by John Murray
This fact does not mean, however, that the atoning work of Christ is not to be interpreted in terms of propitiation.5 There are passages in which the language of propitiation is expressly applied to the work of Christ (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; I John 2:2; 4:10). And this means, without question, that the work of Christ is to be construed as propitiation. But there is also another consideration. The frequency with which the concept appears in the Old Testament in connection with the sacrificial ritual, the fact that the New Testament applies to the work of Christ the very term which denoted this concept in the Greek Old Testament, and the fact that the New Testament regards the Levitical ritual as providing the pattern for the sacrifice of Christ lead to the conclusion that this is a category in terms of which the sacrifice of Christ is not only properly but necessarily interpreted. In other words, the idea of propitiation is so woven into the fabric of the Old Testament ritual that it would be impossible to regard that ritual as the pattern of the sacrifice of Christ if propitiation did not occupy a similar place in the one great sacrifice once offered. This is but another way of saying that sacrifice and propitiation stand in the closest relations with one another. The express application of the term "propitiation" to the work of Christ by the New Testament writers is the confirmation of this conclusion.
But what does propitiation mean? In the Hebrew of the Old Testament it is expressed by a word which means to "cover." In connection with this covering there are, in particular, three things to be noted:
- it is in reference to sin that the covering takes place;
- the effect of this covering is cleansing and forgiveness;
- it is before the Lord that both the covering and its effect take place (cf. especially lev. 4:35; 10:17; 16:30).
This means that sin creates a situation in relation to the Lord, a situation that makes the covering necessary. It is this Godward reference of both the sin and the covering that must be fully appreciated. It may be said that the sin, or perhaps the person who has sinned, is covered before the sight of the lord. In the thought of the Old Testament there is but one construction that we can place upon this provision of the sacrificial ritual. It is that sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin, and the covering is that which provides for the removal of divine displeasure which the sin evokes. It is obvious that we are brought to the threshold of that which is clearly denoted by the Greek rendering in both Old and New Testaments, namely, that of propitiation. To propitiate means to "placate," "pacify," "appease," "conciliate." And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ.
Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people.
Perhaps no tenet respecting the atonement has been more violently criticized than this one.6 It has been assailed as involving a mythological conception of God, as supposing internal conflict in the mind of God and between the persons of the Godhead. It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.
When the doctrine of propitiation is presented in this light it can be very effectively criticized and can be exposed as a revolting caricature of the Christian gospel. But the doctrine of propitiation does not involve this caricature by which it has been misconceived and misrepresented. To say the least, this kind of criticism has failed to understand or appreciate some elementary and important distinctions.
First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love. It is loose thinking of a deplorable sort to claim that propitiation of the divine wrath does prejudice to or is incompatible with the fullest recognition that the atonement is the provision of the divine love.
Secondly, propitiation is not a turning of the wrath of God into love. The propitiation of the divine wrath, effected in the expiatory work of Christ, is the provision of God's eternal and unchangeable love, so that through the propitiation of his own wrath that love may realize its purpose in a way that is consonant with and to the glory of the dictates of his holiness. It is one thing to say that the wrathful God is made loving. That would be entirely false. It is another thing to say the wrathful God is loving. That is profoundly true. But it is also true that the wrath by which he is wrathful is propitiated through the cross. This propitiation is the fruit of the divine love that provided it. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (I John 4:10). The propitiation is the ground upon which the divine love operates and the channel through which it flows in achieving its end.
Thirdly, propitiation does not detract from the love and mercy of God; it rather enhances the marvel of his love. For it shows the cost that redemptive love entails. God is love. But the supreme object of that love is himself. And because he loves himself supremely he cannot suffer what belongs to the integrity of his character and glory to be compromised or curtailed. That is the reason for the propitiation. God appeases his own holy wrath in the cross of Christ in order that the purpose of his love to lost men may be accomplished in accordance with and to the vindication of all the perfections that constitute his glory. "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood to show his righteousness . . . that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25,26).
Excerpt from Redemption Accomplished and Applied