It’s easy to conflate the concepts of “forgiveness” and “atonement” as being two ways of saying the same thing. For many Bible readers, the popular Christian understanding of “at-one-ment” between people and God signifies the moment of "forgiveness." However, as noted in our previous article, “atonement” refers to the eradication of sin rather than to relational reconciliation. In biblical thought, divine forgiveness follows human atonement: once a person’s sin is purged through the sacrificial spilling of blood, God responds to atonement by forgiving the sinner.
The clearest description of forgiveness following atonement appears in Leviticus. After the priest receives offerings from sinners and manipulates blood in a ritual context, “the priest shall make atonement (כפר; kipper) for them, and they shall be forgiven (נסלח; nislach)” (Lev 4:20). The Hebrew for “forgive” is סלח (salach), which can also be understood as “pardon.” In the Levitical sequence, the act of atonement is dependent on human action, not on God. The Lord gives humans the opportunity to make atonement for themselves so that forgiveness can come from Heaven. As God tells Israel, “For the life of the flesh [of the animal] is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement (לכפר; lekhaper) for your lives” (Lev 17:11). Once human beings make atonement, God forgives sinners.
God can forgive or “pardon” sin without the shedding of atoning blood, but only blood enacts “atonement”—i.e., the eradication of the physical burden of sin from the world. For instance, Moses asks God with reference to Israel in the wilderness, “Please pardon (סלח; selach) the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love,” and God tells Moses, “I have pardoned (סלחתי; salachti) according to your word” (Numbers 14:19-20). God forgives Israel, but this does not preclude the need for the stain of sin to be removed through atonement (in fact, the very next chapter of Numbers details the steps for priestly atonement; see Num 15:1-31). To use an analogy, imagine a guest spilling coffee on a homeowner’s rug: the host can “forgive” or “pardon” the mistake, but the stain will remain on the rug until the guest scrubs it out. Likewise, God can pardon sins, but only human atonement can purge the stain of sin. This is part of the reason why Yeshua had to be “incarnate” as a human being; namely, so that he could perform the human act of atonement on the cross. Based on Jesus’ sacrificial atonement, God grants forgiveness.