprising that some have rejected the distorted images they have received. “As a man is, so is his God; therefore was God so often an object of mockery,” writes Goethe. Others have no ideas of God at all—and in a sense that is preferable to perverse views that defame God’s character. In the words of Plutarch, “It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such an one as is unworthy of him; for the one is only unbelief—the other is contempt.”

Which is where some of our ideas regarding the atonement come in—so far from what was originally intended that they have taken on different, even opposite meanings. So here is a brief history of the word.

The word atonement was first used in 1513. It was employed by Tyndale in his translation of the Bible in 1526. The word atone, from which atonement looks like it was derived, did not come along until 1555, through “back formation” from atonement.

So what did it mean? The story you’ve heard is true: atonement really does mean at-one-ment. This is the idea of being at one, in harmony. It is a “made-up” word, formed by running at and one together, as the rather free writers of the time were fond of doing. To quote An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English: “atone. Originally to reconcile, from adverbial phrase at one, and preserving the old pronunciation of the latter word, as in only, alone.” That’s why we say “atone” and “at one” differently today, which disguises their commonality. But in reality, and when they were first used, they meant the same thing. (Note also the comment that the original pronunciation of the word one continues in the words only [one-ly] and alone [all-one]).

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines the word atonement: “the condition of being at one with others; concord, agreement.” There is no concept here of some necessary paying of penalty, of appeasement or placating a hostile person. It is simply “one-ness.” The same source gives a further definition: “3. Spec. in Theol. Reconciliation or restoration between God and sinners. 1526 (Tyndale).” Then it adds the note, “Atonement is variously used by theologians in the sense of reconciliation, propitiation, expiation. (Not so applied in any version of the N.T.).” This is an interesting “theological” comment from a work not normally concerned with religious matters!

This is a far cry from the meaning that the word atonement has assumed in the present: that of doing something in the form of payment or penalty to “atone” for some wrongdoing—a very “legal” word in which recompense is made and obligations met. As Chambers Universal Learners Dictionary puts it: “Atone. To do something good to show that one is sorry for doing something bad.”

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary also well illustrates the changed meaning: “atonement. 1. Archaic. Concord; reconciliation. 2. Satisfactory reparation for an offense or injury.” The archaic meaning was the original sense; the second definition of making amends is the meaning most often used today.

The original meaning also comes through in the various early Bible commentators. Note Udal’s comment on Ephesians 2:16, which makes the intended meaning of “at one” crystal clear: “And like as he made the Jewes and Gentiles at one betwene themselfes, euen so he made them bothe at one with God, that there should be nothing to break the attonement, but that the thynges in heauen and the thinges in earth should be ioined together as it wer into one body.” (Although it is clear that such writers were “no great spellers”—even spelling the same word differently in the same line as it took their fancy—the intention is obvious. Atonement [or attonement!] is the state or situation of being at one—two parties in agreement.)

So where do the modern meanings of compensation, payment, and expiation come from? In a word, the Reformation, especially the later “formulators” of creeds and systems and theories of the at-one-ment.

Using highly developed legal models of what Christ’s death accomplished, such theories of the atonement placed great emphasis on the need to provide God with compensation, guilt payment, and so forth, so that his judicial wrath would then be appeased. For some, the Cross became the legal formula by which God satisfied his need for man’s punishment, and the blood of Christ the “currency” through which man’s guilt was voided. This “transactional” concept of the reconciliation accomplished by Christ even appears to make God the problem: as if he is the one who needs to be reconciled to us, rather than us to God. (Yet note the opposite view from Scripture: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” [2 Cor. 5:19]).

Other dangers of such a stress on the penal aspects include:

  • Suggesting God is not as willing to forgive as the Son
  • Presenting God as hostile, and needing appeasement
  • Making salvation a matter of accepting the right formula
  • Proposing that blood payment is necessary as an absolute precondition to divine forgiveness
  • Indicating that the primary problem is legal guilt
  • Presuming that what is needed is the imputation of Christ’s merit (close to the doctrine of Christ’s supererogation of merits, which are “on tap” to supply human deficiency)

So the problem is not with the word atonement, which still retains in its component parts the original words and meaning. The change has arisen as a result of the way in which the word has been used as a description of systems that see salvation as having been effected by a kind of legal adjustment of the sinner’s standing before God, some transaction carried out between Christ and God in which compensation is effected, punishment canceled, and anger propitiated.

Much therefore depends on your view of God. If he is angry and hostile and you are in legal trouble, then the “making of amends” concept of the atonement would clearly be attractive. But if he is as Jesus reveals him (if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father), then the atonement will be seen very differently.

Ultimately, God came in person to reveal the kind of person he is, most supremely at the cross. Here we see the true meaning of atonement: the way in which God wins us back to love and trust, to right thinking and right living. God’s aim is reconciliation—and we are the ones who are in rebellion and need to be reconciled to him. God has no need to be reconciled to us for he has always loved us, even in our sinful state. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” for “he first loved us” (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:19).

We need to return to the original meaning of atonement and to be “set right” (read Romans in the Today’s English Version to understand the simple truth of how this happens). We also need to set right what has been done to the beautiful word atonement, which describes so well what Christ came to achieve, the one-ness of all Creation (John 1:4), being one that they may be one (John 17:21), and the re-uniting of humans back to God (John 17:24).

Not through asserting that someone is right when that person clearly is not, but through the transforming power of God shown so clearly on the cross. We are made one with God by God himself, not through some legal machinations. Our need is not primarily to be forgiven (although that is surely important), but to be changed from rebellious enemies into trustworthy friends. That is the goal of God’s at-one-ment.

Author and theologian Jonathan Gallagher is the former representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the United Nations. He facilitates a dynamic Sabbath School discussion available at

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