Propitiation, what is a Propitiatory Sacrifice? by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
In this study, we will look at the biblical teaching regarding propitiation. Christ’s sacrifice was a propitiatory sacrifice. What does this mean?
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence, and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live. May God be glorified always!
a sacrifice that satisfies the wrath of God and thus averts God’s wrath toward sinners. *
This means the turning away of wrath by an offering. It is similar to expiation but expiation does not carry the nuances involving wrath. For the Christian the propitiation was the shed blood of Jesus on the cross. It turned away the wrath of God so that He could pass “over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:25). It was the Father who sent the Son to be the propitiation (1 John 4:10) for all (1 John 2:2). **
From Scripture on Propitiation:
“And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:9-10)
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:4)
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” (Romans 3:25)
“Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17 NAS)
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
From Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explaining Romans 3:25:
Whom God hath set forth – Margin, “Fore-ordained” (προέθετο proetheto). The word properly means, “to place in public view;” to exhibit in a conspicuous situation, as goods are exhibited or exposed for sale, or as premiums or rewards of victory were exhibited to public view in the games of the Greeks. It sometimes has the meaning of decreeing, purposing, or constituting, as in the margin (compare Romans 1:13; Ephesians 1:9); and many have supposed that this is its meaning here. But the connection seems to require the usual signification of the word; and it means that God has publicly exhibited Jesus Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of people. This public exhibition was made by his being offered on the cross, in the face of angels and of people. It was not concealed; it was done openly. He was put to open shame; and so put to death as to attract toward the scene the eyes of angels, and of the inhabitants of all worlds.
To be a propitiation – ἱλαστήριον hilastērion. This word occurs but in one other place in the New Testament. Hebrews 9:5, and over it (the ark) the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy-seat. It is used here to denote the lid or cover of the ark of the covenant. It was made of gold, and over it were the cherubim. In this sense it is often used by the Septuagint Exodus 25:17, “And thou shalt make a propitiatory ἱλαστήριον hilastērion of gold,” Exodus 18-20, 22; Exodus 30:6; Exodus 31:7; Exodus 35:11; Exodus 37:6-9; Exodus 40:18; Leviticus 16:2, Leviticus 16:13. The Hebrew name for this was כפּרת kaphoreth, from the verb כּפר kaaphar, “to cover” or “to conceal.” It was from this place that God was represented as speaking to the children of Israel. Exodus 25:22, “and I will speak to thee from above the Hilasterion, the propitiatory, the mercy-seat. Leviticus 16:2, “For I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy-seat.” This seat, or cover, was covered with the smoke of the incense, when the high priest entered the most holy place, Leviticus 16:13.
And the blood of the bullock offered on the great day of atonement, was to be sprinkled “upon the mercy-seat,” and “before the mercy-seat,” “seven times,” Leviticus 16:14-15. This sprinkling or offering of blood was called making “an atonement for the holy place because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel,” etc. Leviticus 16:16. It was from this mercy-seat that God pronounced pardon, or expressed himself as reconciled to his people. The atonement was made, the blood was sprinkled, and the reconciliation thus effected. The name was thus given to that cover of the ark, because it was the place from which God declared himself reconciled to his people. Still the inquiry is, why is this name given to Jesus Christ? In what sense is he declared to be a propitiation? It is evident that it cannot be applied to him in any literal sense. Between the golden cover of the ark of the covenant and the Lord Jesus, the analogy must be very slight, if any such analogy can be perceived. We may observe, however,
(1) That the main idea, in regard to the cover of the ark called the mercy-seat, was that of God’s being reconciled to his people; and that this is the main idea in regard to the Lord Jesus whom “God hath set forth.”
(2) this reconciliation was effected then by the sprinkling of blood on the mercy-seat, Leviticus 16:15-16. The same is true of the Lord Jesus – by blood.
(3) in the former case it was by the blood of atonement; the offering of the bullock on the great day of atonement, that the reconciliation was effected, Leviticus 16:17-18. In the case of the Lord Jesus it was also by blood; by the blood of atonement. But it was by his own blood. This the apostle distinctly states in this verse.
(4) in the former case there was a sacrifice, or expiatory offering; and so it is in reconciliation by the Lord Jesus. In the former, the mercy-seat was the visible, declared place where God would express his reconciliation with his people. So in the latter, the offering of the Lord Jesus is the manifest and open way by which God will be reconciled to people.
