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Theology > Jesus > Christ's Death > Propitiation  


Propitiation speaks of the Atonement in terms of God and His relationship to individuals. Because of sin God is angry with the sinner and filled with wrath toward the sinner; He does not look upon man with acceptance. Therefore, God’s anger must be appeased, removed, or placated. God has been offended and the offense must be eliminated. His wrath can only be removed through propitiation.

Propitiation means to appease or to conciliate; it means to do that which is necessary to cause the one who is alienated to be reconciled, the one who is unfavorably inclined to become favorably inclined. Theologically speaking, it denotes the removal of God’s wrath from the individual so that the individual can stand before God accepted.

In the Old Testament it was atonement that turned away wrath; the two were related. God commended the conduct of the priest: “Phinehas . . . has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel because he . . . made atonement for the children of Israel” (Num. 25:11-13). In the following statement the relationship of atonement to God’s wrath is also seen: “make atonement for them for wrath has gone out from the Lord” (Num. 16:46-48). Because of man’s sin which provokes God’s wrath, propitiation is required. And propitiation is accomplished by atonement.

Propitiation is necessary in order that the wrath of God may be turned from the sinner; God is the One who is propitiated. Against evil God displays wrath: “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). God is opposed to sin and will punish sin unless a transaction takes place whereby His opposition is transformed from judgment to grace; instead of alienation there is reconciliation—instead of wrath there is favor. The focus of propitiation is God and His wrath.

Appeasement is something that man cannot accomplish. Man cannot satisfy the wrath of God—the finite is incapable of meeting the demands of the Infinite. The point is that only God can meet his own requirements. Salvation is of the Lord.

And the salvation is provided through Christ. It is His sacrifice that satisfies or turns away the wrath of God—it is the sacrifice of the Son to the Father.

Christ Jesus . . . whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood (Rom. 3:25; Gr. is hilaskomai);

He had . . . to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17; Gr. is hilaskomai);

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins (I Jo. 2:2; Gr. is hilasmos);

He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (I Jo. 4:10; Gr. is hilasmos).

In the Septuagint hilasterion is used 28 times, and each time is used for the “Mercy Seat,” the only exception being Amos 9:1. The Mercy Seat was the top or lid of the Ark of the Covenant, and the ark resided in the Most Holy Place and was visited by the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement. During the visit the High Priest sprinkled blood on the Mercy Seat in order to atone for the sin of the people. Associated with the Mercy Seat was sin, sacrifice, blood, and atonement; through this annual act God’s favor remained with the people and His wrath was removed for the year.

When this concept is applied to the four times the word is used in either noun or verb form in the New Testament, the results are illuminating.

Christ Jesus . . . whom God set forth as a Mercy Seat by His blood (Rom. 3:25);

He had . . . to be a Mercy Seat for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17);

And He Himself is the Mercy Seat for our sins (I Jo. 2:2);

He loved us and sent His Son to be the Mercy Seat for our sins (I Jo. 4:10).

Christ is our Mercy Seat, the place where our sins are atoned and God’s wrath thereby is appeased. Christ is not only the Mercy Seat; He is the Priest who is qualified to visit the mercy Seat; He bears our sins to the Mercy Seat; He is sacrificed to validate the Mercy Seat; His blood, His life, is sprinkled on the Mercy Seat for us. From every perspective the Mercy Seat is about Christ and what He has done for His people. Both the place and the activity in connection with the place are centered in Christ: He is our Mercy Seat.

In the modern era it is not unusual for scholars to question the concept of propitiation and even to reject it. While admitting that it can be found in pagan cultures, its presence in the Biblical teaching is denied. Most notably the denial is connected to C. H. Dodd. Without debating the issue, it is more than adequately answered by Leon Morris in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.

Under the influence of those who rejected the concept of propitiation, the RSV translated the Gr. words as “to make expiation” or “expiation,” which does speak of the removal of sin or the cleansing from sin but without any reference to the wrath of God. From this perspective sin is cancelled rather than God’s wrath being turned away.

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