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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Propitiation (2)

PROPITIATION.—The idea of propitiation is directly expressed in the NT by the words ἱλάσκομαι, ἱλασμός, and ἱλαστήριον, which occur but six times. The verb is found in Luke 18:13, Hebrews 2:17, the substantive in 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; ἱλαστήριον, be it adjective or substantive, in Romans 3:25, Hebrews 9:5. As the ground of reconciliation and atonement, it is the innermost truth in reference to Christ’s redemptive work.

The word ἑλάσκομαε came down from classic usage through the LXX Septuagint into the writings of the NT. As used in the latter, it refers to the relation of Christ’s work to sin. We are interested chiefly in this article, therefore, in tracing the meaning it had in the LXX Septuagint in reference to the sin- and guilt-offerings. It was used to render the Heb. kipper, ‘to cover.’ That which constituted the emblematic cover which hid sin from God so that He could act as though it did not exist, was the shed blood (or life) of the sacrificial victim. In the narrow limits of this article it is only possible to refer to the conclusions reached by eminent scholars with whom the writer ventures in general to agree. He would mention especially Prof. W. P. Paterson’s art. ‘Sacrifice’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , where the conclusion is reached that ‘the expiation of guilt is the leading purpose of Levitical sacrifices,’ and that the expiation is accomplished through the sacrifice taking the place of the offender, and its death being accepted in place of his. While this seems the manifest import of the Levitical sin-and guilt-offerings with which we are in this discussion concerned, it is pretty certain that this was the view of the Jews in our Lord’s time. As Holtzmann says (Neutest. Theol. p. 68), ‘Everything pressed towards the assumption that the offering of a life substituted for sinners according to God’s appointment, cancelled the death penalty which had been incurred, and that consequently the offered blood of the sacrificial victim expiated sin as the surrogate for the life of the guilty.’

1. In the teaching of our Lord.—The single instance in which our Lord is reported to have used the word ἱλάσκομαι, in Luke 18:13, has little bearing on the question whether He thought His work a propitiation. This question must be considered on the broader ground of His thought of the relation in which His work stood to the Levitical sacrifices out of which the idea of propitiation grew. Now, the Evangelists believed much relating to His birth, lifework, and death to be the fulfilment of OT prophecy (Matthew 1:23; Matthew 2:6; Matthew 2:18; Matthew 3:3; Matthew 4:15-16; Matthew 12:18-21; Matthew 13:35; Matthew 21:5 etc.). They evidently got this impression from our Lord Himself, who saw the OT fulfilled in Himself (Matthew 11:10; Matthew 13:14-15; Matthew 21:42, but esp. Matthew 5:17 and Luke 24:13-31). He did not view His work and teaching as a break in the continuity of religious historical development, but as woven into its evolving progress. He came to fill the Law and the Prophets full of a new meaning by stripping them of Rabbinic accretions and revealing their deepest spiritual import. He saw His life and death related to Moses (the Law) and all the Prophets.

In view of this general conception, we must interpret our Lord’s references to His death. The place His death had in His thought, apart from the more direct teaching as to its purpose and import, makes it plain that it was deemed of paramount importance in His mission work. Interpreting His words at His baptism (Matthew 3:15 ‘Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’) in the light of Matthew 20:22-23, but especially of His words in Luke 12:50 (‘I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished’), it would seem that His death was before Him from the first as an essential part of His mission. Of the same meaning is Mark 2:20 (cf. Matthew 9:15, Luke 5:35) of the taking away of the bridegroom. He foretold that His resurrection would follow His death (Matthew 12:40 || Luke 11:29). He dwelt upon the details of His betrayal and death (Matthew 16:21, cf. Mark 8:31; Mark 10:32-34, Luke 9:22). In connexion with these prophetic statements He gives the warning: ‘He that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me,’ and ‘he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:38-39; Matthew 16:24-25, cf. Mark 8:34-35 and Luke 9:23-24, see also John 8:28), referring, doubtless, to the manner of His death.

On coming down from the Transfiguration, He forbade the three to mention what they had witnessed till He was risen from the dead (Matthew 17:9, cf. Mark 8:30), and Luke 9:31 declares that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus of His death as of supreme moment. As the end drew near, He dwelt more upon His death and resurrection (Matthew 17:22-23; Matthew 20:18-19; Matthew 21:33-40, cf. Mark 12:6-8, John 10:11). The great space given to the circumstances connected with our Lord’s death seems to show that the Evangelists saw in it the culmination of His redemptive work.

