top of page

The Terminology of the Atonement

A.P. Adams

(From the website,



     It is very necessary in order to understand the doctrine of the atonement to have a clear apprehension of the various terms used in the Bible in reference to it. We will proceed at once to a consideration of these terms, beginning with the word




     This word occurs only once in the New Testament, in Rom. 5:11; in the New Version it does not occur at all, but is changed in the above passage to Reconciliation. The English word atonement I have already explained in the preceding number of the paper; the idea of the word is that of unity, at-one-ment; to bring two parties at variance into harmony and union is to "set them at one," (Acts 7:26) or to make an at-one-ment; hence the word indicates the means whereby man and God are united, made one, (John 10:30; 17:21) and since the enmity and alienation are entirely on the part of man, the atonement is entirely for his benefit; but this idea is more fully set forth in the term




This word I have also quite fully explained in the preceding paper, and show its true force. I will, however, add that the original word means to change throughout, "to change a person from enmity to friendship;" this definition is quoted exactly from the Lexicon.  Now with this meaning in mind everyone can see at once that the reconciliation is entirely for man; he is the one who is to be "changed from enmity to friendship." Of course God is not to be changed, but man; God is not in a condition of enmity against man, but man is at enmity with God, and in order to establish harmony between the two, something must be done to change man; this must be plain to all, and yet the creeds talk about Christ dying to reconcile God to man, as though God were the one who needed changing. The Atonement then, or the Reconciliation (compare Old and New Version on Rom. 5:11) is that arrangement or provision in God's plan whereby man is changed from a condition of enmity and alienation to a perfect union and harmony with his Maker.


We will now look at the word




     This word in the original means to appease, soothe, conciliate; it occurs in Rom. 3:25, where the apostle declares that God hath set forth Christ to be a propitiation. Who is the object and what is the purpose of this propitiation? Surely God does not set forth Christ to propitiate Himself! Such an idea would be exceedingly absurd: man, most certainly, is the one to be soothed, appeased, conciliated. Let it be noticed also that the very word that in Rom. 3:25 is rendered "propitiation," in Heb. 9:5 is rendered "Mercy-seat." Who is the mercy-seat for? Man or God? Is it not plain that the creeds have exactly reversed the truth in regard to this point? They teach that God is the one to be propitiated, as though the mercy-seat were for Him, whereas it is quite self-evident that the propitiation, the mercy-seat, is entirely for man. Christ is the Propitiation, or Mercy-seat, for "the whole world." (1 John 2:2). There is one other passage where this word occurs that seems to convey the idea of propitiating God; see Heb. 2:17; "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation [see New Version] for the sins of the people. This passage at first thought seems to convey the idea of Christ's doing something to make God willing to forgive the sinner, or to induce him to remit the penalty; but a little further thought will convince us that this idea cannot be true, because God loves the sinner, and has Himself made full provision, not only for his pardon, but also for his deliverance from sin; and this, God has done of his own free will, unsolicited, but simply in the carrying out of his Plan of  Creation; therefore it cannot be that He is to be propitiated, or appeased, and yet so the creeds put it; and this great lie, that God's pardon and good will can be bought, has laid the foundations of many shameful abuses and foul superstitions. The Romish church builds on this lie its false doctrines of purgatory, prayers for the dead, the intercession of the virgin Mary and the saints, indulgences, absolution, etc. The Protestant church has dropped these dogmas, but it still retains the essence of them all in the idea that a part of Christ's office is to propitiate or conciliate the Father in the sinner's behalf; thus conveying the false notion that God's favor and goodwill is not spontaneous and unchangeable, but that it vacillates according to the merit or de-merit of the individual, and may increase or diminish according as more or less is done to conciliate Him; I do not say that the creeds state the above in so many words, but this is the idea implied in them, and practically, the belief of those who accept them.


