A fellow Christian asked me to share some thoughts on this somewhat unusual word. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it used outside of a Judeo-Christian context. Since there are a few other readers of my ramblings here who are not only Christian, but Lutheran (my favorite brand of Christian ;), I wanted to share those thoughts here to allow for comment/critique, etc. Fire away, friends!
First, please allow me a little editorial license. Polysyllabic theological terms too often get a bad rap, or at least the people who use them fluently do. At times Christians object to the use of “technical” theological/ecclesiastical words because they believe that speaking in the formal language of our faith is off-putting, or makes us look arrogant. This one’s a good example. “Propitiation” is just so… so… Latin-y. Life isn’t a vocabulary test, after all. We have to meet people where they are; we have to speak to them in their own language, without regard for how inarticulate we must become to do that. (Oh, nuts, I just used the word “inarticulate”, durn burn it!) I mean, real people don’t use words like “propitiation”, right?
I think they should, if they’re Christians.
Words have meaning because they convey ideas, and when we’re at our best, we use words to represent and communicate ideas that are true, and ideas that are truth. In most every professional field – legal, medical, technological, engineering, etc., etc. – words specific to that field or discipline are taught, drilled, learned, and used because they improve communication. Such words efficiently convey relevant ideas in a way that those who are engaged in the field will understand with a depth of nuance or significance that those outside that field might not. We even create a word to describe such words – “jargon!”
I believe that most every Christian at some point confronts the fact that he or she is in fact a theologian, and should act like one. In this, the most important “field” or “discipline” on Earth, we should not shy away from our peculiar theological words, but should instead teach them, drill them, learn them, use them, embrace them, and speak them into the lives of our children and our fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean we put ’em on billboards or try to work them into conversations with our next-door neighbor or turn our evangelistic endeavors into a game of Jeopardy. But we should avail ourselves of the benefits of using them with each other.
Okay, I think I’m done with the editorial (no guarantees…..)
“Propitiation” as used in the New Testament, unused or unpopular as it may be, communicates perhaps the most important and profound truth God has chosen to reveal to us. It tells us not only that “God loves you,” but I think it also tells us how He expresses, and to a large extent defines, that agape love.
Looking at the ESV and NASB, I find “propitiation” in the following verses:
Romans 3:25: “…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.”
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.”
English dictionaries offer us definitions using phrases such as “an atoning sacrifice”, “the act of conciliation”, “appeasement of wrathful gods”, etc. All of which are pretty good, I think. The Christian Cyclopedia gives us a more complex – and complete – picture of the word’s background:
The Gk. word (hilasterion) tr. “propitiation” Ro 3:25 is tr. “mercy seat” Heb. 9:5; the Heb. equivalent (kapporeth) Ex 25:17 denotes the cover, or lid, of the ark of the covenant. Once a yr. the high priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on this lid to make propitiation for the sins of the people. This was a type of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
Inside the Ark was the law, and the mercy seat covered it. God’s seal was applied to it annually on yom kippur (the day of atonement) by covering it in sacrificial blood, because all sin, which is revealed by that same law, demands a penalty of death, and the spilling of blood is the sign and result of death.
Understanding this, we read the verses above, especially in their context, and see a miracle. Let’s look at the Romans passage:
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 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. 26 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.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
I like to think that when Paul was writing this, the Holy Spirit saw to it that Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 5:17 were coursing through his brain and heart, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In our 11:00 Bible Study just a few weeks back we read one of the above verses, and when an uncommon word like “propitiation” comes up in the text, I often pause to ask how folks in the class understand or define the word. It’s not uncommon for me to then offer some “gently corrective commentary.” On this day, though, one of our members answered that propitiation was “substitution,” and we dug into that just a bit. I can’t offer any direct quotes, but the gist of it was, as the propitiation for our sins, Jesus’ undeserved death was substituted for our deserved eternal death. His earned righteousness is substituted for our utter unrighteousness. By sacrificing Himself in the person of His Son, God satisfied perfectly every requirement and demand He makes on us to have eternal life, not because we are good enough, or because we are the right kind of person, or attend the right church, or because we’ve achieved anything at all, but because this was His plan all along, since before the creation of the world; since before there was even created time to be “before”.
I offered no gentle corrective commentary on that one. ;)
1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Just two verses later he gives us God’s perfect definition of that what means when he writes “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.”
“Propitiation” is why we can love another. “Propitiation” is how we can have hope when the world finds or offers none. “Propitiation” is a true a comprehensive expression of how God loves us, and has demonstrated that love in the world as well as in eternity.
The more fully you understand propitiation, the more fully you understand Justification.
The more fully you understand propitiation, the more fully you understand Sanctification.
The more fully you understand propitiation, the more fully you understand who Jesus is.
The more fully you understand propitiation, the more fully you understand the nature of The Almighty.
Other than that, I don’t really have an opinion. ;)