Atonement: God wants to save everybody!

ATONEMENT ə'toʊn.mənt noun. Action which fixes a broken relationship, such as paying a penalty, replacing a damaged item, or painting over defacement.
2. The atonement: Jesus’s payment for humanity’s sins through his death.
[Atone ə'toʊn verb, atoning ə'toʊn.ɪŋ adjective.]

Sin significantly ruined our relationship with God. Not irreparably; God can fix anything. And he did.

Occasionally some preacher will break down the word atonement thisaway: “At-one-ment. God makes himself and us one.” It’s pretty close to the right idea. There used to be a word in English, onement, which means unity. Christian preachers started adding the at- prefix to describe our relationship with God: We’re unified now. What was broken is now fixed.

The word English-speakers used to use to describe this was propitiation, one which still appears thrice in the King James Version Ro 3.25, 1Jn 2.2, 4.10 to translate ἱλασμός/ilasmós. But like most old-timey words, people don’t understand what it means, and most dictionaries define propitiation as “something which appeases a person or god.” Like an offering, a good deed, a ritual sacrifice. Something karmic—and God does grace, not karma.

Good karma can’t do it anyway. You can’t undo a sin. You can undo its consequences, but you can’t undo the initial act of selfish rebellion. You could try to be so good, your good deeds outweigh your evil ones, but here’s the catch: We’re already supposed to be that good. We’re supposed to have no evil deeds in the balance. It’s like putting a single drop of snake venom into a glass of drinking water: You wanna drink it now? Better have epinephrine handy; and you still might die.

So propitiation is an inaccurate way to describe how God fixed things. But far too many Christians still totally describe it that way: “We outraged God, but we temporarily appeased him with ritual sacrifices… till Jesus permanently appeased him with his self-sacrifice.” Makes God sound all bloodthirsty. Well, we get bloodthirsty when we’re outraged, so we totally project that upon God. But that’s not who he is.

Ilasmós is the Greek translation of כִּפֻּר/khippúr, a Hebrew word y’might actually know because of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. It comes from another word, כֹּפֶר/khippúr, “plaster.” When there’s a crack or hole in the wall, you put some plaster or putty or spackle on it, paint over it, and you’re good as new. And that’s the word God used in Exodus to describe what the ancient Hebrews’ sacrifices represented to him. Their sins poked holes in God’s relationship with them. The holes needed plastering. It’s a really simple metaphor: Sin breaks stuff, and plaster patches it good as new.

No, not entirely new. And God doesn’t actually want entirely new. Entirely new, means entirely new people: Instead of sorting us out, God’d just kill us, then replace us with exact replicas. But these replicas wouldn’t be us; they’d be twins, clones, copies. God doesn’t want copies. He wants us—repaired.

Plaster makes a wall as good as new. Yeah, if you want to nitpick, a repaired wall won’t necessarily have the same strength as a new wall. But this depends on what you patch it with. If you poke holes in drywall, then patch it with concrete, the patch is far stronger and heavier than the rest of the wall. In fact the rest of the wall will have trouble supporting the concrete… unless you gradually replace everything with concrete. (Which is a whole other metaphor to play with. Have fun with it.)

Christ Jesus sacrificed himself for us, and since Jesus is God it makes God himself our plaster. We have him embedded in us, in much the same way the Holy Spirit was sealed to us when we first turned to God. But don’t play with that metaphor too much, lest you get the idea it’s okay to poke holes in your life so God can putty them with more of himself. We’re not meant to keep on sinning so we can get more grace. Ro 6.1-2 Instead look at your life as a wall full of holes—patched over by God. We might imagine it as flawed; we can’t get past the idea of all those holes beneath the paint. But God considers it a perfectly good wall. It serves its purpose: It keeps out the wind and rain. It keeps prying eyes from looking through it. It keeps listening ears from hearing better through it. It provides shelter. We can hang pictures on it. And so on, till the metaphor breaks down and we just get silly. But you get the idea.

God wants us, and our relationship with him, repaired, back to the way he originally meant things. He doesn’t want to knock us down and start again from scratch.

Atonement for everyone.

Humanity can’t save itself, ’cause we’re too corrupt. We’re hopeless… unless someone else intervenes. And it’s kinda obvious where I’m going with this: God intervened, became the man Jesus, died for our sins, 2Co 14-15, He 2.9 paid our fines, 1Ti 2.6 and reconciled the whole world to himself. 2Co 5.19 He plastered over our sin-damaged lives, and declared us forgiven.

