How did the cross of Christ achieve its purpose? In what ways did his death and resurrection usher in ‘the day of salvation’ (2 Cor 6:2)?
Just as several pictures, or metaphors, are needed to fill out the meaning of ‘church’ (bride, temple, household, and so on), so several are required to illustrate the salvation that Christ achieved. Chief among these are the terms ‘propitiation’, ‘redemption’, ‘justification’, and ‘reconciliation’. It is important to realise that these images are complementary to one another, for underlying them all is ‘the truth that God in Christ has borne our sin and died our death to set us free from sin’. In other words, substitutionary atonement is the fundamental doctrine, and these other terms illustrate and explicate that doctrine.
‘”Images” of salvation (or of the atonement) is a better term than “theories”. For theories are usually abstract and speculative concepts, whereas the biblical images of the atoning achievement of Christ are concrete pictures and belong to the data of revelation. They are not alternative explanations of the cross, providing us with a range to choose from, but complementary to one another, each contributing a vital part to the whole. As for the imagery, “propitiation” introduces us to rituals at a shrine, “redemption” to transactions in a market-place, “justification” to proceedings in a lawcourt, and “reconciliation” to experiences in a home or family. My contention is that “substitution” is not a further “theory” or “image” to be set alongside the others, but rather the foundation of them all, without which each category lacks cogency. If God in Christ did not die in our place, there could be neither propitiation, nor redemption, nor justification, nor reconciliation.’
The word ‘propitiation’ occurs three times in the Authorised Version (Rom 3:25f; 1 Jn 2:1f; 4:10). The word means to appease, to pacify someone’s anger, or to turn away wrath by an offering.. This can seem a crude, primitive, idea to attach to the God of the Bible. ‘Are we really to believe that Jesus by his death propitiated the Father’s anger, inducing him to turn from it and to look upon us with favour instead?’
Some modern scholars, however, have questioned its place in biblical and Christian thought on linguistic, theological, and ethical grounds. Some, including C.H. Dodd and A.T. Hanson, attempted to get round the problem by asserting that God’s wrath was impersonal. Dodd argued that the relevant word-group conveys the idea of expiation (the cancellation of sin) and not propitiation (the turning away of the wrath of God). This is not surprising, since Dodd rejected the idea of a personal wrath of God. Similarly, for Hanson the ‘wrath of God’ merely stands for ‘the consequences of sin working themselves out in society through the ages’. Dodd tried to show that the ‘hilaskomai’ word-group denotes expiation and not propitiation but the (for him) embarrassing fact remains that the NT has just as clear and personal a view of God’s wrath as the OT. More specifically, Rom 3:15 is set very much in the context of God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; 2:1-16; 5:9) and the case is clinched by writers such as Leon Morris, who show that the word-group in question can indeed carry the meaning of propitiation.
In fact, the idea of propitiation is essential to the NT presentation of the gospel. ‘The love of God, the taking of manhood by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, and the way of salvation, are all to be explained in terms of it.’ (J.I. Packer). Christ’s death shows how God in his love provided a way for forgiveness which also satisfied his wrath against sin.
A crucial question is whether the object of atoning action is God, or man; whether the work of atonement is a means of pacifying the displeasure of God, or a means of delivering man from sin. If it is the former, then ‘propitiation’ is the right word. If the latter, then we should speak of ‘expiation’.
Dodd’s arguments have been critiqued at length by Leon Morris and Roger Nicole. They have shown that Dodd’s thesis is based on inadequate evidence and unwarranted inferences. The Old Testament background provides many instances which indicate that human sin can be atoned only by the divine anger being turned away (e.g. Ex 32:30; Deut 21:1-9; 1 Sam 3:14; 26:19). And in the New Testament, the idea of Jesus dealing with our sin is linked inextricably with the problem of God’s wrath (esp. Rom 1-3).
Not for the first or last time, some have sought to avoid the problem of propitiation by ridiculing a caricature of it. William Neil, for example, writes:-
‘It is worth noting that the “fire and brimstone” school of theology who revel in ideas such as that Christ was made a sacrifice to appease and angry God, or that the cross was a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others, a propitiation of a stern God, find no support in Paul. These notions came into Christian theology by way of the legalistic minds of the medieval churchmen; they are not biblical Christianity.’
But, as Stott says, ‘it is doubtful if anybody has ever believed such a crude caricature.’ Certainly, Scripture does not teach – and we must not think – that Christ’s death placated an unwilling or an unloving God. Both the Father and the Son fully co-operated in the act of propitiation. The Son freely came; the Father freely gave him up. God’s love is fully consistent with his wrath (the opposite of love is not wrath, but hate). As 1 Jn 4:10 teaches: ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins.’ Accordingly, ‘we never maintain that any sacrifice whatever, not even the propitiation of Christ’s death, was intended to make God merciful; only to make way for his eternal purposes of mercy, without any prejudice either to the demands of his law or the rights of his justice.’ (Hervey)
A biblical doctrine of propitiation needs to take account of three things:-
1. Why was propitiation necessary? The God of the Bible is not capricious, spiteful or vindictive. His wrath is his ‘steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations.’
2. Who provided the propitiation? In pagan religion, it is always man who seeks to appease the angry god, by means of ritual, magic, or sacrifice. But the God of the Bible cannot be bribed or cajoled. There is nothing that we can offer. ‘God himself “presented” (NIV) or “put forward” (RSV) Jesus Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice (Rom 3:25).’
3. What was the propitiatory sacrifice? God offered himself, in the form of his own Son.
‘God himself is at the heart of our answer to all three questions about the divine propitiation. It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating, and God himself wo in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.’
In the atonement, both God’s wrath is appeased (propitiation) and human sin is dealt with (expiation). In the words of David Wells:-
‘In Pauline thought, man is alienated from God by sin and God is alienated from man by wrath. It is in the substitutionary death of Christ that sin is overcome and wrath averted, so that God can look on man without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is expiated and God is propitiated.’
We must acknowledge, however, that here as elsewhere human language is having to be ‘stretched’ in order to express what cannot be fully expressed. As J.I. Packer write, ‘Christian language, with its peculiarities, has been much studied during the past twenty years, and two things about it have become clear, First, all its odd, ‘stretched’, contradictory and incoherent-sounding features derive directly from the unique Christian notion of the transcendent, tripersonal Creator-God. Christians regard God as free from the limits that bind creatures like ourselves, who bear God’s image while not existing on his level, and Christian language, following biblical precedent, shakes free from ordinary limits in a way that reflects this fact. So, for instance, faced with John’s declaration in 1 John 4:8-10, ‘God is love. . . . Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,’ Calvin can write without hesitation: ‘The word propitiation (placatio; Greek, hilasmos) has great weight: for God, in a way that cannot be put into words (ineffabili quodam modo), at the very time when he loved us, was hostile (infensus) to us till he was reconciled in Christ.’ Calvin’s phrase ‘in a way that cannot be put into words’ is his acknowledgement that the mystery of God is beyond our grasp. To Calvin, this duality of attitude, love and hostility, which in human psychological terms is inconceivable, is part of God’s moral glory; a sentiment which might make rationalistic theologians shake their heads, but at which John certainly would have nodded his. (Packer, What did the cross achieve?)
See Stott, The Cross of Christ, 167-175.