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This spring’s Gospel Project for Adults and Students leads participants through the “Atonement Thread,” which helps people put the Bible together to see how the theme of atonement runs from Genesis to Revelation.

For the past several Thursdays, I’ve featured contributions from some friends who are examining the beauty of the atonement from different angles. Here’s how the series has shaped up so far:

Today, Fred Sanders explains the concept of “propitiation” and how the biblical picture differs from the ancient pagan understandings.

Fred Sanders is an evangelical Protestant theologian with a passion for the great tradition of Christian thought. He is the author of many books, including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, and Wesley on the Christian Life. Since 1999 he has taught in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

PROPITIATION

“Propitiation” is one of those five-syllable theological words that tend to break up polite parties. But it’s also a word that’s well worth the work of understanding, because whether we know it or not, all of us are walking around working on some sort of plan for propitiation. The big question is whether our plan is a Christian one.

The Ancient Meaning

Here’s what I mean: Propitiation is an ancient word, which we as Christians have in common with other world religions. To propitiate a god is to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the god’s wrath. Anyone who believes in a god knows that they need some way to stay on the friendly side of that god. So they give gifts to the god, or serve in the temple, or give alms. And if the god is angry with them, they pay a price, or make a sacrifice, or find some way to soothe the god’s anger: they propitiate him.

This description may conjure up images of animistic tribes cravenly placating their volcano gods by tossing in victims; and in fact some modern Christians have argued that, whatever the Old Testament may have been about, the New Testament can’t possibly have anything to do with propitiation. But the fact is, the idea that God’s wrath must be turned aside by a sacrifice is very much a New Testament idea. It’s just that, as John Stott has argued, “the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions.”

Pagan Propitiation vs. Biblical Propitiation

In pagan propitiation, the gods need to be propitiated because they are grumpy and capricious. They don’t care much about humans except when something makes them angry; then they smite! And it’s up to humans to get busy doing the propitiating, to make up for whatever they’ve done that angered the gods. The humans find something that the gods like (sweets, or meat, or pain, or blood), and offer it as a bribe to calm down their wrathful deities.

But every aspect of biblical propitiation contrasts with the pagan kind.

  1. First, consider why God requires propitiation: not because he’s moody or easily provoked, but because he is holy and just. God responds to sin with absolute consistency, and his “wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18).
  2. Second, consider who carries out biblical propitiation: not humans on their own initiative figuring out what God likes, but God himself declaring what kind of sacrifice he accepts, and then providing it. Even in the Old Testament, God takes credit for providing the blood of animal sacrifice (“I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement,” Leviticus 17:11).
  3. And third, consider what kind of sacrifice brings about biblical propitiation: not a bribe or something nice to tide him over. No, in the fullness of time, God fulfills the Old Testament symbolism by giving his own Son to die for us.

As Stott summarizes, in biblical propitiation, “God himself gave himself to save us from himself.”

This stark difference between pagan and biblical propitiation is the background for the bold statements the New Testament makes: that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25); and “he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). In both cases, the apostles use the Greek word hilasterion (also five syllables!), best translated by our big word propitiation.

Why Propitiation Matters

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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21 thoughts on “Pagan Propitiation vs Biblical Propitiation”

  1. Clayton says:

    I don’t believe the atonement changes God’s disposition towards man. God is love. I believe when the Bible speaks of God’s wrath, it is speaking from mankind’s perspective, not God’s. Wrath is the word that describes the experience of a sinful human unconditioned to experience the Glory of God. God’s presence is a fire that torments the unworthy but is a light to those who have been made worthy. The atonement changes us – it cleanses us from sin. Therefore, instead of saying God gave himself to save us from himself (the Bible does not use such language), I believe it is more proper to say that “God gave us himself to save us from our sinful condition in which we experience God’s love as wrath”. In this way, propitiation is basically the same as expiation. In fact, there is a good argument to be made that hilasterion is best translated expiation, not propitiation.

    1. Brian says:

      Clayton,

      1) Christ’s atonement certainly changes God’s disposition towards sinners. We were once His enemies, but now we have peace with Him (Romans 5:1). Christians were once under His wrath (Romans 1-2; 5:18; Ephesians 2:3), but have been justified by His grace through the blood of Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

      2) God is love. God is just. God is holy. God is righteous. God is merciful. He demonstrated all of these attributes in the atoning work of Christ. God’s love doesn’t compete against His justice. He demonstrates both by being both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).

