Propitiation and Expiation

Recently, I have been working through the Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism with the latest post on indulgences. In researching this doctrine of indulgences I found that Roman Catholic apologists were making an interesting distinction between propitiation and expiation of sins. Here is one debate where this is clearly seen if you so wish to examine it.

This led me to look into this distinction in biblical discussion which not many theologians discuss in great depth. However, I did find some discussion on it which I will post below. The discussion centers on Paul’s use of the word “hilastérion” which is translated in a number of ways. First, here is the full context of the verse. Paul has wrapped up his discussion of sin and the use of the Law he began in chapter 1 and is now transitioning into a discussion on Justification through faith in Christ. Paul has concluded that all are fallen in sin and rightfully condemned under the Law.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26, ESV)

Verse 25 is the one we will look at, here are the many ways hilasterion is translated (in bold):

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– (NIV)

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, (NLT)

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. (ESV)

whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; (NASB)

Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (KJB)

As you can see, the more literal translations seek to use the word propitiation, while the paraphrased translations seek to use a more interpreted version of it. Here are some theologians on this word.

Millard Erickson, Page 809-811

Finally, Paul regards the death of Christ as propitiatory, that is, Christ died to appease God’s wrath against sin. This point has been questioned, especially by C. H. Dodd in his book The Bible and the Greeks. Dodd bases his argument upon the way in which the verb ἱλάσκομαι and its cognates are used in the Septuagint. He contends that it is not propitiation but expiation that is in view in verses like Romans 3:25: “The meaning conveyed (in accordance with LXX usage which is constantly determinative for Paul) is that of expiation, not that of propitiation. Most translators and commentators are wrong.” God was not appeased by the death of Christ. Rather, what Christ accomplished in dying was to cleanse sinners of their sin, to cover their sin and uncleanness. Dodd builds his case not only upon linguistic but also upon more generally theological considerations. A. G. Herbert adds that “it cannot be right to think of God’s wrath as being ‘appeased’ by the sacrifice of Christ, as some ‘transactional’ theories of the atonement have done…because it is God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself….It cannot be right to make any opposition between the wrath of the Father and the love of the Son.”

Despite the position taken by Dodd, Ladd has argued that ἱλάσκομαι does indeed refer to propitiation. He makes four points in rebuttal:

In nonbiblical Hellenistic Greek authors such as Josephus and Philo, the word uniformly means “to propitiate.” This is also true of its use in the apostolic fathers. Leon Morris has said, “If the LXX translators and the New Testament writers evolved an entirely new meaning of the word group, it perished with them and was not resurrected until our own day.”

  1. There are three places in the Septuagint where ἐξιλάσκομαι refers to propitiating or appeasing God (Zech. 7:2; 8:22; Mal. 1:9). Dodd’s comment on these passages is that there appears to be something exceptional about the usage of the word here.
  2. While the word is seldom used the Septuagint with “God” as its direct object, it must also be noted that it is never used in the Old Testament with the word sin as its direct object.
  3. There are many places in the Old Testament where, while not actually used of appeasing the wrath of God, the word appears in a context in which the wrath of God is in view.

From the foregoing considerations, it appears questionable whether Dodd’s conclusions, influential though they have been, are accurate. His conclusions may well have resulted from an inaccurate conception of the Trinity, a misconception which betrays itself in his failure to take very seriously the contrary evidence in such passages as Zechariah 7:2; 8:22; and Malachi 1:9.

In contradiction to Dodd, we note that there are passages in Paul’s writings which cannot be satisfactorily interpreted if we deny that God’s wrath needed to be appeased. This is particularly true of Romans 3:25-26. In the past, God had left sins unpunished. He would concievably be accused of overlooking sin since he had not required punishment for it. Now, however, he has put forth Jesus as ἱλάστηριον. This proves both that God is just (his wrath required the sacrifice) and that he is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (his love provided the sacrifice for them).

The numerous passages that speak of the wrath of God against sin are evidence that Christ’s death was necessarily propitiatory. We read of the wrath (ὀργή) of God against sin in Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4-5; Ephesians 2:3; 5:6; Colossians 3:6; and 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:16; 5:9. So then, Paul’s idea of the atoning death (Christ as ἱλάστηριον) is not simply that it covers sin and cleanses from its corruption (expiation), but that the sacrifice also appeases a God who hates sin and is radically opposed to it (propitiation).

