Propitiation. What a great word. It has such a great sound to it. But what does it mean? Many have never heard the word, much less be familiar with its meaning. This is especially true if the translation you use is NRSV or NIV, both of which use the word "sacrifice" instead of “propitiation.” This is unfortunate since the words sacrifice and propitiation do not mean the same thing. These words are not synonymous. Though their definitions are closely related, they both convey separate and distinct truths regarding the cross of Christ and what was accomplished at Calvary.
This is not to make mountains out of mole hills but rather is to highlight the weightiness of the apostle Paul’s words: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Why would Paul say that? Why would Paul say there is absolutely nothing in this world he desires to know except Jesus Christ and him crucified? G. Campbell Morgan said it well when he said: "It is the crucified man that can preach the cross. [The apostle Thomas said] 'except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails...I will not believe'....What Thomas said of Christ, the world is saying about the church. And the world is also saying to every preacher: Unless I see in your hands the print of the nails, I will not believe. It is true. It is the man...who has died with Christ,...that can preach the cross of Christ" (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p.351).
But maybe you are not a preacher and maybe you think Morgan’s quote does not apply to you. But doesn’t it? Scripture says, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Rom. 10:13-15). Every believer is called to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. It is not just ordained ministers who are called to preach the good news. We are all called to preach to the world Jesus Christ and him crucified. But the world will not believe us unless they can see in our hands the nail prints of Christ. Unless the world sees that we have been crucified with Christ, they will not believe. But in order for us to be fully crucified with Christ, we must first learn what it means to "know Christ and him crucified." We must come to grips with all that Christ accomplished at the cross.
One thing Christ accomplished at the cross was propitiation. But what does that mean? What does it mean that God "sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins"? To understand this, we need to look at some Old Testament (OT) texts in order to gain a basic understanding of the word.
We read about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. Once a year, in OT Israel the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was placed and make atonement for the sins of the people. He first had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins, and then he was able to offer a sacrifice for the sins of Israel. In Leviticus 16:15-16, we read: “Then he [the high priest] shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.”
The mercy seat was the lid which covered the Ark, inside of which lay the two stone tablets which contained the Ten Commandments. Thus, once the commandments had been broken, the blood of a goat had to be sprinkled over the mercy seat in order to make a covering for the sins of the people. In fact, the underlying Hebrew word for "mercy seat" in v.15 and "atonement" in v.16 both have the same root meaning. The Hebrew word for "mercy seat" is kaphor-eth, and for "atonement" is the world kaphar. You can see and hear similar spellings. Both carry the basic meaning of "to cover" or "to make a covering." Why does this matter? Because in the OT, God prescribed a remedy for unintentional sins (Lev. 4:1-3, 13-14, 20). Thus, propitiation carries the meaning of covering the sins of the people in order to remove the offense from the sight of God.
In the case of intentional sins, no remedy was given (see Num. 15:32-36). This is because it is not the offense which must be removed from God's sight by means of a covering, but the offender is to be removed from God's sight by means of being put to death. The point is this: when a sin is committed, someone or something must die, and the offense or the offender must be removed from the sight of God. This is the case for two reasons. First, in Genesis 18:25 Abraham asks God a rhetorical question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" The answer is 'yes'. In Proverbs 17:15 scripture says, "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD." God, as the just Judge of all the earth, cannot allow sin to go unpunished. He cannot turn a blind eye to sin.
Second, God cannot look upon evil. "The boastful shall not stand before your [God] eyes; you hate all evildoers" and "You [God] who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Ps. 5:5; Hab. 1:13). This presents a major problem for all of us because the Bible tells us that we have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). The vast majority of our sins have all been intentional sins. We all deserve to die and to absorb the wrath of God because we have all lived in open, blatant, rebellion against God. In fact, most of the world continues to live in open, blatant, rebellion against God. We turn on the TV, watch a movie, or read the news and what we see is a world shaking their fists at God saying, 'We don't care what you want! We're going to live life our way!' Every person deserves to die an eternal death and be eternally separated from fellowship with God. It is important to grasp this because as Anselm rightly stated: “All defective views of the atonement have this one thing in common—they have not yet considered how grievous a thing sin is.”
