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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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PROPITIATION . The idea of propitiation is borrowed from the sacrificial ritual of the OT, and the term is used in the EV [Note: English Version.] of the NT in three instances ( Romans 3:25 , 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10 ) of Christ as offering the sacrifice for sin which renders God propitious, or merciful, to the sinner. In the first of these passages the word is strictly ‘propitiatory’ (answering to the OT ‘mercy-seat’), and RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] renders ‘whom God set forth to be propitiatory,’ without, however, essential change of meaning. In the two Johannine passages the noun is directly applied to Christ: ‘He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’ ( 1 John 2:2 ); ‘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 4:10 ). In one other passage. Hebrews 2:17 , the RV [Note: Revised Version.] renders ‘to make propitiation for the sins of the people,’ instead of, as in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , ‘to make reconciliation.’

1. In the OT . In the OT, to which we go back for explanation, the Heb. word kipper , which corresponds with ‘to make propitiation,’ is ordinarily rendered ‘to make atonement ,’ sometimes ‘to reconcile’ ( e.g. Leviticus 6:30 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , but in RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘to make atonement’); the word has primarily the sense ‘to cover,’ but in actual usage has the meaning of ‘to conciliate’ an offended party, or ‘to hide or expiate’ an offence. A person may be conciliated by a gift ( Genesis 32:20 ); may be made propitious by intercession ( Exodus 32:30 ); an offence may be atoned for by an act of zeal for righteousness ( Numbers 25:13 ). In ritual usage it is the priest who ‘makes atonement’ for the offender, as touching , or concerning , his sin (cf. Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 4:35; Leviticus 5:13; Leviticus 5:18 etc.). Both ideas seem to be implied here; the offence is cancelled or annulled, hidden from God’s sight, and God is rendered propitious: His displeasure is turned away. The means by which this was effected under the Law was ordinarily sacrifice (burnt-offering, sin-offering, guilt-offering; the Idea was doubtless present in the peace-offering as well). The blood of an unblemished victim, obtained by slaughter, was sprinkled on the altar, or otherwise presented to Jehovah (cf. Leviticus 1:1-17; Leviticus 2:1-16; Leviticus 3:1-17; Leviticus 4:1-35; Leviticus 5:1-19; Leviticus 6:1-30; Leviticus 7:1-38 , and see Atonement). On the annual Day of Atonement expiation of the sins of the people was effected by an elaborate ceremonial, which included the carrying of the blood into the Holy of Holies, and the sprinkling of it upon the mercy-seat ( Leviticus 16:1-34 ). The significance of these rites is considered in the artt. Atonement and Atonement [Day of].

2. In the NT . These analogies throw light upon the meaning of the term in the NT in its application to Christ, and further Illustration is found in St. Paul’s words in Romans 3:25 . The Apostle, having shown that no one can attain to righteousness, or be justified before God, by works of law, proceeds to exhibit the Divine method of justification, without law, by ‘a righteousness of God’ obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. ‘Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood, to show his righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God.’ The ideas in this passage include the following: (1) that Christ’s death is a propitiatory sacrifice; (2) that sin cannot be righteously passed over except on the ground of such a sacrifice; (3) that Christ’s propitiatory death is the vindication of God’s righteousness in passing over sins under the older dispensation (cf. Hebrews 9:13 ); (4) that the virtue of Christ’s propitiation is appropriated by faith; (5) that everyone thus appropriating Christ’s propitiation, freely set forth, becomes possessed of ‘a righteousness of God’ which perfectly justifies him. It is seen, therefore, that Christ’s death is here regarded as having a true power to expiate guilt, redeem the sinner from condemnation, set him in righteous relations with God, and make him an object of God’s favour. It is not otherwise that Christ’s manifestation is conceived of by St. John, who in his Epistle emphasizes the cleansing power of Christ’s blood ( John 1:7 ), extols Christ as the propitiation for the sins of the world ( John 2:2 ), and declares that the love of God is seen in this, that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins ( John 4:10; cf. ‘to take away sins,’ John 3:5 ).

This last passage raises the difficulty which will naturally be felt about ‘propitiation.’ Assuming, as can hardly be denied, that the term includes the idea of rendering God propitious, or favourable, how is this to he reconciled with the statement that the propitiation itself proceeds from, and is a demonstration of, the love of God? Can it be supposed that God, who Himself sends the Son, needs to be appeased, conciliated, or in any way made more gracious than He is, by His Son’s death? That idea, which belongs to the heathenish conception of propitiation, must certainly be excluded. Yet the paradox holds good that, while God loves the sinner, and earnestly seeks his salvation, there is a necessary reaction of the holiness of God against sin, manifesting itself in displeasure, withdrawal, judgment, wrath, which hinders the outflow of His friendship and favour to the world as He would desire it to flow forth. The sinner cannot take the initiative here; it must come from God Himself. Yet it must come in such a way as furnishes an adequate ground for the extension of His mercy. Christ’s work in our nature was one which entered into the deepest need of God’s own being, as well as into the imperatives of His just government of the world. In the Person of His own well-beloved Son a reconciliation was truly effected with humanity, which extends to all who receive the Son as Saviour and Lord. This is the reality in propitiation. See Atonement.

James Orr.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Propitiation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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