Propitiation means “averting the wrath of God by the offering of a gift.” It refers to the turning away of the wrath of God as the just judgment of our sin by God’s own provision of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Although some object to propitiation as a pagan notion of appeasing an irascible deity with bribes and gifts, the idea in the Bible is very different. Because of our sin and rebellion against God, our original communion with God has been disrupted, and our persons and lives deserve judgment. The wrath of God in the Bible is the expression of his holiness in the face of our sin. Wrath is what our sin and rebellion justly deserve. Even though God is a God of infinite love, he does not show mercy at the expense of his justice, so propitiation is the way that the loving God shows us mercy justly. In the Bible, propitiation is not something that we provide to God to get right with him again; it is something that God provides to us that we may be justly and mercifully forgiven and accepted, and he does this at his own expense through the loving gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Nor is Jesus on the cross, as our propitiation, trying to get his angry Father to love us. No, not at all. He is on the cross because the Father has loved us before the foundation of the world and has given him as the expression of his love. Christ’s death is the means for his saving purposes to be the propitiation we need in order to be reconciled to God. In other words, what God requires, God himself provides in Christ. And Christ willingly undertakes his work as propitiator (the one who offers the gift of propitiation) and propitiation (the gift of propitiation itself). He is, by his own choice and for our sake, priest and sacrifice, mediator, and gift.
Propitiation refers to the turning away of the wrath of God as the just judgment of our sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. “Propitiation is used in the New Testament to describe the pacifying, placating, or appeasing of God’s wrath” (Kevin DeYoung). The idea of propitiation is unpopular in our own time for at least two reasons: (1) it inherently entails the idea of God’s wrath and (2) the corresponding idea of the necessity of mollifying that wrath. It is objected that these ideas are sub-Christian and pagan.
The 20th century New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd, for instance, famously objected to both these ideas, claiming that the idea of God’s wrath in the Bible is an impersonal process of cause and effect. We sin and there are consequences, and God simply leaves us to “stew in our own juices.” He also argued that in the Bible the word-group hilasterion/hilasmos does not mean “propitiation” (to appease God’s wrath) but rather “expiation” (to cover our sin). But the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church admits: “The general meaning of the word is the appeasing of the wrath of the Deity by prayer or sacrifice when a sin or offence has been committed against Him. The word occurs three times in the AV, in connection with the death of Christ (Rom 3:25; 1Jn 2:2; 4:10; to which RV adds Heb 2:17). Such a translation accurately represents the meaning in classical Greek of the words used (hilasterion, hilasmos).”1
While it is easy to caricature the biblical teaching on propitiation—an irascible deity throwing a temper tantrum and demanding that we come up with some sort of sacrifice to appease him (which, of course, does indeed happen in paganism)—the actual teaching of Scripture is nothing like that. Before we look at some key passages, consider four big picture issues.
- In the Bible, God’s wrath is about his righteousness, justice, and holiness. It is an expression of his perfect holy nature in the just indictment of serious human sin and moral depravity. People destroy other people’s lives (and their own) by sin. God is not indifferent to that. His wrath is his righteous response. He hates sin, and rightly so.
- In the Bible, God is always the one who provides the sacrifice—the propitiation that we need. People do not come up with a strategy to manipulate and placate God with a sacrifice of our own choosing. In love, God provides to and for us precisely what his own justice demands so that his righteous wrath is addressed, and his mercy to us is just.
- The background for propitiation is seen in the Old Testament covenant ceremonies and in the sacrificial system. The bloodshed in those rites represented what sin deserved. When God ratified his covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, animals were slaughtered as part of an oath of self-malediction (calling down a curse upon oneself if one is unfaithful). The slaughtered animals represented what unfaithfulness deserved: death. And in the Mosaic sacrificial system, God explicitly explains: “I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev 17:11). That is, God—knowing that his people would sin and break his law—in love and grace provided blood sacrifice in order to turn away his just judgment from falling on them, assure his continued fellowship with them, and cover their sin in his sight.
- In the New Testament—especially the book of Hebrews—it is made clear that Jesus is the real sacrifice. The Old Testament animal sacrifices were ineffectual. They could not quit God’s wrath or provide pardon for sin: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). “But Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12). Both propitiation (of God’s righteous wrath) and expiation (covering of our sins) are part of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrificial death on the cross.
With these things in mind, we will examine four important texts: Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:22, and 1 John 4:10. Each will confirm that hilasterion should be understood as propitiation while correcting misunderstandings of the significance of the term.
In this great passage, Paul is explaining the glorious truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and speaks of “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (hilasterion) by his blood, to be received by faith.” Notice, we did not put forward Jesus to God to turn away his wrath. God put forward Jesus to provide a propitiation. Our sins deserved God’s wrath, but he gave Jesus as a propitiation, a sacrifice turning away his wrath and appeasing his just indignation. All we do is receive it by faith!
