by Doug Smith
The cross is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. It is what separates Christianity from other religions, and it is the hub from which our understanding of God, ourselves, salvation, and the Christian life originate. The cross is so essential that the apostle Paul wrote, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) and that this Christ is “made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians ).
If Christ's death on the cross is so essential, then one should labor to understand it. To understand the cross, one needs to understand several key concepts in the Bible. These ideas include redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, and substitution.
The language of redemption is the language of the marketplace. To redeem something is to purchase it as one's possession. The words translated as the words for redemption in the Bible are also frequently translated as the words for buying. When speaking of redemption, there is a purchaser, a price paid, and a thing purchased. Furthermore, the Biblical concept of redemption also has reference to the circumstances from which one is redeemed (the penalty of sin, its guilt, power, and presence, and the bondage of Satan).
By his own blood, Christ has purchased to God individuals from every people group of the earth: "And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Revelation 5:9). Christ said he came "to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew , Mark ). The word ransom means a redemption price. So, he laid down his life and bought a people with his blood (Acts , Ephesians 1:7, Colossians , Hebrews , 1 Peter -19).
But why were people in need of redemption? They needed redemption because they were subject to the consequences of sin, the curse of the law, and the bondage of Satan.
Christ came to redeem his people from sin. His name Jesus indicated this: "thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew ). He "gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus ).
Christ came to redeem his people from the curse of the law, God's righteous requirements rooted in his holy character. The curse of the law is the opposite of its blessing. Blessing was promised for obedience, but a curse for disobedience (Deuteronomy -28). "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Galatians ). He came to fulfill the obedience we had failed to render and to suffer the penalty for our disobedience. He came to "redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Galatians 4:5). Christ also came to deliver us from the ceremonial system that foreshadowed his coming, and into the full liberty of God's children.
Christ came to redeem his people from the bondage of Satan. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). But does this imply that Christ paid a ransom to Satan? C. S. Lewis' book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe portrays Aslan, a Christ-figure, dying at the hands of the White Witch, who shares many parallels with Satan. Some leaders even in ancient church history have taught that Christ paid a ransom to Satan, but this concept has no ground in Scripture. John Murray writes, "The early fathers of the Christian church gave a prominent place to this phase of redemption and construed it in terms of ransom paid to the devil. Such a construction became fanciful and ludicrous. Its falsity was effectively exposed by Anselm in his epochal work, Cur Deus Homo" [Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 49].
Although Christ did not pay a ransom to Satan, it does not follow that the redemption Jesus purchased had no effect on the Devil. The first promise of a Savior in the Bible spelled doom for the Devil: "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Genesis ). Christ pronounced judgment on Satan on the way to the cross: "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John ). When the people of
This language of redemption should cause Christians to see themselves as the property of God and live accordingly, pleasing him in their conduct. "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians ; cf. 1 Corinthians ). "And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption" (Ephesians ). The language of redemption should cause pastors to take special care to lead and feed the people of God. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
The word reconciliation refers to the restoration of a relationship between God and sinners. It implies that there was an offense between two parties and that the cause of the change in relationship has been repaired, or made right.
Sin is what caused a breach in the relationship between God and men. Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve welcomed God's presence and voice. After they sinned, they hid from God (Genesis 3:8). Isaiah describes the consequences of sin upon man's relationship with God in this way: "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2).
The Bible speaks not only of this problem of alienation between men and God, but of its solution: the cross. God reconciled sinners from being his enemies through the death of his Son. Furthermore, he reconciled sinners from his opposition to their sin by removing it from them through the blood of Christ. Reconciliation in the death of Christ has reference to the offending party (the sinner) and the one offended (God).
In regard to sinners as God's enemies, Colossians 1:20-21 speaks of Christ "having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled." Instead of being at "enmity against God" (Romans 8:7), those who are "justified by faith" are the ones who "have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). Romans 5:10-11 sets forth the death of Christ as that which reconciles God's enemies to himself: "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." The word translated as atonement in Romans 5:11 in the King James Version is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as reconciliation and is closely related to the word translated reconciled in Romans 5:10, and probably should be taken as reconciliation in Romans 5:11 as well.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 speaks of God as having "reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation." This God "made [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians ). Having done what was necessary to bring reconciliation between sinners and himself, God now has the message proclaimed through ambassadors for Christ: "be ye reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians ).
Since God has done what was needed to make the relationship right between himself and sinners, Christians need to boldly proclaim the message of the Gospel and urge upon sinners the necessity to receive this reconciliation, to be reconciled to God.