But our Lord connects Himself more explicitly with the sacrificial system. In Luke 22:37 He identifies Himself with the Servant of Jehovah of Isaiah 53, as ‘he was reckoned with the transgressors.’ In Matthew 20:28 (cf. Mark 10:45) He says that He is to ‘give his life a ransom for (ἀντί ‘in the place of’) many.’ At the solemn institution of the Supper (Matthew 26:28, cf. Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20), the wine is said to represent ‘my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many unto the remission of sins.’ He was also to give His ‘flesh for the life of the world’ (John 6:51-56). St. John also identifies Him with the Suffering Servant of Jehovah of Isaiah 53, in John 12:38. The words of the Baptist: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29), probably also are in terms of Isaiah 53:5, as the Servant of Jehovah, ‘bruised for our iniquities,’ like the sacrificial lamb, endured death silently.

From all these lines of evidence it is impossible to escape the conclusion that our Lord and the Evangelists considered His death to be of paramount importance in His mission, and gave it this value because it stood to the sins of the world in a similar relation to that which the Levitical sacrifices held to the sins of the Jews.

If the conclusion be accepted that these sacrifices were expiatory and vicarious, we have a clear idea of the purpose our Lord supposed His death served. Neither need we wonder that He taught so little about the purport of His death. The false notions of His Kingdom entertained by His disciples made them invincibly opposed to His establishing it through the Cross instead of a crown. They were ‘foolish and slow of heart’ (Luke 24:25). Consequently He had ‘many things to say’ to them which they could not bear before His death shattered their false ideas (John 16:1-13). It was only then that this fuller instruction could be given and was promised. Immediately after His resurrection He began to instruct His disciples as to the meaning of His mission and death as they stood related to the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:26-27). They were not the men to invent an interpretation of His death, or to go back to Levitical explanations without His sanction. They reverenced Him too much to break consciously with His thought. The confidence with which they taught, beginning with Pentecost, can be explained only by their receiving from our Lord Himself and from the promised Spirit a certain knowledge of the nature of His work. Any view which makes our Lord’s mission a break with the religious development either before or after, but much more with both, has against it the strongest conceivable presumption. St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John all believed themselves to be giving our Lord’s own view of the purport of His work. They were in a better position to know His own thought of Himself and His mission than any at this late time of day. From them we can get the clearest light on our Lord’s own conception of the purpose served by His life and death.

2. In the teaching of the Apostles.—While we may have the key to the innermost meaning of our Lord’s mission work in the forms of the word ἱλάσκομαι, they must be interpreted in the perspective of the general teaching of the Epistles. While the word ‘propitiation’ is used so seldom, the idea that our Lord’s work was a propitiation is woven into the warp and woof of them all. The whole aim of Hebrews is to show that Christ, as a priest representing the people, and as a sacrifice, expiated their sin, and was the antitype of the old priesthood and sacrifices. He was, as the Passover lamb, sacrificed for men without the breaking of a bone (John 19:36, 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, cf. Exodus 12:46); He was a sin-offering (Romans 8:3, Hebrews 13:11). As in the Levitical sacrifices for sin, the shed blood, representing the life given up, was the propitiation, so emphasis is laid upon the blood of Christ in His redemptive work (Romans 5:9, Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 2:13, Colossians 1:14-20, Heb. passim, 1 Peter 1:19, 1 John 1:7, Revelation 1:5; Revelation 5:9 etc.). The blood of Christ is said to be the blood of sprinkling, because the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled (1 Peter 1:2, Hebrews 12:24). We must, then, interpret the definite words ἱλάσκεσθαι, ἱλασμός, and ἱλαστήριον in the light of the environing conception of Christ as the antitype of the old sin- and guilt-offerings, which was held by those who used them.

