The English word ‘atonement’ originated in the 1500’s and means ‘to be in harmony with another; to be at one with them hence ‘at-one-ment’. To atone is to restore a ‘oneness’ previously broken.
Atonement is necessary because sin creates distance between people. ‘Big’ sins create big distances in a single moment, while repeated, unaddressed ‘small’ sins cause great distances over time. The gap caused by most sins can be closed by a simple ‘sorry’ and a genuine desire to change; closing the gap caused by larger sins and repeated sins takes more effort.
In personal relationships, atonement can involve compensation, reparations, payments (emotional or otherwise). The price of atonement depends on the injured party. Some crimes for some people are so great there is no atonement possible to restore relationship.
While the Old Testament is riddled with the word atonement, the New Testament only uses it twice (Luke 18:13; Hebrews 2:17).
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death…
17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb 2)
Jesus, with his death on the cross, closed the gap between us and God. The anger, pain and disappointment that our sins cause God fall upon him and he atones for all who follow him. If God is personally committed to at-one-ment, so should we. It all begins with a genuine sorry.