(5) in the former, there was joined the idea of a sacrifice for sin, Leviticus 16. So in the latter. And hence, the main idea of the apostle here is to convey the idea of a sacrifice for sin; or to set forth the Lord Jesus as such a sacrifice. Hence, the word “propitiation” in the original may express the idea of a propitiatory sacrifice, as well as the cover to the ark. The word is an adjective, and may be joined to the noun sacrifice, as well as to denote the mercy-seat of the ark. This meaning accords also with its classic meaning to denote a propitiatory offering, or an offering to produce reconciliation. Christ is thus represented, not as a mercy-seat, which would be unintelligible; but as the medium, the offering, the expiation, by which reconciliation is produced between God and man.
Through faith – Or by means of faith. The offering will be of no avail without faith. The offering has been made; but it will not be applied, except where there is faith. He has made an offering which may be efficacious in putting away sin; but it produces no reconciliation, no pardon, except where it is accepted by faith.
In his blood – Or in his death – his bloody death. Among the Jews, the blood was regarded as the seat of life, or vitality. Leviticus 17:11, “the life of the flesh is in the blood.” Hence, they were commanded not to eat blood. Genesis 9:4, “but flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:23; 1 Samuel 14:34. This doctrine is contained uniformly in the Sacred Scriptures. And it has been also the opinion of not a few celebrated physiologists, as well in modern as in ancient times. The same was the opinion of the ancient Parsees and Hindus. Homer thus often speaks of blood as the seat of life, as in the expression πορφυρεος θανατος porphureos thanatos, or “purple death.” And Virgil speaks of “purple life,”
Purpuream vomit ille animam.
AEniad, ix. 349.
Empedocles and Critias among the Greek philosophers, also embraced this opinion. Among the moderns, Harvey, to whom we are indebted for a knowledge of the circulation of the blood, fully believed it. Hoffman and Huxham believed it Dr. John Hunter has fully adopted the belief, and sustained it, as he supposed, by a great variety of considerations. See Good’s Book of Nature, pp. 102, 108, New York edition, 1828. This was undoubtedly the doctrine of the Hebrews; and hence, with them to shed the blood was a phrase signifying to kill; hence, the efficacy of their sacrifices was supposed to consist in the blood, that is, in the life of the victim. Hence, it was unlawful to eat it, as it were the life, the seat of vitality; the more immediate and direct gift of God. When, therefore, the blood of Christ is spoken of in the New Testament, it means the offering of his life as a sacrifice, or his death as an expiation. His life was given to make atonement. See the word “blood” thus used in Romans 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:12, Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 13:12; Revelation 1:5; 1 Peter 1:19; 1 John 1:7. By faith in his death as a sacrifice for sin; by believing that he took our sins; that he died in our place; by thus, in some sense, making his offering ours; by approving it, loving it, embracing it, trusting it, our sins become pardoned, and our souls made pure.
To declare – εἰς ἔνδειξις eis endeixis. For “the purpose” of showing, or exhibiting; to present it to man. The meaning is, that the plan was adopted; the Saviour was given; he suffered and died: and the scheme is proposed to people, for the purpose of making a full manifestation of his plan, in contradistinction from all the plans of people. (1)
PROPITIATION from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
1. Terms and Meaning:
The word is Latin and brings into its English use the atmosphere of heathen rites for winning the favor, or averting the anger, of the gods. In the Old Testament it represents a number of Hebrew words–ten, including derivatives–which are sufficiently discussed under ATONEMENT (which see), of which propitiation is one aspect. It represents in Septuagint the Greek stems hilask- (hile-), and katallag-, with derivatives; in the New Testament only the latter, and is rarely used. Propitiation needs to be studied in connection with reconciliation, which is used frequently in some of the most strategic sentences of the New Testament, especially in the newer versions in Hebrews 2:17, the English Revised Version and the American Standard Revised Version have both changed “reconciliation” of the King James Version to “propitiation,” to make it correspond with the Old Testament use in connection with the sacrifice on the DAY OF ATONEMENT (which see). Luke 18:13 (“God, be thou merciful (margin “be propitiated”) to me the sinner” (the American Standard Revised Version margin)); Hebrews 8:12 (quoted from the Septuagint); and Matthew 16:22 (an idiomatic asseveration like English “mercy on us”) will help in getting at the usage in the New Testament. In Septuagint hilasterion is the term for the “mercy-seat” or “lid of the ark” of the covenant which was sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement. It is employed in exactly this sense in Hebrews 9:5, where later versions have in the margin “the propitiatory.”
