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Entries in Theology (13)


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.


The difference is the reason why

I just finished reading the first volume in R.C. Sproul's commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Truths We Confess.

The more I read the Confession, the more I see it as an amazing piece of writing. And Sproul's well thought out commentary is very helpful.

The very last section of the book, Chapter 8, Section 8 of the Confession, deals with the matter of definite (or limited) atonement. This, of course, is the doctrine that makes a lot of people squirm. 

Sproul makes helpful distinction regarding the difference between Reformed theology and Arminians:

Universalism teaches that everybody is saved. Particularism teaches that only some people are saved. The difference between Reformed theology and Arminianism, then, is the explanation of why some are not saved. Arminians say that some people are not saved because they do not co-operate with the grace of God in order to be saved. The Reformed believe that some are not saved because God has not given them the effective grace to be saved.

The problem always comes when we go to extremes. The extreme application to Arminianism is "try harder." We may feel that we have not done enough to "win" that person to Christ. The risk of the Arminian view seems to me to be an inflated importance on the human witness to others. If our child has not become redeemed, it is because we did not share the gospel enough. If our friends are not saved it is because we did not do enough. This just leads to a lot of unnecessary guilt. It also downplays the utterly lost state of the one we're witnessing to. They just don't understand; they need it explained a different way. That may be true, but it may be because they are blind and no amount of discussion will remove that blindness; only the Holy Spirit will, and we may not be the vessel God uses to effect that removal.

The extreme with the Reformed view is that of apathy and laziness. We think we have no control over salvation, so we do very little, or maybe nothing at all. We become complacent about sharing the gospel, or we give up entirely, thinking that no matter what we say, God's going to do it, anyway. We have to remember that because we don't know who is elect and who is not, preaching the gospel whenever we can is important.

Human agency in evangelism is crucial, but we must not take anything to an extreme. As those who bear the gospel, we must be dliigent to preach the gospel message, but confident enough in God to have peace that He will bring about what He has ordained.


Homeschooler theologian?

This past week, I added a book to my Westminster wish list: God in the Whirlwind, by David Wells. Seeing that book took me back to fourteen years ago this month. Then, I was coming to the end of my first month of homeschooling.

When the rest of the public school children went back after Christmas holidays, ours stayed home. It was a decision we'd been planning. They were, at the time in 5th grade, 2nd grade, and kindergarten. Eventually, they all graduated from public high school to ease the process of matriculation into university.

Those were good years. They learned a lot, and I introduced them to things they would never have been given in public school. Most adults aren't taught Church History; my kids were. It was good for me, too. In a post at Out of the Ordinary, I shared about how books were my tutors as I went through a time of examining what I believed and why. Homeschooling helped in two ways.

First, it made me much better reader. In addition to books about education in general, preparing lessons for the kids, especially in history, made me think more about what I was reading and summarizing it into a lesson format. I wanted to be as informed about what we learned, so I read up on everything we studied. When we teach something, we have to know it well, and we remember it better, too.

Later, as my oldest got into the junior high grades, I was re-introduced to sentence diagramming. I'm a firm believer in grammar instruction, and I think diagramming, while boring, is very useful. It made me think more about the words I was reading and how they related to each other and how the meaning was constructed.

Second, it introduced me to likeminded women. During that first tentative semester of homeschooling, I read Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind, and when September arrived, our education focus changed somewhat. I loved the histroy-driven nature of her approach to schooling, and that summer as I stocked up on supplies, I satisfied the inner desire I'd had as a teen to study Latin, and got my books to teach my kids.  

I began to hang out at The Well-Trained Mind parent forum and met women there. Staci was one of them. One of them lives locally, and we're still friends. At the forum, we did talk about schooling and parenting, but there was also conversation about religion and books. It was there where I first saw titles of books that drew my seeking mind's attention.

One of the first ones I read was David Wells' No Place for Truth. After that, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, by Marva Dawn. She and I would diverge in doctrinal foundations (she is Lutheran) but I learned a lot about worship from her book. After that, I read Knowing God, The Holiness of God, Grace Unknown, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Those books seem like "oldies" now in comparison to what is currently available. It seems like Christian publishing has exploded these past few years. 

When my kids began to trickle off to high school, I visited the Well-Trained Mind forum less, and eventually stopped altogether. I'm glad for those years, knowing those women, and learning what I did. I suspect it was from someone on the board that I first heard of Monergism.

Everyone is a theologian. Even if a person says she does not believe in God, that is a theological conclusion. The question is what kind of theologian are we? These are questions my fellow homeschoolers discussed even as long as fourteen years ago. While I have graduated from being a homeschooler theologian, I am now an ordinary theologian. My life is much different now as I navigate the waters of a mother with adult children. But the hunger to learn is there. I pray to God it never leaves me.

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