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Why is propitiation important?

Last Sunday, I taught from I John 2:1-6. We touched on this passage:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Deep truths

There are some very deep truths about Christ being taught in those passages. An advocate. A propitiation. An advocate is easier, because the idea of a lawyer comes to mind when thinking about the word "advocate." But propitiation? It's clearly not a word that just comes up in general conversation, not even among Christians. Here is how the word in the Greek, hilasmos, has been translated by some of the popular translations:

  • The King James Version and New King James Version: propitiation
  • The New American Standard Bible: propitiation
  • The English Standard Version: propitiation
  • The Holman translation: propitiation
  • New International Version: atoning sacrifice
  • New Revised Standard Version: atoning sacrifice
  • The Net Bible: atoning sacrifice
  • New Living Translation: the one who atones for our sins 

In Bill Mounce's expository dictionary, we read this with regard to hilasmos:

to atone, have mercy on, to make atonement for, propitiate," and refers in in the NT to the atoning work of Christ whereby he propitiates God's anger.

Turning away anger

The part about turning away God's anger is important. It is so important that Leon Morris in his book The Atonement (a book you should read) spends a great deal of time explaining why it is important. In the past, others have tried to rob the word of its reference to God's anger. Morris uses "wrath" throughout instead of "anger."  In his discussion (p. 171) of how hilasmos is used in the New Testament specifically, in I John 2:2 and 4:10, Morris says:

Here NIV translates hilasmos with 'atoning sacrifice', but has a marginal alternative, 'He is the one who turns aside God's wrath.' The other passage says, 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (I Jn. 4:10.) Again there is a marginal reading, 'as the one who would turn aside his wrath.' In both passages (as elsewhere) this version's margin recognizes the true meaning of the term. (p. 171-72)

I have an NIV that was published in 1984, and there is indeed a notation. I don't know if the NIV from 2011 has that notation. Bible Gateway doesn't include it.

God's mercy understood alongside His wrath

That idea of turning away wrath is crucial to understanding not only what God has done for us, but the seriousness of sin. Some people define propitiation with "expiation," but that does not carry with it the idea of turning away wrath. We don't want to think that God is wrathful. We want a loving, merciful God. But to understand God's mercy, must we not understand his wrath? How can we understand the extent of God's love apart from knowing what He's saved us from? I John 4:10 demonstrates that the greatest act of love God has made is to send Christ to turn away the anger that was rightfully ours.

My gratitude for receiving forgiveness from someone who is merely a little ticked off with me is not the same thing as the gratitude toward Christ who turned away wrath, which includes judgment. God is a god who judges. You can't read the Old Testament and not see that. And if you don't like the God of the Old Testament, then what do you believe about the Word of God?

Sure, propitiation is a big word, and we need to look at what it means, but I think English is sufficient enough to define it without robbing it of its true meaning. 

One of my favourite passages from Leon Morris's discussion of propitation comes in his conclusion:

Some find a difficultly in that they see wrath as incompatible with the fact that 'God is love.' They are so sure of the love of God that they say that there can be no such thing as the wrath of God. But this is faulty reasoning. The opposite of love is not wrath. It is hate. We can say that, if God is a God of love, he will not hate those that he has made, but we cannot say that he will never be angrywith them. Indeed, the opposite may well be the case. The more he loves the more he will be angry with everything that mars the perfection of the beloved, that is with every sin. God's wrath is identical with his love. God's wrath is God's love blazing out in fiery indignation against every evil in the beloved. (p. 174).

Our most pressing need

Why is propitation important? Because it deals with our most pressing, most dire need: dealing with our sin. Prior to John writing about propitiation, he deals quite thoroughly with the matter of our sin. Sin is a reality. As we get older, it doesn't become less of a factor. We may recognize it sooner, but it's there. Propitiation is important because it shows us that we can rejoice. Praise God! His anger is turned away from us! And we can receive cleansing, and walk in the light. Understanding the meaning of the word may take a little time and thought, but it's worth it.

For more on this term, see Rebecca's entry in Theological Term of the Week.