The Surprisingly Practical Doctrine You Didn’t Think You Needed
Rock climbers don’t scale the sheer granite walls of El Capitan because it’s easy. Nor do freedivers plunge to watery depths as a pleasant distraction from life. The motivation behind such ventures is not the gruelling effort in itself, but rather the rewards that come after the challenge: the breathtaking view from the summit or the sight of stunning coral displays on the ocean floor.
Our posture towards the Scriptures should be no different. Though the richness of a text may require a great deal of mental sweat to uncover, the good news is that, just as the climber is rewarded for his exertions, so Christians will also be rewarded for their diligent study. For those who are up to it, the doctrine of propitiation is one of many such rewards the Bible has to yield.
So why should we bother with this strange, somewhat foreign sounding word?
British theologian J.I. Packer once referred to propitiation as the “heart of the gospel,” and John employs it as a means of comfort for sinners in his first epistle (2:2), later going on to say that propitiation is where we see the love of God most clearly manifested (4:10). Paul, too, speaks of propitiation in Romans 3:21-26, arguably one of the most crucial passages on salvation in the Bible.
It seems that if we long for assurance, desire to delve deeper into our knowledge and experience of the love of God, and better understand the gospel itself, we ought to apply ourselves to the unsearchable riches of this profound doctrine.
Let’s dive in.
A Window to the Cross
New Testament scholar D.A. Carson defines propitiation as "that sacrificial act by which God becomes propitious.” In the Bible, the central sacrificial act that renders God propitious is the death of His Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:26; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10).
What does it mean to be propitious? Carson explains:
“Propitious” simply means favourable: to say that propitiation is an act by which God becomes propitious is to say it is an act by which God becomes favourable to us. He is set over against us in wrath, but now by this sacrificial act he becomes favourable to us. That is propitiation.
Thus, in the pages of Scripture, propitiation refers to the fact that God has satisfied His own justice through the substitutionary death of His Son, Jesus Christ (John Stott referred to this as God’s “self-substitution” in order to clarify the Trinitarian aspect of the substitution). Christ Himself is the propitiation because His death on our behalf is what has rendered God favourable toward us. The outcome, in Paul’s words, is that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Our guilt has been taken away and our sin atoned for (Isa. 6:7).
Are you beginning to see why Packer can call propitiation the heart of the gospel? Like a window, it cuts through the morass of generic language so often use to describe the cross and gives us a clear view into the heart of the atonement: Christ crucified for sinners.
The Fruit of Propitiation: Peace With God
Let’s consider some practical applications of propitiation. First of all there is the glorious gospel-confidence it provides for sinners. The writer to the Hebrews implies as much in his application of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
When we realize that Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross fully extinguished God’s wrath and rendered Him forever merciful and gracious towards us, the peace of the gospel can finally sweep over our soul. We can confidently take the exhortation of Hebrews to heart and draw near to God with full assurance of faith—not because of our own worthiness or moral dedication, but because of His finished work. This is the end of striving, and the fertile soil in which assurance can grow and flourish.
Second, we have the promise that this truth doesn’t only apply on our best days. Rather, the apostle John would have us rest in the doctrine of propitiation even on our worst days—perhaps even especially on our worst days! For example, in his first epistle he writes, “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. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Notice the way John weaves theology together with the nitty-gritty struggle of everyday life. Though it was John’s desire that the recipients of his letter would be done with sin, he also recognizes their weakness and says that if they do sin, they should remember that Christ is our propitiation.
Imagine that! Of all the ways John might seek to comfort his readers, propitiation is his encouragement to struggling sinners! When we falter and stumble into sin, John would have us find comfort in the fact that Jesus Christ is our Advocate, rendering God as nothing but favourable and gracious toward us. This truth means that when sin rears its ugly head in our lives, we can move quickly and eagerly towards repentance and reconciliation with God without resorting to penance or languishing in guilt.
It sounds almost too good to be true—but this is truth of the gospel.
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