Propitiation and Expiation

PROPITIATION AND EXPIATION (Gr. hilastērion, hilasmos). KJV and NASB used the word propitiation three times—“God set forth [Christ] to be a propitiation” (hilastērion, Rom.3.25); “[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins” (hilasmos, 1John.2.2); “God...sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (hilasmos, 1John.4.10)—where RSV and NEB use expiation and NIV has either sacrifice of atonement or atoning sacrifice. Propitiation and expiation are not synonyms; they are very different in meaning. Propitiation is something done to a person: Christ propitiated God in the sense that he turned God’s wrath away from guilty sinners by enduring that wrath himself in the isolation of Calvary. Expiation is what is done to crimes or sins or evil deeds: Jesus provided the means to cancel or cleanse them. Certainly Jesus’ death provided an expiation for the sins of the world; the NT clearly affirms this. But was it necessary for Jesus to provide a propitiation (to avert the wrath of God against guilty sinners) in order to provide expiation (cleansing, forgiveness, and pardon)? Those scholars who take the biblical portrayal of the wrath of God as the description of a real, perfect attitude of God toward sin (of which genuine human righteous indignation would be an imperfect analogy) recognize that propitiation was necessary and that Christ’s death was such. Those scholars who believe that the wrath of God is not the personal attitude of God toward sin and sinners but rather only a way of describing the results of evil and sin in the world, prefer to think of Christ’s death as only an expiation. However, even when it is accepted that hilastērion and hilasmos point to the genuine active anger of God toward sin being appeased by the death of Jesus, the translation “propitiation” is not always used.

Propitiation and expiation are not synonyms; they are very different in meaning. Propitiation is something done to a person: Christ propitiated God in the sense that he turned God’s wrath away from guilty sinners by enduring that wrath himself in the isolation of Calvary. Expiation is what is done to crimes or sins or evil deeds: Jesus provided the means to cancel, or cleanse, them. The NT clearly affirms that Jesus’ death provided an expiation for the sins of the world; but was it necessary for Jesus to provide a propitiation (to avert God’s wrath against guilty sinners) in order to provide expiation (cleansing, forgiveness, and pardon)? Scholars who hold that the biblical portrayal of God’s wrath describes a real, perfect attitude of God toward sin (of which genuine human righteous indignation would be an imperfect analogy) recognize that propitiation was necessary and that Christ’s death was such. Scholars who hold that God’s wrath is not his personal attitude toward sin and sinners but rather only a way of describing the results of evil and sin in the world, prefer to think of Christ’s death as only an expiation. Yet, even when it is accepted that hilastērion and hilasmos point to God’s genuine active anger toward sin being appeased by Christ’s death, the translation “propitiation” is not always used.

Bibliography: Leon Morris, The Atonement, 1983.——PT