* First, I do not for a minute deny that God’s wrath is real and important. Indeed, Paul’s theological discourse in Romans begins with —
(Rom 1:18-19 NET) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
* Second, therefore, the question isn’t whether God’s wrath is real or theologically important. It’s how, not whether, the atonement deals with God’s wrath.
Is it a bribe or price paid to an angry deity to assuage his thirst for blood? Is it a redirection of God’s wrath from its intended object — humanity — toward a substitute: Jesus?
Think of it this way. Your child does something terrible. He lies. He steals. Somehow or other, he violates your deepest sense of morality and leaves you furious. How might his sin against you be atoned?
Does he bring you candy? Money? Does his innocent older brother promise to take the beating that he deserves? Or is there another solution entirely?
You see, the solution we find tells us a lot about your character. If you require a bribe, then you’re a terrible father. If you beat the older brother, well …
It’s an important question, you see. And the Bible answers it many ways, often very shorthanded, and we so we tend to fill in the gaps with our imaginations or lessons learned in some really bad sermons that distort the true image of God.
And when we have a distorted image of God, our entire relationship with him — our entire religion — gets messed up.
I don’t entirely know the answer, by the way. I often write these studies hoping — trusting — that something worthwhile comes out of the keyboard before I get done. I have confidence that the Scriptures will speak if read from a true perspective.
But I rather suspect that there are several threads that make up the answer, and that there are certain commonalities that bind those threads together, commonalities that will shed light on the character and nature of our God, our Abba.
Now, with that, we return to the topic at hand: propitiation.
In the ESV New Testament, three Greek words are translated “propitiation,” all coming from a common Greek root.
In Romans 3:25, “propitiation” translates hilastērion, a word borrowed from the Law of Moses.
(Rom 3:24-25 ESV) 24 and [we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
We begin by noting that Paul says that this propitiation is “put forward” by God, not Jesus. This is not an offering by Jesus to slake God’s need for vengeance, but the product of God’s own initiative “to show God’s righteousness,” that is, his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham.
Moreover, it’s put forward by God to those with faith — it’s a gift from God to his children, not a bribe paid by God’s children to calm his wrath.
“Put forward” translates protithēmi, meaning to put on public display. It’s used in the Old Testament primarily of the placing of the show bread in the Tabernacle as a sacrifice to God displayed to the people.
The mercy seat
Hilastērion appears in Exodus, where it’s translated “mercy seat” — the place where God resides above the Ark of the Covenant. Indeed, the word refers to the place where forgiveness is granted.
The mercy seat appears prominently in the ceremony for the Day of Atonement —
(Lev 16:15 ESV) 15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.”
The mercy seat receives the blood of the scapegoat, sacrificed for the sins of the people.
In short, the hilastērion is the place where forgiveness occurs in response to sacrifice, but there is nothing in the word to suggest that the hilastērion requites God’s desire for vengeance. Rather, it’s a place created at God’s instruction so that his people may have their sins cleansed.
Indeed, the hilastērion is at the very core of the tabernacle and, later, the Temple. God’s Shekinah — glory — dwelled there is a visible, blindingly bright cloud. And so, to call Jesus the hilastērion is to declare that Jesus himself replaces the Temple as the place where sacrifices are offered and forgiveness is granted — indeed, the place where God has a special dwelling on the earth.
N. T. Wright explains Jesus’ replacement of the Temple in this brief video —
— and, of course, the church — which is Jesus’ body on earth — takes on the same role, becoming not only the temple of the Holy Spirit but, because of that, the place where forgiveness is given, indeed, the very place where God’s Glory dwells in mercy.
Hence, Jesus took on the role once served by the Temple and then turned that role over to the church, but not merely the church, but the church joined with him as head of the body — as an extension of Jesus’ being and existence — and the Spirit as deity dwelling on earth within the church as Temple.
Therefore, to refer to Jesus as hilastērion unmistakably associates Jesus with the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Mercy Seat — the literal meaning of the word in the Septuagint. Jesus (and now his church) is where God dwells and grants atonement.
Thus, there is little here to suggest that the death of Jesus appeases God’s anger. Rather, God, in his love, gives Jesus to us, sacrificing him for us so that we might receive mercy and atonement in him.
In Hebrews, the author refers to Jesus making propitiation for our sins. “Propitiation” there translates hilaskomai.
(Heb 2:17 ESV) Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Of course, it was the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement at the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement.
This word is found in —
(Deu 21:8 ESV) Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’
The passage is speaking of the sacrifice of a heifer when a man is found slain and the killer is not known.
The same word is found in this familiar passage —
(2Ki 5:18 ESV) “In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.”
In short, in its Old Testament usage, the word carries the sense of forgiveness or relenting from punishment, but not slaking God’s desire for vengeance by paying a bribe or tribute.
More controversial are the uses of “propitiation” found in these passages from 1 John —
(1Jo 2:2 ESV) 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
(1Jo 4:10 ESV) 10 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.
But, again, we see that this is the kind of propitiation that God himself offers: “God … sent his Son to be the propitiation …”
We find this Greek word in the Old Testament in such passages as —
(Lev 25:9 ESV) Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land.
(Psa 130:4 ESV) But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
John chose a word meaning “atonement” or “forgiveness” in Old Testament usage.
Indeed, all three words are closely related, having the same Greek root. And none seems to mean — as used by Paul, the author of Hebrews, or John — “pay the price to satisfy the wrath of God” or “pay the price to satisfy God’s demand for human blood to be appeased.”