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Entries in Sin (2)


Absolute power corrupts absolutely

I just finished reading Proved Innocent. It is the autobiographical account of the unjust incarceration for 15 years of Gerry Conlon and four others who were accused of bombing a pub in Guildford, England, in 1974. The bombings hastened the passing of The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gave law enforcement officials extended powers in the arrest of potential terrorists. Conlon's father and other family members were also falsely accused and convicted. Conlon's father, who was already ill, having had one lung removed, died in prison.

I had seen the movie In the Name of the Father, but of course, the book was different. The account of what the prosecution suppressed is more detailed in the book than in the movie. And the cruelty and violence Conlon and the others received was graphic at times. In the movie, law enforcement officials coerce Conlon into confessing by threatening to kill his father. In reality, they threatened to kill Conlon's mother and sisters. While being questioned, Conlon was never allowed to sleep in his cell. If he did fall asleep, guards would create noise, telling him he could not sleep. The other three members of what became known as "The Guildford Four" had similar treatment. After his release, Conlon's life was not free from grief and struggle. He struggled emotionally until he died in 2014.

This is what happens when governments are given extensive powers and when those powers reside alongside public hysteria. Absolute power is always a bad thing when given to men and women. People may have good intentions and may be really convicted that there is threat which needs to be squashed, but fear and a sinful heart make for a very bad combination. Fear can be a deadly thing.

This book made me think of the reality of sin. It is pervasive. And it is not just "them" who struggle with sin. Christians are not immune. Why are we surprised when Christians sin? Perfection is not going to happen in this lifetime. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can have victory from sin, but our natures have not changed. We see daily Christians behaving badly.

I don't remember what I was reading, but something over the weekend made me stop and wonder if those who believe in Calvinistic doctrine actually believe in Total Depravity. Do we take our own sin seriously? We often underestimate ourselves. We may think we know how we will behave in a certain situation, but we don't have foreknowledge. Surely I am not the only Christian who has done something and thought, "Why on earth did I do that?" 

We need to be aware of being too self-satisfied; too sure. We need to stop expressing shock when sin happens. And we need to stop looking at others and saying, "How on earth that so-and-so do this or that?" It could just as easily be us doing that shocking thing. There is a reason by the Lord's Prayer includes petitions for forgiveness and freedom from temptation. Practicing virtue and holy character is crucial, but it also must live alongside exhortations to flee from sin. 


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.