      3) When the Bible speaks of God’s wrath, it speaks both God’s word on His wrath, as well as the human author’s word on His wrath. These aren’t mutually exclusive, nor are they contradictory. If the Bible is the Word of God, then when the Bible speaks of God’s wrath, we are getting God’s revelation on His wrath. God’s wrath is His judgment against sin. As Phinehas the priest turns the wrath of God (expressed in the plague) away from the covenant people of Israel by atonement in Numbers 25, so Christ completely turns away the wrath of God for His new covenant people by the shedding of His own, perfect blood.

      4) The atonement certainly cleanses us from sin (“expiation”), but “propitiation” involves more than that, not less. Propitiation speaks of both the removal of sin AND averting God’s wrath against sinners.

      5) The Bible certainly uses the language of “God gave himself to save us from himself.” That’s the language of Romans 3:21-26. The Father gives the Son as a propitiation (Romans 3:25)- that’s God giving Himself to save us from Himself. The entire Levitical system points to this truth. The limitations/deficiencies of the Levitical sacrificial system in removing sin, propitiating God’s wrath, and reconciling us to Him is one of the crucial arguments made by the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 5-10. God sends His Son to do what only He can do- atone for our sins by bearing God’s wrath, as well as to give us His righteousness and forgive our sins.

      6) “Hilasterion” is best translated “propitiation,” not “expiation.” Pagan Greek (Classical and Hellenistic) literature, early Jewish writers (Josephus and Philo), and the LXX all use the verb “hilaskomai” (“to propitiate”), from which the noun “hilasterion” is derived. In Romans 3, the context clearly indicates “hilasterion” is meant to avert God’s wrath. Your argument for “hilasterion” being translated as expiation is a rehashing of C.H. Dodd’s argument, which Roger Nicole and Leon Morris have soundly refuted.

      Blessings,

      Brian

      1. Clayton says:

        Just to respond a little more specifically to some of your points:

        1. None of those passages indicate a fundamental change in God’s disposition towards man. Rather they indicate a change in man. When I say God’s disposition doesn’t change, I don’t mean he doesn’t change his actions, and I don’t mean that he doesn’t punish. But his chastisement is always to guide us to repentence rather than to be vindictive. He is changeless in His acceptance of repentant hearts and in his opposition to sin.

        2. I agree

        3. God’s wrath is his opposition to sin. Therefore, it is we who need to be cleansed of sin in order to avoid His wrath rather than He who needs to be changed in order to be able to share His affection with us.

        4 and 5. Best I can tell, the interpretation of hilasterion with the emphasis on God’s appeasement rather than mankind’s cleansing did not arise until the middle ages with Anslem. So I believe I have Church History on my side with my interpretation.

        Frankly, I don’t see how a belief in propitiation in the terms you have presented is in any way consist with the classical theist position that God is ontologically changeless.

        1. Brian says:

          Clayton,

          I’ll try to briefly respond to each of your points. My hope is not to write a novel!

          1) I would argue that each of these passages, as well as a host of other relevant biblical passages, do indicate a change in God’s disposition towards man. A few examples: Genesis 3- God’s attitude/disposition towards Adam and Eve is forever changed by their sin against Him. As a result of their sin, he curses them and drives them out of the garden. This is HIS action as a response to their sin- a personal action that is an outworking of His holy anger towards sin. Genesis 6-7- God destroys the earth as a result of human wickedness, but saves Noah and his family. This is God’s judgment and wrath on human sin. This is retributive justice. Romans 5:1 states that Christians are now at peace with God. This presupposes that we were once not at peace with God. Paul writes Romans 5:1 in the context of Romans 1-4, which argues that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, are under God’s wrath for their sins. If God’s wrath is no longer on Christians because we have been justified by the blood of Christ, this entails a change in God’s disposition towards us (as well as us to God). God’s holy wrath is not bent towards me anymore, but only His love for me in Christ. I do not mean to say that God does not love the lost, but I do mean to communicate that God is both loving towards unbelievers and wrathful against them at the same time.

