The word propitiation is found three times in the New Testament (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2), and there it is the equivalent of the Old Testament word atonement.
The meaning of this interesting word is, “to cover,” in the sense of putting out of sight, “to appease,” or “to satisfy,” as in the case where a wrong has been inflicted. That which needed to be banished from the sight of God was sin; that which had to be appeased was the wrath of God against sin. Divine justice must be satisfied at no expense to God’s own righteousness before He can be a Saviour to sinners. In the divinely appointed sacrifice of Christ at Calvary every holy claim and every human need were met; the wrath of God was wholly spent upon the head of our beloved Saviour, for the sword of divine justice found a sheath in the bosom of the Son of God (Zech. 13:7). On that firm foundation sin was banished forever (John 1:29).
Justice previous to the cross had withstood the purposes of love,
“But justice now withstands no more
And mercy yields its boundless store.”
No explanation of the atonement is worthy of God which does not expound this doctrine as the plan of Divine wisdom, the gift of Divine love, and the provision of Divine grace. God, whose justice demands the punishment of sin and whose love yearned for the salvation of the sinner, could only harmonize His own attributes by providing a sacrifice whose value would be as infinite as His own holy character, a sacrifice whose acceptance would satisfy the claims of infinite holiness and lay the foundation on which God could be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
It is interesting to note the setting in the three epistles where the word propitiation is found, Romans, Hebrews, and First John. Three great truths are expounded in these books, justification, sanctification, and spiritual relationship in the family of God. In Romans propitiation enables God to justify and Christ to become Saviour. In Hebrews propitiation enables God to sanctify and Christ to become Priest. In First John propitiation enables God to become Father, and Christ to become Advocate to maintain the enjoyment 6f that relationship. In Romans it is the sin-offering aspect of the propitiation that is prominent; in Hebrews it is the burnt-offering aspect, while in First John it is the peace-offering aspect reconciling God in a family relationship with all enmity destroyed.
Let us look briefly at this grand subject as presented in these books.
Propitiation In Romans:
Man is a depraved creature by birth and by practice. He is a rebel and incorrigibly guilty. In Rom. 1, he stands as a prisoner in the dock and under the evidences of creation (v. 20), history (vv. 21-23), and his own conscience (v. 32), he is condemned. Three times over we read, “God also gave them up,” first, as to their bodies (v. 24), second, as to their souls (v. 26), and, third, as to their spirits (v. 28). Weighed in the balances of heaven man is found wanting. In chapter 3:9-19 the apostle sums up the argument of chapter 1, and confirms it by various quotations from the Old Testament. From these quotations four solemn conclusions are arrived at. First, “there is none righteous,” sin separates; second, “there is none that understandeth,” sin blinds; third, “there is none that seeketh after God,” sin destroys the affections of the heart for God; and, fourth, “there is none that doeth good,” sin destroys fruit for God in the life.
Who can bridge the mighty gulf, dispel the darkness of the mind, implant “the expulsive power of a new affection,” and produce fruit unto holiness in the life? God alone. He provides for Himself a satisfaction by which the puzzle of the ages is solved, How can a man be justified by God? God sets forth Christ as the propitiation and rests the justification of the believer on the solid rock of the work of the Divine Trinity, the grace of God (Rom. 3:24), the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9), and the operation of the Holy Spirit turning the heart of the sinner to Christ (Rom. 5:1). Thus man who by nature and practice had come short of the glory of God (3:23), now, because of propitiation, rises by sovereign grace to reach that of which he had come short (Rom. 5:2; 7:9; 15:6).
The three results of sin that man has suffered ever since Eden, that is, a sense of condemnation, of guilt, and of separation, are all removed in Christ. There is now, for all who are in Christ, no condemnation (Rom. 8:1), no accusation (v. 33), and no separation (v. 35).
Propitiation In Hebrews:
(See chapter 2:17 New Translation) As the work of the Divine Trinity in Romans becomes the basis on which our justification rests, so in Hebrews the work of the Trinity becomes the basis on which our sanctification rests, the will of God (10:10), the blood of Christ (13:12), and the witness of the Holy Spirit (10:15-16).
In Hebrews 2 the humiliation and death of Christ are viewed as meeting four great necessities, they provide a perfect Saviour and Leader (v. 10), they despoil the devil (v. 14), they work propitiation (v. 17), and they enable Him as our Great High Priest to bear us safely home, through His succour (v. 18), His sympathy (chap. 4:15-16) and through His daily salvation (chap. 7:25). The path that He himself once trod as a man is the path by which He leads His people home. It is marked by praise (2:12), dependence (2:13), obedience (5:8), and holiness (7:24).
God has a house on earth and Christ is the High Priest over that house. On the ground of propitiation God is able to dwell in the midst of His sanctified people, and by the same atonement, Christ is our Priest to save to the uttermost, the uttermost length of time, a Saviour the whole way home.
The high priest of Israel as a beautiful type of Christ bore three things continually before the Lord. He bore the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders, (compare 2:18) on his breast (compare 4:15), and upon his mitre which he wore for the iniquity of holy things (compare 4:16). Every failure of the saints is met by the propitiation of Christ. His High priestly ministry functions on the basis of it.
Propitiation In First John:
As our justification in Romans and our sanctification in Hebrews rest upon the solid foundation of the work of the Trinity, so our relationship in the family of God in First John rests upon the same foundation, the grace of God (4:9-10), the atonement of Christ (2:2), and the operation of the Divine Spirit protecting us from all seduction (2:20-27). Christ is presented as Saviour in Romans, as Priest in Hebrews, and as Advocate in First John. Mark well that He is Advocate with the Father. How precious this is! It teaches us that though our failures affect our communion they do not affect our relationship. Let us also notice that the word for Advocate is the same as the word for Comforter. All three persons in the Godhead are Comforters to the people of God, the Father (2 Cor. 1:3-4), the Son (1 John 2:1), and the Holy Spirit (John 14:16).
Our security on the ground of atonement must never be taken as a licence to sin. We are warned against carelessness in walk. The epistle was written that we might be happy (1:4), holy (2:1), and sure (5:13).
The character of God as revealed in First John gives emphasis to the holiness of the sphere in which the children walk, God is Light (1:5), God is Righteous (2:29), and God is Love (4:8). The sphere in which the family walks therefore is marked by light, life, and love. The pattern to which all the children will be eventually conformed is Christ the Firstborn. Six times over in the epistle we read, “As He.” In the suggested sixfold identification with Christ we are made sharers of His position in the heavenlies (1:7), of His experience on earth (2:6), of the holiness of His nature (3:3), of the righteousness of His character (3:7), of the love of His heart (4:17), and finally of the image of His glory (3:2).
Hallelujah to the Lamb! From His atonement we derive our justification, sanctification, and glorification.
“Jesus Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed
With joy shall I lift up my head.”
“No man should ever speak against his brother until he has first spoken to his brother. To do so is a greater sin than any sin which the brother in question could himself have committed, because it is sin against the law of love.”