He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
He is the propitiation for our sins. What does it mean? Propitiation is a common religious word used over the centuries to describe something—an offering or religious duty or whatever—that turns away the wrath of a god toward me.
The gods of the ancient religions were unpredictable, so it was believed. The ancients would do all sorts of things trying to manipulate the emotions of the gods, to avoid their wrath and gain their favor so they would bring rain for the crops, keep their livestock healthy, and increase the number of children in their home. But how could you know one way or the other? Is Zeus angry or not? Do I have Athena’s favor or not? Of course these gods were not true gods at all, but this word propitiation was used for the offering that turned the anger of the gods into favor.
Here is where more liberal theologians get uncomfortable with the word because they say the God of the Bible is not a God of wrath, but of love. Propitiation cannot mean an offering that turns away the wrath of God because God doesn’t have wrath toward us. So it must mean simply removing the offense in the sinner, not in the god. The RSV goes so far as to use the word expiation to cover for that. It is not God’s wrath that is removed; rather it is our sin that is expiated.
Here is where the word and its definition are so important and why one commentator says, “If we are wrong here, nothing else is right.” (Jackman) The love of God does not contradict the wrath of God. Paul begins his entire explanation of the gospel in Romans, not with the love of God but with his wrath of God. Romans 1:18 says, The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
God’s wrath is less an emotion and more a holy opposition and hostility toward both the sin and the sinner. As evidence of this, he does not put sin in hell, he puts sinners in hell. God’s love begins with his commitment to the glory of his own person and glorious character. His wrath is part of his love, like a husband who loves his wife so much as to be righteously jealous for her. God is jealous for his glory and angry at all who fall short of that glory (Romans 3:23).
To understand propitiation, we must have a biblical terror at the wrath of God against all sin and those who commit it. If God is angry, what do we obviously need? We need somehow for that wrath against us to be turned into favor. That it is even a possibility is wonderful, but how is it accomplished?
He is the propitiation for our sins. He is Christ. How does he turn God’s anger into favor? Let’s let Scripture explain it.
- For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
- …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. (Romans 3:25)
- 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)
Jesus’ death in our place as our substitute was the satisfying offering to God that turned away his wrath toward us. Here is where the one true God is so different than the gods of man’s own making. They were fickle and unpredictable and there was no way to know if man’s offering was enough.
The truth is that we don’t make the offering that turns away God’s wrath. God himself makes the offering that turns away his own wrath. Here is the glory and wonder of the gospel and the cross. The one who is angry and offended personally pays the price to not simply satisfy his anger, but turn it into favor.
Jesus’ death was atonement for sin; his death was in our place and covered over our guilt before God. It completely removed the offense of God toward us which frees God to view us with favor. How much favor? He even adopted us as his own children.
Did you catch it? God propitiates his own wrath. Know anybody else like that? Will China pay off the US debt? Will any of the victims of Bernie Madoff personally pay his financial debts? When does the offended personally provide the means to take away his own offense? Only God. This is why he is love. Not that his love contradicts his wrath; his love provides the means to satisfy his own wrath and Jesus was that propitiation for our sins.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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Excellent and important explanation!