          I also think you’re confusing God’s chastisement (discipline) with God’s wrath. God’s wrath is His judgment against unbelievers for their sins. God’s discipline/chastisement is for training His children (Hebrews 12:3-11).

          2. Amen!

          3. God’s wrath is the outworking of His holiness. God’s wrath is His active, personal judgment against sin, not simply His opposition to sin. Maybe we’re not disagreeing here, but it seems as though you’re saying that God’s wrath is more of an attitude towards sin, rather than God’s action against sin. I completely agree with you that we need to be cleansed from sin! But we need more than cleansing from sin, for God’s just judgment against sin (Genesis 2:16-17, Romans 2:6-8) must be accomplished. God must be true to His nature and His Word.

          4. If we’re not considering the NT authors (whom I would contend argue for propitiation), then biblical propitiation, as it is held in penal substitution, has been upheld since the early church. Justin Martyr (2nd century) and Eusebius (3rd/4th century) are two of the earliest proponents of Jesus bearing the curse of God for believers. It has become common to appeal to Anselm and “satisfaction” as the first to incorporate “propitiation,” but this is simply incorrect. Again, the biblical authors, Josephus, and Philo were all using “hilasterion” to mean “propitiation” in the first century. I do not believe that you have Church History on your side, though you do have Dodd, Hanson, and Joel Green.

          I’m not sure that I’m completely understanding your last point about propitiation being inconsistent with God’s ontology/immutability. God simultaneously loves unbelievers and acts against them in holy wrath. These are not mutually exclusive. God’s love and God’s wrath are both personal.

          I would contend that you aren’t consistent with God’s character. I’m saying that propitiation vindicates God’s justice (and love) because His wrath is poured out both ways- either as it is executed against sinners who are in Christ, or against the sinners themselves in hell. If I understand your position, you seem to maximize God’s love at the expense of God’s justice and holiness, as if they’re mutually exclusive. Do unbelievers endure the wrath of God at judgment? If so, how does that not entail a change in God’s disposition towards those unrepentant sinners?

          Finally, we need to be saved from sin because God judges sin. Sin brings death and God’s judgment. God stands against us because of our sin. It’s personal and legal. We’ve been reconciled, redeemed, and forgiven. Praise God!

          I’ve enjoyed the interaction!

          Blessings,

          Brian

          1. Clayton says:

            Couple of points, and then perhaps I’ll say more later if I have time.

            1. I do not deny God’s wrath. God’s wrath is aimed at sin, which is why Christ died on the cross – to cleanse us of sin.

            2. God’s action towards Adam and Eve is not retributive, as evidenced by the fact that he clothes them. The goal of his actions is to lead them (and all their descendants) to repentance.

            3. “Do unbelievers endure the wrath of God at judgment? If so, how does that not entail a change in God’s disposition towards those unrepentant sinners?” But what is God’s wrath? In the end, God will be “all in all”. His presence is described in the Scriptures as fire, and an unapproachable light. I believe hell is unrepentant peoples’ experience of God’s fiery presence. His presence is torment to the unrepentant, but it is bliss (heaven) to the repentant.

            4. Please give me one example of a Church Father who taught that Christ’s death on the cross was to appease God’s wrath. Just one.

      2. Clayton says:

        One more thing. The idea that we need to be saved from God is highly disturbing to me and many others. If I had to believe that in order to be a Christian, I would not be a Christian.

        We do not need to be saved from God, we need to be saved from sin so that we can be with and enjoy God. That’s what Christ’s atonement does!

        1. Brian says:

          Clayton,

          I know I won’t have time after this post to respond anymore, but I do appreciate your taking the time to respond. Very briefly:

          1. I agree with you that Christ died on the cross to cleanse us from sin! Propitiation includes this truth. It just also includes the idea that Christ endured God’s wrath against sin as well. Sin not only needs to be taken away, but it must also be punished to uphold God’s loving justice. Sin pollutes and it brings condemnation. Both must be addressed, which is what propitiation entails.

