The Doctrine of Propitiation

The complexity of man’s need demanded a divine plan to meet it. The Bible declares man a sinner: a sinner by nature, practice and choice. On account of sins, man needed remission, the forgiveness of sins. Man by his sin and wicked works was constituted an enemy of God and was at enmity with God. To meet his need as the enemy of God he required reconciliation. Man not only had sins and was at enmity with God, he was also guilty. In Romans, Paul proves the guilt of all mankind, whether viewed as a pagan living in the gutter of sin, chapter 1, or an enlightened Gentile, living on the pavement and judging the man in the gutter, chapter 2, or a Jew in the synagogue, chapter 3. Paul writes, ‘we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin’, Rom. 3. 9, and ‘all have sinned’, 3. 23, so that all the world is guilty before God. Guilty man needed something more than remission and reconciliation; as a guilty sinner, he needed justification to clear him of every charge against him, and to be pronounced righteous. The foundation of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justification is the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Man as a guilty sinner, alienated from God, merited the wrath of God, but Christ, having endured the wrath of God upon sin, provided the basis for man to be forgiven, reconciled, and justified in His sacrificial death at Calvary.

Propitiation and atonement

Propitiation is a New Testament word and is not found in the Old Testament. The Old Testament equivalent is the word ‘atonement’, which is found once in the KJV in Romans chapter 5 verse 11, ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ by whom we have now received the atonement’; but Greek scholars have pointed out that the word should be translated reconciliation.

Some have seen an immense distinction between atonement and propitiation; the present writer would not go so far as that. Rather, atonement is the Old Testament equivalent to propitiation in the New Testament. A careful study of the usage of the Hebrew word translated ‘atonement’ will help to see the importance of the word. It is used in connection with the offerings in the early chapters of Leviticus. When an Israelite brought his burnt offering, presented it at the door of the tabernacle, and killed it, it was then offered on the brazen altar and it was ‘accepted for him to make atonement for him’, Lev. 1. 4. When a sin or trespass offering was brought, it was to make atonement for him, and, in virtue of his sin offering, his sin was forgiven him.

On Israel’s Day of Atonement, Lev. 16, the blood of the sin offering was brought by the high priest into the holiest and sprinkled upon and before the mercy-seat. In that act, God’s claims were met and atonement, or, in New Testament language, propitiation, was made in respect of the nation’s sin and uncleanness. God could now continue dwelling among them, albeit only for a year when the procedure would be repeated. The evidence that the blood sprinkled mercy-seat had met the claims of God was when Aaron laid both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, confessing all the iniquities and transgression of all their sins; the sin-laden scapegoat was then led away into an uninhabited land never to be seen again. Against this background, the publican, smiting his breast, cried, ‘God be merciful [propitious] to me a sinner’, Luke 18. 13.

Propitiation – its meaning established

First, it is important to observe the New Testament references to the word ‘propitiation’. We have already drawn attention to the prayer of the Publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ and observed that the word ‘merciful’ can be translated, ‘propitious’. Paul declares, ‘Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood’, Rom. 3. 25, or, as it could be rendered, ‘through faith in the virtue of his blood’. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, explaining the reasons that necessitated the humanity of Christ the Son of God, writes, ‘Wherefore it behoved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people’, Heb. 2. 17 JND. The word ‘reconcile’ in the KJV is misleading. Sins can never be reconciled unto God; it is persons that are reconciled to God, not sins.

The word ‘propitiation’ occurs twice in John’s First Epistle. In chapter 2 verse 2 it is used in connection with the case of any one of God’s children committing a sin. Christ, now upon the throne, is ‘the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’. Against the background of God’s love for us, we read, ‘God … sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins’, 4. 10. Putting together the statements in the epistles regarding propitiation, we have three important truths set before us:

  • The work of propitiation, Heb. 2. 17;
  • The place of propitiation, Rom. 3. 25;
  • The person who is the propitiation, 1 John 2. 2; 4. 10.

The work of propitiation explained

The Lord Jesus accomplished the work of propitiation when on the cross He offered Himself to God a propitiatory sacrifice on account of sin. This is confirmed in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9. We read, ‘How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience’, v. 14; ‘but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’, v. 26; and, ‘So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many’, v. 28. The writer also draws attention to the fact that it was Christ as high priest who made propitiation for the sins of the people, Heb. 2. 17. This takes our minds back to the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16, indicating that the work was a priestly work, for it was Aaron, Israel’s high priest, who alone officiated on the Day of Atonement. The biblical teaching concerning propitiation is not appeasement but satisfaction. The propitiatory sacrifice of Christ has given to God the satisfaction His holiness demanded.

The place of propitiation identified

The word the apostle uses for propitiation in Romans chapter 3 verse 25 can equally be rendered mercy-seat. The word God gave to Moses concerning the mercy-seat was, ‘there will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat’, Exod. 25. 22. In selecting this word, Paul indicates that with the work of propitiation accomplished by Christ in His sacrificial death on the cross, God’s holiness has been eternally satisfied.

We cannot overstate the importance of God’s complete satisfaction in Christ and His propitiatory sacrifice accomplished at Calvary. On that basis alone, there is provided a meeting place for man to meet with God.

The person who is the propitiation

The apostle John in his First Epistle establishes that Christ is Himself the propitiation, 2. 2. This is important because what Christ is always gives character to what He does. In this passage, it is propitiation accomplished. The apostle states one reason for writing this epistle, ‘these things write I unto you, that ye sin not’, 2. 1. The apostle takes account of the possibility that a believer may fail and commit sin, in which case ‘we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’. On the basis of His perfect righteousness, and being Himself the propitiation for our sins, the Lord Jesus is fully qualified to be our advocate with the Father.

Perhaps we ought to mark the difference in the offices the Lord has taken upon Him. As mediator, the man Christ Jesus comes between God and man and, by His work on the cross, guarantees reconciliation to God. As High Priest in heaven, He intercedes for, and sympathizes with, His people. His sympathy is the result of His experiences on earth during the days of His flesh. His advocacy is linked with His presence in heaven with the Father.

He is always our advocate whether we fail or not. The apostle having before him the possibility of a believer falling into a sin wrote, ‘If we sin’. It is worth noting that failure on the part of the believer does not break off our relationship with the Father; He is still our Father. The eternal efficacy of the Lord’s propitiatory death is ever before the eye of God and, on this ground, Christ acts as our advocate to effect restoration to communion with the Father. The meaning of the word advocate is to ‘come alongside of’; there is that element involved in the work of advocacy. In times of failure, our advocate ‘comes alongside of’ us to help, and, if necessary, to bring an awareness that a sin has been committed, then to bring us to confession: ‘if we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins [what we have done] and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.

The word advocate is also a legal term, one that is used in a court. As our advocate, He is not engaged in a continual ministry of appeasement, nor is it the idea that in heaven He is pleading our case before His Father. As He is the propitiation, the propitiatory sacrifice having been accomplished, that is sufficient as far as the Father is concerned for putting into effect what is required for restoration to communion with Him.

The motivating power in propitiation

The subject is taken up again by the apostle John in chapter 4 verse 10, ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’. What a climax to this glorious doctrine of propitiation! God loved us, and, in His love, sent His Son as the propitiation for our sins. In this verse, the emphasis is on the Lord Jesus Himself being the propitiatory sacrifice through which God can now show mercy and grant forgiveness. It brings us back into communion and, when necessary through some failure, restores us to the joy of communion with Himself on the ground of our confession.

The practical application

‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another’, 4. 11. Nothing should be allowed to change or diminish this exhortation to God’s children; all in the family of God are to ‘love one another’. The Lord Jesus said, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35.


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