God publicly displayed his own dear Son as a blood-sacrifice to turn away, quit, and satisfy his own just indignation with sin, the benefits of which are received by faith. This stunning action demonstrates God’s righteousness in his mercy! It shows how he can be patient and forbearing without compromising his justice. It shows how he was able to pass over the sins of his people in the Old Testament and why he was able to allow the sins of the Gentiles to go on without immediate final divine judgment and still be perfectly righteous.
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation (hilaskethai) for the sins of the people.” Here again, the priestly, saving work of Christ is depicted as propitiation, which the ESV Study Bible note says: “conveys the sense of an atoning sacrifice that puts away sin and satisfies God’s wrath (cf. Deut 21:8; Ps 25:11; 65:3; 78:38; 79:9; Luke 18:13).” Kent Hughes provides a powerful explanation of how this all works here in Hebrews 2:
When people sin, they arouse the wrath of God (Rom 1:18) and become enemies of God (Rom 5:10). The Old and New Testaments reveal an utterly holy God whose holy nature demands wrath against all sin. Wrath is the reverse side of his holiness. God cannot set aside his wrath toward our sin and remain holy.
This is where the propitiating love of God comes in. To obtain our salvation for us, God himself met the demands of his holiness in Christ, which, because of the oneness of the Trinity, means he met the demands of his holiness himself. He has, in a manner of speaking, propitiated himself in our place!
Thus, we see that God, through Christ, our priestly propitiator, has done everything for us. Paul speaks of this in Romans 3:24, 25 where he describes believers as “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 . . . ” (NASB).
Christ, our perfect priestly propitiator, saved us in a way that kept God’s holiness (indeed Christ’s holiness) intact. Revelation speaks of his righteous wrath as “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 6:16). What love this perfect priest had for the storm-tossed church! They were in deep waters, but they were not under God’s wrath, nor would they ever be again. Their troubled hearts rejoiced that Christ, their priest, loved them so much that he propitiated his own terrible wrath for them. Such a priest would do anything and everything consonant with his loving nature to meet their needs. We must never be fooled or disbelieve this, no matter how high the waters rise.2
1 John 2:2
In this beautiful passage, John says this about Jesus Christ, our Advocate: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” John is pointing us to the person and work of Christ as the source of our strength and hope and ultimate victory over sin. Indeed, in verses 1–2, he specifies three aspects of Christ’s person and work: Jesus our Advocate, Jesus as righteous, and Jesus as propitiation. It is vital to understand that the picture is not Jesus pleading with his Father to be loving and merciful to us. Jesus is not trying to get God to love his people; rather, he is the provision of the loving Father so that he can love and his people with perfect rectitude and justice. One writer says: “The case is not that of love pleading with justice, but justice pleading with love for our pardon” (Findlay).
But what we want to concentrate on is verse 2: “He is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins. Again, “to propitiate” means “to satisfy the wrath of God against sin,” “to turn away God’s wrath,” or “to offer a sacrifice that appeases God’s just judgment and righteous anger against us and our sin.” And note, Jesus is not simply “the propitiator” but the “propitiation.” He is what satisfies the justice of God. The term points to Jesus as covenantal sacrifice and to what the effect of his death was, what it effectively—not just potentially—accomplished.
John is teaching us this here so that we understand that Christ’s person and work are (1) the ground of our fight against sin, (2) the source from which our holiness flows, and (3) the basis on which our forgiveness rests. As a result, those who trust in Christ are not frozen or paralyzed in the admission of their sin or hopeless in the fight against it. Christians are able to deal realistically and hopefully with sin because of who Jesus is and what he does. He is Advocate, Righteous, and Propitiation.
1 John 4:10
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (hilasmon) for our sins.” Here John, like Paul in Romans 3:25, makes it crystal clear that God in love provides his Son as the propitiation we need. The Christian doctrine of propitiation is not that of our trying to get God to love and forgive us by placating him by a sacrifice that we take the initiative to bring to him. No, not at all. Instead, God takes the initiative toward us in love—even though we have betrayed him and rebelled against him—and provides for us precisely the propitiation we need. It is another John 3:16-like passage. John’s argument in verses 9–11 is that God has shown the world his love in sending his own Son on a deadly mission to give us life. And God’s love for us is supremely manifested in the cross Christ as Jesus provides propitiation. In response, we ought to love one another in in this kind of costly, self-giving way. In other words, John’s pastoral application of the truth of propitiation is that the measure of how we are to love one another is in the self-giving of the Father in the gift of his Son.
- Kevin DeYoung, Salvation by Propitiation, The Gospel Coalition, April 16, 2019.
- Leon Morris is the modern evangelical master of this doctrine, read everything that you can get your hands on by him on this topic.
- Leon Morris, Propitiate; Propitiation. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (3:1004–5). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–1988.
- Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955.
- Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
- Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984.
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