Language of the Cross (3): Propitiation
In this next installment of the series, The Language of the Cross, we come to another word that is crucial for us to understand what really happened on the cross: Propitiation.
In short, propitiation is the idea of averting God’s anger by way of an offering. Bound by His righteous character, God’s response to sin is anger and wrath. This poses a colossal problem to the human race, namely, that we who are by our very nature sinners are alienated from God and the just recipients of God’s wrath. However, since Romans 3:25 reminds us that Christ was displayed as a propitiation for sin on our behalf God’s anger was averted away from us and onto Christ. So the pressing question is, does the Bible really describe the events of the cross as a propitiation for sin?
The New Testament only uses the Greek word for propitiation a couple times and each time it is applied to Christ’s accomplishment on the cross (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The Old Testament however employs the concept frequently in connection to the ritualistic sacrifices. So the New Testament, as it often does, takes an Old Testament concept and fills it with additional meaning, namely, that the death of Christ on the cross can be interpreted through Levitical sacrificial methods. So now we must turn to those sacrificial methods.
Let me say this as simply as I know how. Just as a priest would pour out death on a lamb to pay for the sins of the people, death was poured out on the Lamb of God to satisfy the wrath of God for the sins of His people.
We must gain several important conclusions from this truth. First of all, the inclusion of the notion of propitiation in Christ’s work on the cross assumes the wrath of God. Propitiation means that wrath was removed, pacified, appeased. Be careful not to think that Christ “talked God into” loving man and forgetting his wrath towards man. Propitiation does not mean that God wrath magically turned into love. Rather, the wrath that God had towards man was pacified since Christ drank every drop of God’s wrath for His people. God did not forget to pay for your sin… rather Christ paid for you.
Additionally, we must remember that the cross, understood as propitiation, does not minimize God’s love, it enhances it. This is true because the cross shows the unthinkable COST of redemptive love. Your sin was not ignored; it was paid for in full. God cannot suffer his character to be compromised. God’s wrath is the necessary reaction of holiness towards sin because sin is the utter contradiction of His character. God did not violate His character to redeem His people. Instead He lovingly redeemed His people and maintained His character by pouring out His wrath on Christ, thus satisfying His holiness. Thus the cross is the perfect union of the Love and Holiness of God. Consequently, I recommend you add propitiation to your vocabulary concerning the cross.