Propitiation is hardly a common word among speakers of English today. At one time it was better known. Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary of American English offers these definitions of propitiation:
1. The act of appeasing wrath and conciliating the favor of an offended person; the act of making propitious.
2. In theology, the atonement or atoning sacrifice offered to God to assuage his wrath and render him propitious to sinners. Christ is the propitiation for the sins of men. Rom 3. 1 John 2.
If Webster's 1828 definition is correct, and the word propitiation accurately reflects the original word in the Biblical text, when one says that Christ is the propitiation for sinners, one is stating that God's wrath against sinners was satisfied with the death of Christ, as it was transferred to Jesus instead of sinners. But some are appalled at the idea of Christ's death satisfying the wrath of God.
Citing Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, J. Gresham Machen wrote concerning liberal theologians, "They speak with disgust of those who believe "'that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.'"
C. H. Dodd argued that the word translated propitiation should be rendered as expiation, which means that Christ's death puts away sin and grants forgiveness, but says nothing about the wrath of God, which Dodd considered to be a paganistic concept foreign to the Christian God [J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 164].
Surprisingly, even some conservatives seem to have a problem with God's wrath. Some adopt Dodd's preference of expiation, while others attempt to redefine propitiation contrary to its Biblical and historical meaning. Kenneth S. Wuest plainly declares, "In its biblical usage, hilasmos [one of the words rendered as propitiation] means 'an expiation,'" and later states, "the thought is not that of placating the anger of a vengeful God, but that of satisfying the righteous demands of His justice so that His government might be maintained, and that mercy might be shown on the basis of justice duly satisfied" [Kenneth S. Wuest, Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1945), 38-39, reprinted in Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Volume III (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973)]. Wuest also writes on page 39, "There is no thought here of God placating Himself, or of rendering Himself conciliatory to Himself, or of appeasing His own anger. The thought would be ridiculous." Warren Wiersbe wrote, "Propitiation does not mean appeasing God's anger; propitiation does not mean turning God's wrath into love" [Warren W. Wiersbe, Key Words of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1982), 48].
On the other hand, conservative scholar Wayne Grudem defines propitiation as "a sacrifice that bears God's wrath to the end and in so doing changes God's wrath toward us into favor" [Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 575]. "The turning away of wrath by an offering," is the definition of propitiation given by Leon Morris, who argues that Dodd and others who argue for the word to be translated as expiation fail "to give sufficient attention to the biblical teaching" with its abundant evidence through the OT & NT for the wrath of God against sin [Leon Morris, "Propitiation," in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 888]. Manford George Gutzke wrote, "Propitiation…has to do with turning away wrath by use of an offering" [Plain Talk About Christian Words, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1964), 65]. According to John Murray, "To propitiate means to 'placate,' 'pacify,' 'appease,' 'conciliate' … Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people" [Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 30]. However,
Even without the views of liberal theologians, there is enough significant disagreement among conservative teachers on the meaning of propitiation to remind us that we should search the Scriptures for the meaning of this word. So what exactly does the Bible teach about propitiation?
There are two Greek words that have historically been rendered as propitiation in English translations of the Bible. Hilasmos is found only in 1 John, translated as propitiation in 2:2 and . Hilastērion occurs twice in the New Testament, translated as propitiation in Romans 3:25 and rendered as mercy seat in Hebrews 9:5. A related word, hilaskomai, appears in Hebrews 2:17 as "make reconciliation for" and in Luke as "be merciful," the prayer of the publican to the Lord.
The apostle John demonstrates that those who have fellowship with God will walk in the light, that is, in obedience (1 John 1:6-7). Those walking in the light will have their sin cleansed, but they must be honest and confess those sins, which God is faithful and just to forgive (1 John 1:7-10). He reminds his readers that they should not sin, but if they do, they have an advocate (paraklētos, the Greek word translated in John , , and 16:7 as comforter, that is, one who comes alongside to help) with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1-2). The forgiveness of sin and the help of Jesus Christ is based upon the truth in 1 John 2:2: "he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." One who is trusting Christ does not have to fear being separated from God. Though separated from God by sins, Christ was the propitiation for those sins. Because the righteous Christ became a propitiation for sinners, children of God have someone to help them, to grant forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9, 2:2). Since God promised the forgiveness of sin through the death of his Son, he is faithful to forgive sin. He is true to his word. Since those sins were punished on Christ, God is just, or righteous, in forgiving them. He is right to do so and not "crooked." So, propitiation has reference to the faithfulness and justice of God in putting away sins through Christ.
