What are the biblical views on atonement? I am looking at this from a NT perspective. I am also not looking for advice. I am doing a paper on it and want substantial developments from the biblical text for different theories, i.e. penal substitution, Christus Victor, ransom, and/or scapegoat theories.

Matthew 26:26–28 LEB

26 Now while they were eating Jesus took bread and, after giving thanks, he broke it, and giving it to the disciples, he said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” 27 And after taking the cup and giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Romans 5:6–8 LEB

6 For while we were still helpless, yet at the proper time Christ died for the ungodly. 6 For only rarely will someone die on behalf of a righteous person (for on behalf of a good person possibly someone might even dare to die), but 8 God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

1 Corinthians 15:3 LEB

For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

Hebrews 9:12–14 LEB

12 and not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, he entered once for all into the most holy place, obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled sanctify them for the ritual purity of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God?

  • 2
    For a NT perspective, the word "atonement" appears only once in the KJV (Romans 5:11), and not at all in most other English translations. ¶ But even if it was a common word, this question would be unsuitable for this site (and so is likely to be disabled). Rather than exploring biblical topics, it is intended for asking about specific scriptures. Please take the Tour of Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 3:05
  • 2
    Christian, I hope you will not be discouraged by the moderators' closing your questions. They have serious potential but need specific biblical passages and/or clarification. Questions such as this one, which don't deal with specific texts, would be better asked on Christianity.se but would still need to be narrowed down to a specific denomination, school of thought, etc. since there are so many opinions on it. Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 13:18

1 Answer 1


For completeness only, let me provide a little assay on the general subject of atonement before this question is closed.

Atonement is an old term for reconciliation by means of some kind of amends. It was first used by William Tyndale in his translation of the Bible in 1526. In theological terms, atonement is part of the process of “Salvation”.

Atonement is never used in the New Testament but comes from the Old Testament, “kippurim”, a covering, and is invariably associated with some kind of sacrifice. Thus, the idea of propitiation might be a better word signifying a sacrifice to appease a lord or deity. Thus, the “mercy seat” covering the ark was called an "atonement cover" (in some versions, Ex 25:20, 21, etc) because it was associated with final reconciliation based on a sacrifice.

Historically, the atonement is intimately bound up in Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ministry in heaven. Theologically, the “problem” of the atonement is this: Why did Jesus have to die and how does He save us? The answer to this question involves the two concepts of Theodicy (the justice of God) and atonement which respectively see the process from God’s viewpoint and from man’s viewpoint.

So, let us ask a narrower question – Why is atonement necessary? In part, the answer is obvious – the sin problem needed to be resolved. However, this does not answer the more pressing question: Why was Jesus’ sacrifice and death necessary for atonement? The Bible has many answers to this question.

There have traditionally been numerous theories about what the atonement actually means and how to understand it, including, “Recapitulation Theory”, “Moral Influence Theory”, “Ransom Theory”, “Christus Victor”, “Satisfaction/Substitution Theory”, “Penal Substitution”, “Governmental Theory”, “Scapegoat Theory”, etc . Most of these are helpful (and contain truth) in some ways but all have two serious problems:

  1. Each focusses on (or emphasises) only one or two aspects of the atonement to the neglect of the others. That is, each one simplifies the more comprehensive divine plan of atonement.
  2. Each amounts to a form of Platonism which is foreign to the Bible – they create a “back-story” to explain Bible material that is unnecessary.

It is much better to accept that the Bible provides a very rich set of metaphors for the atonement to suit different understandings and situations. There is no single Biblical word or idea that encompasses all that is involved in atonement; however, several analogues (or metaphors) are employed to show God’s intent because none conveys the full meaning of God’s atonement. All illustrate another aspect of the operation of free grace and how a perfectly just and holy God deals with the abhorrence of sin and its consequences. These include:

