The Big Little-Used Word

Propitiation. Now there’s a word we don’t hear often enough.

There will be a strong temptation to approach this word as if it were simply a theological novelty; an ancient word that older generations used to talk about highfalutin spiritual stuff. After all, how could such a word be that important to our everyday walk if it’s not constantly used like “gospel-centered” or “salvation”?

Well, there are many reasons why a word will get little use—and this word in particular is little-used for a very specific reason: It is ugly. It touches on a subject that no one wants to dwell on. Propitiation is such an uncomfortable word that theologians have, for centuries, tried to make it mean something else or to get rid of it altogether! “Well, enough with the suspense!” you say. “What does it mean?!” you ask.

Propitiation is that aspect of the Atonement that addresses the wrath of God. Not just “the wrath of God” in a general sense, but the wrath of God against sin and sinners. Propitiation has to do with “the putting away of God’s wrath and anger.” So, if atonement is referring to Jesus’ work on the Cross as the ‘big picture’ then words like reconciliation, redemption, justification, propitiation, etc. refer to aspects of the atonement as perspectives of that ‘big picture’. Atonement is the diamond, and these other terms are the individual facets that give that diamond depth and beauty and clarity.

In the Old Testament the wrath of God is expressed in verses like Exodus 32:10-11, Numbers 16:46, Job 21:20, and over 100 other places in the OT. These references have to do with people rebelling against the Lord; committing idolatry, murder, lying, and other sins.

The New Testament doesn’t shy away from this idea either: Matthew 3:7, John 3:36, Romans 1:18, 2:5, 2:8, 5:9, 9:22, Ephesians 5:6, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, (and several others) —all these scriptures reference God’s wrath as being brought against sin and sinners.

If we want to be Christians who are faithful to God’s Word we need to come to grips with the fact that God has real wrath and anger. This uncomfortable reality is one of the biggest reasons why propitiation is a little-used word.

Why so uncomfortable? Why is this such a cringe-worthy topic to broach? Probably because when we hear the word wrath we all immediately think of some of the worst experiences of our lives. Usually there is some kind of “father-figure” who has hurt us by their uncontrollable outbursts of rage. But there are many other ways it happens too. I don’t blame Christians for wanting to shy away from any idea that God is in any way like that kind of person.

But maybe we avoid thinking about the wrath of God—not because anger is bad of itself, but— we don’t like the idea of wrath because the majority of our experiences with it happen in situations that express wrath in sinful ways. It’s not really anger or wrath in itself that bothers us, but it is the sinful people who sinfully express their anger in sinful ways that bothers us. So is it wise to see God’s wrath through the lens of how fallen people have mangled and distorted it? There is a better way:

What do you feel rising up within your soul when you come across a weak family member who is being abused by a stronger angry person? What washes over your peaceful spirit when you are confronted by a situation where an innocent person is being terribly treated by a wicked person? Go ahead, you can say it: wrath. We all have this sense of justice that causes us to become indignant when someone hurts or takes advantage of people for their own gain. Unfortunately, there are a ton of real-life situations we could use as illustrations.

Let’s take it a step further: What would you think of someone who witnessed such wicked treatment (say a grown man abusing a minor) and then turned to you and said, “As Christians we should be loving this man, so let’s just overlook his abusive acts and tell him that God loves him.”? Would you think that person is being a good Christian—or even a decent human being!? No! you would expect a righteous anger to compel them to do something about it! Ignoring wickedness and injustice is not how you love anyone! So, even though it may be difficult at first, let’s seek to understand God’s wrath along these lines—a righteous anger in the face of injustice—rather than God’s wrath being nothing more than a Cosmic temper-tantrum.  

My illustration is not perfect, of course, because even on our best day our version of wrath is tainted by sin. But I think it helps us to understand why wrath—in the right circumstances and in the right proportions—is good. Read Revelation 11:16-18, it is an interesting text where God is worshiped for several things, one of those things being His wrath.  

God’s wrath is not an all-powerful deity flying off the handle in a rage because his ego was bruised. God’s wrath is His righteous response to wickedness and injustice.

I need to repeat that: God’s wrath is His righteous response to wickedness and injustice.

He would not be God if he just allowed sin and its effects to run amok throughout all humanity by turning a blind eye to sin! A God who cannot bring righteous judgment is NOT a God worthy of worship!

Even though we have often been the victim of someone’s sinful wrath and anger we need to be careful that we don’t deceive ourselves: We are also very much the perpetrator. We have hurt and broken and damaged others through our sin. It is right to have indignant anger against a bully, but let us not flatter ourselves into thinking that we are always the victim. The reality is that this world has been full of victims who are also perpetrators and perpetrators who are also victims ever since the Garden.

So, where does propitiation come in? Right here: If you are a Christian don’t think that your sins have just disappeared! And don’t think that the wrath due to your sins has disappeared either! Looking back from eternity we will see how God’s holy wrath was poured out perfectly on every single sin and sinner that has ever existed. No sin will ever go unpunished. No one will ever get away with a single crime or a sin—no one. ever. Perfect justice will be served. The only thing that will ever make a difference to you or to me is this one little-used word: propitiation.

Propitiation means that Jesus took the cup of the wrath of God that was stored up for you, Christian, and he drank it to the dregs. Every ounce of Holy Fury that was to be poured out on you for an eternity was instead poured out on Jesus at the Cross. Jesus truly became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), and He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), and now the wrath of God no longer hangs over us (John 3:36).  

It may sound impossible to believe, but I can say this in full confidence, as this is a promise of God: if you are in Christ you will never experience the rightful payment for your lifetime of sins. You will never be punished for your sin. It’s not that God “looks the other way” because you’re on His team now. Rather, the punishment has already been measured out in exact proportion to your wickedness, and Another bore that punishment in your place. That’s why propitiation deserves to get more airtime. God’s wrath doesn’t contradict God’s love—it magnifies the love of God. Propitiation shows us how God’s Love and God’s Wrath are in perfect union with God’s character. He is too holy to act as if sin doesn’t exist. He is too loving to allow that sin to destroy His people. So maybe God’s wrath will always make us uncomfortable, but He is to be worshiped because He will not allow injustice to exist unanswered. One way or another our sins will bear the wrath of God.

That big little-used word propitiation upholds God’s holiness while simultaneously expressing God’s love for those who take shelter in the One who makes propitiation for sin: Jesus Christ!

Posted by Steve Page

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2 thoughts on “The Big Little-Used Word”

  1. Thanks, Steve, Much easier to understand and to relate to than a dictionary definition. Your thoughts are appreciated.

  2. Much appreciation Steve for so clearly explaining propitiation. I was brought to tears over what a loving, caring God and Savior I am blessed with.

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