Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
The Greek word ἱλαστήριον (or ἱλασμός ), rendered propitiation (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10) and mercy seat (Hebrews 9:5), is used in the Septuagint as the translation of the Hebrew word כִּפֹּרַת, i.e. covering, properly the lid or cover of the ark of the covenant in the most holy place, which was overlaid with pure gold, over which the cherubim stretched out their wings, and where Jehovah communed with the representatives of his people (Exodus 25:17-22; Exodus 37; in the Sept. Exodus 38:6-9). Into the holy place the high-priest entered but once a year, when he sprinkled upon the mercy seat or covering of the ark the blood of an expiatory victim, in order to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:11-15). In the common Greek idiom, ἱλαστήριον properly designates an expiatory or propitiatory victim, (See PROPITIATORY SACRIFICES); and in Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10, Christ is represented as the propitiatory sacrifice for the sin of the world. His blood alone atones for and covers our guilt. When faith is exercised in the blood of this sacrifice, its propitiatory effect is produced. In other words, Christ makes expiation which is effectual for such, and only such, as trust or put confidence in his atoning blood.
The idea of the legal reconciliation of God and all sinners who cordially receive the Gospel plan of salvation is presented under two aspects. 1. Expiation: this denotes the doing of something which shall furnish a just ground or reason in a judicial administration for pardoning a convicted offender. 2. Propitiation: anything which shall have the property of disposing, inclining, or causing the judicial authority to admit the expiation — i.e. to assent to it as a valid reason for pardoning the offender. Expiation, therefore, regards the condition of the offender; propitiation, that of the judge or sovereign. "We can conceive cases," says Dr. J. Pye Smith, "in which an expiation, good and reasonable in its kind, might be offered, and yet a wise and good government might not be willing to accept it — i.e. might not be propitious to the offender and to the proposal for his being forgiven. We call also conceive of a wise and good government being cordially disposed and greatly desirous to pardon an offender, but unable to gratify this gracious disposition because it can find no just grounds for such an act, and it is aware that a pardon arbitrary and destitute of unexceptionable reason would relax the obligations of law, bring dishonor upon public justice, and prove of pernicious example. It is also obvious that the same thing may be, and is most naturally fit and likely to be, both an expiation and a propitiation i.e. both a valid reason for pardoning, and a determining motive to the will of the competent authority to admit and act upon that reason." (See ATONEMENT).
Now, in applying these terms to the great and awful case of ourselves, the whole world of justly condemned sinners, and our judge, the infinitely perfect God, there are some cautions of great importance to be observed. Nothing can be admitted that would contradict incontrovertible first principles. But there are two such principles which are often violated by inconsiderate advocates of the doctrine of salvation by the mediation of Christ; and the violation of them has afforded the advantage of all the plausible arguments urged against that doctrine by its adversaries. The first is the immutability of God. His moral principles — that is, his rectitude, wisdom, and goodness, as expressed by his blessed and holy will — can undergo no alteration; for to admit such a supposition would be destructive of the absolute perfection of the divine nature, as it would imply either an improvement or a deterioration in the subject of the supposed change. We cannot, therefore, hear or read without unspeakable disapprobation and regret representations of the Deity as first actuated by the passions of wrath and fury towards sinful men, and as afterwards turned, by the presentation of the Saviour's sacrifice, into a different temper-a disposition of calmness, kindness, and grace. The second foundation principle is that the adorable God is, from eternity and in all the glorious constancy of his nature, gracious and merciful. He wants no extraneous motive to induce him to pity and relieve our miserable world. No change in God is necessary or desirable, even if it were possible. This is abundantly evident from many parts of the divine Word (Exodus 34:6-7; John 3:16; John 6:39; John 10:17; Ephesians 1:3-10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
The question whether sinners shall be pardoned is not one that can be referred to arbitrary will or absolute power. It is a question of law and government, and it is to be solved by the dictates of wisdom, goodness, justice, and consistency. God's disposition to show mercy is original and unchangeable: in this sense nothing is needed to render him propitious. But the way and manner in which it will be suitable to all the other considerations proper to be taken into the account that he should show mercy, none but himself is qualified to determine. "God is the righteous judge, and God is angry [with the wicked] every day." But this anger is not a commotion or a mutable passion: it is the calm, dignified, unchangeable, and eternal majesty of the judge; it is his necessary love of righteousness and hatred of iniquity. Pardon, when on any consideration it takes place, brings the true and just idea of a change; but that change, in the great case before us, is not in the mind or character of the Supreme Ruler, but it is in the administration of his government, and in those outward acts by which that administration is indicated. This change is, in the order of moral right, the effect of an adequate cause. This cause lies in the whole mediatorial work of Christ, but most particularly and essentially in his sufferings and death, and these have constituted the expiation. (See ATONEMENT, DAY OF MEDIATION).
The Romish Church believes the mass (q.v.) to be a sacrifice of propitiation for the living and dead; while the Reformed churches, justified by the express declarations of Scripture, allow of no propitiation but that one offered by Jesus on the cross, whereby divine justice is appeased and our sins atoned for (Romans 3:20; 1 John 2:2). (See SACRIFICE).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Propitiation'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/propitiation.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.