By Spencer D Gear
Who’s propping it up?
This is a pointer to a theological term that is not on the top of the seeker-sensitive theological hit parade. It’s out of favour even among some evangelicals. It has caused considerable controversy in theological circles.
Dr Gary Long introduced the controversy reasonably well:
In discussing the design or extent of the atonement, there are three key doctrinal terms which are related to the priestly sacrifice of Christ on earth, that is, to the finished work of Christ. These terms are redemption, propitiation and reconciliation. Evangelical Arminians and Calvinistic “four point” universalists or modified Calvinists hold that there is a universal design of the atonement which provides salvation for all mankind without exception or which places all of Adam’s posterity in a savable state. They contend that there is a twofold application of these three doctrinal terms — an actual application for those who believe, a provisional application for those who die in unbelief. The historic “five point” or consistent Calvinist2 asserts that these terms have no substitutionary reference with respect to the non-elect. In contrast to the former who hold to an indefinite atonement, the consistent Calvinist, who holds to a definite atonement, sees no purpose, benefit or comfort in a redemption that does not redeem, a propitiation that does not propitiate or a reconciliation that does not reconcile, which would be the case if these terms were applicable to the non-elect (‘Propitiation in 1 John 2:2’).
First John 2:1-2 reads in the ESV,
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.
In 1 John 2:2, the Greek noun used that the ESV translates as ‘propitiation’ is hilasmos, which the NIV translates as ‘atoning sacrifice’. There has been much debate among Greek scholars as to the meaning of the noun form which is found in one other place in the NT and that’s in 1 John 4:10. The verbal form is in a few other verses.
What’s the meaning of ‘propitiation’ in 1 John 2:2?
I’m relying on I Howard Marshall’s commentary summary of the controversy (Marshall 1978:117-120).
Here are some of the issues with this word:
1. When it is used outside of the Bible, it conveys the meaning of ‘an offering made by a man in order to placate the wrath of a god whom he has offended. It was a means of turning the god from wrath to favorable attitude’ (Marshall 1978:117).
2. However, in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the OT) – the LXX – the meaning has been debated. Westcott and Dodd argued that in the OT, ‘the scriptural conception … is not that of appeasing one who is angry, with a personal feeling, against the offender; but of altering the character of that which from without occasions a necessary alienation, and interposes an inevitable obstacle to fellowship’ (in Marshall 1978:117). Therefore, they concluded that
3. In secular sources, the word means ‘propitiation’ (placating an offended person), but in the Bible it means ‘expiation’ (a means of neutralising and cancelling sin (Marshall 1978:117). However, neither of these words is in common use in the English language so modern translations offer a paraphrase. The NIV and NRSV use, ‘atoning sacrifice’, which tries to combine two ideas: an atonement for sin and an offering to God (a sacrifice). The TEV used ‘the means by which our sins are forgiven’ while the NEB used ‘the remedy for the defilement of our sins’, the latter seeming to be closer to the meaning of expiation (Marshall 1978:117-118). The ESV, NKJV and NASB retain ‘propitiation’.
4. L Morris and D Hill objected to the Westcott and Dodd interpretation and showed that in the OT ‘the idea of placating the wrath of God or some other injured party is often present when the word-group in question is used…. The meaning in the present passage would then be that Jesus propitiates God with respect to our sins [the Greek preposition peri]. There can be no real doubt that this is the meaning’ (Marshall 1978:118).
5. In 1 John 2:1, the thought of Jesus as our advocate [NIV: ‘One who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One’] is of one who is pleading the cause of the guilty sinners before a judge in order to obtain pardon for ‘acknowledged guilt’. ‘In order that forgiveness may be granted, there is an action in respect of the sins which has the effect of rendering God favorable to the sinner. We may, if we wish, say that the sins are cancelled out by the action in question. This means that the one action has the double effect of expiating the sin and thereby propitiating God. These two aspects of the action belong together, and a good translation will attempt to convey them both’ (Marshall 1978:118).
6. How does one find an English word that combines expiation and propitiation? ‘Atoning sacrifice’ is an attempt but I find that it de-emphasises the propitiation too much. I can’t see a way around this except for a preacher to make sure he/she explains 1 John 2:1-2 together and that needs to include both the advocate and the propitiation. A ‘propitiatory advocate’ could be a way around that, but the English language is too clumsy to put it that way as many people don’t understand the meaning of ‘propitiatory’ as it is not used in contemporary English in my part of the world.
