The Nature and Necessity of Propitiation – 1 John 2:2

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“1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

“Has the word propitiation any place in your Christianity?”  That’s the question J.I. Packer poses in his classic work Knowing God.  Packer goes on to say, “In the faith of the New Testament it is central.  The love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, the way of salvation – all are to be explained in terms of it, as the passages quoted (Romans 3:21-26, Heb. 2:17, 1 John 2:1-2, 4:10) show, and any explanation from which the thought of propitiation is missing will be incomplete, and indeed actually misleading, by New Testament standards.”1 Simply put, propitiation is essential to understanding Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.  Its definition means to placate, pacify, appease, or conciliate “and it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ”2 as we will see, His propitiation appeased or satisfied the wrath of God.  We come to this glorious truth in our study of 1 John.  Remember in our last lesson that we were introduced to propitiation in conjunction with Christ’s advocacy; in fact, along with His righteousness, we saw that propitiation comprised the basis of His advocacy.  Since it is such a grand subject of Christian salvation, it deserves individual attention.  Propitiation is oft misunderstood, overlooked, and even omitted in discussions of Christ’s death on the cross.  You may have realized this if you use an NIV or RSV Bible translation, to say nothing of the paraphrases, because they interpret propitiation as “sacrifice of atonement”, “expiation”, or whatever the translator feels best explains the idea.  Each of these is insufficient and in fact weakens the Gospel.  As Packer stated earlier, not only are they incomplete, but they are actually misleading.

In order to fully appreciate the nature of propitiation, we need to look at it first from a cultural standpoint, because it’s from this angle that the New Testament writers employ cultural language through the Greek word hilasmos, used only 2 times in the N.T. here and in 1 John 4:10, and its derivatives hilasterion, used in Rom. 3:25 and hilaskomai from Heb. 2:17 (see also Luke 18:13).  In his book, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, D.A. Carson provides helpful details on the pagan notion of propitiation.  “In ancient paganism, propitiation worked like this.  There were a lot of gods with various domains (god of the sea, god/goddess of fertility, god of speech, god of war, etc.) who were a bit whimsical and bad-tempered.  Your job was to make them propitious (i.e. favorable) toward you.  For example, if you wanted to take a sea voyage, you would make sure that the god of the sea, Neptune, was favorable by offering him a propitiating sacrifice in the hope that he would provide you with safe passage.  So the object of the propitiating sacrifice is the god himself, and the purpose is to make the god propitiatous.”  Here is where the biblical idea differs from the pagan notion, and it is a significant difference.  In It is Well, Mark Dever provides a quote by John Stott highlighting this difference.6 In it, Stott states, “It would be hard to exaggerate the differences between the pagan and the Christian views of propitiation.  In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings.  According to the Christian revelation, God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death.  Thus God gave himself to save us from himself.”5 This is precisely what we see in our passage from 1 John 2:2, “He [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins.”  But there is something else we must realize.  Remember in our last post we briefly mentioned Christ’s role as believer’s High Priest.  In keeping with this role, He not only is the propitiation, but also makes the propitiation (Hebrews 2:17).  He is not only the lamb that is sacrificed, but is indeed the High Priest making the sacrifice.  Next we’ll see how this unfolds in Scripture to better understand the significance. 

The doctrine of propitiation is not something new, as in post New Testament terms, but instead is a prevalent theme in the Old Testament as well.  In fact, propitiation is the very foundation of the Levitical priest’s sacrificial system and through its foreshadowing of Christ’s atonement we are provided the greatest details into the meaning of the word.  In the Pillar New Testament Commentary on The Letters of First John, the author points out that our Greek word for propitiation, hilasmos, used exclusively in 1 John as we’ve noted, is actually found 6 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (its derivatives are used extensively).  Of significance is its use in Leviticus 25:9, as it refers to the Day of Atonement.  Relating propitiation to the Day of Atonement is not isolated to this passage as the PNTC points out, but it will allow us the opportunity to examine in detail the methods of the Old Testament high priest, so that we can better understand the work of Jesus Christ, as The High Priest.  For this, we need only to turn to Leviticus 16 as we see the Lord outlining the procedure for the Day of Atonement to Moses.