But now the good news! Romans 3:23-26 says, “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.” In other words, God put forth Jesus as a propitiation by his blood; that is, as a covering to remove the offense or the offender from God's sight. Christ shed his blood and died on the cross in order to provide a covering or a shield, as it were, from the wrath of God by covering both the offense and the offender. So that for those for whom Christ died, there is no wrath left because he has covered both the offense and offender from the sight of God, thereby propitiating or satisfying the wrath of God.
Why did God put forth Jesus as a propitiation by his blood, and why was Jesus willing to be put forth as a propitiation by his blood? "This was to show God's righteousness" (v.25). It was to show the justice of God. God is the just Judge of all the earth. A just judge cannot simply overlook an offense. Someone had to pay for sins. Hence, v.25 goes on to say, "because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins." This is not to say that God turned a blind eye to sin in the OT. He certainly did not, but as Hebrews 10:4 says, “the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins.” Bulls and goats were not the ones who had sinned against God. Humans were the ones who had sinned against God. Thus, it had to be a human to pay for sins. The problem is that we are all sinful and, therefore, we all have our own sins to pay for. Christ stepped out of the glory of heaven and became a man and died on the cross for sins. And it had to be this way because as v.26 says, "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" (emphasis added).
In other words, John 6:37 tells us that God gave Jesus certain ones from eternity past to be his bride. But this bride is sinful, filled with wickedness, and deserving of God's wrath. Thus, Christ stepped out of the glory of heaven and in going to the cross, essentially says to the Father, 'I know that you are a just judge who cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and I know that this bride of mine is sinful, wicked, and deserving of your wrath and anger. But I want to absorb your wrath and your anger on her behalf. Please, pour out your wrath and your anger upon me and allow my blood to be a propitiation, to be a covering for her and for her sins. So that when you look at her you will not see her sin, but will only see her as spotless, without blemish or stain, because of my blood which covers her.'
But what compelled God the Father and God the Son to do this? “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 4:10). My friends, the amazing thing about God is not that God loves everyone, which He does—the amazing thing about God is that he bothers to love anyone. We are so damaged, broken, tainted, and tarnished by sin, and God in his holiness cannot stand to look upon our sinfulness. He cannot stand to gaze upon the offense nor the offender, and yet He "loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” and Christ was willing to do so.
So what does all this mean for us? Allow me to offer two applications: (1) “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). If God so loved us, despite our sinfulness, despite our flaws, despite our shortcomings, despite our imperfections, we also ought to love one another. So often we hold others to a standard that we ourselves don't even come close to attaining. We demand perfection from others, while making excuses for ourselves. We demand penitence from those who have sinned against us, while not even acknowledging our own sins. I’ve been told that Spurgeon once said, "Why do you become so frustrated with others because you cannot make them as you wish them to be, when you cannot even make yourself as you wish you to be?" (2) “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). What does faithfulness and justice have to do with being forgiven of our sins? Simply this: if Christ died for your sins and absorbed the wrath of God on your behalf, then God is obligated to forgive you of your sins because his wrath has already been poured out on Christ. If Christ died for you then God cannot be angry with you because his anger has already been poured out on Christ on your behalf. Secondly, God is faithful to his promises (cf. John 5:24). Thus, when we confess our sins to God in sincere remorse and repentance, God is "faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ and believe that he died on the cross for your sins, know this--God is not angry with you. Christ absorbed the wrath of God on your behalf, and your sins are completely covered by the blood of Christ.
*This article series has been adapted from a sermon series delivered by Hexon J. Maldonado (2009).
*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Purchase Hexon's book, In the King's Presence: How Christ's Royal Majesty Enriches Corporate Worship
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies