Propitiation – Removing God’s Anger

 

Described

 

The word “propitiation” used in the New Testament means “to turn away the righteous anger of God we deserved by an offering of sufficient value”. Another description is “the offering of a sacrifice or gift of suitable cost in order to pacify the wrath of God.” The offering or sacrifice here referred to is the death of Jesus Christ.

 

Propitiation in the Old Testament

 

In the Old Testament, atonement for sin by blood sacrifice included turning away God’s wrath or anger against sin. This wrath of God against sinners and their sin is spoken of 585 times in the Old Testament. [1] Atonement for sin that did not include propitiation – removal of God’s anger – would be a very incomplete thing. It would result in a person being forgiven of their sins, with God still remaining very angry with them.

Imagine God saying, “I totally forgive you of your sins but I am still extremely angry with you because of these.” But Psalm 103:8-12 shows when God forgives, He also stops being angry with the sinning person: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Micah 7:18-20 has similar verses.

We would be wasting our time if we tried ourselves to find some way to pacify God’s anger against us in relation to our sins. God Himself is the One Who lovingly has provided the means – the death of the innocent sacrifice Jesus Christ – by which God’s wrath is removed.

 

Propitiation Explained

 

In Genesis 32:20, we see Jacob tried to appease the deserved wrath of his brother Esau by offering him costly presents. But in relation to God’s wrath against humans, we do not have anything about ourselves or a possession of sufficient value to offer to Him as a sacrifice to appease His wrath against us because of our sins. This is why in love, God had to provide a sacrifice of suitable cost on our behalf.

God appeased His own anger towards sinners through Jesus Christ’s vicarious and expiatory sacrifice. The word “vicarious” means “done for another” or “substituting for someone else”. Later, I will define “expiation”.

As a result of His wrath being turned away, God can now show mercy and grace to any sinner who receives Jesus as Lord and Saviour by faith and repentance.

Most Christians believe God loves all unbelievers. But some find it very difficult to accept He is also extremely angry with the same unbelievers at the same time. Such Christians fail to understand God’s wrath is itself one expression of His love. In love, He is extremely angry about:

 

         how sin is destroying those who are ruled by it.

         how sinners have rejected His offer of wonderful grace and mercy. Romans 2:4-5 emphasises: “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God.”

 

Matthew 22:1-7 and Luke 14:16-21 record parables about God’s anger with those who rejected His invitation into His kingdom. Note Matthew 22:7 says the father was furious with these who rejected His invitation.

Jesus had to die on the Cross so God’s wrath against sinning humans could be turned away or appeased. The word “appeased” means “pacified, soothed, quieted or reduced to a state of peace”.

Because the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches use to overemphasise the Biblical teaching about the wrath of God towards sinners, many modern churchgoers have greatly overreacted against this. The latter people claim that because God loves all unbelievers, He is not angry with them because of their sins. Such attitudes are opposed to what Paul and other New Testament authors wrote.

In Romans 1:18, Ephesians 2:1-4, 1 Thessalonians 2:16, John 3:36, Revelation 14:9-10 and 19:15, the Apostles Paul and John showed God is wrathful or angry with sinning unbelievers. Romans 1:18 says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” John 3:36 states: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

 

Some people misunderstand God’s love

 

Those who are repelled by the teaching that God is very angry with unrepentant evildoers and their evil actions and who claim that God’s love is so great that it prevents Him from being angry with people who will not turn from their known sins to Him, fail to understand that:

 

a)        one aspect of God’s love is His right hatred of all evil and wickedness. God would be wicked Himself if He did not intensely hate all evil.

b)        1 John 4:9-10 shows that God’s love results in His hatred of evil expressing itself in His anger being poured out on Jesus Christ on the Cross.

 

People who are repelled by the teaching that God is very angry with unrepentant evildoers and their wicked actions, do not hate evil to the degree that God does.

 

Jesus is Our Propitiation

 

Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 reveal Jesus Christ is our propitiation. God provided Jesus as the means of removing or appeasing God’s anger against us because of our sins.

Romans 3:25 says of Jesus Christ: “Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood…” 1 John 4:10 reveals Jesus Christ being sent as our propitiation is an indication of God’s enormous love towards us: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Note the Greek words translated in the New King James Version as “propitiation” in Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 include not only propitiation. Refer to my section “Relevant Greek words about propitiation” for more details.

Jesus Christ bore the full fury of God’s wrath against not just one or two or a hundred or a million humans, but against every sinful human who has ever existed. This was so He could save us from His wrath, without Him being unjust in His judging of evil.

 

The marvellous benefits of propitiation

 

One glorious benefit of Jesus Christ being our propitiation is that God is never wrathful or fiercely angry towards believers in the sense of condemning them to eternal punishment when they sin. God has poured all of His furious anger against us in relation to our sins on to Christ.

God is very displeased whenever Christians sin knowingly or unknowingly (see Revelation 2:4-5, 14, 16, 20 and 22-23). God hates all evil and sin. But because Jesus has taken the full penalty related to God’s wrath against sinners, God’s displeasure about our sins as believers does not develop into a wrathful condemning of us to eternal punishment.

So wherever a believer sins, Jesus Christ stands as our propitiation before the Father to defend us from the Father’s just eternal condemnation of us because of our sins. 1 John 2:1-2 states: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the whole world.”

According to His justice and holiness, God should in furious anger, condemn and punish all sin immediately it is committed (see Hebrews 2:2 and Revelation 6:10). But because He decided the death of His Son on the Cross was a sufficient punishment to cover all the sins of every human who has ever lived or will live in the future, He can be without fierce anger towards believers when they sin without Him being unjust.

Jesus Christ is our propitiation in relation to both our known and hidden sins. If He is only our propitiation in relation to our known sins which we have specifically turned from, this would mean God in fierce anger would still eternally condemn us for all our hidden sins – those of which we are unaware. The slightest single hidden sin would be enough for God’s furious anger against all sin to be directed towards us.

In the New Testament era, believers are disciplined by the Lord through hardships (see Hebrews 12:7-11) and sometimes through the loving punishments of a Father (see 1 Corinthians 5:5, 11:27-34 and Hebrews 12:5-11). Acts 5:1-11 records the exceptional example of God punishing Ananias and Sapphira with physical death because of their lying. But this is different from being under God’s terrible eternal wrath.

Psalm 103:8-14 and Micah 7:18-20 reveal that when God forgives us our sins, He also ceases to be angry with us. So forgiveness is closely related to being saved from God’s anger against sinners and their sins.

One view suggests God is still mildly angry with believers when they sin. This is even though they will not experience the future full manifestation of His fury. The question then becomes: “What is the difference between God being displeased and mildly angry about believers’ sins?” The answer to this becomes a debate about word meanings. I may be wrong, but I prefer to say God is very displeased about believers’ sins but is not angry with them.

 

Errors about Propitiation

 

There are many different perspectives among Protestants. The main ones of these are Liberal-Modernist, Neo-Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal. Charismatic, High Church Anglican and Anglo-Catholic. Most Liberal Modernist and Neo-Orthodox Protestants reject the New Testament doctrine of propitiation.

Liberal Modernist Protestants are those who teach the Bible is not the Word of God but only contains the Word of God in some of its parts. Liberal Modernists vary among themselves but usually reject teachings such as Jesus’ virgin birth, His resurrection, His deity, His miracles and the existence of a personal Devil. They believe there is no place of eternal punishment and that all people including the most wicked will be saved. They often adapt Biblical morals about sexual matters to whatever the modern non-Christian society practices.

Neo-Orthodox teach we should interpret the Bible in terms of secular existentialist philosophy. They teach the Bible only becomes the Word of God when it is experienced by a person. Neo-Orthodox say the Bible is not objectively the Word of God itself and contains myths and errors in its teachings. Neo-Orthodox leaders have been Soren Kierkegaurd, Reinhold Niebuhr, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and John A.T. Robinson.

C.H. Dodd (1884-1973) was a British Congregational minister and New Testament scholar who was also a Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University (1930-1936) and Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (1936-1949) in England. After his retirement, he served as general director of the New English Bible translation. Dodd was a Neo-Orthodox theologian who wrote extensively against the New Testament doctrine of propitiation and he corrupted Bible teaching on God’s wrath. Dodd’s false ideas have directly and indirectly influenced many Protestant ministers and churchgoers.

