PROPITIATION OR EXPIATION?

Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:Whom God hath set forth to be A PROPITIATION through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).

The word propitiation used in Romans 3:25 (above) in the King James Version, comes from the Greek word “hilasterion” which can be translated as propitiation or expiation. 

Among the Greeks in ancient times, propitiation was the act of appeasing pagan gods because there was no natural disposition of good will in them. The pagans would make offerings to appease or satisfy their gods in an effort to earn their favor. Unfortunately, this concept is often employed by those who view the cross as the place of God’s wrath towards Jesus as our substitute.

Conversely, expiation has to do with atonement and reconciliation. Atonement and reconciliation more accurately describes the  Biblical view of God and the nature of the sacrifice of Jesus.

The following examples of other translations of Romans 3:25 give more insight into the biblical view of hilasterion:

• (TNLT) For God presented Jesus as THE SACRIFICE FOR SIN. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood…

• (NIV) God presented Christ as a SACRIFICE OF ATONEMENT, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith…

• (CEV) God sent Christ to be OUR SACRIFICE. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God…

• (WYC) Whom God ORDAINED FORGIVER [Whom God purposed an helper], by faith in his blood…

• (YLT) whom God did set forth A MERCY SEAT, through the faith in his blood…

• (LEB) whom God made publicly available as THE MERCY SEAT through faith in his blood…

Under the Old Testament expiation, which is atonement, was made annually by the atoning blood, which was sprinkled upon the mercy seat.

The mercy seat was the lid or the covering of the ark of the Covenant. It was sprinkled once a year with the atonement blood from sacrificial animals. The atonement blood was taken from the altar of sacrifice, where the sacrifices had been offered as a sweet fragrance to God and carried into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest. The blood was then sprinkled on the mercy seat to make atonement for the sins of the people,(Leviticus 16:5, 7, 15, 33) and for the Priesthood (Leviticus 16:3,6,11-14, 33).

On the Day of Atonement, atonement was also made for the golden altar (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16:18, 19, 20, 33) and for the holy of holies (Leviticus 16:16, 17, 20, 33) and for the entire tabernacle (Leviticus 16: 16, 20, 33).

Atonement was made for all these to sanctify them and to consecrate them to God and to make reconciliation so God’s presence could dwell in the midst of His people in the Tabernacle.

When Jesus died on the cross He gave himself as a sacrifice and offering for our sins. According to Ephesians 4:32-5:2 the sacrifice of Jesus was a sweet smelling savor to God and for Christ’s sake we have been forgiven.

Under the Old Testament, the Mercy Seat sprinkled with the atonement blood by the high Priest on the Day of Atonement, was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ entering into the presence of God for us. Through Jesus, the way into the holiest of all is open. We have the invitation to enter boldly into the presence of God through His blood.

Unlike the priests under the law who could only enter the holy of holies once a year, our Lord Jesus has entered into the presence of God and is now enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty one high where he ever lives to make intercession of us.

This biblical view of atonement is the concept that is being alluded to in Romans 3:25.

Under the Old Testament the Hebrew word for mercy seat is ‘kapporeth’ which means to cover. Kapporeth is translated as ‘hilasterion‘ by the Septuagint (LXX) – the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Therefore, according to the Septuagint, ‘hilasterion’ (translated propitiation in Romans 3:23 KJV) should be understood as mercy seat.

Interestingly, the KJV of the Bible does translate hilasterion as mercy seat in Hebrews 9:5: a reference to actual mercy seat in the tabernacle.

The Mercy seat was the place of atonement and specifically speaking, the Mercy Seat is where the shed blood was sprinkled in the presence of God to make atonement or reconciliation.

It is also important to point out that in 1 John 4:9-10, the apostle John uses the word propitiation as a description of the love of God towards humanity, and not as a description of the wrath of God towards humanity.

The word propitiation in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10 is a different Greek word from the one used in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5, however it is from the same family of words and carries the same fundamental idea.

The use of the concept of propitiation (in its various forms) is employed at least eight times throughout the New Testament. Romans 3:25 is one of the eight. The other seven employ the use of the concept of atonement, reconciliation, love, and/or mercy.

Never once in any of these seven other places is it used to convey the idea of wrath. Why then, would we think that Paul would use it differently in Romans 3:25? Would Paul employ the pagan Hellenistic view, rather than the scriptural view given in the scriptures?

Reconciliation through sacrificial love and atonement is consistent with the surrounding context of Romans 3:25. Appeasement through wrath is not. The mercy seat was the place of reconciliation. It was the place of redemption expressed in mercy, not the place of retribution and anger.

Appeasement is neither taught by the new testament nor is it foreshadowed under the old. The worship of the one true God is nothing like that of pagan religions. The two are diametrically opposed to one another. Appeasement belongs to pagan worship, but expiation which is atonement or reconciliation through grace, belongs to the truth of the one true God.

The fundamental problem with appeasement theology is that it miss characterizes the character and nature of God. Appeasement is an act directed toward God in an effort to change him; to turn Him from wrath or anger. Expiation or atonement is an act by God directed towards man to show mercy and grace. The Bible never says that God was reconciled to man; instead it is always man who is reconciled to God because of God’s mercy and grace.

CONTRASTING PROPITIATION AND BIBLICAL ATONEMENT

• Propitiation is reconciliation based on appeasement
• Atonement is reconciliation based on the good will of the grace of God

• Propitiation indicates that there has been a change in God’s attitude towards sinful men.
• Atonement indicates that there has been a change in the repentant sinner towards God.

• Propitiation indicates that God has been reconciled to man
• Atonement indicates that man has been reconciled to God

• Propitiation indicated that the cross was reactive
• Atonement indicates that the cross was provisional

• Propitiation indicates that the cross was punitive
• Atonement indicates that the cross was redemptive

• Propitiation indicates that God cannot forgive of His own free will without retribution.
• Atonement indicates that God forgives freely because of His grace

• Propitiation indicates that the cross is the place of substitution and exchange.
• Atonement indicates that the cross is the place of sacrifice and offering

• Propitiation indicates that Jesus was rejected by God for our sake
• Atonement indicates that Jesus was accepted by God for our sake.

• Propitiation indicates that an offended God sent his Son to die on the cross
• Atonement indicated that a loving God sent his Son to die on the cross

• Propitiation indicates the Greek ‘pagan view’ of worship
• Atonement indicates the Biblical view of Atonement

CONCLUSION

The mercy seat bears its name because of the display of God’s mercy that was demonstrated by the annual sprinkling of the sacrificial blood. It was the only seat within the tabernacle and represented the throne of God in the midst of His people. It was to be approached only on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest but not without the atoning blood. The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year that Israel’s’ faith was actively focused on the most holy place. It was the one day of the year that what had happened at the altar of sacrifice had to be trusted by faith as being complete and secured within the holy of holies. The Israelite was to trust the high Priest to fulfill his intercessory ministry in the presence of God and trust that atonement had been made upon the mercy seat.

So it is with us. We look to Jesus who died on the cross and rose again, and we trust in him for he lives forever to make intercession for us in the presence of God.

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