It is difficult to conceive of another term that paints so clear a picture of the scope of our salvation as does the word propitiation. Vincent describes this word as “the key to the conception of Christ’s atoning work.” The word is used in the Septuagint of the mercy-seat, from which usage is derived its significance. The Puritan John Owen mentions four components in propitiation. He suggests that propitiation includes:
1. An offense to be taken away. That by virtue of His holiness, God hates sin is a truth beyond question. The Book of Proverbs provides a list of concrete offenses so broad in scope as to represent sin as a whole. The Word declares: “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination to him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren” (6:16-19). Simply stated a cardinal and incontrovertible truth of the Word is that the holy character of God abominates sin and demands its just punishment.
2. A person offended who needs to be pacified. Few scriptural truths are clearer or more ignored today than that God is inalterably offended by sin. The modern church has rejected the biblical notion that a holy God has but one response to sin: judgment. As proof of this truth, John explains that “he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (3:36). Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18); also, “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). The writer of Hebrews quotes the Lord Himself: “So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest” (3:11). And John, speaking of the approaching Battle of Armageddon, describes the returning Christ as “he [that] treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (19:15). Clearly, God is wrathful toward sin.
3. An offending person, one guilty of the offence. The Word of God makes clear that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and that sin is offense against a holy God who has declared that “all the world . . . [is] guilty before” Him (Rom. 3:19). That man can do nothing to correct this offense is made clear by God’s declaration that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:12).
4. A sacrifice or some other means of making atonement for the offence. Of course, where sin and the God of the Bible are concerned, the only means of atonement is by sacrifice. The stellar statement of this truth is found in Hebrews: “And without shedding of blood is no remission” (9:22). In other words, God cannot forgive sin apart from a propitiatory sacrifice.
God is offended by sin. But in the case of our sin, God has provided a sacrifice through the vicarious suffering and death of Christ. In love, mercy, and grace, He has provided the sacrifice necessary to meet the demands of His holy justice. Wonderfully, it is the Old Testament book of Isaiah that gloriously describes the propitiatory work of Christ: “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him [Christ]; he [God] hath put him [Christ] to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin . . . He [God] shall see of the travail of his [Christ’s] soul, and shall be satisfied” (53:10, 11).
Propitiation, then, declares that God’s holiness is satisfied by the finished and perfect cross work of Jesus Christ, and the believing sinner saved through faith in that blessed reality.
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