  • Christ’s robe of righteousness provided a covering to hide the sinner’s wretched state. Job 29:14, Ps 132:9, 16, Isa 11:5, 59:17, 61:10, 64:6, Zech 3:4, 5, Matt 22:1-14 (wedding garment parable), Gal 3:27, Rom 13:14, 2 Chron 6:41, Rev 3:4, 6:11, 7:9, 19:8. This robe is a counterpoint to the “filthy rags” of Isa 64:6 and Zech 3:4, and immediately and completely hides them.
  • The Greek verb “aphiemi”, to forgive or give remission, means (literally) to send forth or send away. It is used of sins in Matt 9:2, 5, 6, 12:31, 32, 26:28, Mark 14:24, Acts 8:22, Rom 4:7, James 5:12, 1 John 1:9, 2:12, etc. That is, our sins are sent away or banished. See also Mark 3:29, Acts 5:31, 13:38, 26:18, Eph 1:7, Col 1:14. Again, Jesus accomplished this great work on the cross.
  • Propitiation or expiation (Greek: “hilasterion”) denotes the act of appeasing a deity by sacrifice to incur divine Favour (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). Thus, Jesus’ sacrifice is described as propitiation in Rom 3:25 and 1 John 2:2. These are direct references to the same word used in the Septuagint in Ex 25:17-22 (and repeated in Heb 9:5) where the “atonement cover” or “mercy seat” of the Ark of the Covenant is described. That is, the covering of the Ark provided both atonement and mercy at the same time! See also 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 3:18. Thus, Jesus is correctly described as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29, 36).
  • Justify and Justification (Greek cognate root: “dike”) means to pronounce righteous or acquit and is obviously a legal term. Paul, in Romans, tells us that God has freely justified all sinners (Rom 3:23-27) and that this occurred while we were still sinners (Rom 5:5, 8, 9) by His death on the cross. This “declaring right” is clearly what God does and is His initiative and something that cannot be earned (Rom 3:20). In Gal 2:16 we are emphatically told that we are justified by trusting God and not by works of the law. It is often used inter-changeably with “Credit”, see below.
  • The Bible also uses the idea of Jesus’ death being a kind of penal substitutionary execution to satisfy the requirements of “the law”; thus, His death was an essential part of our salvation. Isa 53:5, 6, 11, 12, Matt 20:28, Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 1:4, 3:13, Heb 9:15. Again, the extent to which this is literally true is highly debated – is it only a metaphor to demonstrate God’s great love and grace? Or did Jesus’ death actually change something about God’s attitude to us (recall that Jesus is also God!) Obviously, Jesus’ death did not change God’s mind because God gave His Son and God did not give something in order to change His own mind! Jesus’ death was to demonstrate His justice (Rom 3:22-28).
  • In Rev 12:7-10 the process that leads to atonement is depicted as a war which Jesus wins. His victory obtains atonement for mankind (Col 2:15, 1 Peter 3:22). In this warfare, sinners are God’s enemies that He must capture in the war (Rom 5:10). This metaphor is extended for the Christian life (Eph 6:10-17, 1 Thess 5:8, 2 Cor 10:3-5, Isa 59:17) with “the armor of God”. See also Rev 19:11-21.
  • The atonement is also presented as a kind of recapitulation: Jesus became the second Adam and succeeded where Adam failed. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Rom 5 discusses this idea at some length but the idea of sacrifice and the gift of salvation are never too far away even in this passage.
  • “Credit”, “account”, “imputed”, or “reckoned” (Greek: logizomai) is a financial or accounting term used in the market place but was employed by Paul to denote the act of God in crediting Abraham (and sinners generally) as righteous when they trusted in God, apart from the works of the law, as a free gift. The idea is based upon the assumption that sin creates a debt to God which must be repaid (Col 2:13-15, Matt 6:12). Again, it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech and so is not literally true. (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24, 2 Cor 5:19, Gal 3:6, James 2:23. See also Gen 15:6.) That is, the righteousness of God is “imputed” to the undeserving sinner, freely. Thus, God “cancels the debt” (Matt 18:21-35).
  • “Gift” is used to convey the idea that atonement is absolutely free and the initiative of God. Rom 4:4, 5:15-17, 6:23, 2 Cor 9:14, 15, Eph 2:8, 3:7, Heb 6:4. See also Rom 3:20-24.
  • Redemption, Ransom, or more correctly, Manumission: Two Greek words are translated “redeem” (“exagerazo” and “lutroo”) with almost exactly equivalent meanings. Both speak of Christ redeeming sinners as slaves (Luke 1:68, 24:21) by paying a ransom (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Tim 2:6, Heb 9:15), but, Scripture is silent about to whom the manumission fee was paid (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23, Gal 3:13, 4:5, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 1:18, Rev 5:9. This manumission idea emphasizes God’s free gift of salvation because both Greek verbs were commonly used to buy freedom for a slave or hostage, without any contribution of the slave. Perhaps the most touching example of redemption is contained in the enacted parable of Hosea and Gomer – see Hosea 3:1-3.