In 1955, Roger Nicole wrote a comprehensive attack exposing Dodd’s false arguments (in “C.H. Dodd and The Doctrine of Propitiation”, Westminster Theological Journal, May 1955, 17:127-48.)

Typical of Neo-Orthodox theologians, Dodd believed the Bible contains some doctrinal errors. When commenting on the words of Jesus in the New Testament, Dodd stated, “We no longer accept a saying as authoritative because it lies before us as a word of Jesus”. [2] When commenting on Paul's teachings in the Book of Romans, Dodd said, “Sometimes I think Paul is wrong and I have ventured to say so” and “Adam is a myth (though for Paul he may have been real).” [3] It is little wonder Dodd could reject the Biblical doctrines of the wrath of God and propitiation so easily.

 

Relevant Greek words about propitiation

 

In the original Greek New Testament, the three words used to convey the teaching on propitiation are the verb “hilaskomai”, the noun “hilasmos” and the noun “hilasterion”.

Leon Morris has argued conclusively that “hilaskomai”, “hilasmos” and “hilasterion” in ordinary Greek always related to turning away wrath, saying, “as far as I know there are only two passages in the whole range of Greek literature that are suggested as possible exceptions and neither of these is convincing.” [4] In his book “The Apostle Preaching of the Cross”, [5] Morris shows how these two supposed exceptions demand a meaning of turning away of anger.

“Hilaskomai” means  “to appease, render propitious, make an atonement or expiation for, be gracious, show mercy, pardon” [6] or “propitiate, conciliate, be propitiated, be merciful or gracious, expiate”. [7] The word is used in Hebrews 2:17.

The King James Version translates “hilaskomai” in Hebrews 2:17 as “to make reconciliation”. The New King James and New American Standard Bible Versions translate “hilaskomai” in this verse as “to make propitiation”. The Amplified Version translates it in this verse as “to make atonement and propitiation”. The New International Version translates it as “make atonement” The Revised Standard Version translates it in this verse as “to make expiation”. The word “expiation” means “the payment of the penalty for sin”.

Vine says “‘hilaskomai’ was used amongst the Greeks with the significance ‘to make the gods propitious, to appease, propitiate’, in as much as their good will was not conceived as their natural attitude, but something to be earned first”. [8]

But God is good all the time, unlike the pagan Greek gods. Also, He is perfectly merciful and gracious by nature and does not need to have humans figuratively “to twist His arm” in order for Him to be this way. Also, His grace and mercy cannot be earned. Because of these facts, it is possible to unwisely argue the New Testament does not use “hilaskomai” and its associated words “hilasmos” and “hilasterion” in relation to propitiating or removing God’s anger against sinners and their sin through Jesus’ death.

But what the New Testament authors have done is use the Greek concept of propitiation in relation to the true God of perfect love, goodness, mercy and grace. These Greek words still carry much of their original meanings, but in relation to the right God.

“Hilasmos” means “expiation, propitiation, sin offering”. [9] “Hilasmos” is used in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The King James, New King James and New American Standard Bible Versions translate “hilasmos” as “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The New International Version translates “hilasmos” as “atoning sacrifice” in these two verses. The Revised Standard Version translates it as “expiation” in these two verses.

The context of 1 John 2:2 demands “hilasmos” be translated in a way which includes propitiation. This is because 1 John 2:1 refers to Jesus defending believers as an Advocate before God the Supreme Ruler and Judge when they sin. Jesus defends us from God’s anger against our sins. The context indicates we would be in trouble if Jesus did not defend us against God’s anger.

It is sad but true that most Bible teachers who do not like to translate “hilaskomai” in Hebrews 2:17 and “hilasmos” in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 in relation to propitiating or removing God’s great anger against sinners and their sins, usually also humanistically reject the teaching of the many New Testament verses on God’s wrath. Examples of New Testament verses which refer to God’s wrath in New Covenant times are John 3:36, Romans 1:18, 2:5, 2:8, 3:5, 4:15, 5:9, 12:19, Ephesians 2:3, 5:6, Colossians 3:6, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:16 and 5:9.

There has been much debate about the Greek meanings of the noun “hilasterion” used in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. The King James, The New King James, the New American Standard and Revised Standard Versions of the Bible translate “hilasterion” as “mercy-seat” in Hebrews 9:5, while the New International Version translates it as “atonement cover”.

The context of Hebrews 9:5 is in relation to the Ark of the Covenant found in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (see Hebrews 9:1-5). Add to this, note the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament – the Greek version used in Jesus’ time – used the word “hilasterion” 21 times to translate the Hebrew word “kapporet” which usually in English is rendered as “mercy seat”. [10] This is 21 times out of its 27 occurrences in the Septuagint. So the Hebrews 9:5 usage of “hilasterion” seems to rightly relate to the mercy seat or atonement lid on the Ark.

Note the Hebrew word “kapporet” is derived from the word “kapar”. “Kapar” means “to pacify, make propitiation, atone for sin and persons” [11] or “atone, expiate, propitiate…pacify”.[12] Wilson says of “kapar”, “This word conveys both the pacification of wrath, and of covering the transgression…” [13] These links between “kapporet” and “kapar” provide further evidence that “hilasterion” at least in some contexts partly relates to pacifying or removing God’s great anger against sinners and their sin.

Bauer says “hilasterion” means “that which expiates or propitiates… place of propitiation, mercy seat”. [14] The word “expiates” means “pays the penalty for sin or evil”. Brown, Driver and Briggs say “kapporet” means “propitiatory”. [15]

It is difficult in English to convey the full meaning of the Hebrew word “kapporet” and its Greek equivalent “hilasterion” in Hebrews 9:5. But it basically means “the place where the atoning (guilt-removing, punishment-removing, God’s anger-removing and reconciling) blood of the sacrificial substitute was offered to God.”

Romans 3:25 says Jesus is a “hilasterion”. This verse cannot be saying Jesus is literally or symbolically the mercy seat or atonement lid on the Ark of the Covenant. On the Day of Atonement, the substitutionary atoning sacrificial goat was not the mercy seat or atonement lid on the Ark, but had its blood sprinkled on it and before it (see Leviticus 16:15). Isaiah 53:10 reveals the goat sin offering symbolised Jesus Christ – God’s prophesied servant.

Also, note in the Septuagint Old Testament that “hilasterion” is used to translate other Hebrew words than just “kapporet”. For example, in Ezekiel 43:14, 17 and 20, “hilasterion” is used to translate the Hebrew word for the ledge on Ezekiel’s altar.

So if “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25 does not mean “mercy seat”, what does it mean? It is possible to translate “hilasterion” as “place of atonement” which is a better meaning of the Hebrew word “kapporet” than “mercy seat”. But the definition “place of atonement” does not bring out the fact that atonement in the Old Testament included removing God’s anger against sinners. Also note “hilasterion” was used in non-Biblical Greek for “a means to propitiate the anger of their gods”. [16]

Also, note the broader context of the early chapters of the Book of Romans shows “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25 refers to pacifying or removing God’s anger. This is because earlier in Romans 1:18, 2:5, 2:8 and 3:5, Paul stressed how very angry God was with sinners because of their sins. Unless the meaning of “hilasterion” includes` “propitiation”, Paul had told sinners they were under God’s wrath but God had left them in this terrible state. Paul uses other terms like redemption, justification, adoption and holiness to refer to what Jesus’ death has provided for believers. But none of these terms refer to the removal of God’s great anger against sinners.

The King James, New King James and New American Standard Bible versions translate “hilasterion” as “propitiation” in Romans 3:25. The New International Version translates it as “sacrifice of atonement”. The Revised Standard Version translates it as “expiation”. But none of the translations give the full expression of what “hilasterion” means. In the context of Romans 3:25, “hilasterion” seems to mean “a sacrifice of atonement which removes guilt and God’s punishment, pacifies His anger against sinners and reconciles them to Him, with the pacifying of His anger possibly being the most prominent feature.”

There are some things we need to note in studying the Greek words “hilasterion”, “hilasmos” and “hilaskomai”. First, we need to observe the Old Testament words “kapar” and “kapporet” are not exact equivalents to these three Greek words. The only possible exception to this is the Hebrews 9:5 equating of “hilasterion” with “kapporet”.

Secondly, we must remember the Septuagint Old Testament translation’s usages of these three Greek words may vary from the exact meanings of these same Greek words in some of their New Testament contexts.

