A Letter on Propitiation

 •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Dear Brother:
In thinking of your last letter, it occurred to me last night that I omitted to notice the point about propitiation. In my letter to you I gave “to make propitiation for the sins of the people” as the translation of Hebrews 2:1717Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17). I find it so both in Mr. Darby’s translation of the New Testament, and in the Revised Version. And I have looked at the meaning of the word both in Classical and New Testament Greek, and cannot find the use you make of it; that is, “to propitiate the sins.” Used in connection with a person this might do, because you may propitiate a person, but not a thing, as sins. It is the word the publican uses in Luke 18:1313And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:13), “God be merciful to me a sinner” — literally “be propitiated to me the sinner.” In my New Testament Lexicon the meaning is given, “to render propitious in respect to anything.” This is the primary meaning; then by implication, “to expiate, make an atonement or expiation for.” In the Classical Greek Lexicon the meaning is given, “to appease, to soothe; in Homer, always used of gods,” “to make him that is the god propitious to one,” and so on. Used with the word sin it is given, “to expiate.” Webster gives the meaning of the word “expiate,” “To extinguish the guilt of a crime by sufferance of penalty, or some equivalent; to make satisfaction or reparation for; as, to expiate a crime.”
The propitiation of Scripture was simply a propitiatory sacrifice offered to God with reference to sins, in order to render God propitious, or favorable, to the one who had committed the sins. This is the general force of the word, and is the meaning in Hebrews 2:1717Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17). Christ offering Himself as a sacrifice was the propitiation. It was thus He made propitiation for the sins of the people. You object to the words “to make,” but “to make propitiation for,” is what the word means in connection with “sins.” It was to God that propitiation had to be made with reference to our sins. 1All the light I can get confirms me in the thought that this is the right translation.
But perhaps you will ask, Was not God favorable to the sinner already, before Christ made propitiation? In one sense, yes. That is, God loved the world, and proved His love in sending His Son; but He could not receive the sinner into favor except through this propitiation. The wrath of God abides on the unbeliever (John 3:3636He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. (John 3:36)), and this is the opposite of being under favor. Again, “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psa. 7:1111God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. (Psalm 7:11)). Yet God is love, and His love has gone out after a lost world. He commendeth His love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. But why did Christ die? Was it merely to show God’s love? Was it not to make propitiation? And was not this a necessity? Much as God loved us, He could not have us in His presence and favor with our sins on us. His love might have forgiven, but that would not have been righteousness, and would not have removed our guilt. But in order not only to forgive, but to justify, God dealt with our sins at the cross, when they were laid on Christ, and borne by Him; that is, Christ paid the full penalty of our guilt, and thus all was cleared, and God could justify us, the sins being gone in the blood shedding of Him who bore them. So being justified by faith, we have peace with God; nor is this all: through our Lord Jesus Christ, we have access into present favor, or grace, and in this favor we stand, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God, while we glory in tribulations, not ashamed of the hope, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us. God’s love indeed acted toward us when we were in our sins — when we were enemies — but we were not in His favor then, and could only be brought into that favor according to divine righteousness. God loved, and gave, when we were guilty rebels. But there were two things that hindered our being in His presence and favor: we were in a state of moral death, and we were guilty. This double need God has met, because He desired to have us in His presence to enjoy His face and His favor, and as the companions and co-heirs of His son; yea, and as His own dear children, and not as guilty rebels in a state of alienation and moral death, without a single affection answering to His love. How then did He get us there? Not by any movement on our part, for we did not want to be there; and if we had desired it, our guilt would have shut us out. 1 John 4:9,109In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9‑10) answers the question. God Himself meets the difficulty in sovereign, infinite love, yet consistently with righteousness and holiness. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Here then was life for the dead, and propitiation for the guilty; life in the incarnate Son of God, but made good to us through His death by which expiation of sins was also made. Wondrous love! It is the revelation of what God is. The love has been manifested — love acting out its own nature without anything in us to call it forth, save our guilty need; nay, there was everything to drive it back, had it been possible. “God is love.” And we have seen and known the love as those who have been brought to Him; but life had to be possessed, and sins expiated, before we could either enjoy what God is, or be in His holy presence. And this could be only through the Mediator, God’s only begotten Son, our Redeemer. God’s love has been manifested in giving Him. He came to do God’s will, and doing this will involved making propitiation for our sins. He was sent to do this. He could do it, and He only. He did His Father’s will, and drank the cup. He paid the full penalty of our guilt. But oh, what a price! Who can estimate its value? Who can fathom the sorrows of Golgotha? Who can tell what passed through the holy soul of our Redeemer as He drank the cup — derided by enemies; forsaken by disciples; lover and friend far from Him; “made sin,” though sinless; iniquities, the sins of His people, laid on Him; the sword of Jehovah awaking and smiting; Jehovah bruising; the light gone; forsaken of God — oh! who can tell?
The sorrow, the agony, the horror of darkness, we shall never fathom, never know. Blessed be God, we shall know the results for us in eternal blessedness and glory, with and like Him who suffered thus for us, to make propitiation for our sins! And He shall have His eternal delight and joy in us too — “shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” (Isa 53:1111He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)). “Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5-65And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5‑6)).
I would add that where it is said He was “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:2121For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)), or sent “for sin” (Rom. 8:33For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3)), it is a different thought from propitiation. Propitiation, though not limited to “sins,” is “for the whole world.” “Propitiation” and “substitution” both have reference to “sins.” The former expresses the God-ward aspect of Christ’s atoning work, and the latter expresses the man-ward aspect.
“Propitiation” is seen in the goat on which Jehovah’s lot fell, and whose blood was carried into the sanctuary, and put on and before the mercy seat to meet the requirements of the throne and majesty of Jehovah, and by which the sanctuary was cleansed.
“Substitution” is seen in the goat on whose head the high priest, as the representative of the people, laid his hands, confessing “over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel,” thus transferring them to the goat, as it is said, “putting them upon the head of the goat,” which, as a scapegoat, bore them away.
On the one hand Christ glorified God about our sins in the shedding of His blood. This is a propitiation. On the other hand He confessed the sins of His people as His own and bore them away in death. This is substitution. His resurrection is the witness that the sins are gone, and that God has been glorified. He “was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father.” (Rom. 6:44Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4).) Propitiation is for “sins,” but in the passages just referred to it is not “sins,” but “sin.” In Romans 8:33For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3), it is distinctly stated, “Condemned sin in the flesh,” not “sins.” On the ground of propitiation we are pardoned. The sins are forgiven in virtue of the atonement, or satisfaction that Christ has rendered to God. But “sin in the flesh” is not forgiven, but “condemned” in the death of Christ. “Sin in the flesh,” is not what we have done. It is our state, but a state out of which springs incorrigible “enmity against God,” and insubjection to His law (Rom. 8:77Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (Romans 8:7)), and therefore it cannot be bettered, but only “condemned.” God has condemned it in the sacrifice of Christ, and thus we personally escape condemnation. (Rom. 8:11There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1).) Christ’s death, in which “sin in the flesh” was condemned, was for us, so that we can say we have died with Him. We account ourselves to have died unto sin, and to live unto God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 6:1111Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:11).) This is our deliverance from sin in His death — sin put away according to what God is as Light, and love having its own way in saving the guilty, and bringing many sons to glory — this will form the key note to our praise and worship in the scene where He will rest in His love, and we with Him, the objects of His eternal love and delight in Christ.
Even now we raise the song of praise.
Affectionately your brother in Christ,