The words used in the Greek New Testament and rendered as “atonement” or “atoning sacrifice in some modern translations are ἱλασμος (1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10) and ἱλαστηριον (Rom 3:25, Heb 9:5). Both are derived from the verbal form ἱλασκομαι. The Hebrew word translated as “atonement” is “kippur” and is usually rendered as ἐξιλαστηριον in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, translated about 250 B.C. in the reign of Ptolemy. Note that it differs from the New Testament word only by the addition of the prefix ἐξ (out of ). The verbal form of the Hebrew word “kippur” is “kaphar”.
In the King James Version, ἱλασμος is translated as “propitiation”, that is, an appeasement or conciliation of an offended power. It is so rendered also by Darby, by the Douay translators, and by the translators of the King James Version, and of Young’s Literal Translation.
The translators of the Revised Standard Version render ἱλασμος as “expiation”, that is, the act of making amends of reparation for wrongdoing. This is also the meaning of the English word “atonement.” In current English, “atone” is used in precisely the same way as “expiate.” If I accidentally run into the neighbor’s fence post and break it off, the neighbour may tell me, “You’re going to have to atone for that!” In other words, I’m going to have to “make up for it” in some way, perhaps by repairing the fence myself. In the NIV and the NRSV ἱλασμος is translated as “atoning sacrifice.”
The translators of the KJV and the Douay also render ἱλαστηριον as “propitiation” in Rom 3:25, and in the RSV it is translated as “expiation.” However in Heb 9:5, the translators of the KJV render the same word as “mercy seat”! It is so rendered also by Darby, and by the translators of the RSV, the NRSV, and Young’s Literal Translation. Mercy seat! That meaning is quite different from either “propitiation” or “expiation.”
Perhaps a look at the verbal form of the words would be helpful in deciding the true meaning of the words ἱλασμος and ἱλαστηριον
** ἱλασκομαι [Strong’s 2433]**
Luke 18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ RSV
In this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, every translation of which I am aware translates ἱλασκομαι as “be merciful”. ἱλασκομαι is derived from the adjectival form ἱλιως, the meaning of which is “merciful”, and is so translated in Hebrews 8:12:
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. RSV
Curiously, the RSV translators render the word differently in Heb 2:17:
Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. RSV
Does consistency demand that the final phrase be translated as “to be merciful concerning the sins of the people”? If the verbal form means “be merciful” and the adjectival form means “merciful”, could the nominal forms be rendered as “means of mercy”? Let’s see how the verses would read if that were done:
** ἱλασμος [Strong’s 2434]**
1Jo 2:2 and he is the means of mercy concerning our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
1Jo 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means of mercy concerning our sins.
Ro 3:25 whom God put forward as a means of mercy by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins;
Heb 9:5 above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
We can leave the translation in Heb 9:5 as “mercy seat,” though under Mosaic law it was indeed considered a “means of mercy.”
So it certainly appears that the translations which render ἱλαστηριον and ἱλασμος as “propitiation”, a word which carries the idea of appeasement and averting of wrath are incorrect. Our examination of the passages quoted above would cast doubt even upon the translation of these words as “expiation” or “atonement”. I suggest “means of mercy” as an appropriate translation of these words, a translation that is correct etymologically as well as contextually.
What a mercy the grace of Christ, that divine enablement! This enablement is described in Titus 2:11, 12:
For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all people, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and to live sensible, upright, and pious lives in this world.