The same word for propitiation is found in 1 John 4:10: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." 1 John 4:9 says, "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." So, propitiation has definite reference to God's love. Christ became our propitiation because God loved us. He was sent into the world so "that we might live through him." Evidently the propitiation he accomplished enabled us to live by removing from us the penalty of death that we deserved for our sins. God removed this death from us so that we might live through the propitiation of his Son.
The occurrence of propitiation in Romans has clear reference to the wrath of God. But one must follow Paul's argument to see this. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul declares that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [or, suppress] the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans ).
Furthermore, he goes on to demonstrate that "both Jews and Gentiles…are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:9-10). He argues that God revealed the holy demand so his law "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God" since "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight" (Romans -20). He explicitly states that a righteousness of God apart from the law is needed, because "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans -23). Therefore God, freely (without any obligation on his part) declares people righteous as a gift (something that cannot be earned, bought, or deserved) "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans ).
At this point the word propitiation appears. Christ is he "whom God hath set forth [as a public display] 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; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:25-26).
God revealed his wrath against sinners. All people were in this category. It was impossible to be declared righteous by God through obedience to the law. Mankind was helpless, left to himself. But God provided someone else who could give mankind the righteousness needed. This was accomplished through Jesus Christ. He died as a propitiation so that if people would believe in him, their sins would be forgiven and they would be declared righteous. In accomplishing salvation this way, God is but righteous, doing no damage to his holy demands and character, and he is the one who declares righteous those who needed his righteousness but could not attain it except by receiving it through faith in Jesus Christ. The propitiation of Christ turned away God's wrath so that believing sinners would not be subject to the just punishment for their sin.
It is very telling that the same word translated propitiation in Romans is translated as mercy seat in Hebrews 9:5, which speaks of "the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat." The mercy seat was the lid covering the ark of the covenant (or ark of the testimony); it was located between the wings of the cherubim (angelic creatures). The ark of the covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments and other reminders of God's witness and work among the people (as well as a reminder of their sin), was kept in the holy of holies, a place in the tabernacle (and later the temple), where God would manifest his presence, communicate with the priest, and receive a sacrifice for the sins of the people (Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89). Evidently, the propitiation of Christ is directly related to the mercy seat. But whereas access to the mercy seat was hidden, private, and restricted, the veil has now been torn asunder through Christ's sacrifice (Matthew 27:51), which was made publicly and openly, and the benefits of which are freely offered to all who will believe in him.
Related words to those translated as propitiation in the New Testament are used to translate terms relating to the atonement and mercy seat in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) [Notes on Romans in Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies (1886)]. Leviticus 16, which describes in detail the Day of Atonement, has numerous occurrences of the word atonement and mercy seat. The reader is told in Leviticus 16 that the priest had to enter the holy of holies with a sacrifice for his own sins as well as for the sins of the people. Sweet-smelling incense was burned as an offering to God. Two goats would be chosen and lots cast to determine which one would be slaughtered and which one sent away as the scapegoat into the wilderness, symbolizing the carrying away of the sins of the people. The blood of a slain bull and the other goat would be sprinkled upon the mercy seat to make atonement, or a covering, for sin.
The wrath of God is the backdrop of the instructions for the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:1 mentions that "the LORD spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the LORD, and died." Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons, attempted to offer "strange fire" before God. He was not pleased, but killed them on the spot. They were not closely following his commands. In Leviticus 16, he gives specific commands concerning the timing and circumstances of entering the holy of holies to Aaron "that he die not."
In Hebrews 2:17, hilaskomai is translated as "make reconciliation for": "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." This word occurs again in Luke 18:13 in the publican's prayer: "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner."
It would appear that the concepts of atonement, making reconciliation for the sins of the people, and God showing his mercy to sinners, are all bound up in the concept of propitiation. The Biblical data supports the definition of propitiation as a sacrifice which satisfies the holy and just demands of God and which removes his wrath from sinners who trust in Christ. Men like Fosdick and Dodd plainly ignore or hate the clear teaching of the Bible in this area. They certainly do not do justice to its teaching. Perhaps writers such as Wiersbe and Wuest manifest a misguided effort to avoid making God seem like a pagan deity (arguing that he is not angry at sinners), but to accomplish this goal, they ignore plain Scriptural teaching (such as Psalm 7:11, where God is said to be angry with the wicked every day), make God's law something external to himself, and misrepresent what the word propitiation actually means in its biblical usage.
