Thoughts about Propitiation (hilasterion)

20131027-025532.jpgBy Leif L.

The concept of divine wrath (the expression of God’s displeasure with sin) spans the entire Bible, beginning with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, through to the lake of fire in Revelation 20. In between there is the deluge, Sodom and Gomorrah, and plenty of Old Testament examples and New Testament teaching about the wrath of God.

Some suffer that wrath, others are “saved from the wrath to come”. All have sinned, and are justly deserving of God’s wrath. Why will some suffer wrath, and others will not? Where is justice? I believe there is only one satisfactory answer to that question.

The answer is found in the cross event.

In the end, some receive justice, and others mercy, but none receive injustice. Our soteriology tries to make sense of these grand themes in pictures and structures that we can grasp, so we use the words wrath, justice, mercy, justification, atonement, propitiation to convey these concepts (as the Bible does). It is a study that will occupy our minds through eternity, I believe.

Both propitiation and expiation are valid concepts. So, whereas we fiind these ideas fascinating, challenging, and at tims very difficult, that is no reason to dismiss them, especially if thereby we cheapen the gospel whereby we are saved. Faith needs to be liberated, to bridge the gap that exists between our measly reasonings and the great mind of God, which is expressed in the 66 books, which are inerrant, complete, and sufficient for us.

Furthermore, some very elementary reasoning seems to prove that “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25 implies (at least in some way) to save from wrath. “Hilasterion” is the greek word for “the place of atonement (i.e. the mercy seat).” It is only used twice in the New Testament, the other instance in Hebrews 9:5.

Proposition 1. The wrath of God is real. (“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Romans 1:18).

Proposition 2. This wrath applies to everyone due to universal unrighteousness, sin and guilt. “There is none righteous, no not one” (3:10). All the world is guilty before God (3:19). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23)

Proposition 3. Salvation from this universally applied wrath of God is provided through justification. (“Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him”, Romans 5:9).

Proposition 4. The death of Jesus provides this justification (“One act of righteousness leads to justification.” Romans 5:19, also 5:9)

Proposition 5. The “Hilasterion” is the place/person/event of the shedding of blood, which provided justification (“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood”, Romans 3:24, 25).

Romans 5:9 defines justification by blood as the removing wrath
Romans 3:24-25 speaks of justification by blood being a propitiation

I conclude that “Hilasterion” removes the wrath of God through the shedding of Jesus’ blood, so that punishment and guilt are taken away. In effect, “hilasterion” is the vehicle of propitiation, and/or the place where wrath is removed. And that certainly seems to be the meaning of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16; Paul is clearly borrowing the thought to make the point that the mercy seat in the tabernacle was a representation of Jesus Christ, whose blood “cleanses from all sin”.

To deny this conclusion (that “hilasterion” at the very least includes the removal of wrath) would require a denial of at least one of the biblical propositions above:

1. God does not have wrath (or)
2. God’s wrath is not universal in application (or)
3. Justification is not the removal of wrath (or)
4. Jesus death is not directly connected to our justification

Therefore (if we deny one or more of the above propositions) Jesus’ death was not the removal of wrath (propitiation), but only the taking away of sin (expiation). If this is truly the case, it raises a host of difficult questions, the main one being: Why would Paul use the word “wrath” at every point of his argument from 1:18-5:21, where “hilasterion” is used at the red-hot climax of not only his parenthetical argument, but perhaps the entire letter to the Romans?

He uses the term “wrath” in:

– His opening statement on the need of salvation (1:18)
– When describing the predicament of the Gentiles (2:5, 8)
– Describing the equally desperate position of the Jews (3:5)
– His conclusion that the blood of Jesus is the answer to this problem (5:9)?

I think the points above are unassailable, unless one chooses to walk on the slippery slope of back-tracking on clear biblical statements in favour of courting post-modern ideas of how we think God should be, of attempting to make Him in our image.

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