In general terms, “Atonement” in the Old Testament is the equivalent of “Propitiation” in the New Testament. It will therefore be helpful and important to attempt to define both of these words and to see how they relate to each other. Our main consideration in this article relates to the New Testament. Atonement is from the Hebrew word, “Kaphar.” It means “to cover.” The first use of it is found in Genesis regarding the ark, “pitch it within and without with pitch” (6.14). The word for “pitch” is “Kaphar” – to cover. It also carries the meaning, “to placate or appease.” It is used like this in its second use in Genesis, “I will appease him” (32.20). It is also used for cleansing, mercy, pardon, and forgiveness, but the majority of uses in the OT. are generally of making sacrificial atonement for sin by means of the shedding and application of blood. In respect to the latter, we should note there was one particular day in Israel’s calendar which was named the “Day of Atonement,” in which the claims of God against the sin of the nation were met under the terms of God’s own prescription. This involved sacrifice, shedding and application of blood.
Jehovah had plainly stated His desire to dwell amongst His people (Ex 25:8), and that He would commune with them from “above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim” (Ex 25:22). On the Day of Atonement, blood was to be sprinkled once a year (Lev 16:34), on and before the mercy seat (vv.14-15). Under the Mercy Seat was the Golden Ark, and within it three articles spoken of in Hebrews 9:4. A quick view of the first reference to each of these, will show that they were associated with three of Israel’s greatest national sins, but on the Day of Atonement each year they were seen to be under the blood. They were covered. On that day there were three particular requirements to enable atonement to be made: (1) There must be a Mercy Seat, (2) a sacrifice and (3) a priest. All three are spoken of in the teaching of Leviticus 16 and 23.
Propitiation is from the Greek word “hilasmos.” While it carries the same thoughts as mentioned above, it goes beyond them in including the idea of “satisfaction.” Its use in the New Testament is restricted to three main contexts.
1. Romans 3:25. The argument in this epistle has developed to the point where “all the world” has been declared “guilty before God” (v.21). The righteousness gained by law is shown to be of no avail because of man’s inability to keep to its standard. The writer then shows that God has made a righteousness available to all mankind which is quite apart from the keeping of law. It is “by the faith of (in) Jesus Christ.” It is also shown that this was not an afterthought with God, because previous witness to it had been given in the law and the prophets. It was ever in the mind of God that His Son would shed His blood and die for sin. The basis of justification lies in the redemptive price paid; God has been satisfied, all His claims have been fully met. It becomes available to man by faith. Thus, “him which believeth in Jesus” is declared righteous by God Himself. This is legal imputation.
Just as on the Cross our sins were legally imputed to the Lord Jesus Christ, so God has ordained that those who have believed have a righteousness from God legally reckoned to them. This is justification. The form used here of the word “propitiation” refers to the actual “mercy seat.” He is the mercy seat, i.e. the whole work is embodied in His own person.
2. John 2:2; 4:10. In both of these references the word “propitiation” refers to the actual sacrifice and its atoning value. In the closing verses from 1 John 1 it has been shown that it is still possible for the believer to sin, and to say that we have no sin is to deceive ourselves. The way to maintain our spiritual freshness and communion is to be aware of our failings, and whenever we have sinned, to confess it. This immediately gains for us forgiveness from the Father and also cleansing from the defilement which the wrong act has brought. Lest it be thought that this teaching gives divine license for sinning, a most important statement is now made: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” This shows clearly that it is not the will of God that we live our lives habitually sinning. The apostle goes on to teach what happens from the divine side when a believer does sin. “We have an advocate with the Father . . .And He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). The work of the advocate is legal. Only He can plead our cause and that because He Himself is the propitiatory offering made once for all at Calvary In the Old Testament the gaze of God was constantly upon the blood which had been sprinkled on and before the mercy seat where He dwelt. But today His gaze is upon the Man who bears the scars of Calvary. Thus when a believer fails, the internal paraclete brings conviction of sin within, and so we make confession of it. But at the very moment we sin, the work of advocacy is invoked by our external paraclete, even before confession has been made. Our union with Christ is never broken because of the constant work of advocacy, but our communion is broken when we sin, and is restored when we confess it.
3. Hebrews 2:17. In this chapter the writer has been giving reasons why our Lord Jesus Christ became man at incarnation. The last reason given is that it was to fit Him for priesthood. He was “made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest. . .to make reconciliation (propitiation) for the sins of the people.” Here then, the emphasis is upon the Priest who made the propitiation. In the OT. the priest took the blood into the sanctuary and sprinkled the blood upon the mercy seat, but the whole procedure had to be repeated the next year again. The work of our blessed Lord was so complete that it need never be repeated. He did not carry blood into heaven but His wounds bear eternal evidence to His finished work.
Propitiation and Substitution
A failure to distinguish between these two important scriptural truths has resulted in doctrinal misunderstanding of the atoning work of Christ. As we have considered, “propitiation” is the sacrificial work of Christ Godward. There is no limitation whatever here. There was sufficient atoning value in the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary to meet the need of all, and also to meet every effect of the Fall. In millennial days, the curse will be removed from every aspect of creation because of the blood of Christ. Thus we read, “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). It is therefore quite unscriptural to teach a limited atonement. “Substitution” is the sacrificial work of Christ Manward. In strict accuracy, only the born again believer can say “He took my place” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Substitution is a truth for the saint to enjoy, and propitiation a truth for the saint to declare to the sinner.