This passage is one of many in our English translation of the Scriptures where it is necessary to consult the original language to ensure we have the proper sense of what the apostle was seeking to convey. When we do so, we find that the Greek word katallage or “reconciliation” is used. It is understandable that the KJV translators used the term atonement because in their day the term meant “agreement, concord, or reconciliation after enmity or controversy.”
For the sake of clarification, in contemporary language the word atonement obscures the meaning of the passage. The emphasis of Paul’s special revelation here is on reconciliation, not atonement, as confirmed by the Greek text. The Hebrew word kaphar, translated “atonement” in the Old Testament meant “to cover.” Hence, the blood of bulls and goats merely covered the sins of those in Old Testament times; it didn’t have the efficacy to remove them.
Through the forbearance of God those sins that were atoned for in time past are now removed on the basis of the shed blood of Christ (Rom. 3:25). Today, Paul teaches us that we are freely justified and forgiven by the blood of Christ: “Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:9). In other words, the blood of Christ doesn’t atone for our sins, it actually cleanses them forevermore.
In the context of the above passage, the apostle was instructing the Romans that it is a source of joy to know that we are at peace with God (Rom. 5:1), seeing that we have accepted His gracious offer of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:18). The subject of Romans 5:11 is reconciliation, not atonement.