When our Lord spoke to His disciples about His forthcoming death ‘they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him’. They could not fit such an irrevocable happening into the scheme of their hopes and probably thought they had misunderstood Him. Yet later they were to proclaim this event with triumph and joy, in their preaching and in the Lord’s Supper.
There are many aspects of Christ’s death, but in the present article we shall confine ourselves for the sake of clarity to two: Reconciliation and Propitiation.
Man needs to be reconciled to God. God must be propitiated. The two things must not be confused, for they are quite different. God does not need to be reconciled to man since He loves man. Man is not to be propitiated since God never wronged him. In the death of Christ we find the whole problem solved – man reconciled to God and God propitiated.
Paul uses this word of a wife who has left her husband. For a time she hates him and finds it impossible to live with him, but later she is ‘reconciled’. Since the Fall man has hated God. His thoughts, his actions, show that he is opposed to his Maker, Col. 1. 21. Nor has man himself ever made any move that indicates a change of mind. Religious persons may seem to do so but in fact their enmity is still present beneath the surface and appears when God’s estimate of their righteousness is declared.
Christ came into the world to break down man’s enmity. In His earthly life God was wooing men, showing them that they had no reason to hate Him. He could have called them all -peasants of Galilee and rulers from Jerusalem – to immediate judgement for their sins. But instead ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them’, 2 Cor. 5. 19. Yet man’s response was to nail Him to a cross, for the world at large did not want to be reconciled. None the less, the witness had been given, that God was not their enemy, and wished them to be reconciled. We must be careful to note, however, that the Bible does not say that God reconciled the world. If He had done so there would be no need to say ‘Be ye reconciled to God’. (Romans 11. 15 refers to the approach to the Gentiles following the rejection of Christ by the Jews.)
Since man would not and could not move to be reconciled to God it was necessary that God should display His love in the fullest possible way. The cross was in any case necessary to reconciliation. ‘When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son …’ ‘You … that he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death.’ Here we have two important factors in reconciliation. First, we see the extent of God’s love in that He was willing to give up His own Son to death. Second, we can in some degree appreciate what was done for us since it was done in a human body with all its capacity for suffering. These things, brought home to us by the Holy Spirit, move our hearts. Thus a complete change of attitude towards God is produced in the believer by the death of Christ, a change which is not the effect of his own thinking. It is ‘received’. ‘We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation.'
This is the word which offends some modern theologians and has been left out of the New English Bible. If they had found some clearer modern equivalent for it we should not complain, but to translate it ‘remedy’ is very unsatisfactory. Christ ‘is the propitiation for our sins’.
Propitiation presupposes wrath. It is this which men dislike. But God was angry with Adam and drove him out from the garden. ‘God is angry … every day’, Ps. 7. 11. Yet He loved Adam and still loves the world. It is contrary to experience to say that love cannot co-exist with anger.
God’s wrath is caused by sin. He sees the order of His universe wrecked by sin. He sees the clear lessons of creation perverted, and therefore ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness’.
God must be propitiated. He is altogether holy and His holiness has been offended by sin. He can have no dealings with sin. Sin must be punished. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ The death of Christ provides the essential propitiation. His soul was ‘made an offering for sin’. Punishment fell upon His innocent body, for He was wounded, bruised, chastised. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins.’ ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise him.’ Not that God took a malicious delight in ill-treating His Son. But He was pleased to do that which would achieve our salvation even though it involved the suffering of ‘the just for the unjust’.
It is easy to caricature the doctrine of propitiation. But the simple facts are that sin had to be put away before God could cease to be angry with us, and this has been done by the death of the Lord Jesus.
The propitiation which has been made is for the whole world. Language could not be plainer: ‘He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’, 1 John 2. 2 (r.v.). We can proclaim to all the world that Christ crucified is the basis on which God can be approached. It is not that their sins have been forgiven, but that Christ died for them, so that if they will trust Him they may join the number of those who can say ‘Christ died for our sins’.