Theological words can be used as jargon. We all know those times when someone busts out a word with too many syllables and assumes others know what it means. Or even worse, when someone uses an obscure scholastic term or a borrowed Latin phrase that they know others won’t understand to demonstrate their superior intellect. That’s these kind of words at their worst. But at their best, a carefully chosen theological term, if properly explained or widely understood, can be an incredibly effective means of communicating rich, deep and perhaps complex theological truth with a single word.
On that note, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what is probably my favourite single-word theological term: Propitiation. Some of our English Bibles use this word in the following passages:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:21-26, ESV)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2, ESV)
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.(1 John 4:9-10, ESV)
Even just reading the above verses should convey the fact that this is a rich word, with a very special relevance to our understanding of the Cross.
The dictionary definition of propitiate is “to make (someone) favourably inclined; appease; conciliate.” The Greek word used in the NT, which is translated as “propitiation” is ἱλασμός (hilasmos) or ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which has the idea of placating or appeasing an offended party or expiating (a term which itself means making atonement or amends for wrongs committed).
Propitiation then is an expression of what was happening at the cross. When Christians say that Jesus’s death on the cross was an “atoning sacrifice” (as indeed the NIV chooses to translate the above Greek words in Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10), we are saying that his substitutionary death for our sins was both appeasing or placating the divine attitude of wrath towards our rebellion and reconciling us to God so we would instead experience His divine love and favour as children instead of enemies. My way of bringing these two aspects of propitiation together has been to express it as thus: Propitiation is the process by which Christ deals with God’s wrath against our sin (through His death on the cross) and invites divine favour to be shown in place of it.
This kind of idea is actually quite unpopular today, even among some who call themselves evangelical Christians. The substitutionary, wrath-bearing aspect of Christ’s atoning death has been dismissed as “cosmic child abuse” or a troubling placing of divine violence at the centre of our faith – depending on who you read. But propitiation remains central to the historic, biblical understanding of what Jesus did for us and how God Himself was the one who needed to be satisfied when it came to the problem of human sin.
Of course, my definition above could be misconstrued or misunderstood. Propitiation should not communicate the idea that “merciful Jesus” was doing us a favour by dealing with the “angry Father,” nor that God was primarily disposed to show us wrath, but Jesus ensured mercy triumphed instead. A proper, biblical understanding will always promote the truth that the Triune God wished to show mercy to His fallen creatures, in a way that would uphold His perfect righteousness and not lessen His righteous anger against human sin. The very fact that Paul teaches in Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” demonstrates that God did this so that grace and mercy might be shown to many instead of wrath. That God (which we can understand both as referring to the Father representatively or the Trinity generally) sent Jesus to achieve this purpose is clearly reinforced in 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Mercy to those who believe in Christ was the Father’s goal all along.
And the end of the Romans passage cited above communicates why Christ had to die a death that specifically bore the punishment for our sins, in order for divine grace and mercy to be shown freely to us all: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
God showed his absolute, unmitigated abhorrence for sin by pouring out His wrath on Christ – the willing substitute who voluntarily endured the fullness of divine anger so that it would no longer play a factor in our relationship with God. This showed that He was just – sin would never go unpunished. But it’s great news for you and I, because He also became the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.
Jesus endures the wrath that you and I could never bear – whether we were to face it now or throughout an eternity of experiencing God’s judgement. We get the favour of a gracious God poured out abundantly on us instead in a new, restored, reconciled relationship. That’s propitiation. And it’s great news.