Propitiation or Expiation?

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

  • Romans 3:21-26 (NASB)

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

  • 1 John 2:1-2 (NASB)

“… elsewhere, these versions [RSV and NEB] replace the thought of propitiation with that of expiation.  What is the difference?  The difference is that expiation means only half of what propitiation means.  Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away, or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly relationship between man and God.  Propitiation, however, denotes all that expiation means, and the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby.  So, at any rate, Christian scholars have maintained since the Reformation, when these things first began to be studied with precision, and the case can still be made compelling today. …

“In [the early 1900s] a number of scholars, notably C. H. Dodd, have revived the view of the sixteenth-century Unitarian Socinus, which had already been picked up in the late [1800s] by Albrecht Ritschl, a founder of German liberalism, to the effect that there is in God no such thing as anger occasioned by human sin, and consequently no need or possibility for propitiation. …

“This, however, is the crucial point: in the epistle to the Romans [as one example] the context does call for the meaning propitiation in 3:25.”

  • J. I. Packer, Knowing God

The date changes in the quote from J. I. Packer are for two different reasons.  Packer wrote his book in 1973 with a second preface written upon the second edition in 1993.  He refers to the Dodd comments as being ‘this century’ when it is now a century ago.  I think that the printer made a mistake in that Albrecht Ritschl died in the late 1800s, but the printing of the book that I have said the late 1900s.  I was getting confused when I read the dates myself with one scholar using the thoughts of a scholar not yet born.  I had to look up biographies for the scholars.  Books occasionally have typos.  Maybe I should not beat myself up over mine.

Also, why beat yourself up over two words that few can spell and even fewer can give a cogent definition?  The definitions by Dr. Packer in the quote clarify the differences.

I was thinking about “why bother” at a Thursday Bible study about 15 years ago.  The teacher was an ordained minister.  His wife was a member of our church, and he went from church to church substituting for a Sunday or two or acting as an interim pastor for months until the church found a full-time pastor.  He was a marvelous teacher.  I learned so much from him.

Our teacher used the NASB, New American Standard Bible, as quoted above, because it used the word ‘propitiation.’  The early NIV version stated expiation, according to our teacher.  My copy of the NIV, printed in 1985 (maybe 4th or 5th edition), states atonement in Romans 3:25 and atoning sacrifice in 1 John 2:2.  The NIV avoids the word propitiation, but it also avoids expiation.  It seems that this compromise was not enough for our teacher, and I wondered if it mattered until I read the book from Dr. Packer, and the quote above.

At this point, I could go a couple of directions, maybe more branches within those directions.

Have you met those people at church that only read the New Testament?  Maybe they argue with you in church about how they love the God of the New Testament and hate the God of the Old Testament.  They might say, “That Old Testament God is a grouch.  There is nothing about Him that is likable.”  My reply is usually that they are the same God in both testaments, and if they ignore that fact, they might just come face to face with the one they are calling the Grouch someday.  I just thought that they were not very familiar with the Old Testament, but now it becomes clear.

It has been said by many, quoted in the Packer book and by our teacher, that “Holy is Wholly other.”  God is Holy.  He is not like us.  We are made in His image, but He is something different altogether.  So, when He looks upon the ‘corporate sin’ of the world, He has no other choice than to be angry, exhibit wrath.  Packer goes into detail about how God is not petulant nor is He subject to ‘loosing His cool’ in the manner that we are capable and often do.  If we had God’s full power, our rage would have destroyed the world centuries ago, and many over those centuries have tried.  But if He were not angry at sin, He could not be holy.  Sin requires an opposite response in the holy – thus repenting is turning away, in the opposite direction.  Acceptance of what is totally opposite is not an option.  In the chapter on God’s wrath, Dr. Packer goes into more detail, saying this explanation barely scratches the surface.  For one thing, us sinners are individually singled out for our sin.  He is angry with us on a personal basis.  You might respond, “But the New Testament God loves us!”  Yes.  If you are a parent, and part of the reason why God the Father is portrayed as such in the New Testament, you still love your children, but you also get angry with some of the stunts that they pull on you.

When we become a Christian by repenting of our sins and accepting Jesus into our lives, God removes our sins – that last definition of expiation, and thus propitiation, that Packer mentions.  One of the concepts of expiation is a covering of sin, the first one he mentions.  That is the Old Testament sacrifice system at work.  No.  In the New Testament (although Isaiah 1 is often quoted), God removes our sins from us and sees us as pure, even though we still screw up.

First point, to summarize the last three paragraphs, God has always been and is still angry at sin, corporate sin of a fallen world and individual sin (except the sin of those born-again because those sins are washed away – past, present, and future.  Just not a license to commit more).

Second, the liberal movement of the modern age is that the word ‘sin’ should never be used because it will hurt the self-esteem of the children.  Most youth today need to have their ‘self-esteem’ hurt.  It’s amazing that children can make it through doorways with the ego that they possess (if you didn’t catch the reference: a swelled head).  Regardless of the type of punishment used, punishment should be used to break the will without breaking the spirit.  And the world seems to be producing children with stronger and stronger wills these days.  James C. Dobson’s books on the strong-willed child keep getting updated, because the children seem to read the earlier version of the books and know how to combat your defenses.

What was eye-opening in the Packer book was that if the Christians among this liberal movement adhere to the C. H. Dodd view that God is never angry, then sin must not be a big deal.  Repentance is non-existent, because God doesn’t notice, or He doesn’t care.  Thus, they deemphasize sin and the negative concepts that accompany sin, and as the Packer quote concludes, ignoring some key points in the New Testament.

Hmmm.  If sin is no big deal, why did Jesus have to die carrying our sin?  And I think that is the liberal point, opening the door to non-believers in a social club called ‘church.’

I would like to say thank you to that old teacher, who is having some health issues these days.  This post contains things that he placed in my head, so that God could pull them out when needed.  While most church members do not attend Sunday school, you look at mid-week Bible study attendance and wonder if it is worth it.  It is definitely worth the effort.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

One Comment

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  1. Wow good post. Kudos to JI Packer for going over that. I think Dodd was wrong; I think there is the doctrine of propitiation (and also expiation) in the Bible. Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

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