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This term employed in connection with atonement and sacrifice means to render satisfaction for sin. It has replaced “propitiation” in some modern translations of the Bible. It is an unexceptionable term in itself, yet is not adequate to translate the Greek Hilaskomai word-group or its Hebrew equivalents (see L. Morris, The Atonement in New Testament Teaching [1955], pp. 125-185). Expiation treats sin as something to be dealt with, while propitiation lays stress on the fact that it merits the wrath of God. Expiation is impersonal, propitiation is personal. The commentaries and translations of C.H. Dodd (chairman of the New English Bible translators) reflect modern opposition to ideas of wrath and propitiation, and modern preference for the weaker term “expiation.”

EXPIATION. This word is not used in the KJV or the ASV but the RSV has “expiation” instead of the “propitiation” of the older VSS (see Propitiation). “Expiation” is there preferred because it avoids the idea, alleged to be contained in “propitiation,” that God must be appeased. It is argued that “expiation” correctly interprets the action of the Heb. verb כָּפַר, H4105, the root meaning being “to cover” tr. in the LXX by ἱλάσκομαι, G2661, and its cognates. As explained in the article Propitiation, there is no real ground linguistically or theologically for altering “propitiation” to “expiation.” Expiation is a necessary element in the work of propitiation, but it is not an alternative to propitiation. Expiation deals with sin and guilt in such a way that propitiation is effected toward God, and the pardoned sinner is restored to fellowship with God. The action of propitiation, therefore, is directed toward God, while the action of expiation is directed toward man in his state of sin and guilt. Wherever the action of expiation is present, the action of propitiation is always implied.

By expiation the guilty person, or rather the offense which renders him guilty in the sight of God, is covered from the eyes of the holy God who looks upon him in righteous judgment. This is, of course, no fiction, as though God were prevented from seeing what is really there. The sin is dealt with so effectively that it no longer remains as the object of God’s condemnation.

The Biblical presentation of the process of expiation shows that man has been taught by divine revelation that his sin against the holy God merits death, and that this judgment can be removed only if satisfaction is made to the requirements of God’s justice by the death of another in his place, usually that of an animal. Atonement is made for him, i.e., his sin is expiated by death. This fact appears even in instances where the animal sacrifices are not offered. In Exodus 32:30-32 Moses was willing to give up his own life in place of the people to make atonement for their sin (v. 30), although in fact his intercession proved sufficient. Phineas (Num 25:10-13) “made atonement for the people of Israel” by putting to death the leaders of this guilty action, thus turning aside God’s wrath and stopping the plague which He had inflicted on them. (For a discussion of other non-sacrificial passages where כָּפַר, H4105, is used, see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 143-150.)

While the OT stresses the substitutionary character of the offerings by which expiation for sin is made, the phrase “make atonement for” combines the ideas of making both expiation and propitiation. Both are essential for restoring the guilty to fellowship with the holy God. In the NT the atoning sacrifice of Christ also includes both factors. Therefore the RSV rendering “expiation” is inadequate to express the full import of the reconciliation effected by Christ’s death and resurrection. “Propitiation” by pointing to the Godward aspect, also inevitably includes the manward expiatory value of His saving work. See Atonement; Propitiation.


C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1935), 82-95; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955); The Cross in the NT (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


This word represents no Hebrew or Greek word not rendered also by "atonement." In Nu 8:7 it is employed in the Revised Version (British and American) to translate chaTath and in De 32:43, kipper. This version also employs "expiate" in the margin of several passages, eg. Ps 65:3; 79:9. Always its use in English Versions of the Bible is somewhat more narrow and specific than "atonement" and has especial reference to specific uncleanness or sin.

It will be sufficient to refer to ATONEMENT; SACRIFICE; PROPITIATION.

See also

  • Propitiation and Expiation