The concept of propitiation, prevalent among the ancient Greeks, is really the basis of many pagan religions all over the world. Don Richardson, in his book Lords of the Earth, tells how the elders of a heathen tribe in Irian Jaya (now Papua, Indonesia) with heavy hearts hurled a little girl into the rushing Heluk River. She had innocently wandered into the “Holy Place” of Kembu, a god whose wrath was evident to them from the unrelenting rains they were receiving. They thought their only solution was to sacrifice the child to Kembu in order to turn away his wrath and regain his favor. They sought to propitiate this false god by sacrificing the girl.
Biblical propitiation is quite different from this. While the scriptural meaning of propitiation signifies the turning away of God’s wrath, the means by which this is accomplished is quite contrary to that of the Greek or pagan religions.
The Bible declares in Romans 3:25, “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, through the forbearance of God.” The Greek word hilasterion, translated here “propitiation,” speaks of a provision for turning away wrath; a provision for mercy. The same Greek word is translated “merciful” in Luke 18:13 where the publican cried, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It was used among the Greeks to signify their attempt to appease, or turn away the wrath of, their false gods by an offering or sacrifice.
We may summarize biblical propitiation like this: the sin of mankind brings on the wrath of a just and holy God, but God and not man took the initiative to turn away that wrath by sending His own Son to be the propitiation for our sins—a provision for turning away wrath. In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shedding of His blood, God is propitiated. His wrath is turned away from the sinner who believes in Christ because God’s own Son bore the full fury of that wrath at Calvary.
1. The Need of Propitiation
The need of propitiation is universal because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Because God is holy, He hates all sin. Because He hates all sin, His wrath burns against the sinner. Psalm 7:11 states that “God is angry with the wicked every day.” In Ephesians 2:3, Paul reminded the church at Ephesus that they were “by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
We must never forget that the holiness of God and the wrath of God are inseparable. God’s wrath is His utter intolerance of sin. As the prophet Habakkuk stated, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:13). God hates sin as a mother hates the disease that destroys the life of her child. The wrath of God is a necessary consequence and expression of His holiness. The wrath of God is the holiness of God stirred to action against sin. A proper understanding and appreciation of the love of God can only be realized as we see it against the backdrop of the holiness and wrath of God.
The Bible clearly teaches that all of us justly deserve the outpouring of God’s wrath. In the first part of the book of Romans, Paul goes to great length to prove that every person is under sin, subject to the wrath of God. A phrase in Romans 9:22 describes the plight of the human family: “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” Our great need is propitiation—the turning away of God’s wrath.
2. The Means of Propitiation
Propitiation is the work of God. There is nothing that man can do or offer to turn away God’s wrath. There is no sacrifice that we can give to God to turn away His wrath from us. But God is propitiated by His own initiative and action. He set forth Jesus Christ, Paul states in Romans 3:25, “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.”
If God were other than love, His passion for holiness and justice would vindicate the destruction of the human family. He would simply sweep us away as He did in the days of Noah. But thankfully, God is love. Ever since the fall of our first parents, God has been seeking reconciliation with the human family. Ever since God asked Adam, “Where art thou,” He has been seeking the salvation of sinners. God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Thus there is the holiness and justice of God which demands the punishment of the sinner, while on the other hand there is the love and mercy of God which seeks the reconciliation and salvation of the sinner. When we consider that one attribute of God is never exercised at the expense of another, the difficulty arises. How can a just God be consistent with His holy character, and yet be merciful to the sinner? God cannot simply overlook our sin and save us, for this would be a violation of His holiness and justice. It would be like a judge who lets a criminal go free without punishment. That simply is not justice. This seeming difficulty is solved in the infinite wisdom of God in that He set forth His own Son to be a propitiation—a provision whereby His holiness and justice are maintained and satisfied. Yet His mercy is extended to those who turn away from sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s great provision of propitiation through the death of His own Son is typified or pictured by the “mercy seat” in the Jewish tabernacle and temple. The word translated “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 is translated “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5. The Ark of the Covenant, kept in the Holy of Holies, was a chest that was overlaid with gold inside and out. The mercy seat covered the Ark of the Covenant. On top were two cherubim facing each other. Among other things, this Ark contained the Ten Commandments which, when broken, demanded the outpouring of God’s wrath upon sin. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies with the atoning blood from the sacrifice that had been slain, and sprinkled this blood on the mercy seat.
