Knowing God, chapter 18: The heart of the Gospel

This chapter will be split into two, with part two coming tomorrow.

This chapter deals exclusively with the theme of propitiation—the averting of God’s anger by an offering—which runs throughout the Bible. In the OT, it is found in the prescribed offerings: the sin-offering, the guilt-offering, and the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 4:1-6:7, 16). The NT has four key passages on propitiation:

  • The rationale of God’s justification of sinners: Rom 3:21-26
  • The rationale of the incarnation of God the Son: Heb 2:17
  • John’s testimony to the heavenly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ: 1 John 2:1-2
  • John’s definition of the love of God: 1 John 4:8-10

In order to explain the love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, and the way of salvation, we have to pass through propitiation.

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What is the difference between propitiation and expiation? Packer explains:

“Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denoted the covering, putting away, or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God. Propitiation, however, in the Bible, denotes all that expiation means, and the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby.”

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Again, God’s wrath isn’t

“[T]he capricious, arbitrary, bad-tempered and conceited anger which pagans attribute to their gods. It is not the sinful, resentful, malicious, infantile anger which we find among men. It is a function of that holiness which is expressed in the demands of God’s moral law (‘be ye holy, for I am holy’ [1 Peter 1:16]), and of that righteousness which is expressed in God’s acts of judgment and reward. […] So far from the manifestation of God’s wrath in punishing sin being morally doubtful, the thing that would be morally doubtful would be for Him not to show His wrath in this way. God is not just—that is, He does not act in the way that is right, He does not do what is proper to a judge—unless He inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves.”

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We can learn 3 things about the propitiation from Paul in Romans 3:21-26

  • Propitiation is the work of God Himself. In paganism, man propitiates his gods. In Christianity, God propitiates His own wrath by His own action. God presented Jesus Christ, says Paul, to be a propitiation (Romans 3:21-26). He sent His Son, says John, to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). It wasn’t man, nor was it Christ, who took the initiative. The Bible insists that it was God Himself who took the initiative in quenching His own wrath.

Thus God reveals His righteousness and bestows it on those who put their faith in Christ. Though sinners, they are justified freely (Rom 3:21-24) by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus is the source, means and substance of redemption to those who put their trust in Him.

  • Propitiation was made by the death of Jesus Christ. Lev 17:11. I’ll let Packer explain:

“When Paul tells us that God set forth Jesus to be a propitiation ‘by his blood’, his point is that what quenched God’s wrath and so redeemed us from death was not Jesus’s life or teaching, nor His moral perfection nor His fidelity to the Father, as such, but the shedding of His blood in death. With the other New Testament writers, Paul always point to the death of Jesus as the atoning event, and explains the atonement in terms of representative substitution—the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s judicial retribution.”

Two passages illustrate the concept of representative substitution:

Gal 3:13: Christ bore the curse of the law so that we wouldn’t have to do so.
2 Cor 5:14, 18-21: Jesus was a sacrifice for sinners, enduring the death penalty in our stead.

We also see representative substitution in the OT—Lev 4:4, 24, 29, 33— a person would lay his hand on the head of the animal to e sacrificed, and it was killed as a substitute for the offerer. On the Day of Atonement, two goats were used. One was killed as a sin-offering and the other sent into the wilderness after the priest had laid his hands on  its head and put Israel’s sins there (Lev 16:21-22)

  • Propitiation manifests God’s righteousness. Rom 3:25-26. Such a  public manifestation was needed because “in his forbearance he had left sins unpunished”: God hadn’t dealt with humans as our sins deserved. But now, “Our sins have been punished; the wheel of retribution has turned; judgment has been inflicted for our ungodliness—but on Jesus, the lamb of God, standing in our place. In this way God is justand he justifier of those who put faith in Jesus, ‘who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification’ ([Rom]4:24).”