Thomas McKenzie
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Propitiation

Propitiation
All of the following are from the New American Standard, Updated

Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
--Hebrews 2:17

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
--Romans 3:21-24

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
--1 John 2:1-2

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
--1 John 4:10

Generally speaking, I read the “Today’s New International Version.” This is the version of the Bible we use in worship in our church. I like it for a lot of reasons. However, it is guilty of a significant mistranslation. This is a problem that you will also find in many modern versions of the Bible. They tend to leave out the word “propitiation.”

This word is found only four times in the New Testament, and is the best possible translation of a Greek word “hilastērion.” It is based on an Old Testament Hebrew word that has to do with animal sacrifices in the Temple.

Propitiation has two intertwined meanings. On one hand it is a sacrifice that removes or cancels sin. On the other hand, it is a sacrifice that turns aside God’s righteous anger.

No other word in the Bible communicates both of these concepts together, as they are meant to be communicated in the four amazing sections of the New Testament I quote above (from three different authors). What it means is that the sacrifice of Christ removed our sins from us. That is a concept some of us are familiar with. But the sacrifice of Christ also removed God’s anger from us. And that is something we are not comfortable with, but is deeply freeing.

Many people are not interested in a God who would be angry with sin. However, the God of the Bible hates sin. Why? Because sin destroys that which he loves. Sin is the home-invader who comes in and kills the family and torches the house. Sin kills people, communities, relationships, and all of creation. God, who is just and faithful, hates sin.

The problem is that his beloved children cling to sin. So what does God do? On the one hand, he removes the sin from us through the sacrifice of Christ. But then he also turns his own anger away. He is justly wrathful against sinners! Because we destroy that which he loves, he has every right to be angry with us. But, because of Christ, this just anger is turned away.

So, why do I love this concept? It means that God my Father looks upon me with kindness and compassion, never anger. It means that God is not looking to punish me, because Jesus has received my punishment. I do not need to be afraid of God. Should I fear God in the sense of “respect and honor” him? Absolutely. But fear God in the sense of wondering if he is going to hurt me? Never.

Notice in the verses above that propitiation is mentioned in the context of God’s love. Propitiation does not make God love us. God loves us, and so he sacrifices himself on our behalf. Propitiation shows us the depth of his vast love for us.

Is this the only way to understand the Cross? Heck no. It is one of many. But it is important, because it frees us from fear. I could go on and on, so I guess I’m going to have to preach on this. But let me leave you with some thoughts from some great theologians on the idea of propitiation.

“Propitiation does not make God gracious...God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us"
--John Stott, The Cross of Christ p.174

“Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us”.
--John Calvin, Institutes II 16:4

“No doubt it is true that the subject of divine wrath has in the past been handled speculatively, irreverently, even malevolently. No doubt there have been some who have preached of wrath and damnation with tearless eyes and not pain in their hearts. No doubt the sign of small sects cheerfully consigning the whole world, apart from themselves, to hell has disgusted many. Yet if we would know God, it is vital that we face the truth concerning his wrath, however unfashionable it may be, and however strong our initial prejudices against it. Otherwise we shall not understand the gospel of salvation from wrath, nor the propitiatory achievement of the cross, nor the wonder of the redeeming love of God”
--J. I. Packer, Knowing God, page 156

“Has the word propitiation any place in your Christianity? In the faith of the New Testament it is central. The love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, the way of salvation–all are to be explained in terms of it…and any explanation from which the thought of propitiation is missing will be incomplete, and indeed actually misleading, by New Testament standards”
--J. I. Packer, Knowing God, page 181


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