Theology Thursday: Expiation

Woman hands enclasps a male hand

The New Testament teaches—and Christians experience confirms—a dynamic and subjective experience with Jesus our Lord is both real and personal (Ephesians 6:24). Even more importantly, the Christian faith claims Jesus Christ has accomplished a once-for-all objective work for our salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)—a work without which the dynamic and subjective experience would neither be real nor relational. Thus, the atoning work of Christ is essential to our faith confession and exclusive claim that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). This article examines a key term associated with this atoning work of power and purpose: expiation.

Sadly, insupportable approaches to God’s forgiveness of sin abound today. For instance, God’s forgiveness being equated with a fairy godmother waving her “magic wand”or a cosmic genie “winking at sin.” Such views radically fail to understand God’s righteousness, holiness and greatness. Conversely, envisioning God as a bloodthirsty deity—or a pagan god entirely indifferent to human frailty and suffering—drastically undervalues God’s goodness, compassion and mercy. Scripture paints a picture far removed from these extreme (and sometimes popularized) notions.

While several terms used in the Bible explain God’s forgiveness of sin (sometimes from different angles), the term “expiation” points to one vital aspect: the removal of sin—the obstacle to the relationship between God and human beings. Debate among scholars centers on underlying Hebrew and Greek atonement-related terms having to do with Jesus’ sacrificial death and whether it involved a) averting God’s anger and wrath (propitiation) or b) covering and forgiving our sin (expiation). Another way to think of this is whether the sacrifice of Christ Jesus was a) God-toward or b) human-toward. Not surprisingly, biblical scholars and theologians tend to side with either a) or b). But perhaps this is a needless bifurcation. When it comes to the reconciling—and relational—work of God, both propitiation and expiation occur necessarily.

But why (some might ask) must we maintain both as true? Can we not simply “expiate” propitiation or “propitiate” expiation? Not so fast. Here’s why. First, because God is personal, a propitiation is necessary. John Stott explains:

Sin arouses the wrath of God . . . his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations. In short, God’s anger is poles apart from ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours (1986, 173).

Second, who actually accomplishes this propitiation—and therefore expiation—matters! Jesus, the Son of God: God incarnate. Thus, this is not the work of any mere human being, but rather God himself! And this should give us great comfort . . . our sins are forgiven—expiated—because they are taken away by God, not by us.

1 John 4:10 has been differently interpreted by Christian scholars—often depending on their preference for propitiation or expiation! I give three plausible translations here for your consideration. Regardless which way one settles on for interpreting this verse (and remember, context matters), we see a great work of God—one that perhaps ought to remind us that propitiation and expiation belong together: (1) “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (NIV); (2) “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” (ESV); (3) “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (RSV).

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.