Propitiation: a big word that matters a lot

Propitiation: a big word that matters a lot

Some people love big words, and others hate them. Sometimes people use big words to disguise the fact that they don’t know what they are talking about, and often simple words can be used just as well to express an idea. With that in mind, today I want to explain a really important big word that we see in the Bible: the word “propitiation”. It is left unsimplified in most modern translations in Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. This is not because Bible translators are mean and nasty, or because they are trying to sound scholarly or complicated; it is because this important word cannot be easily translated into a simple word or phrase.

Let’s look at the most famous place that we see this word in the Bible, in Romans 3:25. Paul has just been at great pains to explain that everyone is sinful and deserves the judgement of God. Then he writes this sentence:

For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  (Rom. 3:22-25 ESV)

In that context, the word “propitiation” is something that describes what Jesus has done for us by his blood. In some way, this big word explains how we can be justified and redeemed by Jesus. That makes it an important word to understand.

To make someone propitious towards you is to make them favourable towards you, to make them into your friend. So, an act of propitiation is an act that turns someone from an enemy into a friend. It is a word that describes a change in a personal relationship. After the act of propitiation, the two parties are friendly and not opposed.

How does this help us understand Jesus? Well, all of us are sinners and deserve God’s judgement; that’s the key idea of Romans 2 and 3 to this point. But God put Jesus forward as a propitiation, and because of this, we can be declared to be right before God. What Jesus did on the cross, dying in our place for our sins, took God’s anger on himself. We were God’s enemies, whom he was rightly angry with, and God’s anger was poured out on Jesus instead of us if we have faith. The result of all this is that we are no longer God’s enemies, but we are now God’s friends. The issue that separated us, the problem of our sin, has been dealt with by Jesus. We can instead be called God’s friends, and even his children, and only because of the propitious work that Jesus did on our behalf.

One of the reasons that this is such an important concept is that it conveys to us the point that our problem with God is personal, not just a debt. When we think of debt, we often think of a bank. If I have a large debt with the bank, but someone pays that debt off for me, that debt will be gone. What Jesus did is so much better than that. Our problem with God is far deeper than a debt problem with a bank; God is angry with us; the bank is not angry, only owed. And when Jesus paid for our sins on the cross, he didn’t bring us back to zero and equal terms with God; he made God favourable towards us. We are not back to zero; we are God’s friends. We have many positive blessings from God due to the work of Jesus, including justification, adoption, and the hope of eternal life.

We should be abundantly thankful that what Jesus did was a propitiation by his blood. Jesus made God from our enemy into our friend, and even into our Father. That is a big word that is worth understanding.