When God came down to meet His people in the Shekinah cloud over the Ark of the Covenant, He saw the blood-sprinkled mercy seat (on top) covering His holy Law (stored within). Thus His wrath was turned away from the people, because the righteous judgment or sentence of the Law had been ceremonially carried out in the death of an innocent substitute and the shedding of its blood. This mercy seat was God’s provision for mercy or the turning away of wrath under the old dispensation, dependent on its perfect fulfillment in the Person of Jesus Christ, Who is the one and only propitiation for sin. God is propitiated: His wrath is turned through faith in His blood.
In Romans 3:25-26, Paul states that the propitiation Christ provided at Calvary declares the righteousness and justice of God. At Calvary, the full extent of God’s wrath against sin was poured out on Christ, Who was made to be sin for us. Justice was completely satisfied, enabling God to righteously turn away His wrath from those who believe. At Calvary, redeeming love and divine justice came together. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalm 85:10)
A. Naismith, in A Treasury of Notes, Quotes & Anecdotes (Baker Book House, 1976), described how bribery and corruption were increasing among a group of people many years ago. Their leader, Schimmel, ruled that anyone convicted of bribery should receive 100 lashes on the bare back. The first offender was Schimmel’s own mother. Justice demanded that she be punished. But love sought her release. The people waited to see what Schimmel would do. Then came the sentence: “Take her to the whipping post.” Schimmel himself attended. After five strokes had descended on her back, Schimmel cried out, “Stop! Release her.” Then, stripping off his own shirt, he said, “I shall take the rest.” As his mother looked on, he took the remaining 95 strokes on his bare back. Justice was satisfied and love bore the brunt of the punishment.
However, at Calvary, “Jesus paid it all.” He took all the punishment. He bore the full extent of God’s wrath upon sin. I don’t think we can fully comprehend what that meant.
David Needham, in his book Close to His Majesty, points out that if you take a magnifying glass out in the bright sunlight and hold it at just the right distance to form a tiny circle of brilliant light in a pile of dry leaves, the leaves will begin to smoke and then burst into flames. That glass lens is able to gather the heat from all the rays of sunlight striking its surface and direct this combined sizzling intensity to that one spot.
Now picture the world—a globe covered with billions of people. Above it, like rays from the sun, the blinding intensity of God’s righteous judgment and wrath is bearing down upon the sinful human family. Then imagine a great magnifying glass, as wide as the world itself, placed in between, gathering all the intensity of that wrath and focusing it on one spot: Jesus Christ at Calvary. Jesus bore the wrath that should have fallen on the entire human family—including you and me. “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
3. The Effectiveness of Propitiation
The propitiation, provided by Christ at Calvary, is adequate for all. First John 2:2 says that Jesus Christ “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” In other words, the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ at Calvary is sufficient to turn away God’s wrath from every sinner. But it only becomes effective to those who repent and exercise genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Romans 1:16, Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” The word translated “believeth” is in the present tense, stressing that true saving faith is not a one time event, but a continuing reality. True saving faith will involve the submission of our will to Christ, and will always result in obedience and holy living.
For the believer, the propitiation provided by Christ at Calvary results in peace with God. This blessed reality may be illustrated by an incident which occurred many years ago when settlers were moving west across the expanding U.S. territory.
