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What is… propitiation?

It’s that time again, folks. Theology Thursday. One of the ideas we had for this ongoing series was to highlight what I like to call “theology words”. These are significant words that declare wondrous truths about our triune God.

Today, the spotlight is on the word propitiation.

Where do we find this word?

The word propitiation is found in a few different books of the New Testament:

[Romans 3:23-26] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Greek word hilastērion)

[Hebrews 2:17] Therefore, in all things He had to be made like 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. (Greek word hilaskomai)

[1 John 2:2] And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (Greek word hilasmos)

[1 John 4:10] In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (Greek word hilasmos)

(bold emphasis added)

What does it mean?

propitiation (n) prō-pi-shē-ā-shǝn- the act of gaining or regaining the favor of; in this case, a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor.

Why does it matter?

Read that definition again, and it should be crystal clear why it matters! The meaning of propitiation packs a heavy punch, a punch that is key to our understanding of the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ. In this simple word, we see both the need for God’s wrath to be appeased (since our God is a just God) and the need for an atoning sacrifice to be offered (since our God is a merciful God).

Propitiation and the gospel

When we hear or read the word propitiation, we ought to be reminded of the gospel:

Propitiation reminds us that God is just. Sin is the high offense against a holy God. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And because He is righteous, just, and good, God must not let sin go unpunished.

Propitiation reminds us that God initiates. Every single one us us is born dead in our sins (Ephesians 2) and without life. There is no one perfect. Because of this sinful nature, you and I cannot justify ourselves before God. We can try, but we will fall short, every one of us. God would still be a good God if He left us in this state, ushering each of us to suffer His righteous wrath. But instead, He provided a way out for us. He initiated by sending His only begotten Son, Jesus of Nazareth, as a propitiation for our sins.

Propitiation reminds us that God is loving and merciful. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—the only perfect sacrificial Lamb—was a willing sacrifice. In order for us to spend an eternity with our Maker, God’s wrath needed to be satisfied by a propitiation. That propitiation is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

“The wrath of God was satisfied”

Jesus did not merely deflect God’s wrath (like a helmet can deflect a baseball). Jesus absorbed it. All of it. For us.

This is the reason why, in that hymn In Christ Alone, we sing:

…on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

You see, to say that Jesus is a propitiation “by His blood” and “for our sins” is to say what kind of Savior He is to me—the kind of Savior that satisfies God’s wrath on a cross in my stead. And because this sweet Savior died and rose, you and I can have new life in Him. This is the gospel of God’s amazing grace to sinners.