(a) St. Paul.—The earliest, as well as the most important, instance is in Romans 3:25; Romans 3:28 ‘whom God set forth to be a propitiation (ἱλαστήριον), through faith, by his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.’ According to St. Paul’s conception, Christ is a propitiation in (ἐν) His blood or death, and because He manifests or demonstrates the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God demanded this demonstration to vindicate it against the suspicion of its violation which might arise because of the passing over of sins done aforetime, and of the justification of the believer at the present season. The nature of this righteousness is also evident. It is that in God which demands that sins be punished and not passed over in forbearance, and that sinners be condemned and not justified. It is that in God which is cast under suspicion when the reverse of this is done, and therefore needs demonstration and vindication. It is subjective righteousness in God. It is true that God provided the propitiation which His righteousness demands, and He does this in love (Romans 5:8), but all the same, the propitiation to demonstrate His righteousness had to be provided by love in order to vindicate righteousness in ‘passing over’ sins in forbearance and in ‘justifying’ on the condition of faith. To confound righteousness and love in their manifestations, would be to remove the very ground of the problem involved in being just and justifying. Neither is the faith which might be aroused by the setting forth of Christ in His blood that which has propitiatory value. The righteousness of God had to be vindicated by this very propitiation in the case of those who had faith in Jesus. Christ in His blood constitutes the propitiation. It becomes effective as a propitiation, through faith.

In what sense, then, does St. Paul regard our Lord as a propitiation? How could He in His blood or death demonstrate God’s righteousness, which demanded that sins be punished and not passed over, and that the ungodly be condemned and not justified when the reverse of this took place? Could it be in any other way than that, in the death of Christ, the righteousness of God which made these demands received a satisfaction for the sins of men of the same kind as would have been paid if God had let His punitive wrath (Romans 1:18) fall upon the transgressor? In His death Christ endured the just desert of sin (Romans 6:23), as ‘him who knew no sin he (God) made to be sin on our behalf’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). He could in consequence pass over sins in forbearance, and justify the believer though ungodly (Romans 4:5), and His righteousness would not be tarnished but demonstrated, because Christ stood for sinners, and all died in His death (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is the natural interpretation of the passage itself. It also brings it into accord with St. Paul’s general circle of ideas. It is in harmony with the central idea of the Levitical sacrifices for sin from which the pivotal word ἱλαστήριον is derived. In it the thought of our Lord in Matthew 20:28 || Mark 10:45 (‘give his life a ransom [λύτρον] in the stead of [ἀντί] all’), and Matthew 26:28 etc., is reflected and expanded. The historical continuity of thought between the OT and our Lord, and our Lord and St. Paul, is also preserved.

(b) St. John.—As St. Paul, in viewing Christ as a propitiation, lays emphasis upon His demonstration of the Divine righteousness, St. John sees in His propitiation a demonstration of the Divine love. Taking the two instances where He is said to be a propitiation (ἱλασμός, 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10), we find that He is a propitiation for sins. The sending of Christ as a propitiation was prompted by God’s love, not as a return for man’s love. The propitiation was for the whole world, and not for those alone who should be saved. It is Jesus Christ the Righteous who is the propitiation, apparently showing that His propitiatory work had a peculiar relation to righteousness. As St. John had just referred to our Lord’s blood as cleansing from all sin (1 John 1:7), it is plain that he thought of Christ in His blood or death as the propitiation. Neither is He the propitiation for sins because of any cleansing or other work wrought in men as a consequence of His work and death; for He is the propitiation for the whole world, many of whom will never be purified or subjectively changed by or through it. The propitiation is due to a work for us, and not in us, except as a consequence. It must then, in itself, have reference to God, and not to a work in men’s hearts. This brings these passages into harmony with the Johannine conception in Revelation. There it is ever as the Lamb that was slain—the antitype of the sacrificial victim—that He is spoken of, and that His blood is said to purify and redeem (Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 5:12; Revelation 6:1 etc., cf. Revelation 1:5, Revelation 5:9, Revelation 7:14 etc.). St. John’s whole view of Christ as the antitype of the sacrificial victims, in connexion with his statement (1 John 2:2) that He is the propitiation for the whole world, can be explained only on the ground that he thought of Christ’s propitiatory work as having primarily an efficacy Godward, and manward only as a consequence.

