What is the difference between atonement and propitiation?
Atonement and propitiation are related ideas, but with important differences, the most obvious being that they are Old and New Testament concepts, respectively. The Hebrew words kapar or kipur, meaning ‘to cover’, occur over 100 times in the Old Testament, and are mostly translated as ‘atonement’.1,2 The Greek word hilasmos and its derivatives are translated as ‘propitiation’, and occur five times in the New Testament.3 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, hilasmos is used to translate the Hebrew word kipur, indicating that these two ideas are related.4 Atonement can be considered as an Old Testament picture of the New Testament truth of propitiation but with built-in limitations to emphasize the infinite work of Christ on the cross.
Behind both words is the thought of presenting a gift to appease someone who is angry. For example, Jacob uses the word kapar to describe his actions in sending elaborate gifts to placate his brother Esau, whom he had wronged several decades earlier, Gen. 32. 20. The idea of appeasement in relation to God, however, needs further clarification. Throughout the centuries, heathen nations ignorantly viewed their gods as unpredictable and volatile dictators who needed placating with gifts to avert their wrath. As the Bible reveals, God is personally offended, and angered by sin. He is judge of the world, demanding justice and requiring judgement to be administered. Yet, His wrath is based on His unchanging righteousness. Our God is not volatile, but longsuffering, 2 Pet. 3. 9. His desire is for humanity to draw near in a loving relationship.
In the Old Testament, God provided to Moses a powerful object lesson of how Israel could approach Him on a righteous basis. God gave instructions for a tabernacle to be built, a unique structure enabling Him to dwell amongst His people, Israel. On setting up the tabernacle, however, Moses found he could not even enter because of the overwhelming glory of God, as He took up residence, Exod. 40. 35. Immediately, God provided the answer through a series of animal sacrifices that could be offered, Lev. 1-7. These animals provided atonement, or a covering for sin, to enable worshippers to approach God.
Yet, drawing near to God proved to be a dangerous occupation. Judgement fell on the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, because they failed to follow God’s instructions as they approached God, Lev. 10. As a result, God limited access to His presence, providing further instructions for atonement to be made on only one day of the year, the day of atonement, Lev. 16, called Yom Kippur by Jewish people today. On that day, one person, the high priest, entered the holy of holies of the tabernacle to meet with God. Atonement was made in one place, at the mercy seat, the lid of solid gold placed on top of the ark of the covenant, Exod. 25. 17-22. Two cherubim figures were moulded, also from gold, at each end of the mercy seat, covering it with their outstretched wings. It was between these cherubim that God dwelt, His glory outshining and filling the holy of holies, Ps. 80. 1. The mercy seat was a meeting place between God and man. The Old and New Testament words for the mercy seat literally mean the ‘place of atonement’ or ‘propitiatory’. Atonement was made by the high priest sprinkling the blood of several animal sacrifices before the ark and on the mercy seat. Over the years many sacrifices were offered, although they could ‘never take away sins’, Heb. 10. 11. But what did this elaborate picture mean?
The New Testament informs us that the Lord Jesus is our Great High Priest, the one person who alone can ‘make propitiation for the sins of the people’, Heb. 2. 17 NKJV.5 He is also the one place where propitiation is made, ‘whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [or mercy seat] through faith in his blood’, Rom. 3. 25. This means that, as God and man, He is the one mediator between God and men, 1. Tim. 2. 5, and because of His work on the cross, propitiation is only possible through Him. He is then the sole meeting place between God and man. In contrast to the many sacrifices offered over the centuries, the Lord Jesus ‘offered one sacrifice for sins’, after which He ‘sat down in perpetuity at the right hand of God’, Heb. 10. 12, JND. The gift needed to make propitiation is one that only God could provide, in love sending ‘his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’, 1 John 4. 10.
Everything about atonement was limited.6 It was limited in its extent to Israel. It was limited in its duration, needing to be repeated every year. The high priest making atonement was limited by his lifespan and would need replacing once he had died, Heb. 7. 23. He also needed to make atonement for himself, because he was sinful, before making atonement for the people, v. 27. Atonement was limited in its efficacy, only covering sin, and not removing it completely. The result of atonement was limited, and the tabernacle was, in general, a series of barriers excluding most people from the presence of God for much of the time.
In contrast, since propitiation is based on the finished work of Christ, it is unlimited in every sense and the efficacy of His work is infinite. Propitiation is the idea that God is so completely satisfied with the finished work of the Lord Jesus on the cross that it has transformed the way He can deal with humanity on an individual and corporate level. It goes far beyond only averting His wrath, with God providing recipients of propitiation with unlimited access into the nearness of His presence for now and the whole of eternity, Heb. 10. 19. Propitiation is unlimited in its scope. God can offer salvation to every sector of society. The capacity of the work of Christ is sufficient that the whole human race throughout the ages could be saved. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’, 1 John 2. 2. It is only effective, however, for those who respond to the gospel. Although the possibility of being justified is ‘unto all’ because of propitiation, it is only ‘upon all them that believe’, Rom. 3. 22. This is the idea of ‘substitution’, which is limited to those who trust in the Lord Jesus. Only a genuine believer can truly say, ‘He took my place’. The work of the Lord Jesus in propitiation, therefore, never needs repeating, in contrast to atonement in the Old Testament, which needed repeating every year.
A right understanding of propitiation can change the way we live before God and our attitude toward others. The concept of propitiation is behind the account of the publican and pharisee in Luke 18. 9-14. A failure to grasp propitiation can make us like the pharisee. Perhaps we perceive that we need to keep on the right side of God, bringing our self-righteous gifts to appease Him. In reality, this attitude is no different to heathen people bringing gifts to placate their false gods. The pharisee also failed to comprehend the scope of propitiation, thinking that God was only interested in pompous and pious individuals like himself, v. 11. In contrast, the publican laid hold of the truth that propitiation was something God must do for him. He certainly understood that he had nothing to offer God. In asking God to ‘be merciful’ he was really asking God ‘to be propitious’ to him. He understood that there was sufficient scope for propitiation to include a sinful outcast like him. The publican did not have the full revelation of truth that we have, however. We now know that propitiation is founded on the price for sin paid in full by the Lord Jesus, enabling a full and free offer of forgiveness to extend to every sector of humanity.
Kipur the noun and kapar the verb of the same word.
The one reference to ‘atonement’ in the KJV New Testament, occurs in Rom. 5. 11 and is better translated ‘reconciliation’.
Hilasterion, Rom. 3. 25; hilaskomai, Luke 18. 13; Heb. 2. 17; hilasmos, 1 John 2. 2; 4. 10. There is an additional reference. Heb. 9. 5, which refers to the mercy seat, the cover on the ark of the covenant.
Interestingly, the writer to the Hebrews appears to avoid using this word when describing the actions of the high priest in the Old Testament on the day of atonement in chapter 9, perhaps indicating that atonement and propitiation are distinct concepts.
Hilaskomai is translated as ‘reconciliation’ in Heb. 2. 17 in the KJV but is better translated as ‘propitiation’.
Discussions over ‘limited atonement’ (understood theologically) can generate more heat than light, unless the doctrines of atonement, propitiation, and substitution are fully delineated. Using the terminology and deﬁnitions in this article, atonement, as an Old Testament concept, is limited, whereas propitiation is unlimited. Substitution is also limited to believers.
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