These considerations bring me to the next term, viz,




     The common view in regard to the meaning of this word is the same as we have noticed in connection with the preceding term. In the popular theology Christ is represented as standing before the Father, showing his wounds, and pleading for the sinner; the orthodox hymn so often sung expresses this idea,


"Five bleeding wounds he bears
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly plead for me.
Forgive him, O forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransom'd sinner die."

"The Father hears him pray,
His dear anointed One:
He cannot turn away
The presence of his Son." etc.

"My God is reconciled:
His pardoning voice I hear," etc.


Here is the idea of Christ pleading with the Father that he may forgive the sinner; the Father's unwillingness (of course he is unwilling or else the Son would not have to plead) is at last overcome by the Son's importunity and God is reconciled to man. It is just as bad to sing a lie as it is to preach one; it is as bad to slander God in a hymn as it is in a sermon; the hymnology of the church needs overhauling as much as its theology; both are terribly out of joint.

     Now what is the truth in regard to this term? The original word means simply "to meet with, converse with, have dealings with." The same word occurs in Acts 25:24 where it is rendered "dealt." Now what kind of dealings does Christ have with the Father on our account? Our answer to this question will depend on our idea of God; if we entertain the idea taught in the popular view, we shall think of Christ as pleading with a stern and unpropitious God, to soften his austerity and make him favorable to the sinner. The great preacher, Spurgeon, in one of his sermons thus illustrates this point; he tells a story of a man in Cuba who had violated some of the laws of the island and was sentenced to be shot; he was English born and a naturalized citizen of America, therefore both the consuls of those two countries interfered in the man's behalf, but the local government was obdurate and revengeful, refused to release him, but said that he must die; accordingly at the appointed time the man was brought out to the place of execution and a line of soldiers posted to do the deadly work; but before the fatal discharge, the two consuls appear on the scene and making their way to the condemned man they throw over him the folds of the English and American flags, and dare the authorities to fire upon him thus covered; they dare not do it, the man is released, and his life is saved; now, says Mr. Spurgeon, as long as I am covered with the robe of Christ's righteousness God cannot pour upon me the vials of his wrath; unprotected, I am exposed to the terrible penalties of a broken law and a justly angry God, there is no mercy for me out of Christ. But with Christ between me and the law-protected by him (i.e. protected from God) I am safe; and so on in this line. Just think of the illustration, how awfully it maligns God's character! It compares him to the Cuban authorities thirsting for the blood of the transgressor of their laws; and Christ is represented by the humane and brave consuls who risked their own lives to save the life of a fellow-man. Is such a representation true? No, no, a thousand times NO. How thoughtless and blind men must be to thus place in the most glaring contrast with God, him who is the "brightness of His glory and the express image of his substance."

     But now on the other hand if we know God we shall understand that Christ's dealings with the Father are not of the above character at all, but that the idea of an Intercessor is wholly for man's benefit. The fact that we have a friend at court is for our comfort and encouragement; the King himself loves us; but that is the last thing that we believe, and to help us to see that blessed truth, Christ is given as a go-between, to "manifest" (1 John 4:8) the Father's love; and this explains two more terms that are used in connection with this subject, viz.,




     Man needs someone to introduce him to God; he never would come directly to him.  God's ineffable glory and absolute holiness repels sinful man, and he never can believe that such a God loves him, except by having a third party to reveal that love to him in some way; this third party is the Mediator, "the Man Christ Jesus." (1 Tim. 2:5). We "come unto God by Him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for us." (Heb. 7:25).  He is our "Advocate [i.e. Helper, 1-9-197, 198) with the Father;" not that the Father needs an Advocate, i.e. a helper, the thought is blasphemous, and yet so the creeds put it, but man needs a helper, and hence God "has laid help upon one that is mighty," (Psa. 89:19) "mighty to save," (Isa. 63:1) and thus we, "who sometimes were far off, are made nigh in the blood [life] of Christ." (Eph. 2:13, N.V.). Thus we see that the Intercessor, Mediator and Advocate are entirely for man's benefit to help him to God.