By “whole world” I mean what the authors of scripture meant: The whole world. Everybody.

Seriously, everybody. Every human, past and future, near and far, vastly wicked or relatively “good”: We’re forgiven. God didn’t wait till we repented first; it feels like that’s when he first acts in our lives, but that’s only because we don’t see the big picture and our place in it. (Turns out he’s been nudging us towards salvation all along.) He doesn’t wait till we’re worthy, ’cause we never will be. He doesn’t wait till we feel he should respond, ’cause we feel all sorry for our sins and want him to forgive us. He simply decided to forgive the whole world, and did.

No, not just Christians. Not just monotheists. Not just “good people.” Definitely not just Americans. Everybody.

John 3.17 NIV
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
 
1 John 2.2 NIV
He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
 
1 John 4.14 NIV
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
 
1 Timothy 2.3-6 NIV
3 This [prayer for all] is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.
 
2 Peter 3.9 NIV
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise [to return], as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

If we want God, we never have to worry, “Well maybe he doesn’t want me.” He absolutely does. Jesus atoned for everybody because God wants everybody. He made you; he wants you. We’re not so filthy and nasty and offensive to God’s infinite goodness, he shuns us. He doesn’t turn his back when we call to him. He never says, “Well first you gotta get clean” before his Spirit comes to live within us. Yeah we’ll have to clean up afterward, but cleanliness isn’t a prerequisite. Nothing is a prerequisite but faith: We gotta trust God to save us. And he will!

And when Jesus returns to take over the world, it’ll be the whole world. Not part, Rv 11.15 not just Israel, not just the countries which claim they’re Christian nations. Jesus is Lord of all. ’Cause he died for all.

Seriously, everyone.

Yeah, there are those who say it can’t be all. It’s because they misunderstand how God’s sovereignty works.

Those who believe in limited atonement assume if Jesus saved the world, his salvation is so mighty, so overpowering and overruling (and kinda rapey), we can’t help but be saved. Even if we don’t wanna. Even if we want nothing to do with God: God’s will conquers our will and reprograms us so we will become Christian, just as he’s predetermined. It’s a pretty messed-up idea of God… once again, based on how they’d do things if they were God, and backed up by a lot of out-of-context scriptures which make it look like God only saved Christians… and the rest, he passed over. (Or worse: Created just so he could destroy them, as a sick ’n twisted object lesson for the rest of us.)

So let’s look at the scriptures. Remember when the LORD rescued the Hebrews from Egypt? Fed ’em manna in the wilderness, accepted their sacrifices, forgave their idolatry, let Aaron do that scapegoat thing to represent their atonement? No? Read Exodus through Deuteronomy again.

God rescued the Hebrews. All of them. He didn’t leave any of ’em in Egypt, and pick a select worthy few to take to Canaan. He elected the entire nation, freed them all from their bondage, made them a free people who lived under his grace, and offered every single one of them a promised paradise—“a land of milk and honey,” as they called it, ’cause they really liked milk and honey back then.

That’s what unlimited atonement looks like. That’s what he repeated when Jesus died for our sins. The Hebrews became his children, and he their God. Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12 They could have a relationship with him. He wanted a relationship with them. It’s all he’s ever wanted.

Did all of them accept this relationship with him? Sadly, no. Only a handful finally made it to Canaan. Joshua and Caleb most notably, but there were a few others, like the head priest Eleazar. Js 14.1, 17.4 The rest balked at entering Canaan, and as a result died without ever entering it.

’Cause while God offers us infinite, unlimited grace, we can foolishly, rebelliously reject it. That’s a whole other subject, which I wrote about elsewhere. Jesus came to save the world, but some of the world prefers darkness to light, and won’t come to the light and be saved. Jn 3.19-20

Meanwhile, because Jesus atoned for them, those who resist his grace still get to be the recipients of what we Christians call common grace, the blessings God gives to all humanity, and not just Christians. Like life. Health. Decent weather… when we get decent weather. The good works of his Christians spill over into the rest of society, resulting in more charity, freer governments, improvements in society’s infrastructure, technological advancement, better medicine, literacy, social equality and justice, and so forth.

But God wants to give humanity so much more—and Jesus’s atonement makes it possible. For all.