Elsewhere in the New Testament this form is found only in Romans 3:25, and it is here that difficulty and difference are found extensively in interpreting. Greek fathers generally and prominent modern scholars understand Paul here to say that God appointed Christ Jesus to be the “mercy-seat” for sinners. The reference, while primarily to the Jewish ceremonial in tabernacle and temple, would not depend upon this reference for its comprehension, for the idea was general in religious thought, that some place and means had to be provided for securing friendly meeting with the Deity, offended by man’s sin. In Hebrews particularly, as elsewhere generally, Jesus Christ is presented as priest and sacrifice. Many modern writers (compare Sanday and Headlam), therefore, object that to make Him the “mercy-seat” here complicates the figure still further, and so would understand hilasterion as “expiatory sacrifice.” While this is not impossible, it is better to take the word in the usual sense of “mercy-seat.” It is not necessary to complicate the illustration by bringing in the idea of priest at all here, since Paul does not do so; mercy-seat and sacrifice are both in Christ. Hilasmos, is found in the New Testament only in 1John 2:2; 4:10. Here the idea is active grace, or mercy, or friendliness. The teaching corresponds exactly with that in Romans. “Jesus Christ the righteous” is our “Advocate (margin “Helper”) with the Father,” because He is active mercy concerning (peri) our sins and those of the whole world. Or (Romans 4:10), God “loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for (active mercy concerning) our sins.” This last passage is parallel with Romans 3:25, the one dealing with the abstract theory, and so Christ is set forward as a “mercy-seat,” the other dealing with experience of grace, and so Christ is the mercy of God in concrete expression.
2. Theological Implication:
The basal idea in Hebrew terms is that of covering what is offensive, so restoring friendship, or causing to be kindly disposed. The Greek terms lack the physical reference to covering but introduce the idea of friendliness where antagonism would be natural; hence, graciousness. Naturally, therefore, the idea of expiation entered into the concept. It is especially to be noted that all provisions for this friendly relation as between God and offending man find their initiation and provision in God and are under His direction, but involve the active response of man. All heathen and unworthy conceptions are removed from the Christian notion of propitiation by the fact that God Himself proposed, or “set forth,” Christ as the “mercy-seat,” and that this is the supreme expression of ultimate love. God had all the while been merciful, friendly, “passing over” man’s sins with no apparently adequate, or just, ground for doing so. Now in the blood of Christ sin is condemned and expiated, and God is able to establish and maintain His character for righteousness, while He continues and extends His dealing in gracious love with sinners who exercise faith in Jesus. The propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify Himself in His uniform kindness to men deserving harshness. Compare also as to reconciliation, as in Romans 5:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18.
See also JOHANNINE THEOLOGY, V, 2.
Besides the comms., the literature is the same as for ATONEMENT, to recent works on which add Stalker, The Atonement; Workman, At Onement, or Reconciliation with God; Moberly, in Foundations, Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought. William Owen Carver (2)
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary:
1. (n.) The act of appeasing the wrath and conciliating the favor of an offended person; the act of making propitious.
2. (n.) That which propitiates; atonement or atoning sacrifice; specifically, the influence or effects of the death of Christ in appeasing the divine justice, and conciliating the divine favor.
2434. hilasmos — propitiation
propitiation. Part of Speech: Noun, Masculine Transliteration: hilasmos Phonetic
Spelling: (hil-as-mos’) Short Definition: a propitiation, atoning sacrifice …
3722a. kaphar — to cover over, pacify, make propitiation
3722, 3722a. kaphar. 3722b. to cover over, pacify, make propitiation.
Transliteration: kaphar Short Definition: atonement. Word …
Propitiation by John Murray:
This fact does not mean, however, that the atoning work of Christ is not to be interpreted in terms of propitiation.5 There are passages in which the language of propitiation is expressly applied to the work of Christ (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; I John 2:2; 4:10). And this means, without question, that the work of Christ is to be construed as propitiation. But there is also another consideration. The frequency with which the concept appears in the Old Testament in connection with the sacrificial ritual, the fact that the New Testament applies to the work of Christ the very term which denoted this concept in the Greek Old Testament, and the fact that the New Testament regards the Levitical ritual as providing the pattern for the sacrifice of Christ lead to the conclusion that this is a category in terms of which the sacrifice of Christ is not only properly but necessarily interpreted. In other words, the idea of propitiation is so woven into the fabric of the Old Testament ritual that it would be impossible to regard that ritual as the pattern of the sacrifice of Christ if propitiation did not occupy a similar place in the one great sacrifice once offered. This is but another way of saying that sacrifice and propitiation stand in the closest relations with one another. The express application of the term “propitiation” to the work of Christ by the New Testament writers is the confirmation of this conclusion.
