Atoning Blood 1

By Philip Graham Ryken

In producing his famous translation of the Bible, the English Reformer William Tyndale introduced many memorable words and phrases into the English language.  Ultimately these words came from the Holy Spirit, of course, but someone still had to decide how the divine words of the Old and New Testaments should be translated from Hebrew and Greek into English.  The Bible that resulted from Tyndale’s work is full of memorable phrases that have become everyday expressions: “let there be light”; “the salt of the earth”; “the spirit is willing”; “the powers that be”; and so on. 

In addition to his special gift for the rhythms of language, Tyndale also had a passion for choosing the best words to communicate biblical truth.  For this reason he invented several important words related to salvation, including “Passover,” “scapegoat,” and “atonement.” 

Tyndale’s use of the term “atonement” began with the recognition that no single word in the English language fully did justice to Christ’s saving work on the cross.  The word “reconciliation” came close, in his view, yet it only expressed the restored relationship that resulted from the work of Christ, without really saying anything about how Jesus dealt with the problem of sin.  Tyndale wanted a word that would express both the remission of our sin and our reconciliation to God.  Since there was no such word in the English language, Tyndale decided to make up a new one, much the way that the apostle Paul invented new terms to express theological truth.[1]

The word Tyndale decided to use was “atonement,” or “at-one-ment” (e.g. Num. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:18).  Taken literally, atonement is really just another word for reconciliation, for two becoming one.  But because it was a new term, it was able to take on new meaning.  Atonement quickly became a basic theological term for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which makes us right with God by satisfying the claims of divine justice.  Thus “atonement” satisfied Tyndale’s desire to express both the relationship we have with God and the way Christ died to save us. 

            [1] The Archbishop of Canterbury: William Tyndale; Reformer and Rebel. A Quincentenary Appreciation (Lambeth Palace, 5th October 1994).