Atonement: Propitiation, Part 1

I guess I need to pause for a moment to clarify a couple of things.

* 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.”

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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22 Responses to Atonement: Propitiation, Part 1

  1. laymond says:

    “And when we have a distorted image of God, our entire relationship with him — our entire religion — gets messed up.”

    MAN HAS IT EVER !! When we preach Jesus,and Paul ahead of God, placing God “third” in line, there is something dreadfully wrong.

  2. Jerry says:

    Laymond, you are still singing the same song you have sung so often in the comments on this blog.

    Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:22-24, ESV)

    Jesus and the Father are like love and marriage: you can’t have one without the other!

    Jay, this post is a great reminder that the roots of theology in the epistles are in the Old Testament, not in the pagan temples! How true that our “propitiation” has no reference to the use of the hilastērion of the pagan temples and draws its significance from the mercy seat of the Tabernacle/Temple. Let’s learn to look to the LXX for the meanings of technical, theological words instead of to Pagan Practice and Pretensions!

  3. guy says:


    Have you read Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor?

    Or St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” (which is mostly concerned with the crucifixion)?


  4. laymond says:

    Jerry, this is at least twice you have insinuated I am anti-Christ nothing could be farther from the truth. If you can’t understand my comments please abstain from commenting on them. I can’t see how what I wrote was mistaken for anything that would deny Jesus as Christ. What I have written only confirms my belief that Jehovah God is the supreme power, yes I believe Jehovah God is God over Jesus, I believe Jesus as the Christ came into existence through the power of Jehovah God,Why do I believe that, because the bible tells me so.
    Hbr 5:4 And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as [was] Aaron.
    Hbr 5:5 So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.
    Hbr 5:6 As he saith also in another [place], Thou [art] a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
    Hbr 5:7 Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;
    Hbr 5:8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;
    Hbr 5:9 And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;
    Hbr 5:10 Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.

    Jerry, if you wish to continue to call Jesus, Jehovah God that is your choice, but please don’t accuse me of being the anti-Christ because I choose to believe the bible. I believe Jesus was the Son-of-God I believe he was sent by God to deliver a message, I believe the message he brought was true. As Jay said Jesus did not make the sacrifice, he was the sacrifice.

  5. rich constant says:

    ya know jay
    this idea to me enjoins so many fascists of the accomplishment of trinity”s deliverance into the new creation through god’s love for His Very Good creation,it is very hard just to start with the effect of that deliverance (atonement which brings forth a new covenant of promise, “eternal life with god through the spirit of his son) through the will of god accordance with the fulfillment of the prophets attesting ,when and where,this action the gospel of the kingdom of Christ the power of god unto salvation to the Jew first and which the nations would have hope is fully realized through the cross.. 1st cor 2.

  6. rich constant says:

    NOT LAW GAL3:21

    I used this Scripture as a Character Quality of Godliness.
    Mat 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye
    . , harmless as doves.
    . wise as serpents
    Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness:
    1:31 God saw all that he had made—and it was very good! There was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.
    34:5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there; and he made proclamation of the Lord by name. 34:6 And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 34:7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

    “Who told you that you were naked?
    Faith Defined
    The Trinity has an eternal plan initiated by the “Father”, which is accomplished by each of them in fellowship(love), in their own respects(HOPE), in regard to their agreed participation in the plan(FAITHFULNESS). Which while being accomplished would define themselves and exhibit the loving faithfulness required on their part. Which Exercise’s their loving kindness (love for that which is good ‘the Creation’), to which they are Responsible TO RESTORE(BRING ABOUT DELIVERANCE FROM CORRUPTION BECAUSE OF EVIL . Consequently, the recipients of the unmerited favor of fellowship (in the “Spirit”). Which has been revealed, Are obligated by and must correspondingly reciprocate in like Godly loving faithfulness, to facilitate the dynamic process of the eternal plan in godly fellowship

  7. Jerry says:

    Are you inferring that the Christ is a created being? Colossians 1:15-19 says:

    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell….

    This says quite clearly that our Lord created all things. Hebrews 1:1ff says much the same thing.

    In addition, passages that in the Old Testament refer to YA’WEH are quoted in the New to refer to Jesus in the flesh. Take for example, Isaiah 40:3 quoted in Matthew 3:3 or Malachi 2:17 – 3:4 quoted in Mark 1:2-3 where it is also linked with Isaiah 40:3.

    You do not exalt the Father by making Jesus less than He is: God in the flesh (see John 1:1-14).

    The early centuries of the church were stained with conflict over the exact relationship between the Father and the Son. I have no desire to rehash that debate, which resulted in much bloodshed with Christian killing Christian. I hold no animosity toward you, my brother – but when I see a hobby-horse I recognize it as such. In the future, I will not comment about yours – but I will still recognize it for what it is.

  8. Jerry says:

    One more thing, Laymond. You wrote, “When we preach Jesus and Paul ahead of God, placing God “third” in line, there is something dreadfully wrong.”