One day, after months on the trail, a weary group of travelers approached the top of a high hill and were met by a terrifying sight. A great wall of fire had engulfed the prairie in front of them and was rapidly racing in their direction. Escape was impossible; it appeared that they would all perish in the flames. But the leader of the expedition quickly turned his horse around and rode to the rear of the caravan. Hastily he ignited a fire in the dry grass behind them. The same wind that was blowing the advancing blaze toward them also began fanning the newly lit fire away from them. Eventually, the wagons were driven onto the burned-out area. As the heat and smoke from the approaching wall of fire became more intense, a little girl cried out, “Are you sure we’re safe?” “Oh yes,” said the wagon master. “We’re safe, because we’re standing where the fire has already passed.”
In the spiritual realm, those who are in Christ Jesus are standing where the fire has already passed. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The searing heat of God’s wrath upon sin swept Golgotha’s hill and fully engulfed the Lord Jesus. All the demands of God’s justice were met and satisfied when His wrath was poured out on Jesus, Who became sin for us.
If God did not spare His own Son when He was made to be sin for us, it is certain that God’s wrath will someday be poured out on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. John 3:36 says, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” In Romans 2:5, Paul writes of hard and unrepentant souls storing up wrath against that future “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
When the great ocean liner, the Titanic, went down in 1912, two lists were posted in the home office. One said “lost” and the other said “saved.” What a difference those two words made in the eyes of the anxious beholders. You know, we too are either lost or saved. There is no other category, and it’s urgent that we make certain we appear on the list of those who are saved from the wrath of God.
4. The Ministry of Propitiation
My great-great-grandparents experienced a house fire which broke out on February 10, 1865. Some of their children were in the upper floors of the house at the time. The older sister was able to escape to the outside. As the fire increased in intensity, the sons living in the upper floors managed to get onto the roof. As I remember the story, the older sister pleaded with her brothers to jump to safety. A few jumped and were saved. But 8-year-old Lewis decided to go back into the house in hopes of finding another way of escape. He perished in that fire. Imagine how passionate the older sister became as she earnestly pleaded with her brothers to jump to safety.
Just as the older sister was passionate about saving the lives of her siblings, so the Apostle Paul was passionate about saving lost souls from the fire of God’s wrath. In Philippians 1:12, Paul penned these words, “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.”
Paul was concerned about the progress, or advance, of the gospel. The word translated “furtherance” comes from two Greek words which literally mean, “cut forward.” This word was used of a pioneer cutting his way forward through the underbrush. Paul was always concerned with how his circumstances might involve spreading the gospel. When Paul penned these words to the church at Philippi, he was unjustly imprisoned in Rome, awaiting his trial before Caesar. In spite of his circumstances, he was concerned with how his imprisonment might result in the salvation of lost souls. In Acts 22, when assailed by an angry mob, he used the opportunity to preach the gospel. In Acts 26, when Paul’s criminal proceedings took him before King Agrippa, he shared the plan of salvation. Even when shipwrecked on an island, he used that opportunity to share the good news of salvation there. Regardless of his circumstances, Paul used his current situation to tell others about the good news of salvation. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 he stated, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” This does not mean Paul compromised the truth, but that he was willing to endure any inconvenience to himself, so that he might by all means save some.
This statement raises the question: “Save others from what?” The most straightforward answer is given in Romans 5:9: “Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” Of all Paul’s uses of the word “save” in his letters, this is the one place where he tells us explicitly what we are saved from. When we yield our lives to Christ, we are saved from the wrath of God. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote that Jesus “delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Paul was passionate about saving others from the wrath to come.
How is it with us? Do we share Paul’s passion for souls? Are our lives a testimony to the transforming power of the gospel? In Philippians 1:27, Paul exhorted us, “Only let your conversation [your conduct, your manner of living] be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” Are we specifically praying for the salvation of the lost?
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life.” (Philippians 2:14-16a)
Dr. A. J. Gordon once said, “I have long ago ceased to pray, ‘Lord Jesus, have compassion on a lost world,’ for the Lord seemed to say to me, ‘I have had compassion on a lost world. I gave my life. Now it is time for you to have compassion on it. I have given My heart. Now give your heart.’”