What is propitiation?

Another argument often used by advocates of the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement (“God needed blood to forgive sins”) is the interpretation of the word “propitiation.”


This word appears in both the Old Testament (“kaphar”) and New Testament (“hilasmos,” “hilaskomai,” “hilasterion”) texts of the Bible. Advocates for the Penal Substitution Theory hold that “propitiation” means “an offering to appease God’s wrath” (using particularly Rom. 3:25).


While it is true that the word DOES have a shade of meaning which implies just that (especially in Greek etymology), we must never give a generalized meaning to a word. Words must be understood within the Biblical context. There is another way the word “propitiation” is used. It was also used for the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, known as “the mercy seat.”


On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest under the Mosaic Law would sprinkle the blood from the sin offering upon the Mercy Seat for the sins of the people (see Lev. 16:14-16). The mercy seat was not where death occurred but where sins were dealt with (remediated). Interestingly, the Septuagint (LXX) Translation of the Old Testament uses the SAME Greek word for propitiation (“hilasterion”) in place of the Hebrew word for “mercy seat” (“kaporeth”).


Hence, the Early Church (which used the Septuagint Translation predominantly) understood the Old Testament Mercy Seat as a shadow of Christ’s propitiation in the New Testament. Just like God’s “wrath” was not poured out on the Old Testament Mercy Seat, so it was NOT poured out on Jesus at the Cross. RATHER, at the Cross, Jesus is mending man’s sinful state by the offering of Himself. His blood is healing man’s sinful state, not satisfying God.


So Jesus being the “propitiation” for our sins DOES NOT mean that “the wrath of God” fell on Him. On the contrary, He is God’s mercy shown to mankind by taking their sin and its consequence (death) upon Himself. Jesus is the propitiation for sins because in Him, our sins were dealt with, not because He took the anger/vengeance of God on our behalf.


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2020.



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