    I do not exalt Jesus or Paul ahead of God. I do not even equate Paul with God. I do recognize Jesus as having been equal with God, but laying that equality aside to become flesh (Philippians 2:5-11), which He still is, as our “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

    Many times we think of Jesus’ sacrifice being only at Golgotha; in reality, he sacrificed His equality with God to become a man. I believe that this is even greater than His death on the cross for our sins.

  9. rich constant says:

    Stoned-Campbell Disciple

    The musings of a Stoned-Campbell disciple trying to make his way through this present age in the hope of the New Heavens & New Earth
    Monday, July 02, 2012
    Does the New Testament call Jesus “God”?

    This post has a very limited goal. I do not intend to settle all questions that have been discussed by the Church down through the years. I do not intend to discuss the great Creeds of the Church that confess that Jesus is “true God of true God.” I intend to examine only texts that call or seem to call (directly) Jesus “God.” This, however, is not the total picture of the NT when it comes to the “deity” of Jesus — that would demand a much more comprehensive article. But I thought it worth the effort to put this post together.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    You are most perceptive. I have a post or two on Christus Victor coming.

  11. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for mentioning Bobby’s post. It inspired a future post or two in this series … and is an excellent read in its own right.

  12. laymond says:

    rich constant, I had an extensive discussion with Bobby V. years ago on this very subject Bobby has changed his tactics some at least he admits he “could be wrong” on some of his quotes, I maintain he is wrong on every one he quoted. Then and now the bible hasn’t changed. for every verse Bobby argued was positive proof, I furnished twice as many that he could not answer. We ended deadlocked just as we would today. I can show you in the bible where God called Moses a god to pharaoh— Exd 7:1 And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet. The same word is used to describe Moses as is used to describe Jehovah. Bobby had no answer for a lot of questions I ask him, because the answer does not exist in scripture. Seems he is still working on it though.

  13. laymond says:

    Jerry, you gave a great example of what I meant by Preaching Paul, instead of God. Jesus said he brought the word/logos of God the Father, did you use the gospel to bolster your argument, no instead you used the letters of Paul. (which is said to be hard to understand)
    You could have used some of John’s work, but it is hard to reconcile with your teachings.
    Jhn 10:29 My Father, which gave [them] me, is greater than all; ——- Jhn 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come [again] unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.
    Like I said you have to do, what you have to do.

  14. laymond says:

    Jerry said Laymond, Are you inferring that the Christ is a created being.
    Jerry, I can only go by what is printed in the bible. As my limited ability sees it, It is written that a baby was conceived by a woman through miraculous ways, was carried in the womb for 9 months, and born of natural birth, and commanded to be named Jesus. This baby was later ordained to be judge over all men. I believe Jesus physical body was created in a woman’s womb just as yours was. I would be stretching my knowledge if I were to say that your spirit was a created being. the thing that brings life to these earthly bodies seems to evade human knowledge. Although I BELIEVE everything was created by GOD. because I have his word on it.

    Let’s see what Paul really said about Jesus, in his address to the men of Mars Hill.
    “Because he(God) hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by [that] man (Jesus) whom he hath ordained; [whereof] he hath given assurance unto all [men], in that he hath raised him (Jesus) from the dead.”

    Jhn 5:22 For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:
    Act 10:42 And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he (Jesus) which was ordained of God [to be] the Judge of quick and dead.

    If anyone believes anyone other than Jesus fits in the parenthesis, put them in there.

  15. guy says:


    At breakfast yesterday during a theological discussion, someone told me that the classic reformed-rooted presentation of the atonement makes God sound as though He sits around sharpening lightning bolts all day. That resonated with me quite a bit.

    Perhaps it’s not true that God killed Jesus because of how mad He is that we broke all His laws (though i was certainly reared with that impression).


  16. Jerry says:

    I cannot discuss the Scripture with someone who will not even recognize the writings of Paul as Scripture. You seem to want to pit one text against another without trying to see how they are consistent. That is not conducive to genuine Biblical understanding or discussion. So, until I see that you have an interest in actually discussing the Scriptures, (rather than riding your hobby horse) I will not bother you any more.

  17. laymond says:

    Jerry, is that some of that CoC doctrine “my way or the highway” that you so object to ?
    Jerry, I think I have given you ample opportunity to discuss scripture, Just like all others I have spoken with on this subject, you do not wish to discuss scripture, you only wish to discuss your belief.
    “My way or the highway” Just like the discussion I had with Bobby Valentine, and a few others during the past years. I understand where Bobby is coming from, because of his age, and time he formed his opinion, but seldom does one of your age (in the CoC) believe what you say you believe. As for brother Paul, he disagrees with everything you have misrepresented, in order to come to your conclusion.
    1Cr 15:27 For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under [him, it is] manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him.
    1Cr 15:28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.
    I am not sure the tongue lashing Peter received will compare to the one those who misrepresent what Paul said, might receive if they ever come face to face.

  18. JMF says:

    I was a part of very, very conservative COCism from birth to 30yrs old. And Laymond’s beliefs are exactly what I was subtly taught during that time. I don’t know that I ever actually heard it directly; but I know that, prior to starting to do much study on my own, my “osmosis” learning gave me a belief that Jesus was one rung down from God the Father.

    It almost seemed like the story of Jesus was a confusing aside. It wasn’t like Jesus made the rules or was in charge of keeping the rules — so he gets set off to the side so we can focus on “obeying” God’s rules.

    I would have said our unspoken hierarchy went: God –> Acts –> Paul in Acts –> Jesus –> the rest of Paul. Very conservative COC teaching isn’t at all Christocentric, and it is because of this nuance. We were subtly taught that Jesus was less than God, and therefore not involved in following the worship patterns/rules. It made him very nearly irrelevant.

    Maybe no one else had this experience, but it holds true with others I know.

  19. laymond says:

    JMF, I know upon whose ground I stand, I know there are few if any who come to Jay’s blog except the very progressive, but there are still more members of the CoC who believe as I do than believe as the progressive movement, that started around 1980 teaches. I know that they have decided that the “Stone-Campbell” restoration of the first century church, was wrong, and that they believe we should be bringing in the futuristic church. that the first century church is no longer “cool” and does not bear the mark of progress. To keep up with the rest of the world, it has to change to please the worshiper instead of the worshiped. That is the biggest problem that the church stresses today, the most prominent question today is how do we keep up with the church down the street in membership. Not how do we bring the true worshiper in to worship God with us. My opinion, how I see it.

  20. laymond says:

    JMF says:
    I was a part of very, very conservative COCism from birth to 30yrs old. And Laymond’s beliefs are exactly what I was subtly taught during that time. I don’t know that I ever actually heard it directly; but I know that, prior to starting to do much study on my own, my “osmosis” learning gave me a belief that Jesus was one rung down from God the Father.

    JMF, that belief did not come through “osmosis” it came straight from the pen of Paul.
    1Cr 11:3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman [is] the man; and the head of Christ [is] God.

    I know some of Paul’s writings are easy to twist, but you would need a pretzel machine to twist this, it is plainly spoken. I know I am continually accused of not believing in what Paul wrote, when in fact I am the only one who comments on this blog, who does.

  21. Jerry says:

    (You seem to keep trying to draw me into a discussion – and also seem to be succeeding because I cannot allow your statements to go unchallenged.)

    You wrote: “Jerry, you gave a great example of what I meant by Preaching Paul, instead of God. Jesus said he brought the word/logos of God the Father, did you use the gospel to bolster your argument, no instead you used the letters of Paul. (which is said to be hard to understand)”

    Yet, you ignored two passages which I referenced in the gospels that quote Old Testament prophecies about Ya’weh – but apply these to Jesus. And, this is not in a metaphorical sense such as when God told Moses he would be as a god to Pharaoh and Aaron would be his prophet, or spokesman. Rather, the prophecies I cited speak of Ya’weh coming to His people with a messenger going before Him to prepare the way. You cannot merely dismiss these out of hand without even examining them.

    Was the man Jesus subject to God? Absolutely. In every way. Was the pre-incarnate Word/Logos equal to God? Paul says He was, but that He emptied Himself to be formed in the likeness of man, that He came among us as a servant, and that He died, but was raised from the dead. In Romans 1:4 he also states that the resurrection declared Jesus to be the Son of God in power.

    I asked if you believe the Christ is a created being – and you talk about the infant Jesus who was born of the virgin. You ignore what I say and complain that I do not answer your argument. I reference at least two passages that speak of the Son of God as the Creator – one of which says plainly that he was the Creator of all things that have been created. (So if he is a created being, He must have created Himself?) It is nonsense like this that I cannot fathom. Yes, He is subject to the Father – but Philippians 2 says clearly that He “emptied Himself.” Of what did He empty himself???? The text also says He did not consider being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped – or held onto tenaciously.

    Oh. I forgot. You do not seem to recognize Paul as a true apostle of Jesus Christ, and consider his writings as somehow inferior (or even heretical?) – though Peter grouped Paul’s writings with “the other Scriptures” that some people “wrest to their own destruction.” But, maybe Peter was wrong about “the other Scriptures” part of that verse, but only right when he said that some of what Paul wrote is hard to understand.

    Any Scripture can be hard to understand for those who are not willing to listen to what it actually says. I have trouble taking you seriously when you will not take all of Scripture seriously.

    I apologize, though, for not doing what Jesus told His disciples to do when someone would not receive them: that is to leave and wipe the dust off their feet and go to others.

  22. Larry Cheek says:

    Who is this? Was John not an apostle inspired by God to teach truth? This states plainly that “the Word was God”. You can search the scriptures through out, but I don’t believe that you will find a substitute for Jesus being the object of this message.
    Therefore I believe that you and I must not be guilty of insinuating that this message is not truth. I believe that all of scripture left in context supports this message even if we have trouble reconciling it. We must study more listening to what scripture is stating and not reading into it our own concepts.

    (John 1:1 KJV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    (John 1:2 KJV) The same was in the beginning with God.
    (John 1:3 KJV) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
    (John 1:4 KJV) In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

    (John 1:1 NIV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    (John 1:2 NIV) He was with God in the beginning.
    (John 1:3 NIV) Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
    (John 1:4 NIV) In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

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