Words in all languages often have various meanings in different situations. This is why it is little relevance finding some usages of these three Greek words in the Septuagint Old Testament which do not relate these words to removing God’s anger against sinners and their sins. This is especially since the verb “hilaskomai” is used in the Septuagint numerous times in relation to God’s wrath.

Speaking of the usages of “hilaskomai” in the Septuagint, Leon Morris says: “six times there is explicit mention of wrath in the immediate context, once the people are under sentence to death, twice the psalmist is greatly afflicted, and on the other occasion the action is that one above all others which the Old Testament regards as provoking God’s wrath (ie. idolatry). We cannot say that the concept of the wrath of God is certainly absent from any of these passages, and in every one the rendering ‘propitiate’ is quite appropriate. In the face of all this it is manifestly impossible to maintain that the verb has been emptied of its force. I do not see how an examination of the way any of the words from this word-group is used can get rid of the thought of the divine wrath. Translate how you will, the words are used of situations where God’s wrath against sin is being manifested, but as a result of the action this word-group denotes that wrath no longer operates. Do we have a better word than ‘propitiation’ for this?”

The Septuagint translates “salah”, the Hebrew word for “forgive” as “hilaskomai” in Lamentations 3:42. On the basis of this, some then wrongly say this proves “hilaskomai” in a Biblical context does not relate to propitiating God’s anger against sinners. But note in this context, “hilaskomai” does relate to propitiation. This can be seen in the fact the next verses – Lamentations 3:43-45 – relate to God’s great anger against sinners and their sin.

The Septuagint also sometimes translates Hebrew words having meanings like “cleanse from sin” or “to have mercy” as “hilaskomai” in Greek. [17] But this proves little considering the Septuagint also uses “hilaskomai” in contexts relating to removing God’s anger against sinners. This is similar to the various ways the New Testament uses the Greek word “soteria”. In some contexts, it means “salvation in general” and in others it has the more restricted meaning “physical healing”. The key is in what context it is used.

Thirdly, the fact in non-Biblical Greek these words are used to refer to earning the favour or removing the anger of pagan selfish gods does not mean such words as used in the New Testament infer we can earn God’s grace or He is selfish. The New Testament reapplies these Greek words to a loving merciful perfect God who hates all sin.

Elwell concludes well: “The words of the ‘hilaskomai’ group do not denote simple forgiveness or cancellation of sin, but that forgiveness or cancellation of sin which includes the turning away of God’s wrath.” [18]

 

Bible Study Questions

 

1.         Describe propitiation.

2.         Did atonement for sin in Old Testament times include propitiation? What verses prove this?

3.         Explain how God’s wrath as one expression of His love manifests itself.

4.         Which New Testament verses teach God is angry with sinning unbelievers?

5.         Discuss what the New Testament means when it records Jesus Christ is our propitiation.

6.         What are the marvellous benefits which Jesus Christ as our propitiation has provided for believers?

7.         Which major groups in the Church worldwide reject the Biblical teachings on God’s wrath and propitiation?

8.         Discuss the meanings of the Greek words “hilaskomai”, “hilasmos”, and “hilasterion” in the New Testament.


 


[1] Walter Elwell, “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1984, page 888.

[2] Charles H. Dodd, “The Authority of the Bible, page 233.

[3] Charles H. Dodd, “Epistle of Paul to the Romans”, XXXV and page 79.

[4] Leon Morris, “The Atonement – Its Meaning and Significance”, I.V.P., Leicester, 1983, page 153.

[5] Leon Morris, “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross”, W. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965, pages 145-147.

[6] Perschbacher, page 209.

[7] Bauer, page 375.

[8] Vine, page 493.

[9] Bauer, page 375.

[10] Douglas Moo, “The Epistle to the Romans”, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids. 1996, page 232.

[11] Brown, Driver and Briggs, page 497.

[12] Vine, page 195.

[13] Wilson, page 24.

[14] Bauer, page 375.

[15] Brown, Driver and Briggs, page 498.

[16] Leon Morris, “The Atonement – Its Meaning and Significance”, pages 161-162.

[17] Ibid, page 159.

[18] Elwell, page 888.

 

 


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