While some argue that different language might be useful instead of the word propitiation, it is difficult to find another English equivalent. Mark Dever writes:
Douglas Moo of
Propitiation should not be watered down to only mean expiation, but should include the full idea of its Godward nature – God was propitiated, or appeased, by his own loving design (not by our works), through the sacrifice of Christ which absorbed his righteous wrath against sinners. It is both a display of his love and wrath which accomplished the removal of our sin and satisfied him completely.
Since God, in his great love, has put away his wrath against sinners in Christ, the Scripture teaches the necessity of accepting this propitiation through faith in Christ (Romans ), and teaches Christians "to love one another" (1 John ).
The concepts of redemption, reconciliation, and propitiation in the death of Christ are connected by the idea of substitution, a key component of the Christian gospel. Yet some deny this. In their book, The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke and Alan Mann deny that Christ died as the substitute for sinners with these words: "The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse--a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed" [Cited in R. Albert Mohler, "Has the Message of Jesus Been Lost?" Commentary for
Erroneous views on the doctrine of substitution are not new. This teaching has been neglected, misunderstood, or denied for centuries. But sometimes error appeared in surprising places. Puritan Richard Baxter held an alternative view of the atonement that omitted substitution. "[Baxter] explained Christ's death as an act of universal redemption (penal and vicarious, but not substitutionary), in virtue of which God has made a new law offering pardon and amnesty to the penitent. Repentance and faith, being obedience to this law, are the believer's personal saving righteousness" [J. I. Packer, "Introduction," in Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, ed. William Brown (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 10.], and the famous evangelist Charles Finney, often touted as a stalwart of the faith, flatly denied that Christ's death actually atoned for sinners [Phillip R. Johnson, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: How Charles Finney’s Theology Ravaged the Evangelical Movement” <http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/finney.htm>].
The Scriptures give such clear teaching about substitution that there can be no denial of this doctrine without doing violence to the Gospel message, and there can be no neglect of it if one is to do justice to the truth of the Gospel.
As early as Genesis 3, an innocent animal was killed because of the sin of Adam and Eve. The innocent animal (or animals) suffered death to give coats of skin to the guilty pair. The whole concept of substitution was fundamental to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. When an animal was given as an offering to God and killed, that animal suffered in the place of the person who gave it. The innocent animal died for the guilty sinner, getting what the human deserved.
One of the clearest pictures of substitution is that of the scapegoat. On the Day of Atonement, two goats were taken in this ceremony of atonement for the sins of the people. The lot was cast to choose one goat as the sacrifice and the other to be sent away into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:7-22). The ceremony is described this way:
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
Christ's death was foretold in terms that teach substitution. Isaiah 53 reverberates with the language of substitution. The suffering servant is the one who has "borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (verse 4), and who was "wounded for our transgressions," "bruised for our iniquities," and had upon him "the chastisement of our peace" (verse 5). "The LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (verse 6); "for the transgression of my people was he stricken" (verse 8). Isaiah makes it clear that this suffering servant is not suffering for his own sin, "because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth" (verse 9). The "righteous servant" would "justify man; for he shall bear their iniquities" (verse 11). He was "numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many" (verse 12).
The concept of substitution underlies the idea of redemption. For example, Galatians says that "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree." The plain meaning is that Jesus bore our curse as a substitute. Christ "gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus ).
Substitution is fundamental to reconciliation. The reason Paul can beg people to be "reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians ) is because God has made Christ "to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians ).
The concept of substitution is inseparable from Christ's death being the "propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2). It is he who put away God's wrath in our place to secure his favor for us.
Other passages indicate the substitutionary nature of Christ's death. Jesus said that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John , 15). Paul indicated that substitution is part of the Gospel message: "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3). This same apostle wrote that Christ was the one "who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Galatians ). Peter wrote that "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter ).
The Passover ritual in the Old Testament required a lamb without blemish (Exodus 12:5). This sacrifice was innocent and without blame, and died in the place of the firstborn child, when
The truth of substitution is good news for the world. It means that someone has taken the punishment for their sin if they will believe in him. It means they do not have to try to get God's favor based on their performance, but can receive it as a gift based on what Jesus Christ did on their behalf. It means their only hope is in one who fulfilled all that sinful man had failed in and who suffered the wrath of God that sinful man deserved.
The cross is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. Christ's death on the cross accomplished what no amount of human effort could do. Christ suffered in the place of sinners to purchase them for God, to restore the relationship between them and God, and to satisfy the wrath of God on their behalf. These doctrines of redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, and substitution should be defended and proclaimed and believed. The death of Christ is at the heart the Christian faith and must be kept central if one is to be faithful to God. To deny them is to deny God and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and abandon truth that distinguishes Christianity from false teaching.