Let's start with the Old Testament. When I think of atonement in the Old Testament, I usually think of animal sacrifice. This practice begins immediately in the bible narrative, right after Adam and Eve's ejection from the Garden of Eden. It begins with their sons, Cain and Abel:
"Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." (Genesis 4)
So right away animals are being presented as an offering to God. Noah did it right after the great flood (Genesis 8), Abraham is recorded often as building altars and providing "burnt offerings" on them to God, and Moses did the same. And once Moses inherits "the law", we see right away in the first chapter of Leviticus that God handed down specific instructions on burnt offerings, with specifics from the type of animal (male, without defect) to the style of preparation (skinning the animal, where to place the head on the altar, etc...). That chapter also details how to prepare birds or even grains as a burnt offering, instead of animals. Later, in Leviticus 16, God provides details of how to prepare and kill animals for sacrifices on the "Day of Atonement" a special worship and celebration outside of regular sacrifices. The bottom line is that these offerings, whether spontaneous or command-based, were an important part of their relationship with God.
This is the foundational practice of achieving/receiving atonement. Since I keep mentioning the word, and it's the title of this post, we might as well define it!
I've looked up the word "atonement" in many dictionaries and concordances, and just like with any other topic, there's no agreement. Welcome to biblical study, my friends. But the general tone is something like this:
Atonement: when something has happened so that God can forgive sin
Interesting. The basic picture here is that God is willing, even eager, to forgive, but it's not a unilateral move. He waits for a person to respond, then provides the forgiveness.
So I guess that's it, then. See you next time!
Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously it's not that simple. First let's work through some logic, then we'll look at a few more bible passages.
Logically, what is it about animal blood, bird carcasses or grains that opens up the doorway to forgiveness? Is it something physically present in the flesh or grain? I can't say for sure, but that seems doubtful. This appears more like something God simply chose, because it was an easily-available form of sacrifice for the people. Something that did come with a price, but not too much. He's looking for the gesture itself -- the details are irrelevant (although there sure are a lot of details in Leviticus).
In that case, then, let's look at the bible and see how this plays out. If offerings bring atonement, and enable God to forgive sin, then without offerings there may not be atonement, right? I mean, God laid out the rules pretty clearly. Now we return to Isaiah:
"Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses." (Isaiah 43:22-28)
Ouch. Surely this won't go well. But wait:
"But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says -- he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams." (Isaiah 44:1-5)
Whoa! So maybe sacrifices aren't the only way to atonement? You readers who are long-time church attendees are probably thinking of this passage by now:
"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51)
There were whole years, even decades, when the Israelites were not able or not willing to follow specific divine commands. They skipped the Year of Jubilee more than they followed it, they intermarried with idolatrous cultures, they spared enemies they were supposed to kill and killed enemies they were supposed to spare. And they missed sacrifices. Sacrifices for atonement. For forgiveness. Yet God always forgave them anyway, which is powerfully apparent when reading books like Isaiah.
I guess that is the meaning of grace.
I'm running short on time again, and have so far still to go. So let's close with the most fun part -- the hard questions:
-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, then why ask for sacrifice in the first place? It's obviously not for God, or to "enable" God's forgiveness through atonement. He's God. He built the universe; he can forgive whom and when he wants. Is it possible that the demand for sacrifice was for the people? For them to put some skin in the game, come together as a culture, and spend time processing the big picture of what they'd done and how they would improve?
-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, does this put any possible holes in the view of Jesus' death as a necessary part of penal substitution (his perfect self killed so that we imperfect people could be saved)?
-- If "yes" to the above, what other reasons could there be for the life, and death, of Jesus?