“Propitiation”Categories: Doctrine: Grace
by Mike Grushon
THE CONCEPT OF offering blood as a sacrifice for sin is a basic principle of the Bible. God revealed to Noah the principle that the life power is found in the blood, saying, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4). While God was talking with Noah about the role of blood in relation to physical life, we can also observe that the Bible establishes a vital link between the blood and spiritual life. The Hebrew writer says, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
We live in a time when people, including many professing Christians, find the concept of forgiveness through the shedding of sacrificial blood to be primitive and distasteful. Neglect of the Bible doctrine of sacrifice has resulted in a religion that is devoid of the power and vitality that characterized the early church. We need to be able to sing with conviction: “There is power … wonder working power, in the precious blood of the Lamb.” That, indeed, is the essence of propitiation.
The doctrine of propitiation is an expression of God’s mercy. In Luke 18:13, the publican prayed: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” The word translated “merciful” in that passage is also translated propitiation in other passages. Propitiation simply refers to God’s mercy as it is expressed through the sacrifice of His Son. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Propitiation, however, is more than merely understanding that it involves the sacrifice of Christ; it also includes a proper understanding of the nature of that sacrifice.
The Greeks used the various words for propitiation in the sense of something offered to their gods to appease them. The Bible uses the word in a slightly different manner and the distinction is essential. To the Greeks, a propitious sacrifice was something man offered to his gods to satisfy their anger and to avoid their wrath. In the Bible, the word is used to describe the loving action of a God offended by sin, who offers His Son as the sacrifice for the sinner. Paul would thus say of Jesus, “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood” (Romans 3:25). And John would say, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins …” (1 John 2:2). Propitiation, therefore, is the offering by God of His Son as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. On our own, we would never have been able to provide such a magnificent sacrifice.
The doctrine of propitiation affirms that the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross was not a coincidental circumstance of history. It was the planned, central purpose of His coming to this world. John confirmed this when he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus openly proclaimed that this was the purpose of His mission. He called Himself a “ransom” (Mark 10:45). While preparing His disciples for His death, He said, “Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Jesus willingly went to the cross out of love for the lost. He went to the cross as a propitiation—the only sacrifice perfectly suited to atone for the sins of man.
Can we see the magnificence of this doctrine? God’s love for us was so great that He Himself provided the only acceptable sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). It is interesting to note that the word translated propitiation is used in the Old Testament. It is used in Exodus 25:18–22 to identify the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. The mercy seat was the place where the sacrificial blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The Jews were thus reminded of God’s great mercy and love. We are the blessed partakers of the ultimate expression of that love, for we are the beneficiaries of Christ’s propitious sacrifice. Thus we can sing:
“In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see;
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.”
Grushon, M. (1987). Propitiation. In B. Lewis (Ed.), Christianity Magazine: February 1987, Volume 4, Number 2 (B. Lewis, Ed.) (17). Jacksonville, FL: Christianity Magazine.