There are many biblical ways to describe Christian salvation.
Salvation can be understood ritually as a sacrifice, as the expiation of guilt through the death of Christ on the cross.
Salvation can be understood commercially as redemption, as a payment made through the blood of Christ for the debt we owe because of sin.
Salvation can be understood relationally as reconciliation, as the coming together of estranged parties by means of Christ’s at-one-ment.
Salvation can be understood legally as justification, as the declaration that sins have been forgiven and that the sinner stands blameless before God because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
There is, of course, more that can be said about salvation. But each description above captures something important about the nature of Christ’s saving work.
And each description holds together because the death of Christ is—not over and above these images, but inherent and essential to these images—a propitiation.
Propitiation is used in the New Testament to describe the pacifying, placating, or appeasing of God’s wrath. The easiest way to remember the term is that in propitiation God is made pro-us. Unlike expiation, propitiation has a relational component to it. Christ’s death not only removed the moral stain of sin; it also removed the personal offense of sin.
The English word propitiation comes from the hilasmos word group in Greek and almost always refers in the ancient world (when applied to God) to appeasing or averting divine anger. The root word is used several times in the New Testament—as hilasmos (1 John 2:2; 4:10), as hilaskomai (Heb. 2:17; Luke 18:13), and as hilasterion (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:5). The term is clearly a biblical word and a biblical concept.
Over the years, many have objected to propitiation, arguing that notions of God’s anger are not befitting a God of love. Critics think propitiation makes God rather like some petty, blood-thirsty pagan deity who must be bought off with a bribe. But God’s wrath is not arbitrary and capricious; it is part of his immutable justice and holiness. In the Old Testament there are more than 20 different words used to express Yahweh’s wrath, totaling more than 580 occurrences. And with John the Baptist’s warning about the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7), Jesus’s declaration that wrath remains on the unbelieving sinner (John 3:36), and John’s imagery of the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16), we cannot make the New Testament a “good cop” to the Old Testament’s supposed “bad cop.”
The wrath of the biblical God is distinct from the peeved god of the pagans in at least three ways.
(1) The God of the Bible is eternal and immutable, never losing his temper, flying off the handle, or judging his creatures capriciously.
(2) The God of the Bible is not appeased by a bribe, but by his own blood (Acts 20:28).
(3) The God of the Bible, though justly angry with sin and with sinners, nevertheless sent his Son to be our propitiatory sacrifice out of love. The death of Christ did not make God love us. The electing love of God planned for the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. “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). The God who has always been for us in eternity sent his Son in time to be the wrath-absorbing sacrifice that we might enjoy peace with God for ages unending.
Leon Morris beautiful describes propitiation in his classic work The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross:
Propitiation is understood as springing from the love of God. Among the heathen, propitiation was thought of as an activity whereby the worshiper was able himself to provide that which would induce a change of mind in the deity.
In plain language he bribed his god to be favourable to him. When the term was taken over into the Bible these unworthy and crude ideas were abandoned, and only the central truth expressed by the term was retained, namely that propitiation signifies the averting of wrath by the offering of a gift. But in both Testaments the thought is plain that the gift which secures the propitiation is from God Himself. He provides the way whereby men may come to Him.
Thus the use of the concept of propitiation witnesses to two great realities, the one, the reality and seriousness of the divine reaction against sin, and the other, the reality and the greatness of the divine love which provided the gift which should avert the wrath from me.
Because of this propitious gift, our sins can be removed, our debt can be paid, our relationship restored, and our legal status irrevocable altered. Jesus Christ is our righteous advocate (1 John 2:1), the one who turns away the wrath of God that was justly against us. And he does so—wonderfully and freely—not by pleading our innocence, but by presenting his bloody work on our behalf, so that in him we who were deserving of nought but judgment, might become the very righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).