Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Propitiation is a word that in not in common use today. Proponents of Penal Substitution use it frequently, primarily referring to Romans 3:25
"(Christ Jesus) Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God"
This is the passage that Luther was struggling with in yesterday's post and begins with Paul's statement "Now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known... This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe". We saw that this righteousness "apart from law" was about God setting things right when we trust in him to work for us and in us. It involves a fundamental change in how we understand righteousness and justice, not as performance, but "apart from law" as something God does for sinners. But how does that work? All are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" but how did it come? In the next verse (3:25) Paul says it was through the cross. And here we find that word (at least in King James) "propitiation".
Propitiation literally means "to make favorable". It is similar to words like appeasement (Lit "to make peace") and Pacify (again to bring peace). However with all of these the context is placed on the idea of turning aside another's wrath usually through a gift or offering. The immediate difficulty with such as idea is that God does not need to be "made favorable" since he is the initiator of reconciliation. God is the one who "first loved us". It is vital to note that virtually no major proponent of Penal Substitution sees the cross as God's favor being purchased through sacrifice (which is what propitiation means) since this represents a pagan idea of sacrifice. John Stott writes that propitiation "does not make God gracious...God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us" (The Cross of Christ p.174) Calvin writes "Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us"(Institutes II 16:4)
Secondly, since it is God who makes the propitiation this amounts to "God paying God". You cannot propitiate yourself any more than you can steal from yourself or bribe yourself. What it amounts to is a word being stretched beyond the breaking point until it no longer fits. Propitiation is a concept that comes from a pagan understanding of the sacrifices where the sacrifice purchased the gods favor and humor. That is not the case here since it is God who makes the offering of himself.
So how did the word "propitiation" get into Romans 3:25? The original Greek word is hilasterion. Hilasterion is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew kapporeth which refers to the Mercy Seat of the Arc. Luther in his translation of the Bible renders Hilasterion as "Gnadenstuhl" which is German for Mercy Seat. In context this means that "God has set forth Jesus as the mercy seat (the place where atonement and expiation happen) through faith in his blood". Jesus is thus "the place where we find mercy". Many new translations render Hislateron for this reason as "expiate" because the Temple Sacrifices to not have an element of appeasing of wrath in them and thus this seems to be a more fitting translation if it refers to the Mercy Seat in the Temple. Expiation literally means "to make pious" (similar to sanctify) and implies either the removal or cleansing of sin.
The idea of propitiation includes that of expiation as its means. We are "made favorable" (propitiation) when our sin is removed (expiation). The problem is not that God is unwilling or unloving (propitiation), but that our sin causes a real break in relationship. As with any relationship, that break must be mended. This is what expiation refers to. Expiation is about cleaning or removing of sin and has no reference to quenching God's righteous anger. The difference is that the object of expiation is sin, not God. Grammatically, one propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem. You cannot expiate (remove) a person or God, nor can one propitiate (make favorable) sin. Christ's death was therefore both an expiation and a propitiation. By expiating (removing the problem of) sin God was made propitious (favorable) to us. Again not because God then suddenly loved us, but because the break in the relationship was mended.
Theologians stress the idea of propitiation because it specifically addresses the aspect of the atonement dealing with God's wrath. Leon Morris for instance argued for the translation of "propitiation" in Romans 3:25 because he said the thrust of Paul in Romans up til then had been on God's wrath. This is true. However the way that that wrath was dealt with was not though the anger of God being pacified through a gift (propitiation) but rather though God actually solving the problem by removing our sin as a doctor remove3s a cancer (expiation) thus making us "right".
Given then that virtually no proponent of Penal Substitution uses the word propitiation (or appeasement) as it is actually defined in English, it seems a bad word to use that leads to a false understanding of God as one who demands to be paid before he will love us rather than a God who pays what he does not owe because he loves us so much and gives his own life for us. God is not "made favorable" to us through a gift, rather God makes us favorable by giving his life.