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1985. Print

James Boice, page 312-314

Propitiation: God Pacifying His Own Wrath

Propitiation is a little-understood concept in the biblical interpretation of Christ’s death. It has to do with sacrifices, and it refers to what Jesus accomplished in relation to God by his death. Redemption has to do with what he accomplished in relation to us. By redeeming us, Jesus freed us from the bondage of sin. In contrast, propitiation relates to God so that we can say: By his death Jesus propitiated the wrath of his Father against sin and thus made it possible for God to be propitious to his people.

But that requires explanation. In the first place, we need to note that the idea of propitiation presupposes the idea of the wrath of God. If God is not wrathful toward sin, there is no need to propitiate him and the meaning of the death of Christ must therefore be expressed in other categories. Right here many modern thinkers would stop, arguing that it is precisely for this reason that the term should not be used or, if it is used, that it should be given another meaning. “We can understand,” such a person might say, “how the idea of propitiation would be appropriate in paganism where God was assumed to be capricious, easily offended and therefore often angry. But that is not the biblical picture of God. According to the Christian revelation, God is not angry. Rather, he is gracious and loving. It is not God who is separated from us because of sin, but rather we who are separated from God. Thus it is not God who is to be propitiated but we ourselves.” Those who have argued this way have either rejected the idea of propitiation entirely, considering its presence in the Bible to be a carry-over from paganism’s imperfect way of thinking about God–or else they have interpreted the basic Greek word for propitiation to mean not Christ’s propitiation of the wrath of God, but rather the covering over or expiation of our guilt by his sacrifice. In other words, they have regarded the work as directed toward man rather than toward God. A scholar who has led the way in this is the late C.H. Dodd of Cambridge, England, whose influence has led to the translation of the word “propitiation” as “expiation” in the relevant texts in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10).

At this point we must be appreciateive of the work of those who have distinguished the pagan idea of propitiation from the Christian idea. For it is quite true that God is not capricious or easily angered, a God whom we must therefore propitiate in order to keep in his good graces. That is totally opposite to the Christian position, for God is quite correctly seen as a God of grace and love.

But that is not the whole of the matter, as sympathetic as one may be with the concerns of such scholars. First, we dare not forget what the Bible tells us about God’s just wrath against sin, in accordance with which sin will be punished either in Christ or in the person of the sinner. We may feel, because of our particular cultural prejudices, that the wrath of God and the love of God are incompatible. But the Bible teaches that God is wrath and love at the same time. What is more, his wrath is not just a small and insignificant element that somehow is there alongside his far more significant and overwhelming love. Actually, God’s wrath is a major element that may be traced all the way from God’s judgment against sin in the garden of Eden to the final cataclysmic judgments recorded in the book of Revelation. (That emphasis has already been studied at considerable length in chapter seven.)

Second, although the word propitiation is used in biblical writings, it is not used in the same way as in pagan writings. In pagan rituals the sacrifice was the means by which people placated an offended deity. In Christianity it is never people who take the initiative or make the sacrifice, but God himself who out of his great love for sinners provides the way by which his wrath against sin may be averted. Moreover, he is himself the way–in Jesus. That is the true explanation of why God is never the explicit object of propitiation in the biblical writings. He is not mentioned as the object because he is also the subject, which is much more important. In other words, God himself placates his own wrath against sin so that his love may go out to embrace and save sinners.

The idea of propitiation is most clearly observed in the Old Testament sacrificial system, for through that system of sacrifices God taught the way by which a sinful man or woman might approach him. Sin means death, as was pointed out earlier. But the sacrifices teach that there is a way of escape and of approaching God. Another may die in a sinner’s place. That may seem astounding, even (as some have wrongly suggested) immoral, but it is what the system of sacrifices teaches. Thus, the individual Israelite was instructed to bring an animal for sacrifice whenever he approached God; the family was to kill and consume an animal at the yearly observance of the Passover; the nation was to be thus represented by the high priest annually on the Day of Atonement when the blood of the offering was sprinkled upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant within the Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. At the end of this process of instruction, Jesus appeared as the offering that was to take away “the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).

The progression is this: one sacrifice fro one individual, one sacrifice for one family, one sacrifice for one nation, one sacrifice for the world. The way to God’s presence is now open to anyone who will come, a fact symbolized by the rending of the veil of the temple (which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple) at Christ’s death.

Boice, James Montgomery. Foundations of the Christian Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 1986. Print.


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