     We will next look at the term




     The word in the original means to redeem or ransom a slave or a captive, by paying a price that he may go free. Now what is redemption in the case of fallen man? How is he redeemed? What or who is he redeemed from? etc. This doctrine is usually illustrated by redeeming a slave from a cruel master, by paying a price; but in such an illustration who would the master represent? And what would the price represent? We must be careful how we apply these illustrations, or we shall be led far astray in our theology as noticed in Spurgeon's illustration above. Fallen man is a slave; that is certainly scriptural; but a slave to who or to what? A slave to sin, (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16, &c.) or, if you please, a slave to Satan since he is the personal embodiment of sin. Well then, how is this slave to sin to be set free? How is he to be redeemed from his bondage? The answer to this question involves the whole plan of creation; this has been set forth again and again in the pages of this periodical, hence I need not repeat it here. God made man subject to vanity in hope that he would be delivered; and man is waiting for "the manifestation of the sons of God" to deliver him from the "bondage of corruption." (See Rom. 8, compare 11, also see 1-6-121). Thus man is delivered, re-redeemed, or ransomed. But what is the price paid for his redemption? This question brings us to the consideration of the term




     What is the ransom price by which man is redeemed? It is "the precious blood of Christ. " (1 Pet. 1:18, 19). What does that mean? Blood is a symbol of life, (Deut. 12:23) hence it means the life of Christ; and this agrees with Christ's own words that "he came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28), Christ's life then was the ransom. Now we ask, what life? His physical, earth life, or his pre-existent life, most certainly the latter, (see 1-3-52,) the simple statement of the truth then is that Jesus gave up his pre-existent life, the "riches" and the "glory" that he possessed with the Father before the world was in order that he might become one of this fallen race, and so open up the way, as a "Forerunner," whereby "the whole creation" might ultimately be delivered. This was the sacrifice of Christ; this was the ransom and thereby is man redeemed. There was no paying a price to the devil for the rescue of man's soul or anything of that kind in all this. Man is redeemed just as the child of wise, loving and self-sacrificing parents might be said to be redeemed; such a child would be saved, or, in a sense, redeemed from many of the ills and woes and sins of other children, less favorably situated, because of the wisdom and careful nurture and self-sacrificing love of the parents; a child cannot be thus brought up without self-sacrifice; the parents must pay a price-the price of continuous patience and care, the sacrifice of personal enjoyment and ease oftentimes, and sometimes far greater sacrifices than these; but all of this is done cheerfully and even joyfully because of the love of the parents. So God so loved the world [the order of things] that he sends his son to redeem them in the true and perfect sense-to reveal himself unto them, and to open up the way of deliverance by the Forerunner. Of course all this was in God's plan, foreknown and predetermined. Redemption was not an afterthought with God to counteract the effects of an unforeseen contingency. What we call "the fall of man," with its consequences of sin and death, was a part of God's original plan of creation, and hence of course Redemption was a part of that plan. Christ entered thoroughly and fully into man's condition to redeem him, that his deliverance from the same condition might be the pledge and surety of man's deliverance. (Acts 17:31). So thoroughly did Christ enter into this fallen state that he must himself be first redeemed before he could redeem man. (See 1-4-84, 83). God must first redeem him, by "saving him out of death," (Heb. 5:7, N.V., margin) before he could redeem us; or to express it more exactly, God in redeeming him, did redeem us. God is the great original Redeemer, redeeming Jesus, the world's Redeemer, that Jesus might redeem the world. The work of Redemption then is the entire work of man's deliverance from "the bondage of corruption" and restoration to harmony with God; it is not merely the work of deliverance, but it includes the work of development, or rather the work of development is the deliverance; the process by which the "old man" is destroyed, is the process by which the "new man" is "put on;" the process of redemption covers the whole ground from Eden lost to Eden regained, it comprehends the whole work of probation, i.e. trial, education, training and perfecting, until we are ready to take the final step in the great plan, the patting on of immortality; and the Ransom according to this view is all that it cost the Father and the Son to form and carry out this plan.

