Although this term is likely not known by most folks – even most Christians – it lies at the heart of the biblical understanding of the work of Christ on the cross. It is such a rich term and such an important term that I can only offer here the briefest of an introduction to it.
Indeed, my library is filled with tremendous volumes devoted to this and related themes, and it may be best to just let these authors speak for the most part. Simply put, this teaching has to do with the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. Let me offer a few quick definitional quotes here:
R. C. Sproul puts it this way: “Propitiation means to satisfy the demands of justice. In biblical terms, it means to satisfy the demands of God’s wrath.” Or as Charles Ryrie put it, “Propitiation means the turning away of wrath by an offering. In relation to soteriology, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.”
Leon Morris says in his important work, The Atonement, “Propitiation means the turning away of anger.” James Montgomery Boice says that anyone reading the first three and a half chapters of Romans will clearly see “that it is precisely the wrath of God that is our problem. We are under wrath because of sin. Therefore, if the wrath of God cannot be turned aside by someone or in some way, we are lost.”
Some of the key New Testament passages that can be cited here include (all from the ESV):
-Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
-Hebrews 2:17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
-1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
-1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
To properly understand these concepts, one must look more closely at how they are developed in the Old Testament. I can only briefly do this here. As the ESV Study Bible notes, “In the OT, propitiation (or the complete satisfaction of the wrath of God) is symbolically foreshadowed in several incidents: e.g., Ex. 32:11–14; Num. 25:8, 11; Josh. 7:25–26.”
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “The New Testament doctrine about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, you will find, is always couched and put in terms of the Old Testament sacrificial language.” The major OT background for the idea of propitiation is the “mercy seat.” This, as D. A. Carson explains, is
the cover of the ark of the covenant over which Yahweh appeared on the Day of Atonement and on which sacrificial blood was poured. . . . Paul is presenting Jesus as the ultimate “mercy seat,” the ultimate place of atonement, and, derivatively, the ultimate sacrifice. What was under the old covenant bound up with the slaughter of animals, whose most crucial moment was hidden behind a veil, and whose repetition almost invited reflection on the limitations of such a system to “cover” sin, is now transcended by a human sacrifice, in public, once for all – and placarded by God himself.
In his important book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott says that when it comes to reconciling men to God, “the initiative has been taken by God himself in his sheer mercy and grace.” He continues:
This is already clear in the Old Testament, in which the sacrifices were recognised not as human works but as divine gifts. They did not make God gracious; they were provided by a gracious God in order that he might act graciously towards his sinful people. `I have given it to you’, God said of the sacrificial blood, `to make atonement for yourselves on the altar’ (Lv. 17:11). And this truth is yet more plainly recognized in the New Testament, not least in the main texts about propitiation. God himself `presented’ (NIV) or `put forward’ (RSV) Jesus Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice (Rom. 3:25). It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God’s love is the source, not the consequence, of the atonement. As P. T. Forsyth expressed it, “the atonement did not procure grace, it flowed from grace.” God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath which needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love which did the propitiating….
And the person God offered was not somebody else, whether a human person or an angel or even his Son considered as somebody distinct from or external to himself. No, he offered himself. In giving his Son, he was giving himself. As Karl Barth wrote repeatedly, “It was the Son of God, i.e. God himself”.
Or as Stott says elsewhere: “God himself gave himself to save us from himself.”
And the OT concept of the cup of God’s wrath certainly comes into play here. Jesus speaks about being willing to drink of this cup, and it is clear that he is referring to drinking to the full the wrath of God. See my article here for more on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/08/06/on-drinking-the-cup/
As John Piper puts it:
There, at Golgotha, our Savior drained God’s cup of burning anger down to the dregs. God poured out his wrath, full strength, undiluted, onto his Son. Paul summarizes the meaning of this great event, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us so that he could extend the cup of God’s fellowship to us.
Let me explain a bit further how this concept works out. Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology says this: “God has not simply forgiven sin and forgotten about the punishment in generations past. He had forgiven sins and stored up his righteous anger against those sins. But at the cross the fury of all that stored-up wrath against sin was unleashed against God’s own Son.”
Sproul expands on how this was accomplished:
In New Testament terms, what we are saved from is God. We are saved by God from God, from the wrath that is to come. Propitiation satisfies completely the demands of God’s wrath and justice, which is what the cross was all about. Christ as our substitute took upon Himself the wrath that we deserve, to pay the penalty that was due for our guilt to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. In His work of propitiation, Jesus did something on a vertical level, something with respect to the Father, satisfying the justice of God for us.
Piper is again worth quoting here:
So to save sinners, and at the same time magnify the worth of His glory, God lays our sin on Jesus and abandons Him to shame and slaughter on the cross. The clearest and most important biblical statement of this truth is found in Romans 3:23-26. If I were asked, “What is the most important paragraph in the Bible?” I think this is the paragraph I would name. It goes to the very root of the Christian gospel and lays bare the heart of God like few other texts. If there is a moment in the symphony of biblical revelation when the contrasting themes of justice and mercy come together into a magnificent orchestral statement of unity and harmony and peace, it is here in Romans 3:23-26.
In his classic volume Knowing God J.I Packer says that the word ‘propitiation’ is central to the NT: “The love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, the way of salvation, all are to be explained in terms of it, as the passages quoted show, and any explanation from which the thought of propitiation is missing will be incomplete, and indeed actually misleading, by New Testament standards.”
Of course the notion of the atonement is far too great to be adequately covered by any one term or concept. Other key terms and themes would also need to be looked at such as ‘redemption,’ ‘justification,’ substitution,’ ‘imputation,’ and so on.
Indeed, there are various theories of the atonement that have been presented over the past 2000 years. None alone will do justice to the richness of what occurred at Calvary, and even taken all together they still would not exhaust what took place there.
But certainly the concept of propitiation is a major aspect of all this, and seeking to minimise it or ignore it altogether is to do serious injustice to the biblical data on the death of Christ and how such a great and glorious salvation was accomplished for us.