Great Gospel Words: Propitiation

Remission (forgiveness) looks back at our former life, at our sins. Redemption also looks back at our former life, but primarily at the bondage in which we were held, but from which we were released because of the price that was paid. Justification looks back, forensically, and sees us cleared from every charge that was against us. Reconciliation looks outward from God to man, and is a proffer of repairing a relationship. Propitiation looks upwardto God and to the satisfaction of all His claims. All these great words look backward to Calvary. In remission we see a sending away of our sins. In redemption there is a severance of the bondage. In reconciliation we have the status of the relationship changed, from enmity to access. In justification, the standing of the believer before God is paramount. In sanctification we have a setting apart by God and for God. In propitiation we have the satisfaction of all the righteous claims of God.

The Proper Perception of a God of Love and Light 

The heathen concept was that the god or gods they believed in were gods of wrath who needed to be placated by offerings if any blessings were to be received from them. Their god needed to be appeased so they might thus be delivered from his anger. They did not have an accurate perception of the God revealed in the Bible. Similarly today, theologians who present a view of a God Who does not require a payment for sin are not presenting accurately the God Who has revealed Himself in the Bible. God is a God of love, mercy, grace, and peace. But He is also a God of holiness and righteousness. His righteousness requires that sin be punished. John, in his first epistle, presents the character of God when he says, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8, 16). But he also presents the character of God when he writes, “God is Light” (1 John 1:5). His character as Light speaks to us of His intrinsic holiness and righteousness. His righteousness requires that justice be taken against sin. Is there a meeting place where God’s character as Love and His character as Light can both be satisfied?

The Pictures of Propitiation 

It is interesting that in the construction of the tabernacle, Moses was given instruction first concerning the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:9-10). The ark was to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold within and without. When the ark was constructed, with its crown, rings, and staves, the testimony, consisting of the tables of stone, was placed inside it. This reminds us of the words of the Lord Jesus, “I delight to do Thy will, O My God; yea Thy law is within My heart” (Psalm 40:8, Hebrews 10:7). When the ark was completed, there was placed upon it the mercy-seat, which was also called the propitiatory. At each end of the mercy-seat was a cherub of beaten gold overshadowing the mercy-seat; their faces were toward each other and toward the mercy seat. Notice the divine pronouncement: “There I will meet with thee and will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat” (Ex 25:22). Atonement could only be made by blood sprinkled upon the meeting-place, the mercy-seat.

The Purposes of a Gracious God 

The first use of the word “propitiation” or of its cognates in the New Testament is found in the parable of Luke 18:9-14. When the penitent publican prayed, “God be merciful to me, the sinner,” he was using the word “hilaskomai” – be propitious to me! He was asking God to show mercy to him but only on the ground of a sacrifice. He went down to his house justified! Why? He knew that justification could only be based on a sacrifice; that is, on propitiation.

The second use in the New Testament of the word propitiation (hilasterion) is in Romans 3:21-26.”But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested … being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past … that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”

In the text we notice blended together the words, “justification, redemption, grace, remission, and propitiation.” Notice first the expression “righteousness of God.” This does not refer to His divine attribute of righteousness but rather to the means whereby He declares the sinner righteous. Notice that this righteousness is “by faith of Jesus Christ.” Second, notice the word “redemption.” The price has been paid and the release from bondage has been effected. Thirdly, notice the word “propitiation.” You could substitute the word “mercy-seat,” or the word “satisfaction.” He is a propitiatory because all the demands of God judicially were satisfied by the redemptive price that He paid on Calvary. God can meet with and commune with sinners. The Revised Version is correct when it translates, “Whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by His blood.” The faith is in the Person. God can freely forgive, justify, and reconcile, on the basis of faith alone, but solely on the ground of the blood. The word for remission in our text is not the ordinary one so translated but is rather “paresis” – the passing over of sins committed aforetime – that is, the sins of Old Testament saints. Calvary was yet in the future so they were saved on credit. At the present time, God is just and the Justifier of him that believers in Jesus. When we read the expression, “to declare at this time His righteousness,” we are no doubt seeing His action in justifying the sinner, but also His attribute of righteousness. The purposes of a God Who is both love and light are both fulfilled in Christ Who died.

The Pedagogy in the Words 

The word propitiation is found in four other places in the New Testament. In Hebrews 2:17 the word is “hilaskomai,” and should be translated “propitiation” and not “reconciliation.” In Hebrews 9:5, we read, “and over it the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy-seat.” The word “mercy-seat” is the same as in Romans 3:25. It was God’s meeting place. We have the word only two times more. In 1 John 2:2, we read, “And He is the propitiation for our sins” Later, John wrote, “He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). In John’s writings we could accurately substitute the word “satisfaction.” God is satisfied. All His claims were met at Calvary. His essential purposes of being just and the Justifier are possible because of Jesus, the Righteous, the Redeemer, the Reconciler, and the Propitiator.