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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
Very rarely does the word ‘propitiation’ appear in modern English. This is largely the reason why present-day versions of the English Bible prefer to use alternative expressions. In simple terms, to propitiate means to turn away a person’s anger by giving that person an offering.
The wrath of God
God is holy, and therefore he is always opposed to evil. The Bible describes this opposition to evil as the wrath or anger of God (Deuteronomy 11:16-17; John 3:36; Ephesians 5:6). It is not an anger such as the bad temper that sinful people often display, but an anger that contains no trace of sin. It is the attitude of one who loves goodness and hates evil to such an extent that he cannot overlook wrongdoing. He cannot treat sin as if it does not matter (2 Kings 23:26; Jeremiah 21:12; Habakkuk 1:13; Romans 1:18; Romans 2:5; Hebrews 1:9; Revelation 14:8-11; Revelation 19:1-2).
Mean and women, through sin, have cut themselves off from God and placed themselves under the wrath of God. They are unable to have fellowship with God, unable to please God and unable to bring themselves back to God (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 8:7-8; Ephesians 2:3; Colossians 1:21).
God always has an attitude of wrath against sin, and there is nothing sinners can to do to propitiate God (i.e. to pacify, appease, calm the anger of or win the favour of God). Pagans used to try to escape the wrath of their gods by offering sacrifices; that is, they tried to propitiate their gods. But sinners cannot act towards God like this. None of their efforts can quiet God’s wrath against sin or win his favour. (For similar ideas of making offerings to turn away wrath see Exodus 32:30-32; Proverbs 6:34-35; Proverbs 16:14; Isaiah 16:1-7; Isaiah 47:11.)
The love and mercy of God
God’s opposition to sin is connected with his concern for people’s good. God is a God of love, and he reacts in holy and just anger against all that is wrong in his rebellious creatures. Sinful people justly deserve the punishment that God’s holy wrath requires, but God is patient with them and has no pleasure in punishing them (Psalms 78:38; Romans 2:2-4; 2 Peter 3:9). In fact, he provides a way whereby they need not suffer the punishment themselves.
This was demonstrated in the sacrificial system that God gave to Israel. Sinners were in a hopeless position where there was nothing they could do to escape God’s wrath. Yet God in his love provided a way of dealing with sin, so that the punishment on sin could be carried out, while at the same time sinners could be forgiven.
God allowed repentant sinners to kill an animal, so that the animal suffered the penalty that they, because of their sin, should have suffered. Pardon was not something that sinners had to squeeze from an unwilling God, but was the merciful gift of a God who wanted to forgive. God’s anger was turned away (i.e. God was propitiated) not by the efforts of people to please him but solely by his own gracious gift. God provided the propitiation (Leviticus 17:11; see ; ).
The sacrifice was not the sinner’s gift (in the sense of a bribe) to win God’s favour, but God’s provision to bear the divine judgment on sin. God’s act of forgiveness, being based on love, involved his dealing with sin. God’s wrath and God’s love, far from being in conflict with each other, operated in harmony (Isaiah 53:4-5; Isaiah 53:10-11; Isaiah 54:8; Micah 7:18; John 3:16-21; John 3:36; Romans 6:23).
The sacrifice of Christ
Sacrifices belonging to the Old Testament system had real meaning for genuinely repentant sinners. The sacrifices enables people to see that God was acting justly in dealing with their sins, and gave them a way of expressing their faith in God’s forgiving love (Hebrews 9:22). But the blood of animals could not take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). Only the blood of Jesus Christ – his death on the cross – can do that. In view of Christ’s death, God was able to ‘pass over’, temporarily, the sins of Old Testament believers. God forgave them on credit, so to speak, for their sin was not actually removed till Christ died (Romans 3:25-26).
It becomes clear, now that the climax of God’s plan of salvation has been reached through Christ, that the only thing that propitiates God is the death of Christ. Again, God provides the way. He himself becomes the sacrifice that secures the propitiation. A loving God willingly pays the penalty on behalf of those under his judgment (2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 4:10). God’s holy wrath against sin has been satisfied by Christ’s death, and therefore he can show mercy on the believing sinner. He can forgive the sinner, yet still be just in doing so (Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Propitiation'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/p/propitiation.html. 2004.
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20