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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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To propitiate is to appease, to atone, to turn away the wrath of an offended person. In the case before us, the wrath turned away is the wrath of God; the person making the propitiation is Christ; the propitiating offering or sacrifice is his blood. All this is expressed in most explicit terms in the following passages: "And he is the propitiation for our sins," 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 . "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood," Romans 3:25 . The word used in the two former passages is ιλασμος ; in the last ιλαστηριον . Both are from the verb ιλασκω , so often used by Greek writers to express the action of a person who, in some appointed way, turned away the wrath of a deity; and therefore cannot bear the sense which Socinus would put upon it,—the destruction of sin. This is not supported by a single example. With all Greek authorities, whether poets, historians, or others, the word means to propitiate, and is, for the most part, construed with an accusative case, designating the person whose displeasure is averted. As this could not be denied, Crellius comes to the aid of Socinus, and contends that the sense of this word was not to be taken from its common use in the Greek tongue, but from the Hellenistic use of it in the Greek of the New Testament, the LXX, and the Apocrypha. But this will not serve him; for both by the LXX, and in the Apocrypha, it is used in the same sense as in the Greek classic writers. "He shall offer his ιλασμον , sin-offering, saith the Lord God," Ezekiel 44:27 . "And the priest shall take the blood of the εξιλασμου , sin-offering," Ezekiel 45:19 . Κριος του ιλασμου , "The ram of the atonement," Numbers 5:8 . To which may be added, out of the Apocrypha, "Now as the high priest was making ιλασμον , an atonement," 2Ma_3:33 .

The propitiatory sense of the word ιμασμος being thus fixed, the modern Socinians have conceded, in their note on 1 John 2:2 , in their Improved Version, that it means the "pacifying of an offended party;" but they subjoin, that Christ is a propitiation, because by his Gospel he brings sinners to repentance, and thus averts the divine displeasure. The concession is important; and the comment cannot weaken it, because of its absurdity; for, in that interpretation of propitiation, Moses, or any of the Apostles, or any minister of the Gospel now, who succeeds in bringing sinners to repentance, is as truly a propitiation for sin as Christ himself. On Romans 3:25 , however, the authors of the Improved Version continue to follow their master Socinus, and translate the passage, "whom God hath set forth a propitiation, through faith in his blood," "whom God hath set forth as a mercy seat in his own blood," and lay great stress upon this rendering, as removing that countenance to the doctrine of atonement by vicarious sufferings which the common translation affords. The word ιλαστηριον is used in the Septuagint version, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to express the mercy seat or covering of the ark. But so little is to be gained by taking it in this sense in this passage, that this rendering is adopted by several orthodox commentators as expressing, by a figure, or rather by emphatically supplying a type to the antitype,—the doctrine of our Lord's atonement. The mercy seat was so called, because, under the Old Testament, it was the place where the high priest, on the feast of expiation, sprinkled the blood of the sin-offerings, in order to make an atonement for himself and the whole congregation; and, since God accepted the offering which was then made, it was, for this reason, accounted the medium through which God showed himself propitious to the people. With reference to this, Jesus Christ may be called a mercy seat, as being the person in or through whom God shows himself propitious to mankind. And as, under the law, God was propitious to those who came to him by appearing before his mercy seat with the blood of their sin- offerings; so, under the Gospel dispensation, he is propitious to those who come unto him by Jesus Christ, through faith in that blood which is elsewhere called "the blood of sprinkling," and which he shed for the remission of sins. Some able critics have, however, argued, from the force of the context, that the word ought to be taken actively, and not merely declaratively; not as a "propitiatory," but as "a propitiation," which, says Grotius, is shown by the mention which is afterward made of blood, to which the power of propitiation is ascribed. Others supply θυμα or ιερειον , and render it expiatory sacrifice. But, whichever of these renderings be adopted, the same doctrine is held forth to us. The covering of the ark was rendered a propitiatory only by the blood of the victims sprinkled before and upon it; and when the Apostle says, that God hath set forth Jesus Christ to be a propitiatory, he immediately adds, having the ceremonies of the temple in his view, "through faith in his blood." The text, therefore, contains no exhibition of any means of obtaining mercy but through the blood of sacrifice, according to the rule laid down in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "Without shedding of blood there is no remission;" and is in strict accordance with Ephesians 1:7 , "We have redemption through his blood, the remission of sins." It is only by his blood that Christ reconciles us to God.