The New Testament also presents several things from which the sinner needs freedom:

  • o Freedom from the devil, Heb 2:14, 15
  • o Freedom from death, 1 Cor 15:56, 57
  • o Freedom from the power of sin that enslaves, Rom 6:22
  • o Freedom from the condemnation of the law, Rom 3:19-24, Gal 3:13, 4:5
  • Reconciliation describes the process of reuniting an estranged family member. It is predicated on two Biblical assumptions that (a) Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11-13, Ps 22:22, Isa 8:17, 18, Matt 12:48, 49, John 20:17, Rom 8:29), and (b) sin separates us from Jesus our brother (Isa 59:2, Gal 5:4, Eph 2:12, Ps 22:1, Eze 14:5, Jer 6:8). Reconciliation is found in only a few places but they, again, emphasise that atonement is God’s initiative without any input from us. In 2 Cor 5:18, 19 we find that Christ reconciled the world to Himself by “not counting our sins against us”. Rom 5:10, 11 teaches that sinners were reconciled to God by Christ’s death. Further, a comparison with v9 shows that justification and reconciliation are used in parallel.
  • Rescue (save): The Greek verb, “sozo” means literally to rescue or deliver from danger (Matt 8:25, Mark 13:20, Luke 23:35, John 12:27, 1 Tim 2:15, 2 Tim 4:18). Thus, when the New Testament discusses salvation, it is using the figure of someone in immanent mortal danger being rescued by a “rescuer” (Acts 2:47, 16:31, Rom 8:24, Eph 2:5, 8, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Tim 19, Titus 3:5, etc). This a perfect figure of our relationship with Jesus who delivers us from the danger of sin (Phil 2:12) and eternal loss (Rom 13:11, 1 Thess 5:8, 9 2 Thess 2:13, Heb 1:14, 9:28, 1 Peter 1:5, 2 Peter 3:15, etc). See also Eph 6:17 where salvation is described as a helmet to protect from spiritual danger. This figure also emphasizes that salvation must come from outside the person.
  • The absolving of sin is sometimes represented as a “washing away” of sin, or “cleansing”. Lev 16:30, Num 19:9, Ps 51:2, 7, 10, Isa 4:4, Eze 36:25, Zech 13:1, 1 Cor 6:10, Eph 5:26, 1 John 1:7, 9. The practice of Baptism is built on this vivid metaphor and thus depicted as washing away of sin (Acts 22:16) as well as death to the old life and resurrection to a new life in Christ.
  • Adoption can also be a figure of atonement. In this case the metaphor serves both as a figure of the change of life and of the privileges of being adopted into a “royal” family of God.

It will be readily observed that these metaphors often overlap, and, more than one is used in some passages. Thus, it often appears that Bible writers struggled to express an abstract idea in more concrete terms using multiple metaphors. For example, Heb 9:12 uses propitiation, manumission and the OT sanctuary all mixed together.

The above does not include another metaphor sometimes called, “The Divine Exchange” and is illustrated in the following texts:

  • 2 Cor 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • Gal 1:4, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.
  • Gal 3:13, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.
  • John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • 2 Cor 8:9, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.
  • 1 Peter 3:18, For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit,
  • Isa 53:4-6, Surely He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we considered Him stricken by God, struck down and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

That is, Jesus was treated as we deserve so that we can be treated as He deserved.

This is sometimes expressed another way: Jesus took responsibility for our sin! Heb 7:22 –

By so much also, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

The doctrine of atonement is most fully developed by Paul in Romans and led to the Reformation idea of free grace based on the following ideas:

  • Gal 3:21 - Is the law, then, opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come from the law.
  • Rom 3:20, 4:6 – atonement cannot be achieved by man by the works of the law
  • Eph 2:5, 8-10 – atonement is a free gift of God, out of His love and grace to do good works and glorify God • Gal 2:16 – we are justified not by works but by Jesus’ faithfulness because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified.
  • Titus 3:5 – we cannot atone for our own sin by deeds of the law
  • Isa 64:6 – our own righteousness (right doing or “deeds”) are as “filthy rags”
  • Acts 4:12 – sinners are saved by Christ alone
  • Phil 2:13, John 6:44, Rom 2:4, 5:5, Eph 2:5 all show that salvation and atonement are God’s initiative and that any positive response to God’s invitation is also the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Rom 3:23, 24, 5:6, 8, 10 – the fact that God provided atonement for all sinners, while were still sinners, indicates that atonement is God’s initiative alone. Isa 65:1

This led directly to Luther’s reformation catch-cry of “solas”: Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, Sola Christos, Sola gratia, Sola Deo Gloria.

The atonement of the Bible is universal inasmuch as it is provided for all people. John 1:29, John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 2 Peter 3:9, Heb 2:9, 1 Tim 2:3, 4, Rom 3:23, 24, 5:8, 10, 15, 18, 2 Cor 5:18, 19, Titus 2:11, Isa 53:6. [However, this does NOT mean that all will be saved.]

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.