‘And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement (Romans 5:11 AV).’
‘And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:11 NKJV).’
For the Christian the focus of the once-for-all atonement is on the One who did the atoning for them, i.e., Jesus the Son of God. When I say ‘once-for-all’, I am not endorsing the mistaken [Arminian] view that the atonement made by Jesus was for ‘all’ people; since it was efficacious only for those who believe and trust Him. The Atonement effected by Jesus was and is exclusively for the elect, i.e., the chosen of God, not for the whole of mankind.
Atonement under the Mosaic Covenant
What exactly is the Atonement?
The first mention of the word ‘atonement’ in the Bible is found in Exodus 29:33: ‘They shall eat those things with which the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them; but a stranger shall not eat them, because they are holy.’
Chapter 29 describes in great detail the consecration of Aaron and his sons and how they were to offer continual (V. 42) burnt offerings at the door of the tabernacle where the LORD would meet with them and His people (V. 43). He promised He would dwell with them and be their God (V. 45).
Almost hidden within the series of obligatory statutes we find the command that ‘strangers’ were to be excluded from eating the offerings ‘with which the atonement was made (V. 33)’ . This is of significance; for strangers were not permitted to be priests. This points to two things: the exclusive nature of the priesthood and the limited inclusivity of the atonement.
The primary purpose of God’s Old Testament priests under the Mosaic Covenant was to offer gifts and sacrifices for the sins (Hebrews 5:1) of the people and for their own sins (V.3). They were called by God for this office, and they were chosen from the tribe of Levi.
Under the Mosaic Covenant the high priest was required to carry out God’s command to keep the annual ‘atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins (Leviticus 16:34),’ and to observe the ‘holy convocation’ in the seventh month, ‘on the first day of the month (Leviticus 23:24)’. The high priest alone, entered the holy of holies in the tabernacle for sprinkling the blood of the atonement ‘to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).’
In practice, although these priestly duties were carried out in an effort to placate the wrath of God and to put right the relationship between Him and His people, the people did not come to Him in faith. They did not trust Him and they did not have a heartfelt desire to obey Him. Furthermore the sacrifices of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of their blood did not take away their sins or give them power not to sin.
They were not made clean, and their sins were not *’covered’. There was no atonement, or reconciliation, or a restoration of a holy relationship with the LORD. Clearly there was no real atonement for the Old Testament people of God.
*[The verb ‘to atone’ in Hebrew literally means ‘to cover’, as Noah’s ark was covered with pitch. God told Noah to ‘pitch it within and without with pitch (Genesis 6:14).’ Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words defines the Hebrew word ‘kapar’ in this way: ‘to cover over, atone, propitiate, or pacify.’]
Atonement under the New Covenant
At the heart of the matter lay the sinful nature of the Israelites. They were in Adam, bound by sin. Adam listened to Eve whom the serpent beguiled, and together they knowingly disobeyed God (Genesis 3). Tragically their rebellious and sinful nature was inherited by the Israelites, as indeed is the case for all mankind. There is no exception. Thus we all fall short of God’s perfection (Romans 3:23), and without His intervention there is no hope of redemption or atonement for anyone.
God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to be a perfect, living sacrifice for the effective removal [covering] of sin, and to be the One who gives eternal life to those who believe (John 3:16).
Jesus’ death and the shedding of His blood changed everything ‘for good to those who love’ Him (Romans 8:28),’ but not without God’s gift of faith; for ‘without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).’
The sacrifices of bulls and goats and the shedding of their blood, achieved nothing. They were but shadows of the effective atonement accomplished by Christ, through the sacrifice of Himself and the shedding of His blood.
Furthermore, Jesus became the High Priest of the New Covenant people of God, and He has made us who believe to become a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:4-10) – not priests of the Levitical line, but priests through adoption as His children. We have been adopted by Him as children of the promise (Romans 9:8), an elect and chosen people.
Our reconciliation was made possible because of Jesus’ fulfilment of the New Covenant in His blood (Matthew 26:28), and because of God’s gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). God promised Abraham he would be ‘a father of many nations (Romans 4:17),’ and they would be blessed in him. (Genesis 12:3; Cf. Ephesians 1:3).
Only the elect shall eat of the flesh of Jesus (John 6:54-56; Cf. Exodus 29:33), and strangers shall have no part of His priestly brotherhood, for He does not atone for their sins. Hence there is a limited atonement for an inclusive brotherhood.