     Now all this is set forth in type in the case of Moses delivering the children of Israel from Egypt. We know that Moses is a type of Christ (Acts 7:37); and we know that the deliverance of Israel from Egypt was a redemption and Moses was a redeemer; the word applied to Moses in Acts 7:35, and rendered "deliverer," really means redeemer; in the original it is the word that is usually so rendered. Now then what was the ransom price that Moses paid in order to redeem Israel? And how were they redeemed? No money, or anything of that kind was paid to the Egyptians as a ransom whereby they were induced to let Israel go; and yet a ransom was paid; what was it? It was the life that Moses might have enjoyed in Egypt as the son of the king's daughter, and a Prince of the house of the Pharaohs. Moses gave up all this, and identified himself with an enslaved degraded people, that he might redeem them from their cruel bondage; (see Heb. 11:24-26). Here is the entire work of redemption in type. So Christ left the royal courts of His Father, gave up those "riches" and that "glory." He identified himself with an enslaved and fallen race, that He might redeem them from the bondage of corruption. Thus was the ransom paid, and thus was man redeemed.


     These considerations also explain the words




See 1 Cor. 6:20 and 2 Pet. 2:1. Jesus bought mankind, just as Moses bought Israel, paying a similar price or ransom, as we have already noticed.

     We have now examined the principal terms connected with this subject and have found in them no doctrine of substitution; none of these words imply the errors of the popular theology; the idea of an innocent victim suffering in the stead of the guilty party and divine justice being satisfied thereby is no more contrary to our sense of equity and fair play, than it is to the true sense of the terms used in connection with this doctrine. Those who accept such an idea must either do so in blind, unthinking deference to human tradition, or else against the protest of reason, common sense and Scripture. The true doctrine of the atonement is both reasonable and precious. "All things are of God;" man is allowed to fall into sin and thereby become alienated from God for a purpose; a purpose that is good and wise, and will ultimately redound to God's glory and man's good. The atonement is God's provision for man's recovery from this fallen state, made of "God in Christ" for man's benefit, not to pacify or conciliate God in any sense or degree, but to reconcile man and to bring him back "in Christ" to God. There is no call for the principle of substitution in this true doctrine of the atonement; that principle implies the idea of a wrathful God, unappeased and unpropitious, like Saul of Tarsus, "breathing out threatening and slaughter" against man, and this wrathful God is changed (that is reconciled) by the willing sufferings of an innocent victim in the stead of guilty man; thus God is brought around from the attitude of an angry and unyielding Judge to that of a merciful and loving Father, with whom guilty and undeserving man may find forgiveness and salvation. Such a view is so far false, as we have seen, that it exactly reverses the truth, putting "darkness for light and light for darkness;" it wrenches everything in God's great plan of creation out of place, and utterly dislocates and confounds that wonderful economy of wisdom and grace whereby God brings man to his own image and likeness. We have seen also that the deliverance of the children of Israel by Moses confirms the truth, and totally disproves substitution; the children of Israel, the fleshly seed, were a pattern of God's spiritual Israel, the true seed of promise; (see Gal. 4:28,29; compare Rom. 9:8, and see also I Cor. 10:6,11, margin).  Moses was Israel's redeemer, and in his sacrifice of "the treasures of Egypt" we see (not a vestige of substitution, but) a type and shadow of the sacrifice of Christ, (1-3-52) and of the redemption and ransom price of fallen man.

     With this view there is harmony in all God's plan, and in all scripture; and moreover this view commends itself to an enlightened judgment, it magnifies the love of God, and establishes and confirms his righteousness, wisdom and justice in the final righting of all wrong, and the absolute success of his original plan.

     In the next paper I shall continue the consideration of this same subject by endeavoring to answer the question, why did Christ die?

bottom of page