Theology Thursday: Propitiation

By Mark R. Kreitzer, PhD

Woman reads Bible intently

Propitiation has been much debated over the last century with theologians swinging from one extreme to the other on this crucial Gospel teaching. Some emphasize a wrathful and terrifying God, and others that he is only a God of love. Those who highlight his wrath often use the fire of hell as a means to scare people into the Kingdom. Others proclaim that God’s love woos people into it. The truth of the matter is that God is both – fully loving and just.

Perfect Love and Justice at The Cross

A beautiful example of the balance of God’s perfect love and justice is found in the account of Moses asking to see God’s glory. The Lord told Moses that if he had a direct vision of his glory he would be consumed. So God hid him in a crack of the rock and put his “hand” over it so that Moses could only see the back side of his glory. While God was passing he spoke, though Moses never saw a form. Seven times he spoke of his mercy, patience, loving kindness and forgiveness. Four times he proclaimed his justice and commitment to holding humans accountable for their sins (Exodus 33-34). Paul highlights this truth in Romans 8. He says that for those in Christ, God’s Spirit reveals himself as a Spirit of love and adoption. Since God’s wrath and justice have been satisfied, they no longer have a spirit of slavish terror in God’s presence.

The most beautiful example, however, of his perfect love and justice, is found in the propitiation at the cross. The word propitiation ultimately means satisfying God’s just wrath against human rebellion. Many of the Old Testament sacrifices prefigured the coming Christ, the Lamb of God without “blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19, ESV). John the Baptist described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). His blood bought “a multitude from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelations 7:9). The apostle John also explained propitiation: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1b-2).

Paul and Propitiation in Romans

Finally, Paul explains this crucial doctrine in Romans 1-3. He shows that the Creator is the God of justice, whose just zeal (wrath) is revealed from heaven against all wickedness and ungodliness of people who deliberately suppress his truth (Romans 1:18). As a result of human rebellion, God’s justice turns them over to the foolish, impure and depraved motivations of their darkened hearts. Paul next explains in chapter two that God’s just zeal against human rebellion is stored up for the day of judgment. Paul gives the solution in chapter three. It is not scaring people with wrath so that they might be good enough to get into heaven. Instead, Paul’s Gospel proclaims that the blood of Christ bought redemption and satisfied all of God’s just demands (propitiation) upon his beloved people. He requires perfect obedience and a just death penalty against those who treasonously join Satan’s rebellion. Jesus satisfies divine justice by offering up himself as that perfect, substitutionary sacrifice (Romans 3:26). Those who take refuge in the “hand” of Christ and of his Father are forever sheltered from the blast of God’s infinite glory just like Moses (John 10:27-30).

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