The word 'propitiation' or to 'propitiate' is an unfamilar word to most Christians. The Greek word is, 'hilasterion', and it shows up in the New Testament four times.
James Montgomery Boice refers to this as the 'forgotten doctrine' (p. 379 of Volume I of his commentary on Romans, Baker Publishing).
John Stott says this, “Many Christian people are embarrassed and even shocked by this word, however, because to ‘propitiate’ somebody means to placate his or her anger, and it seems to them an unworthy concept of God (more heathen than Christian)” (p. 113 of his commentary on Romans, InterVarsity Press).
Dr. R.C. Sproul defines propitiation this way, “In Christ’s death, God reconciled us to Himself, overcoming His own hostility that our sins provoked (Romans 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18, 19; Col. 1:20-22). The Cross propitiated God. That is to say, it quenched His wrath against us by expiating our sins, and so removing them from His sight" (p. 1617 The Reformation Study Bible).
In recent years people have shied away from this basic teaching. Perhaps they have been embarrassed by the concept of God's wrath.
Forty or fifty years ago C.H. Dodd made a name for himself by substituting the word 'expiation' for 'propitiation.' To expiate means to cover something, and in his usage it was our guilt that was expiated by Christ's blood (Boice p. 374). Dodd went even further: “expiatory acts were felt to have the value, so to speak, of a disinfectant” (Stott p. 113). His impact was felt across denominational lines and impacted translations of the Bible so much so that the word 'propitiation' was deleted and replaced with something more palatable. Notable versions that were affected include the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and The English Bible (TEB). If you use the New International Version check out Romans 3:25 or I John 2:2: the word propitiation shows up in margin but has been translated as 'atoning sacrifice.' Maybe the translators of the NIV were impacted by Dodd's arguments. Fortunately Dodd's arguments have been shown to be fallacious in a fantastic book by Dr. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. I highly recommend the book.
In today's setting no one less that Brian MacLaren of the Emergent Church has weighed in with his own opinion of propitiation: he likens it to 'cosmic child abuse.' Apparently he struggles with the concept of God's wrath so much so that he must recast the central event of redemptive history into new categories. Its too bad that he doesn't know the Bible that well.
I'm indebted to Dr. Boice's explanation of the Jewish Day of Atonement. Once a year the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle blood on the ‘mercy seat’ and confess the sins of the people (see Leviticus 16). His first act was to take the blood of a sacrificed bull and sprinkle it for his own sins. He then went out and returned with the blood of one of the goats and sprinkled it on the mercy seat for the sins of the people. That blood was meant to ‘propitiate’ the wrath of God by quenching it or satisfying it.
Hebrews 10 tells us that animal blood cannot truly take away our sin. Furthermore the book of Hebrews demonstrates how Christ became the true ‘propitiation’ for sin: He was a better high priest than Aaron, he offered up his own blood which was infinitely better than the blood of bulls and goats, and he did this in the heavenly temple, not a temple made with human hands.
Dr. Boice (p. 376-7) ends his discussion of propitiation by referring to the story that Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14 of the Pharisee and tax collector who were both praying outside the temple. Pharisee prayed "God, I thankf you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get."
The story continues with the tax collector praying: he was so aware of his sin that he couldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and prayed "God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Do you know what the Greek says? Literally the Greek reads, “God be mercy seated to me, a sinner” or, “God be propitiated towards me, a sinner.” Jesus then asks the rhetorical question, Who went away justified (declared righteous)? It was the the tax collector.
The know-it-all Pharisee likely died in his sins because he was too proud to admit that God's wrath was aroused against him. The tax-collector appealed to God's mercy and the work of the high priest precisely because he knew that he was a sinner who had offended a holy God.
Which person best describes you? Friend, take refuge in Christ. He is the one who has quenched the wrath of God once and for all. Apart from him you are lost and an object of God's wrath.