The Atonement - Propitiation

By Michael Blankenship and Aaron Orendorff

As we begin to explore the subject of Jesus’ atonement, it may be helpful to recap what was said by way of introduction a couple of weeks ago. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in the book Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe, open by offering the following definition:
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore [the] relationship between God and humanity. . . . Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins (253).
Building off this excellent summary, our aim will be to unpack the reality that Jesus Christ—God’s incarnate Son—suffered on the cross in our place and on our behalf as the historical realization of three, interlocking theological truths: (1) the propitiation of God’s wrath, (2) the expiation of humanity’s sin, and (3) the reconciliation of both.

One quick side-note: We use the phrase “historical realization” intentionally in order to stress that the atonement is not an ahistorical abstraction—some sort of disembodied religious or philosophical truth, floating disconnected and unattached to real-life particularities, the dirt, nails, wood, sweat, taunts, blood, and pain, of a first-century Jew condemned to die on hill outside Jerusalem. The gospel is good news of something that has actually happened, a “historical reality” upon which all the beauty, wonder, hope, and theological truth of Christianity rests.[1] Keeping that thought firmly in mind, let us turn to the first element in the above definition and our subject for this post: propitiation.

Propitiation is a word seldom used today, which means that to understand what “the propitiation of God’s wrath” means we must first understand the concept of propitiation itself. The simplest, English equivalent of propitiation is the word satisfaction. An everyday sort of example might go like this: say I’m thirsty and so, in an effort to quench (that is, satisfy) my thirst, I drink a nice, big bottle of ice-cold water. Now we all know that a person can’t live without water; it’s not something that we choose to thirst for. So, in this case, to talk about satisfaction isn’t so much about a superficial feeling of desire. Rather it’s about something that the biology of being human demands, without compromise and indiscriminately.

In a similar way, God, though not having physical needs, authentically “thirsts” for justice because the need for justice is one of his essential, nonnegotiable attributes. Simply put: God, by his very nature, is just. Justice is part of who he is. Therefore, whenever something violates his sense of justice, satisfaction (that is, propitiation) is demanded.

Exodus 34:6-7 illustrates this point well because it bring together both God’s love and grace with his (equally as real) need for justice:
The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
As difficult as it may be for us to swallow, justice (particularly, God’s justice), cannot exist without punishment. In God’s economy, justice is both restorative (when understood from the viewpoint of the victim) as well as retributive (when understood from the viewpoint of the perpetrator). This means that “righting the wrongs in the world” is good news to those who have been victimized while at the same time bad news to those who have been the victimizers. To this end, the Psalms are literally full of prayers asking God to act “in his righteousness” both to defend and vindicate the oppressed (restorative justice), as well as, to destroy and condemn the oppressors (retributive justice).

Imagine, for example, a person who has committed murder is found guilty but that the judge presiding over the case simply lets him go. Is this just? Of course not. Moreover, it would be impossible for us to respect (much less love and worship) a judge who so terribly violated the rules of justice. This is especially true if we ourselves have been affected by the crime in question. In the same way, when human beings “sin” against God—when they violate His law—the punishment must meet the crime. To avoid punishment is to avoid justice.

Romans 2:1-3 helps us understand this principle by relating our own, everyday acts of judgment with God’s perfect, once-for-all, ultimate act of judgment:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
Much like Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 2:1-3 stresses not only that God is just but that his justice demands satisfaction; it needs propitiation.

Throughout the Bible, the demand God’s need for justice creates is called his “wrath.” Unlike our wrath, which is often self-serving, ignorant, and hardly ever aligned with what is truly “good,” God’s anger is never out-of-proportion, never out-of-control, and always upholds what is right. In fact, as strange as it may sound, God’s wrath is actually an expression of his love. Becky Pippert, in her book Hope Has Its Reasons, explains it like this:
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. De we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it . . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. . . . God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer . . . which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with whole being.
This “cancer” is called sin and Scripture tells us that God’s wrath stands against any and all forms of it in the world (Rom. 1:18).

Sometimes people ask, “Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God just forgive us?” This question not only misunderstands what we’ve said so far about justice, it also misunderstands how forgiveness itself works. For example, imagine that your neighbor accidentally breaks your window in the middle of winter. Basically, you have one of two choices. On one hand, you can go the way of strict justice and demand that your neighbor pay for the broken window to be fixed (after all it’s winter and you can’t just live with a smashed-in window). Or, two, you can go the way of forgiveness and instead of making your neighbor pay for the window you can pay for it yourself. In this scenario, strict justice means that the perpetrator must pay while forgiveness means that you must pay. Either way the window must be fixed and this means that regardless of which way you choose someone has to pay. Through this simple example, it’s easy to see that nobody “just forgives.”

Applying this illustration to the cross, Tim Keller writes:
Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer do it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change. Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of sin yourself. . . . On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale. . . . It is crucial at this point to remember that the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. . . . [T]his is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us (192).
Think of it like this, when it comes to human sin and divine justice, God has a choice: he can either propitiate his wrath by punishing human beings themselves or he can make propitiation for human beings by absorbing the debt of sin himself. The wonder of the gospel is that God chose the latter and, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered for the sins of humanity.

People often call attention to the physical suffering involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, but Scripture makes clear that this was not the worst of it. Jesus experienced a pain, which those who choose to believe in him, no longer have to experience. It was the pain of separation from God. Hence Jesus’ words upon the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a powerful statement that allows us to see into the true suffering of our savior. This was God’s wrath, being taken up by Jesus himself, for our iniquities. As Jesus uttered these words, he was experiencing, quite literally, hell.

You see, the tragedy of hell (where God’s wrath is ultimately assuaged) arises not because of physical flames but because it means being disconnected from God for all eternity. When a person goes to hell, they experience all the infinite horrors and spiritual disintegration of not having loved, served, and worshiped God. But now imagine one man experiencing hell, not on account of his own sins (for he himself was sinless), but for the sins of all those who would choose (past, present, and future) to put their faith and trust in him. Jesus Christ truly suffered beyond our imagination or comprehension. The atonement means that God’s just wrath has been satisfied, absorbed by God himself, and that most amazingly, as 1 John 4:10 says: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”


[1] Nor should we say that the Jesus-event—i.e., his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension—is simply an “illustration” of who God is and what he does—that He is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. Jesus, and in particular the cross, is more than a mere illustration; it is more than God’s ultimate word-become-flesh-picture. Rather, Jesus is an actual event, both in the life of God and in the life of the world, on the basis of which God is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. The argument here is in some sense circular: God loves and so He sent Christ; God sent Christ and so He loves.

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