The term atonement is an Old Testament term, kaphar, which literally means to cover, as with pitch (or, tar). It is a direct reference to the blood covering the Mercy Seat (and similar, such as the altar, and even the sprinkling of blood on the people). It is a picture of covering the sin (or sinner) with the blood of the sacrificial substitute — the interposition of the penalized substitute between the sinner and God. This interposition is God’s response to both the sinner’s faith and the sacrifice of the victim. Unless the sinner has faith, there is no atonement. Faith is just as integral to atonement as the sacrifice. When a qualified victim is sacrificed in behalf of a believer, God is propitiated and justice is seen as satisfied. Atonement is the satisfaction of justice by means of a substitutionary sacrifice.
There is not one case in the Old Testament where atonement was made for a sinner who did not have faith. Atonement is not synonymous with sacrifice, but it is the satisfaction of justice through a substitutionary sacrifice. However, God does not atone for the sin of a faithless sinner. It was by faith that Abel offered a better sacrifice. Only by faith does God choose to allow the penalized victim to be interposed between God and the sinner. Christ’s death was not an ipso facto atonement. It was a substitutionary sacrifice which can atone for the sins of anyone putting faith in that Savior and that sacrifice.
It is precisely because Christ’s sacrifice is not simultaneous with forgiveness that proves that atonement is not provided until one puts faith in Him. Forgiveness is only withheld where God has not yet been propitiated. Until a man is saved, he remains under the wrath of God. Such wrath is inconsistent with atonement. Until a man is saved, he is not yet reconciled. Such lack of reconciliation is inconsistent with atonement. Until a man is saved, he is not yet redeemed. Such a lack of redemption is inconsistent with atonement. Until a man is saved, the penalty for his sin hangs over his head and he remains under the condemnation of God. Such a state of condemnation is inconsistent with atonement. Does the blood of the sacrifice cover the sins of the rebellious, God-hating sinner? Does the suffering and death of the Sacrifice stand between the God-hating unbeliever and the Holy God? Atonement is not the mere shedding of the blood of the Sacrifice. Atonement is what happens when the blood is applied to the sin(ner).
In and of itself, the shedding of the blood of the Sacrifice does nothing to satisfy the claims of justice upon the individual sinner. There must be a connection established between the Sacrifice and the sinner if the former is to affect the latter. While sovereignty is free from the exigencies of substantial reality, justice has no such license. God may sovereignly declare that a mere nominal connection between the Sacrifice and sinner is sufficient to free him from wrath, but He cannot justly do so. There are two ways in which justice must be satisfied: 1) justice must be satisfied that the penalty has been fully suffered within substantial reality; and 2) justice must be satisfied that the Sacrifice and sinner are so joined as to become one within substantial reality. Neither of these two can be mere choices within God’s mind to view them as if they were true (in contradiction to substantial reality). The reason is that justice demands more than that the sin be punished — justice demands that the one who sinned be punished.
The union of believers with Christ is spiritual, and not merely legal or “federal.” While the interposition of the sacrificial victim between God and the sinner was something that occurred only within God’s mind in the Old Testament, God has provided union with Christ in the New Testament. This union happens within substantial reality, and does not exist only within the mind of God. Rom. 6:3, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” and, 1 Cor. 6:17, “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” It is not speaking of water baptism, but baptism into the Spirit, which happens at the point of saving faith. To be spiritually baptized into Christ is to be joined to Him so that the new believer and Christ are one spirit, and the result of this is that the new believer is joined to (or, baptized into) His death. As the spirit is the core of a man, it is the core of a man’s identity. When the Holy Spirit indwells the man, He creates a new man by joining the spirit of the man to the Spirit of Christ. They are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other, but they are joined to the extent that the man’s new identity is in Christ and his old identity is no longer valid in the eyes of justice. In fact, the believer is so identified with Christ that he is considered to have been crucified with Him. Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” To be immersed into the Spirit of Christ is to be plunged into that flood of sufficiency that all His human experiences provide. To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into His death.
To understand atonement from this new perspective is to render the age-old debate between limited and universal atonement obsolete. The applicability of the cross of Christ is universal in scope, but only those who put faith in Him have their sins atoned for by His sacrificial death.