Holman Bible Dictionary
(ex pee ay' shuhn; proh pih tee ay' shuhn) Terms used by Christian theologians in attempts to define and explain the meaning of Christ's death on the cross as it relates to God and to believers. Expiation emphasizes the removal of guilt through a payment of the penalty, while propitiation emphasizes the appeasement or averting of God's wrath and justice. Both words are related to reconciliation, since it is through Christ's death on the cross for our sins that we are reconciled to a God of holy love (Romans 5:9-11 ; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 ; Colossians 1:19-23 ).
Biblical Vocabulary The point of difference in interpretation for theologians has centered on the Greek word hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 ; 1 John 4:10 . A look at various translations show the distinctions here: “propitiation” (KJV, NAS); “expiation” (RSV); “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (NIV, NRSV, compare REB); “means by which our sins are forgiven” (TEV). Related Greek words occur in Matthew 16:22 ; Luke 18:13 ; Romans 3:25 ; Hebrews 2:17 ; Hebrews 8:12 ; Hebrews 9:5 . KJV uses various translations of these words: “be merciful,” “make reconciliation,” “to be a propitiation,” “the mercy-seat,” “be it far from thee,” “I will be merciful.”
In Greek writings hilasmos refers to soothing the anger of the gods. In the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament, hilasmos appears in Leviticus 25:9 in the expression, “day of atonement”; in Psalm 130:4 to confess that there is “forgiveness” with God; in Numbers 5:8 in the expression the “ram of the atonement”; and in Ezekiel 44:27 as a “sin-offering.” Daniel 9:9 uses the plural form to speak of “forgivenesses” which are a character trait of God.
Some scholars interpret these Old Testament references to mean that God has acted as the subject to cover and forgive sins. He has removed the uncleanness or defilement of sin. Other scholars see God as the object receiving the offering for sin which then in some sense pacifies His anger and meets His holy need for justice. In the New Testament setting, this would mean that on the cross Jesus either dealt with the evil nature of human sin and covered it so that God forgives it, or it means that Jesus satisfied God's holy anger and justice so that forgiven sinners could freely enter the presence of the holy God. Some scholars would see both ideas present in the word hilasmos , so that God in grace initiated the sacrifice of Jesus to provide covering and forgiveness for human sin but that He also received the sacrifice which satisfied His anger and justice.
The background of the idea is the Old Testament sacrificial system. The whole system sought to procure God's favor through obediently following ways He commanded. God promised to show His mercy after His faithful people followed certain ritual requirements. These included the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:3-17 ), the peace offering (Leviticus 3:1-17 ), the sin offering (Leviticus 4:1-5:13 ), and the guilt offering (Leviticus 5:15-6:6 ). None of these dealt with “defiant sins” (Numbers 15:20-31 ), only with “sin through ignorance” (Leviticus 4:2 ). The high point of the sacrificial cult was the annual day of atonement when the sins of the people were laid on a scapegoat by the high priest and the sin-laden animal was then driven into the wilderness to perish (Leviticus 16:1-34 ). Such a system could easily forget its basis in God's grace shown in the Exodus and in His commands providing the system. Then sacrifice could quickly be viewed as a mechanical way to forgiveness. When this happened, the prophets of the Old Testament frequently protested against the externalism of the priestly cult of sacrifice, saying much more effect came through a humble heart, the sacrifice of repentance (Psalm 51:17 ; Isaiah 1:10-20 ; Jeremiah 6:20 ; Hosea 6:6 ; Joel 2:13 ; Micah 6:6-8 ).
In the Old Testament, the note of grace is clearly present. God did not simply wait for His people to bring before Him the appropriate sacrifices. He took the initiative in specifying which sacrifices would be needed. When Abraham showed willingness to sacrifice Isaac, God Himself supplied the adequate substitute offering (Genesis 22:1-19 ). The Old Testament repeats its promise that God remains gracious even in our sinning, that He stands ready to forgive even before we are ready to repent (Psalm 78:21-28 ; Psalm 89:28-34 ; Isaiah 65:1-2 ; Jeremiah 31:1-3 , Jeremiah 31:31-34 ; Hosea 6:1-2 ). God expects people both to repent of sin and to commit themselves to obey His covenant.
The New Testament shows how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament system of sacrifices and thus replaced it with His own work on the cross. The Old Testament system could not purify the consciences of those who offered them (Hebrews 8:7 , Hebrews 8:13 ; Hebrews 10:1-4 ). In their stead, God provided a perfect Sacrifice, that of His own Son. This sacrifice is eternal, not provisional; it is sufficient to cover or expiate all human sin, not just specific sins (Hebrews 7:26-28 ; Hebrews 9:25-26 ). The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary restored the broken relationship between God and His people and did not need to be repeated. He made reconciliation available to all people in all times. Such reconciliation involves a change both in God's attitude toward us and in our attitude toward God. The cross of Calvary was God's eternal plan to deal with human sin so that John could describe Jesus as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 ). God chose to forgive us before the sacrifice was enacted in history, but His forgiveness could not reach us until this sacrifice took place.
To understand the need for propitiation and for expiation, we have to remind ourselves that the God of the Bible is both holy and loving. His holiness means that sin cannot be condoned. His love signifies that the sinner can be accepted if the claims of divine holiness are recognized. The atoning sacrifice of Christ both satisfies the demands of His holy law and demonstrates His boundless love, the love that goes beyond the law. God was not waiting to be appeased (as in the pagan, Greek conception). Rather, God condescended to meet us on our level to remedy the situation. He provided the sacrificial offering that expiates human sin and makes reconciliation possible. Both Old and the New Testaments proclaim that only God's grace opens the door to salvation. All ritual requirements for sacrifice in the Old Testament are replaced by the sacrifice of the cross, which wipes away the record of our debts to God (Colossians 2:14 ; Hebrews 10:14-18 ). The only sacrifices now required of the Christian are those of praise and thanksgiving, which take the form of worship in spirit and in truth and the obedience of discipleship (Romans 12:1 ; Hebrews 13:15-16 ; 1 Peter 2:5 ). God calls us to demonstrate our gratefulness for His self-sacrifice by leading lives of holiness, lives that give the world a sign and witness of God's great love for us shown in Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, the doctrine of the atonement includes both the dimensions of propitiation—averting the wrath of God—and expiation—taking away or covering over human guilt. By the expiation of human guilt, the wrath of God is turned away, the holiness of God is satisfied. Yet it is God who in the person of His Son performs the sacrifice of expiation. It is God who in the person of His Son swallows up evil within Himself through vicarious identification with the sin of His people. A sacrifice was necessary to satisfy the demands of His law, but God Himself provided the Sacrifice out of His incomparable love. What human ritual offerings could not do, God has done once for all by giving up His Son for the sins of the whole human race. See Atonement ; Blood ; Christology; Salvation .
Donald G. Bloesch
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