Some other views on the meaning of propitiation
1. Leon Morris refers to hilasmos related words in Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17 and 1 John 2:2; 4:10. His exegesis of the word indicates that it means,
the turning away of wrath by an offering…. Outside the Bible the word group to which the Greek words belong unquestionably has the significance of averting wrath…. Neither [C H] Dodd nor others who argue for “expiation” seem to give sufficient attention to the biblical teaching….
The words of the hilaskomai group do not denote simple forgiveness or cancellation of sin which includes the turning away of God’s wrath (e.g. Lam. 3:42-43)….
The whole of the argument of the opening part of Romans is that all men, Gentiles and Jews alike, are sinners, and that they come under the wrath and condemnation of God. When Paul turns to salvation, he thinks of Christ’s death as hilasterion (Rom 3:25), a means of removing the divine wrath. The paradox of the OT is repeated in the NT that God himself provides the means of removing his own wrath. The love of the Father is shown in that he “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10)….
The consistent Bible view is that the sin of man has incurred the wrath of God. That wrath is averted only by Christ’s atoning offering. From this standpoint his saving work is properly called propitiation (Morris 1984:888).
the New Testament represents Christ’s death as appeasing God’s wrath. Paul says, God set Him forth as a “propitiatory” (sacrifice) (Rom. 3:25); and Hebrews represents the mercy seat in the tabernacle and temple of the “propitiatory (place) (9:5). John declared that Christ is the “propitiation” for our sins (1 John 2:2:4:10); and Hebrews declares that Christ “propitiates” the sins of the people (2:17) (Thiessen 1949:326)
Thiessen quotes W G T Shedd in support of this view – based on the Old Testament:
The connection of ideas in the Greek translation appears therefore to be this: By the suffering of the sinner’s atoning substitute, the divine wrath at sin is propitiated, and as a consequence of this propitiation the punishment due to sin is released, or not inflicted upon the transgressor. This release or non-infliction of penalty is ‘forgiveness’ in the biblical representation (Shedd II:391, in Thiessen 1949:326).
Romans 3:23 tells us that God put forward Christ as a “propitiation” (NASB) a word that means “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath to favor.” Paul tells us that “That this was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). God had not simply forgiven sin and forgotten about the punishment in generations past. He had forgiven sins and stored up his righteous anger against those sins. But at the cross the fury of all that stored-up wrath against sin was unleashed against God’s own Son.
Many theologians outside the evangelical world have strongly objected to the idea that Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin. Their basic assumption is that since God is a God of love, it would be inconsistent with his character to show wrath against the human beings he has created and for whom he is a loving Father. But evangelical scholars have convincingly argued that the idea of the wrath of God is solidly rooted in both the Old and New Testaments: “the whole of the argument of the opening part of Romans is that all men, Gentiles and Jews alike, are sinners, and that they come under the wrath and the condemnation of God.”
Three other crucial passages in the New Testament refer to Jesus’ death as a “propitiation”: Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; and 4:10. The Greek terms (the verb hilaskomai, “to make propitiation” and the noun hilasmos, “a sacrifice of propitiation”) used in these passages have the sense of “a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God – and thereby makes God propitious (or favorable) toward us.” This is the consistent meaning of these words outside of the Bible where they were well understood in reference to pagan Greek religions. These verses simply mean that Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin.
It is important to insist on this fact, because it is the heart of the doctrine of the atonement. It means that there is an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for. Furthermore, before the atonement ever could have an effect on our subjective consciousness, it first had an effect on God and his relation to the sinners he planned to redeem. Apart from this central truth, the death of Christ really cannot be adequately understood (Grudem 1994:575).
I hope this helps to clarify the fact that both Old and New Testaments affirm the necessity of a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. Jesus’ death was that propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). However, that propitiation is only potential until a person chooses to believe in Jesus to receive God’s propitiation.
This free will choice (human responsibility) in salvation is only possible because God provides prevenient grace to all people, enable them to respond in faith when the Gospel is proclaimed to them. Salvation (repentance and faith) is available only because God takes the initiative.
Grudem, W 1994. Systematic theology. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Marshall, I H 1978. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Epistles of John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Morris, L 1984. Propitiation. In W A Elwell (ed), Evangelical dictionary of theology, 88. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Grudem’s footnote was: ‘See the detailed linguistic argument of C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935), pp. 82-95. Dodd argues that the idea of propitiation was common in pagan religions but foreign to the thought of Old Testament and New Testament writers (Grudem 1994:575, n. 11).
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 November 2015.