Bible Doctrine: Propitiation

The complexity of man’s need demanded a divine plan to meet it. The Bible declares man a sinner: a sinner by nature, practice, and choice. On account of sins, man needed forgiveness. His sin constituted him an enemy of God. To meet his need as the enemy of God, he required reconciliation. Man not only had sins and was at enmity with God, he was also guilty. In Romans, Paul proves the guilt of all mankind, whether viewed as a pagan living in the gutter of sin (ch1), an enlightened Gentile judging the man in the gutter (ch2), or a Jew in the synagogue (ch3). Paul writes, “We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles that they are all under sin (Rom 3:9), and “all have sinned” (3:23), so that all the world is guilty before God. Guilty man needs something more than remission and reconciliation. He needs justification to clear him of every charge and be pronounced righteous. The foundation of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justification is the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Man, as a guilty sinner, alienated from God, merited the wrath of God, but Christ, having endured the wrath of God upon sin, provided the basis in His sacrificial death at Calvary for man to be forgiven, reconciled, and justified.

Propitiation and Atonement

Propitiation is a NT word and is not found in the Old Testament. The OT equivalent is the word “atonement” which is found once in the AV in Romans 5:11. “Through our Lord Jesus Christ we have now received the atonement.” Greek scholars have pointed out that the word should be translated “reconciliation.”

Some have seen an immense distinction between atonement and propitiation; the present writer would not go that far. Atonement is the OT equivalent to propitiation in the NT. A careful study of the usage of the Hebrew word translated “atonement” will help us to see the importance of the word. It is used in connection with the offerings in Leviticus. When an Israelite brought his burnt offering, it was offered on the brazen altar and “was accepted for him to make atonement for him.” When a sin or trespass offering was brought, it was to make atonement for him and, in virtue of his sin offering, his sin was forgiven.

On Israel’s Day of Atonement, the blood of the sin offering met God’s claims and atonement, or, in NT language, propitiation was made with respect to the nation’s sin and uncleanness. God could now continue dwelling among them, albeit only for a year, when the procedure would be repeated. The evidence that the blood-sprinkled mercy seat had met the claims of God was when Aaron laid both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, confessing all their iniquities and transgressions. The sin-laden scapegoat was then led away into an uninhabited land, never to be seen again. Against this background, the publican in Luke 18:13 smiting his breast cried, “God be merciful (propitious) to me the sinner.”

Propitiation – Its Meaning Established

First, it is important to observe the NT references to the word “propitiation.” We have already drawn attention to the prayer of the publican, and observed that the word “merciful” can be equally translated, “God be propitious to me the sinner.” Paul declares “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood” (Rom 3:25), or, as it could be rendered, “through faith in the virtue of His blood.” The writer of the Hebrew epistle, explaining the reasons that necessitated the humanity of Christ the Son of God, writes, “wherefore it behoved Him in all things to be made like unto His brethren, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God and to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17, JND). The word “reconcile” in the AV is misleading. Sins can never be reconciled unto God; it is people who are reconciled to God, not sins.

The word “propitiation” occurs twice in 1 John. In chapter 2:2, it is used in connection with any one of God’s children committing a sin. Christ, now upon the throne, is “the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” In 4:10, against the background of God’s love for us, we read, “God sent forth His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Putting together the statements in the epistles regarding propitiation we have three important truths set before us.

The Work of Propitiation Explained

The Lord Jesus accomplished the work of propitiation on the cross when He offered Himself to God: “How much more shall the blood of Christ who offered Himself through the eternal Spirit without spot to God purge your conscience” (Heb 9:14). “But now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). The writer also draws attention to the fact that it was Christ as high priest Who made propitiation for the sins of the people, taking our minds back to the Day of Atonement, and indicating that the work was a priestly work, for it was Aaron, Israel’s high priest, who alone officiated on that day. The propitiatory sacrifice of Christ has not merely appeased God, but has given to God the satisfaction His holiness demanded.

The Place of Propitiation Identified

The word the apostle uses for propitiation in Romans 3:25 can equally be rendered mercy seat. God told Moses concerning the mercy seat, “there will I meet with thee and I will commune with thee above the mercy seat” (Exo 25: 21, 22). Paul, in selecting this word, indicates that, with the work of propitiation accomplished by Christ in His sacrificial and vicarious death on the cross, God’s holiness has been eternally satisfied.

We cannot overstate the importance of God’s complete satisfaction in Christ and His propitiatory sacrifice accomplished at Calvary. On that basis alone there is provided a meeting place for man to meet with God.

The Person Who is the Propitiation

The apostle John in his first epistle establishes that Christ now on the throne in heaven is Himself the Propitiation (2:2). What Christ is always gives character to what He does. In this passage it is propitiation as having been accomplished by Christ. The apostle states one reason for writing this epistle: “these things write I unto you that ye sin not.” He then takes into account the possibility of a believer committing sin, so he introduces the subject of Jesus Christ The Righteous being our Advocate. On the basis of His righteousness, and being the Propitiation for our sins, John shows He is fully qualified to be our Advocate with the Father.

As Mediator, the man Christ Jesus comes between God and Man, and guarantees reconciliation to God. As High Priest in heaven, He intercedes for, and sympathizes with, His people. As Advocate, it is His presence in heaven with the Father. He is always our Advocate, whether we fail or not. The Apostle John considers the possibility of a believer falling into a sin when he writes, “If we sin.” Failure on the part of the believer does not break off our relationship with the Father. He is still our Father. The eternal efficacy of the Lord’s propitiatory death is ever before the eye of God and on this ground He acts as our Advocate to effect restoration of communion with the Father. The meaning of the word Advocate is to “come alongside of.” In times of failure, our Advocate comes alongside to help and, if necessary, to bring an awareness that a sin has been committed, and to bring us to confession. The word Advocate is a legal term, one that is used in a court of justice with respect to the counsel for the defense. “Not that the Lord is in heaven pleading our case before His Father, but rather, He is the Propitiation, that is sufficient as far as the Father is concerned to put into effect what is required for restoration to communion with Him” (W. E. Vine).

The Motivating Power in Propitiation

The subject is taken up again by the apostle John in 4:10: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” What a climax to this glorious doctrine of propitiation! God loved us, and in His love sent His Son as the propitiation. In this verse, the emphasis is on the Lord Jesus Himself being the propitiatory sacrifice through whom God can now show mercy and bring us into communion and, when necessary, through some failure, restore us to communion with Himself.

The Practical Application

“Beloved if God so loved us, we ought to love one another” (4:11).

Nothing should change or diminish this exhortation to “love one another.”