In this passage, the language of “mercy-seat” (vs. 2) is significant to developing the idea of propitiation, because it is the Greek word hilasterion; translated ‘propitiation’ in Romans 3:25 and ‘mercy seat’ in Hebrews 9:5.  This relation of terms serves to show how pervasive propitiation is in our passage and the Bible, as well as to help us ultimately understand that wrath and mercy meet at the cross.  The first thing we need to notice from this very descriptive passage is that Aaron, the high priest, needed to enter the holy place with a bull sacrificed for his own sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (Lev 16:3;6).  Before he could even attempt to make a sacrifice for the people, he needed to first make one for himself.  Contrast this with Christ our High Priest from Hebrews 7:26-27 who had no need to offer a sacrifice for Himself because He was, “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.”  Next, Aaron was instructed to “take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering” (Lev 16:5).  It is significant that these sacrificial animals came from the people of Israel, as certainly the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ came from the people of Israel as well.  While the bull was an offering for Aaaon and his family, the two goats were to be set before the Lord, and Aaron was to cast lots over them; one for the Lord and the other for Azazel (there are disagreements over this meaning), or most commonly referred to as the ‘scapegoat’.  The goat for the Lord was to be sacrificed as a sin offering, while the scapegoat was to be released in the wilderness with the sins of the people confessed over it, “15 Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with is blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.  16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.  And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness.”  (Lev 16:15-16) In these instructions to Aaron, by way of his brother Moses, Aaron was to make propitiation for the people of Israel. 

But what about the second goat?  We pick up on it in verse 20-22, “…he shall present the live goat.  And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins.  And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of the man who is in readiness.  The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”  On this Day of Atonement, as outlined for us in Leviticus, we see 2 fundamental actions that compose the nature of propitiation: 1a) The sacrifice of a goat for the sins of Israel (propitiation) 1b) The release of a goat, the scapegoat, with the sin of the people confessed on its head (expiation).  As the PNTC points out in its discussion of propitiation, “…the notion of atonement in the OT is best understood comprehensively to include both the cleansing and forgiveness of the sinner, and the turning away for God’s anger.  This in turn suggests that neither the idea expiation nor that of propitiation can be ruled out as possible meanings for hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10.”7  In the Levitical Day of Atonement, we see a type and foreshadow of what was to come with Christ’s atonement.  As Hebrews 10:4 tells us, the blood of bulls and goats could not actually take away sins, only Christ can.  In His atonement, Jesus satisfied the wrath of the Father (propitiation) and offered cleansing and forgiveness (expiation) for the one who repents and turns to Him in faith.

Propitiation is necessary because man is a sinner who stands under the wrath of Holy God (Eph. 2:3).  But God, provided a propitiation for Himself, in the form of His Son, who willingly came to earth in the flesh, lived a perfect, holy, and sinless life and died on the cross making propitiation for all those who have and will believe (Rom. 3:24-25).  In this, Jesus Christ made the sacrifice of atonement and was the sacrifice of atonement.  The wrath of holy God was poured out on His Son, thus placating or satisfying His wrath for sinners who repent and place their faith in the Son of God (Rom. 5:9).  In doing so, the punishment for sinners was taken in Christ and the guilt of sin was removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) and as we’ve seen cleansing and forgiveness is offered through the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7, 1 John 1:7).

Believer, do you have any room for propitiation in your Christianity?  Is there anything that could bring you more comfort and joy than to know that the wrath of all holy God has been satisfied by Him lovingly sending His Son to be the propitiation for you? 

Unbeliever, do you realize your need for Christ to be your propitiation?  You stand condemned under the wrath of God.  But in His love, He sent forth His Son Jesus to be the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world.”  Repent of your sins and place your faith in Jesus.

  1. J.I. Packer Knowing God
  2. John Murray – Redemption Accomplished Redemption Applied
  3. D.A. Carson – Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
  4. Dever and Lawrence: It is Well pg. 125
  5. Stott, Romans pg. 115.
  6. Kruse, PNTC The Letters of First John pg 75-76
  7. Ibid. pg 76

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Christian saved by grace through faith.


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