1 John 1:1 – 2:2, 4:1 – 21
Romans 3:25–26 (NKJV)
25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
1 John 2:1–2 (NKJV)
1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
1 John 4:10–11 (NKJV)
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
PROPITIATION. Propitiation properly signifies the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. In the OT it is expressed by the verb kipper (*Atonement). In the NT the hilaskomai word group is the important one. In modern times the whole idea of propitiation has been strongly criticized as savouring of unworthy ideas of God. Many suggest that the term ‘propitiation’ should be abandoned in favour of *expiation, and this is done, for example, in rsv.
The objection to propitiation arises largely from an objection to the whole idea of the wrath of God, which many exponents of this view relegate to the status of an archaism. They feel that modern men cannot hold such an idea. But the men of the OT had no such inhibitions. For them ‘God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Ps. 7:11, av). They had no doubt that sin inevitably arouses the strongest reaction from God. God is not to be accused of moral flabbiness. He is vigorously opposed to evil in every shape and form while he may be ‘slow to anger’ (Ne. 9:17, etc.), his anger is yet certain in the face of sin. We may even read ‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty’ (Nu. 14:18). Even in a passage dealing with the longsuffering of God his refusal to condone guilt finds mention. The thought that God is slow to anger is to men of the OT far from being a truism. It is something wonderful and surpassing. It is awe-inspiring and totally unexpected.
But if they were sure of the wrath of God against all sin, they were equally sure that this wrath might be put away, usually by the offering of the appropriate sacrifice. This was ultimately due, not to any efficacy in the sacrifice, but to God himself. God says, ‘I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls’ (Lv. 17:11). Pardon is not something wrung from an unwilling deity. It is the gracious gift or a God who is eager to forgive. So the psalmist can say, ‘He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath’ (Ps. 78:38). The averting of the wrath of God is not something which men bring about. It is due to none less than God himself, who ‘turned his anger away’ (av).
In the NT there are several passages where the expression ‘the wrath of God’ occurs, but the relevant evidence is not limited to these alone. Everywhere in the NT there is the thought that God is vigorously opposed to evil. The sinner is in no good case. He has put himself in the wrong with God. He can look for nothing other than the severity or the divine judgment. Whether we choose to call this ‘the wrath of God’ or not, it is there. And, while wrath is a term to which some objections may legitimately be raised, it is the biblical term and no satisfactory substitute has been suggested.
We see the force of the NT idea of propitiation from the occurrence of the term in Rom. 3:24f. We are ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood’ (av). The force of Paul’s argument up to this point is that all, Jew and Gentile alike, are under the condemnation of God. ‘The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men’ (Rom. 1:18). Paul shows first that the Gentile world stands under God’s condemnation and then that the Jewish world is in the same plight. It is against this background that he sees the work of Christ. Christ did not save men from nothing at all. He delivered them from a very real peril. The sentence of judgment had been passed against them. The wrath of God hung over them. Paul has strongly emphasized the wrath of God throughout these opening chapters, and therefore Christ’s saving work must include deliverance from this wrath. This deliverance is described by the word ‘propitiation’. There is nothing else to express this thought in the critical passage Rom. 3:21ff., which sets out the way in which God has dealt with this aspect of man’s plight. hilastērion must be held here to signify something very like ‘propitiation’. (See further NTS 2, 1955–6, pp. 33–43.)
In 1 Jn. 2:2 Jesus is described as ‘the propitiation for our sins’. In the previous verse he is our ‘advocate with the Father’. If we need an advocate with God, then our position is indeed a dangerous one. We are in dire peril. All this helps us to see that ‘propitiation’ is to be taken here in its usual sense. Jesus’ activity for men is described as turning away the divine wrath.
But the Bible view of propitiation does not depend on this or that specific passage. It is a reflection of the general import of its teaching. ‘Propitiation’ is a reminder that God is implacably opposed to everything that is evil, that his opposition may properly be described as ‘wrath’, and that this wrath is put away only by the atoning work of Christ.
Bibliography. C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks, 1935; R. Nicole, WTJ 17, 1954–5, pp. 117–157; Leon Morris, NTS 2, 1955–6, pp. 33–43; idem, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross2, 1965; H.-G. Link, C. Brown, H. Vorländer, NIDNTT 3, pp. 145–176.
L. L. Morris.
Morris, L. L. (1996). Propitiation. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., pp. 975–976). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.