This word is the correlative of “wrath” and can only be understood with reference to it. In theology it applies to the turning aside of divine wrath against sinful man. The concept of propitiation is an affron to much of modern thought; it is thought pagan and thus to imply a sub-Christian view of God. In Scripture, however, it is related not only to the holiness of God (as in 1 John 2:2, noting the earlier context) but also to His love (as in 1 John 4:10). Paradoxically, the God who is propitiated also lovingly provides the propitiation. The propitiation is Christ crucified, and through His work God can be righteous and yet also (in grace) justify the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:24-26). This New Testement idea has as its background the Old Testament doctrine of sacrifice. There too, sacrificial blood is not only offered to God, but provided by Him (Lev. 17:11). The term propitiation is often replaced in modern translations by some weaker expression such as “expiation,” but Leon Morris (The Atonement inTeaching, 1955, pp. 125-85) has demonstrated the inadequacy of such translation of the Greek and Hebrew words concerned. The use of the word “propitiation” serves to safeguard the penal element in the Atonement.*
PROPITIATION (ἱλασμός, G2662, propitiation; καταλλαγή, G2903, reconciliation). The word “propitiation” is closely related to the word “expiation.” The difference in meaning may be summarized as follows: a person who is angry or offended is propitiated, i.e., appeased; whereas sin and guilt, which weigh upon the conscience of the offender are expiated, i.e., removed or wiped away. A significant debate in current Biblical and theological studies concerns the question of whether or not the Bible ever speaks of God being propitiated. Because of this difference of opinion, the same passages of Scripture are sometimes tr. with the word “propitiation” that are rendered in other VSS by “expiation” (see
In classic pagan usage the word propitiation, which trs. ἱλασμός, G2662, was used of averting the wrath of the gods. Renewed favor with heaven was won for the offender by his offering a gift or sacrifice to atone for his trespass. It is therefore argued that if one insists on speaking of God being propitiated, he turns the loving God of the Bible into a capricious and vindictive deity who inflicts punishment on those who do not bribe Him with their gifts and offerings. Obviously this is not the kind of God the Bible reveals, and so it must be concluded that God cannot be propitiated. In its most consistent formulation, this view involves the denial of divine wrath altogether as incompatible with the truth that God is love.
Whereas it is correct to say that the Bible never expressly makes God the object of the verb “propitiate,” it is quite another matter to say that the Bible knows nothing of divine wrath and propitiation. It is a fundamental datum of Scripture that because God is a holy God, He is angry with all who are guilty of wrongdoing. It is said that there are more than twenty different words used to express the wrath of God in the OT, with over 580 occurrences of these words. “Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you,” says the Lord (
The same is true of the teaching of the NT. Although the dark theme of the divine wrath is not so heavily underscored as in the OT, it was a real part of the earliest Christian concept of God. Some scholars have insisted that in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, God’s mercy becomes universal and the wrath of God is simply a fig. way of describing the impersonal law that is operative in a moral universe, a law which makes it impossible to sin with impurity.
Even a casual perusal of the NT shows that its authors do not think in terms of impersonal law, but of divine activity. Where the “law” enunciated that sin leads to more sin and finally to destruction, it is not an impersonal matter (
In this context of God’s personal activity, hilaskomai and its derivatives, when used in the NT to interpret the work of Christ, should be understood in the sense of propitiation of the divine wrath. Perhaps the most important passage in this regard is
With this interpretation agrees the affirmation in
John wrote, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father,
Note should be taken of the important truth that this propitiation in Christ does not originate, as in heathen worship, with the one who brings the sacrifice. Rather it is God Himself, motivated by love, who provides the propitiation as a free gift. In this teaching are preserved both the severity of the divine reaction against sin, and the depths of the divine love for the sinner.
If one reduces the language of Scripture from “propitiation” to “expiation” in all instances, he still must answer the question, Why should sins be expiated? What would happen if no expiation were provided? Can one deny that, according to the teaching of Scripture, men will die in their sins? The logical implication of the denial of propitiation as unworthy of God is the teaching that God will ultimately manifest His forgiving love to everyone, regardless of how one is related to Christ—a point of view that is increasingly the vogue, but one that is contrary to Scripture.
Furthermore, the very idea of “canceling guilt” or “removing sin” implies the dimension of the personal. Unless one wants to reduce guilt to “guilty feelings,” he can not speak of removing guilt by expiation, without implying a change in relationship between two persons, namely God on the one hand and the sinner on the other. In discussions that dismiss propitiation of “an angry and fickle deity” as characteristic of a primitive stage of Israelite religion, one sometimes finds the concession that perhaps expiation should be understood as necessary for turning away the anger of God.
In conclusion, the idea of the divine wrath is not due to Gr. influence upon Christian theology. The Gr. philosophers considered it unthinkable to predicate of the divine being the emotion of anger, or for that matter, any emotion. The only reason, therefore, that Christian faith continues to speak of propitiating the divine displeasure against sin is that this is an endemic strand of Biblical revelation.
C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1935); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Terms and Meaning:
Elsewhere in the New Testament this form is found only in
2. Theological Implication:
The basal idea in Hebrew terms is that of covering what is offensive, so restoring friendship, or causing to be kindly disposed. The Greek terms lack the physical reference to covering but introduce the idea of friendliness where antagonism would be natural; hence, graciousness. Naturally, therefore, the idea of expiation entered into the concept. It is especially to be noted that all provisions for this friendly relation as between God and offending man find their initiation and provision in God and are under His direction, but involve the active response of man. All heathen and unworthy conceptions are removed from the Christian notion of propitiation by the fact that God Himself proposed, or "set forth," Christ as the "mercy-seat," and that this is the supreme expression of ultimate love. God had all the while been merciful, friendly, "passing over" man’s sins with no apparently adequate, or just, ground for doing so. Now in the blood of Christ sin is condemned and expiated, and God is able to establish and maintain His character for righteousness, while He continues and extends His dealing in gracious love with sinners who exercise faith in Jesus. The propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify Himself in His uniform kindness to men deserving harshness. Compare also as to reconciliation, as in
See also JOHANNINE THEOLOGY, V, 2.
Besides the comms., the literature is the same as for ATONEMENT, to recent works on which add Stalker, The Atonement; Workman, At Onement, or Reconciliation with God; Moberly, in Foundations, Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought.