What is Propitiation?

July 2, 2019
George T. Ferrier

The word “propitiation” is not commonly used today but it typically referred to people propitiating or trying to appease their false gods1. However, in Scripture it means satisfying the penalty of God’s law through the holy Christ, so that now justice having been served, God can be propitious or favorable towards the believing sinner.

Its comparable word in the Old Testament is mercy-seat (kappôreth)2. The mercy-seat was the gold lid (cover) for the ark of the covenant, which contained the two stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. Two Cherubim, one on each end, testified to God’s holiness with their wings touching each other, stretched upwards to heaven, with their faces looking down towards the mercy-seat. God’s presence between the two cherubim above the mercy-seat was a place of judgment because of the broken law inside the ark (Ex. 25:16-22). Each year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Most Holy Place and sprinkled the blood of slain bulls and goats on and before the mercy-seat. They were for his sins and the sins of the people (Lev. 16). With its application, the blood testified to a substitutionary death, atoning or temporarily covering the Israelite’s sins.

In the New Testament the Greek nouns (hilastērion, hilasmos)3 are translated mercy-seat in Hebrews 9:5 and elsewhere as propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10, NKJV). Christ is the fulfillment of the mercy-seat, shedding His blood for all sin, as well as being the place where believing sinners can find mercy. Let us consider four truths.

First, God Himself provided a propitiation. 1 John 4:10 says, God “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The Bible always describes propitiation as a work of God, never as a work of mankind. It is a common thought in religion, both ancient and contemporary, that people can propitiate their gods by offering sacrifices. This idea is as false as the gods they worship. Instead, Scripture asserts that we are incapable of offering the true God any gifts to make Him favorable towards us. Therefore, God Himself sent His Son to satisfy His justice. Propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify His righteous character in showing mercy to believing sinners.

Second, Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 1:2). He died for all but God, Who is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), and Who delights in mercy (Mic. 7:18) extends mercy, favor, and forgiveness only to those who choose to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only propitiation.

Third, Christ is the propitiation for the believing sinner (Rom. 3:25-26). Propitiation speaks of substitution where God provided a way for the sinner to be saved through the death of Another. Through Christ a place of judgment (God’s presence) can now be a place of mercy. God does not have to be asked to be propitious; He already is because of Christ. The sinner does not come to God to ask for mercy, instead by believing in Christ they are heartily welcomed by the merciful God.

Finally, Christ’s propitiatory work endures in His advocacy for the sinning believer (1 Jn 2:1-2). The believer should not habitually sin but they will commit acts of sin. When we sin, we have an advocate with the Father. Our advocate is Jesus Christ, the Righteous Who does not excuse or ignore our sin. Instead, as both the propitiator and propitiation for our sins He pleads Himself as the satisfaction for God’s justice. Kenneth Wuest states, “The Greek has it, ‘He Himself is a satisfaction.’”4 Through Christ, our merciful and faithful High Priest (Heb. 2:17; 7:1-28), when we fail, our position with God is secure. God is forever satisfied with Christ’s propitiatory work.

Endnotes 1. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1985)
2. Strong’s Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible (Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986)
3. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1985)
4. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), e-Sword X electronic version If you have a question for this column please submit it to [email protected]