FRIENDSHIP AND THE MEANING OF ATONEMENT
Recently I received an invitation to attend a religious convention where much of the time would be spent discussing the Christian teaching about atonement.
If one of these invitations had been sent to the apostle Paul, he would have been puzzled about the subject chosen.
“What is this word ‘atonement?’ ” he might have inquired.
“Don’t you remember, Paul? It’s that special word you gave us in your letter to Rome.”
“I don’t recall using it at all.”
“Oh, we’re not suggesting you used the English word. We mean the Greek word that we English-speaking people translate into the word ‘atonement.’ ”
“Well,” Paul ponders, “perhaps it would help me remember if you could tell me where in Romans I’m supposed to have used this word.”
“It’s about a third of the way through your letter, Paul. We’ve invented chapters and verses since you died, and it makes it much easier to find your place. We call the passage Romans 5:10, 11.”
Paul finds the place and begins to read—thoughtfully translating it all into English!
“We were God’s enemies,” Paul begins, sounding very much like the translation of the Good News Bible, “but he made us his friends through the death of his Son. Now that we are God’s friends, how much more will we be saved by Christ’s life! But that is not all; we rejoice because of what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us God’s friends.”1
“That’s the place right there,” you interrupt. “There at the end, where you said ‘who has now made us God’s friends.’ That’s where you used the Greek word for atonement.”
“No, that’s the regular word for ‘reconciliation,’ ” Paul corrects. “And I simply warmed up that word ‘reconciliation’ a bit by translating it ‘making friends.’ ”
“But,” Paul continues, “if the English word ‘atonement’ really means ‘reconciliation,’ ‘making friends,’ I could correctly use the word ‘atonement’ next time I translate this passage in Romans. But tell me, my English-speaking friend, what do you mean by the word ‘atonement’?”
What Does the Word “Atonement” Mean?
If the King James Version had not chosen to use the word “atonement” in the last line of Romans 5:11, we might not be raising this question. Actually, this is the only occurrence of the word “atonement” in the entire New Testament of the King James Version. And in the margin of this verse, later editors of the King James have added a note reminding the reader that this is the regular word for “reconciliation.”
If you really want to find the meaning of an English word, settle for nothing less than the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary. In that enormous lexicon you can trace the historical development of the meaning of a word.
Volume One explains that the term “atonement” was made up of “at” and “one” and “ment.” At-one-ment.
That great old dictionary shows how back in the thirteenth century the word “atonement” was used to mean “being at one,” “being in harmony,” the opposite of “being at odds.” And the verb “to atone” meant in those days “to set at one,” “to unite.” There was even a verb back then that was pronounced “to one.” Not w-o-n, but o-n-e. Peacemakers still try to “one” enemies.
A Later Change in the Meaning
Dictionaries all seem to agree that the original meaning of atonement was “harmony, concord, agreement, unity of feeling.” And the verb “to atone” used to mean “to restore friendly relations between persons who have been at variance; hence, reconciliation.”
These early meanings, however, are now marked as “archaic and obsolete.” In 1611, when the King James committee decided to use the word “atonement” in Romans 5:11, they understood it in that old, “archaic” sense.
As time passed, the word “atonement” came to be used more and more to denote “appeasement, making amends, paying a penalty to satisfy legal demands.” As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, “Here the idea of reconciliation or reunion is practically lost sight of under that of legal satisfaction or amends.”
In common speech today, we often use the word “atone” in this later sense of making amends.
A husband comes home much too late to take his wife out to dinner as he had promised—on their wedding anniversary, no less! On the way home he desperately picks up a box of her favorite chocolates and a large bunch of beautiful roses. These he presents repentantly at the door. (In theology, that’s called appeasement or propitiation).
After considerable effort, at least some measure of communication is re-established between husband and wife. The wife comes up with a solution.
“Husband,” she announces, “you can atone for this disgraceful thing you’ve done by taking me out to dinner every Monday night for the rest of the year.” Now, that’s atonement in the later sense of the word.
Hopefully those efforts to make amends will result in reconciliation and at-one-ment between that husband and wife. The unity of such at-one-ment is the original meaning of the word “atonement.”
What Jesus Said about Atonement
When someone asks what I think atonement means, I sometimes reply, when the circumstances are appropriate, “I like what Jesus said about it.”
“But Jesus never talked about atonement, did he?”
I’ll agree that Jesus never used the word—nor did anyone else in Scripture, including Paul. But I believe Jesus had a good deal to say about atonement. That is, if you understand atonement in the old, “archaic” sense of reconciliation and making friends. Look, for example, at what he said to his Father in that memorable prayer recorded in John 17.
“I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prayed, referring to his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”2 Now, that’s at-one-ment. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,” Jesus continued praying.
What does it mean to be “in somebody”? If Jesus is in me, and I am in him, and he is in the Father, and the Father is in him—I want to know who is in whom, or if anybody is really in anyone else.
This being “in” another person has been understood by many to mean “in union with,” and it is often so translated. The union God desires with his friends is so close that it’s like being “in” each other. Though we’re individual persons, we can be in such close union with each other that it’s as if we were one.
The relationship between the Father and the Son is presented in the Bible as the ultimate model of at-one-ment. “The glory that you have given me I have given them,” Jesus prayed to his Father, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”3
The Price of Atonement
Several times Jesus explained what it would cost to restore his universe, his family, to at-one-ment. He used the term that sometimes is translated “ransom,” or “redemption price.”4 Then he told what that price would be.
“ ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.’ (In saying this he indicated the kind of death he was going to suffer.)”5
“I will draw everyone to me,” Jesus said. Not only human beings but angels too are drawn closer into at-one-ment with God as they consider the meaning of the cross.
Paul was in agreement with this understanding. He spoke of God’s plan “that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.”6
In another letter, Paul explained that “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”7
Peace in the Universe
In what sense does the universe need Christ’s peace-making sacrifice? Has there ever been a threat to unity, a breach of at-one-ment, in God’s heavenly family?
For those of us who are able to take seriously the last of the sixty-six books, Revelation 12 seems to describe a war that began up in heaven. From Genesis to Revelation one can read of the causes and consequences of that war, and why it cost the sufferings and death of Christ to win that war and establish peace for the rest of eternity.
There once was at-one-ment in God’s family, before that war began. Back in those days, all of God’s children trusted each other. All of them trusted their heavenly Father, and he in turn could safely trust in them. And where there is such mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is peace, harmony, and at-one-ment.
What Went Wrong?
Sadly a conflict of distrust arose, even to the point of open rebellion and war. Disunity and disharmony took the place of unity and at-one-ment. That’s how sin entered the universe. As John explains, sin is lawlessness and rebellion.8 Or, as Paul describes, sin is a breakdown of faith and trust.9
The purpose of the plan of salvation is to restore that trust, to bring the rebellion to an end, and thus to establish at-one-ment once again in the whole universe. All of God’s children are unavoidably involved.
Some seem to find it disappointing, even offensive, to learn that Christ did not die primarily for them. But unless God wins this war and reestablishes peace in his family, our salvation is meaningless. Who would want to live for eternity in a warring universe?
Without this larger understanding of a conflict that has involved the universe, it’s hard to understand Paul’s explanation that Jesus shed his blood to bring peace, reconciliation, and unity to God’s children in heaven as well as on earth. But recognition of the war and its issues helps one to take a larger view of the cross and of the plan of salvation and atonement.
The kind of unity God desires cannot be commanded or produced by force or fear. In the course of human history, many tyrants have tried to maintain unity by terror and brutality. But that kind of at-one-ment does not last. Look at what has happened in a number of countries just in recent years.
The kind of at-one-ment God desires is described in the New Testament as a unity that is “inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God.”10 People who love and trust the same Jesus and the same God are naturally attracted to each other. The same truth about God that sets them free from tyranny and fear binds them together in the firmest kind of unity. Friends of a friendly God enjoy at-one-ment with each other.
This is where the meaning of the cross is so important. There can be no friendship and at-one-ment where there is fear. Calvary says there is no need to be afraid of God. When God says, “Be my friend,” he’s not saying, “Be my friend or I’ll punish you severely; I’ll even put you to death.” You don’t talk that way to friends—especially if you want to keep their friendship. And friendship is the whole purpose and meaning of atonement.
Atonement Means Making Friends
Paul sums this up in a wonderful message he sent to the believers in Corinth. It adds significance to this passage to realize that Paul had just passed through a long and painful period of hostility and distrust with the members of the Corinthian church. But his efforts at reconciliation had finally met with success. In the glow of restored at-one-ment, Paul wrote them these words:
When anyone is joined to Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also. Our message is that God was making all mankind his friends through Christ. God did not keep an account of their sins, and he has given us the message which tells how he makes them his friends.
Here we are, then, speaking for Christ, as though God himself were making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf: let God change you from enemies into his friends.11
In this passage, the word that is translated “making friends,” or “changing into friends,” is the Greek word often translated “reconciliation”—and in that one place in the King James Version is translated “atonement.”
It seems to me that the one who made that incredible offer of friendship in John 15:15 must love this American Bible Society translation of Paul’s jubilant message to the believers in Corinth.
“You Mean I Can Come Home?”
One of the Lord’s most memorable parables was about atonement—in the original sense of that word. Jesus told about a son who wasted his life and his share of his father’s estate in riotous self-indulgence. Now penniless and starving, he found employment looking after swine.
As he languished there in the pigsty, he began to remember how good it had been at home and wondered if there might be any way to persuade his offended father to let him come back.
His thoughts might have been very different had he known that his father had long been looking down the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of his son coming home. Unfortunately, the son didn’t know his father very well.
He began to think of ways to persuade his father to let him in when he arrived at the door. His father could well be very angry with him. Perhaps he should look for his mother first, and she could help persuade his father to forgive and let him have another chance.
And then there was all that money he’d wasted. He would have to find some way to make amends.
“I know what I’ll do,” the son decided. “I’ll ask him to treat me as one of his hired servants.” With that, he started out on his way home, practicing his speech as he went.
Had he looked up, he might have noticed his father still watching for him down that road. “But while he was still a long way off his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran to meet him, flung his arms round him, and kissed him.
“The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Fetch a robe, the best we have, and put it on him . . . and let us celebrate with a feast. For this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.’ ”12
At last the son had learned the truth about his father. He didn’t even have to finish that speech. His father had forgiven him long before. But he had to come home to find that out. Now his father’s forgiveness led him to real repentance.
As the prodigal stood there in his father’s arms, he began to experience the original meaning of atonement.
Servants understand atonement as making amends.
Friends understand atonement as making friends.
The Older Brother Was Just a Servant
As the sounds of celebration reached the ears of the older brother, he protested that justice had not been done.
“ ‘Look,’ ” he complained to his father, “ ‘all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’ ”
“ ‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ ”13
In his preoccupation with justice, the older brother refused to attend the party.
The parable doesn’t tell if he ever changed his mind.