But what does propitiation mean? In the Hebrew of the Old Testament it is expressed by a word which means to “cover.” In connection with this covering there are, in particular, three things to be noted:
1. it is in reference to sin that the covering takes place;
2. the effect of this covering is cleansing and forgiveness;
3. it is before the Lord that both the covering and its effect take place (cf. especially lev. 4:35; 10:17; 16:30).
This means that sin creates a situation in relation to the Lord, a situation that makes the covering necessary. It is this Godward reference of both the sin and the covering that must be fully appreciated. It may be said that the sin, or perhaps the person who has sinned, is covered before the sight of the lord. In the thought of the Old Testament there is but one construction that we can place upon this provision of the sacrificial ritual. It is that sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin, and the covering is that which provides for the removal of divine displeasure which the sin evokes. It is obvious that we are brought to the threshold of that which is clearly denoted by the Greek rendering in both Old and New Testaments, namely, that of propitiation. To propitiate means to “placate,” “pacify,” “appease,” “conciliate.” And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ.
Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people.
Perhaps no tenet respecting the atonement has been more violently criticized than this one.6 It has been assailed as involving a mythological conception of God, as supposing internal conflict in the mind of God and between the persons of the Godhead. It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.
When the doctrine of propitiation is presented in this light it can be very effectively criticized and can be exposed as a revolting caricature of the Christian gospel. But the doctrine of propitiation does not involve this caricature by which it has been misconceived and misrepresented. To say the least, this kind of criticism has failed to understand or appreciate some elementary and important distinctions.
First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love. It is loose thinking of a deplorable sort to claim that propitiation of the divine wrath does prejudice to or is incompatible with the fullest recognition that the atonement is the provision of the divine love.
Secondly, propitiation is not a turning of the wrath of God into love. The propitiation of the divine wrath, effected in the expiatory work of Christ, is the provision of God’s eternal and unchangeable love, so that through the propitiation of his own wrath that love may realize its purpose in a way that is consonant with and to the glory of the dictates of his holiness. It is one thing to say that the wrathful God is made loving. That would be entirely false. It is another thing to say the wrathful God is loving. That is profoundly true. But it is also true that the wrath by which he is wrathful is propitiated through the cross. This propitiation is the fruit of the divine love that provided it. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). The propitiation is the ground upon which the divine love operates and the channel through which it flows in achieving its end.
Thirdly, propitiation does not detract from the love and mercy of God; it rather enhances the marvel of his love. For it shows the cost that redemptive love entails. God is love. But the supreme object of that love is himself. And because he loves himself supremely he cannot suffer what belongs to the integrity of his character and glory to be compromised or curtailed. That is the reason for the propitiation. God appeases his own holy wrath in the cross of Christ in order that the purpose of his love to lost men may be accomplished in accordance with and to the vindication of all the perfections that constitute his glory. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood to show his righteousness . . . that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26). (3)
Confessional support from the Belgic Confession, Article 21:
We believe that Jesus Christ is a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek— made such by an oath— and that he presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted.
For it is written that “the chastisement of our peace” was placed on the Son of God and that “we are healed by his wounds.” He was “led to death as a lamb”; he was “numbered among sinners” and condemned as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, though Pilate had declared that he was innocent.
Since man is utterly incapable of satisfying God’s justice except by compensation in hell, there’s no amount of good works, or sacrifices, or gifts that man could offer that would appease the wrath of God or satisfy His justice. The only satisfaction, or propitiation, that would be acceptable to God which could reconcile man to Himself had to be provided by God Himself. “And Abraham said, my son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together” (Genesis 22:8). “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God,’ who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)! “But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Christ, came into the world in human flesh to be the perfect sacrifice for sin and make atonement or propitiation for the sins of His people.
“The idea of propitiation – that is, of averting God’s anger by an offering – runs right through the Bible.” – J.I. Packer
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Romans, p. 2081-2083.
2. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘Propitiation,’” “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,” (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), pp. 2467.
3. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company 1955), p.29-32.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
*** Reformed answers http://reformedanswers.org/