by Fr. L.K. Wells
Today’s Epistle contains a word both difficult and unfamiliar, in the statement that God “loved us and sent His Son to be the *propitiation* for our sins.” This word propitiation occurs only twice in the NT; the only other occurrence is at 1 John 2:2, which we all know by heart as the last of the “Comfortable Words” (BCP p. 76). Paul uses a slightly different form of the same word at Romans 3:25, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood.”
The word propitiate means to placate, to appease, to assuage wrath. Therefore the word has had a rough time with modern liberal religion. It is hard for non-Christians, semi-Christians, or lukewarm Christians to accept the idea that God is truly angry with sin. Modern translations of the Bible have tended to eliminate this word. The RSV replaces it with the more palatable term expiation (which means to drive out sin). Another translation uses the term “atoning sacrifice.” The 1979 Prayer Book has “perfect offering.” Those who reject the correct historic term propitiation cannot seem to find another word they like.
The word propitiation refers unmistakably to an essential Biblical idea, that is the reality of God’s wrath. As Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). Or as St John wrote, “he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).
What sort of a god would not be angry with sin? When we reflect on the violence and cruelty of this world, do we kid ourselves into thinking that God can be as indifferent and shallow as we are? When we recall the holocaust of Hitler’s era, or give any thought to the holocaust of abortion in our own time, what sort of god could merely blink at this? Such a god would be a false god, an idol invented by modern liberal substitutes for the religion of the Bible.
Our faith never suggests that a vengeful god waits for his creatures to find some way of placating him, appeasing him, or assuaging his wrath. That is a caricature of what the Bible reveals. Such falsehood is a sorry excuse for suppressing a sound Biblical term. Each time this word “propitiation” appears, we are told clearly that the holy angry God Himself takes the initiative in providing the reconciling sacrifice. “He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “We love Him, for He first loved us.” When we look upon the Cross drenched in the blood of sacrifice, there we see the love of God which subdued His wrath, the love which propitiated for our sins.
Our faith tells us that our Saviour has made perfect satisfaction, has paid the “uttermost farthing” of our penalty, has truly subdued the holy anger which our sin deserves. “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”