Unable as they who deny the vicarious nature of the sufferings of Christ are to evade the testimony of the above passages which speak of our Lord as "a propitiation," their next resource often is to deny the existence of wrath in God, in the hope of proving that propitiation, in a proper sense, cannot be the doctrine of Scripture, whatever may be the force of the mere terms which the sacred writers employ. In order to give plausibility to their statement, they pervert the opinion of the orthodox, and argue as though it formed a part of the doctrine of Christ's propitiation and oblation for sin, to represent God as naturally an implacable and vengeful being, and only made placable and disposed to show mercy by satisfaction being made to his displeasure through our Lord's sufferings and death. This is as contrary to Scripture as it is to the opinions of all sober persons who hold the doctrine of Christ's atonement. God is love; but it is not necessary, in order to support this truth, to assume that he is nothing else. He has other attributes, which harmonize with this and with each other; though, assuredly, that harmony cannot be established by any who deny the propitiation for sin made by the death of Christ. It sufficiently proves that there is not only no implacability in God, but a most tender and placable affection toward the sinning human race itself, and that the Son of God, by whom the propitiation was made, was the free gift of the Father to us. This is the most eminent proof of his love, that, for our sakes, and that mercy might be extended to us, "He spared not his own Son; but delivered him up freely for us all." Thus he is the fountain and first moving cause of that scheme of recovery and salvation which the incarnation and death of our Lord brought into full and efficient operation. The true questions are, indeed, not whether God is love, or whether he is of a placable nature; but whether God is holy and just; whether we, his creatures, are under law or not; whether this law has any penalty, and whether God, in his rectoral character, is bound to execute and uphold that law. As the justice of God is punitive, (and if it is not punitive, his laws are a dead letter,) then is there wrath in God; then is God angry with the wicked; then is man, as a sinner, obnoxious to this anger; and so a propitiation becomes necessary to turn it away from him. Nor are these terms unscriptural; they are used in the New Testament as emphatically as in the Old; though, the former is, in a special sense, a revelation of the mercy of God to man. John declares that, if any man believeth not on the Son of God, "the wrath of God abideth upon him;" and St. Paul affirms, that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." The day of judgment is, with reference to the ungodly, said to be "the day of wrath;" God is called "a consuming fire;" and, as such, is the object of "reverence and godly fear." Nor is this his displeasure light, and the consequences of it a trifling and temporary inconvenience. When we only regard the consequences which have followed sin in society, from the earliest ages, and in every part of the world, and add to these the many direct and fearful inflictions of punishment which have proceeded from the "Judge of the whole earth," then, to use the language of Scripture, "our flesh may well tremble because of his judgments." But when we look at the future state of the wicked as represented in Scripture, though it is expressed generally, and surrounded with the mystery of a place, and a condition of being, unknown to us in the present state, all evils which history has crowded into the lot of man appear insignificant in comparison of banishment from God, separation from good men, public condemnation, torment, of spirit, "weeping, wailing, and gnashing, of teeth," "everlasting destruction," "everlasting fire." Let men talk ever so much or eloquently of the pure benevolence of God, they cannot abolish the facts recorded in the history of human suffering in this world as the effects of transgression; nor can they discharge these fearful comminations from the pages of the book of God. These cannot be criticised away; and if it is "Jesus who saves us from this wrath to come," that is, from those effects of the wrath of God which are to come, then, but for him, we should have been liable to them. That principle in God, from which such effects follow, the Scriptures call wrath; and they who deny the existence of wrath in God, deny, therefore, the Scriptures.

It by no means follows, however, that this wrath is a passion in God; or that, though we contend that the awful attribute of his justice requires satisfaction, in order to the forgiveness of the guilty, we afford reason to any to charge us with attributing vengeful affections to the divine Being. "Our adversaries," says Bishop Stillingfleet, "first make opinions for us, and then show that they are unreasonable. They first suppose that anger in God is to be considered as a passion, and that passion a desire of revenge; and then tell us, that if we do not prove that this desire of revenge can be satisfied by the sufferings of Christ, then we can never prove the doctrine of satisfaction to be true; whereas, we do not mean by God's anger, any such passion, but the just declaration of God's will to punish, upon our provocation of him by our sins; we do not make the design of the satisfaction to be that God may please himself in revenging the sins of the guilty upon the most innocent person, because we make the design of punishment not to be the satisfaction of anger as a desire of revenge, but to be the vindication of the honour and rights of the offended person by such a way as he himself shall judge satisfactory to the ends of his government."


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Propitiation'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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