          2. God’s actions against Adam and Eve are retributive. They sin against Him and He curses both of them, cuts them off from His presence, and they both die (spiritually and physically). That is a just response by God against their sin. That is retributive. That is not to say that He does not also love Adam and Eve at the same time. Again, His love and justice are not mutually exclusive. He gives them clothes, promises a redeemer to come, and doesn’t physically kill them immediately. He displays both love and retributive justice. I completely agree with you that He desires for them to repent.

          3. I’m still a little confused by your idea of God’s wrath. If unrepentant people are experiencing God’s fiery presence because of their sins, this entails some murky form of retributive justice, if only passively. People are still being tormented by God for their sins- that’s retribution. Jesus has endured physical and spiritual death for the believer so that cleansing from sin is possible. Again, God’s love and justice are both personal and they work in tandem, not against one another.

          4. One example from the Church Fathers: “And the Lamb of God…was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonor, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made curse for us.”

          -Eusebius of Caesarea, Proof of the Gospel, Vol. 2, trans. and ed. W.J. Ferrar (10:1, 195). Eusebius is referencing the curse of God from Deuteronomy 21 and Galatians 3.

          A good defense of hilasterion as “propitiation” (apart from the work of Roger Nicole and Leon Morris) is D.A. Carson’s essay in Glory of the Atonement: “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26.” Another good defense of penal substitution/propitiation is Pierced for Our Transgressions. I commend them both to you.

          Blessings,

          Brian

          1. Clayton says:

            Adam and Eve’s death is the natural result of their sin. There is not indication in the Scriptures that God curses them with death as a punishment for their sin.

            Regarding God’s wrath, I am saying that at the end of time when the Kingdom of Heaven comes in its fullness, God’s presence can be experienced in two different ways. God’s presence is joy to the repentant, but torment to the unrepentant, not because He is obligated to punish sin, but because the unrepentant sinner is fundamentally opposed to God. So no, there is not sense of retributive justice in this view. God is constant and changeless, but the purity of our hearts will determine whether we experience His presence as heaven or hell.

            Eusebius has never been considered a Church Father. He was an Origenist and His views were not a very shining example of Orthodox Christology. In any case, even in the quote you share, there is nothing about the Son appeasing the Fathers wrath. You are reading your preconceived notion into that text.

            The bottom line is, I reject the reformed understanding of the atonement because it is ahistorical, and leads to disturbing implications about the moral character of God the Father.

  2. Clay says:

    Yes, we were Gods enemy, he was never our enemy. It is we who are changed by Christs atonement, not God. God does not change. Gods wrath is His love experiences by those that hate him.

  3. Jon says:

    “In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.”

    I fall into this so often, and when I do I graciously feel burdened and heavy laden. Matthew 11:28 is always an oasis for my soul. I pray that feeling never leaves me when I fall.

  4. Clayton says:

    I wanted to post a follow up comment to clarify my thoughts about the propitiatory nature of the atonement. My desire in posting in these threads is not to argue for argument’s sake, it’s to get to the bottom of what the substance of my disagreement with reformed theology is (although I realize my desire for “fruitful” discussions haven’t come across in all of my posts).

    After pondering this issue some more, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am comfortable with the concept of propitiation through expiation. I cannot believe that the atonement has anything to do with the Son appeasing the Father, in the sense that God is obligated to enact vindictive punishment and so Christ endures that punishment instead of us. Rather, I believe that God’s wrath, defined as His existential opposition to sin, is propitiated in the sense that it is redirected away from sinners and to Christ, the spotless sacrificial lamb. So when Christ takes on the sins of the world, he naturally takes the wrath of God upon Himself, which effects the annihilation of sin and death. So in this sense, the atonement is propitiatory and expiatory at the same time – it redirects the Father’s opposition to sin away from us and to Christ, and this in turn cleanses us from sin because sin is put to death in Christ’s death.

    So under this understanding, the atonement is satisfactory in that it satisfies the Father’s purpose for eliminating sin and returning the world to rights, not in the sense that it satisfies his need to enact vindication against sinners for violating His holiness.

    If anyone is still following this thread, I would appreciate comments. I truly want to understand how big of a gap there is between my understanding and the reformed protestant understanding. I’m not a theologian or a philosopher, so forgive me if I’m using certain terminology incorrectly. I’ll be happy to clarify any points that don’t make sense.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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