(c) The Epistle to the Hebrews.—According to Hebrews 2:17, propitiation is made for sin. It is made by Christ as the antitype of the high-priesthood of the OT. From the whole scope of the Epistle up to heb Hebrews 10:30 it is made as He offers His own blood as the perfect antitype of the imperfect sacrificial system of the old economy, which was thereby fulfilled and then abolished. Through His sacrifice a ‘purification of sins’ (Hebrews 1:3), a cleansing of the ‘conscience from dead works’ (Hebrews 9:14), is wrought, and access to God assured (Hebrews 10:9-22). The eternal takes the place of the temporal, the perfect of the imperfect, the inward of the outward and fleshly, the real of the symbolical and typical. To the question whether Christ’s work effected something objectively for us as well as provided for a subjective work in us, the answer is clear. By His sacrificial death He ‘made purification of sins’ (Hebrews 1:3), ‘obtained eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12), ‘put away sin’ (Hebrews 9:26), ‘perfected for ever them who are sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:14). All this is regarded as already accomplished for us in Christ’s sacrificial death, and not as still to be wrought in us through its influence. This work for us, as prior to that in us, is its necessary condition and ground, as apart from the shedding of blood there is no remission (Hebrews 9:22). The author of Hebrews uses ‘sanctify,’ ‘purify,’ and ‘perfect’ in these passages in the Pauline sense of ‘justify.’

The sacrifices of which that of Christ was the antitype did not give access to God’s favour by removing a hindrance within the soul of the offerer, but by removing one that was objective. The interpretation which would make the author of Hebrews restrict the efficacy of Christ’s work to its influence upon men, dislocates it from its whole setting, destroys its plainest antitypical significance, and would make his meaning unintelligible to the Hebrew readers for whom it was doubtless prepared. Neither are there wanting hints as to how Christ’s work had this objective efficacy. The emphasis put upon the fitness of Christ’s sharing man’s nature and condition in order to do His work for them as high priest and sacrifice (ch. 2) is significant, and the statement that He tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:9) and bore the sins of many (Hebrews 9:28), taken in connexion with His antitypical relation to the sacrificial system, can scarcely mean less than that He represented men in some way, so that He could bear their sins for them and die on their behalf.

What, then, does ‘to make propitiation for the sins of the people’ (εἰς τὸ ἱλάσκεσθαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας) mean as embedded in the author’s general thought? The verb is in the middle voice with an active sense. Doubtless Winer is right in regarding it as elliptical, and meaning ‘to propitiate God for the sins of the people.’ The condition of making the propitiation is Christ’s identification with humanity in nature and condition. The propitiatory value is in His blood, as He tastes death for every man so as to bear the sins of all, in a way analogous to that in which the sacrificial victim bore those of the offerer. The propitiation thus effected was objective for us, and not subjective in us. Through it forgiveness and access to God are possible. The propitiation puts away sin once for all—puts it out of the way as an obstacle to the Divine favour and forgiveness. How the sin is removed by His death is not explicitly stated, but the whole sweep of thought is favourable to the view that it was as a satisfaction to that in God which sin offends—call it holiness or righteousness as one will—and is in substantial agreement with St. Paul’s conception. The view that the author of Hebrews thought of propitiation as effected by a ‘mysterious inherent quality’ he attributed to Christ’s blood giving it direct ‘inherent power to cleanse the life’ (Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation, p. 88 f.), is too vapid to be credited to him.

If the writer of this article has succeeded in correctly interpreting Scripture thought on this central doctrine, then our Lord neither broke with the thought of the OT, nor did the writers of the Epistles break with His conception. They were interpreting His death in the fuller light of His own teachings after His resurrection and with the Spirit’s help. We are justified in interpreting His own allusions to what was done by His death in view of both. Beneath the superficial variations due to the aspects of truth treated and the special aim of each of the NT writers, there is an underlying unity of thought as to what was effected by the death of Christ, and how it had efficacy to this end. See also artt. Atonement, Death of Christ, Ransom, Reconciliation, Redemption, Sacrifice, Vicarious Sacrifice [the last two written from a different standpoint].

Literature.—In addition to the works referred to above:—Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, 164 ff.; Driver, art. ‘Propitiation’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ; A. Schwoller, ‘Das Wesen der Sühne der altest. Opfertora’ in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1891; H. Schultz, AJTh [Note: JTh American Journal of Theology.] , 1900, p. 286; Denney, The Death of Christ; Gess, ‘Zur Lehre von Versöhnung’ in Jahrbucher fur Deutsche Theol., vols. iii. iv.; Lomas, ‘Fernley Lect.’ 1872; Du Bose, Soteriology of NT (1892), 107; Vincent Tymms, Chr. Idea of Atonement (1904), 191; W. M. Ramsay in ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] x. (1899) 157; and also Literature under articles on Atonement, Reconciliation, Sacrifice, etc.

C. Goodspeed.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Propitiation (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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