The Greek word hilasmos means “to render favorable, to satisfy, to appease.” The word can also be defined as “the offering of a gift or sacrifice of sufficient value in order that the wrath of another might be appeased”, or, “to appease the righteous wrath of God by the offering of an atoning sacrifice.”
“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1John 2:2 NKJV)
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1John 4:10 NKJV)
“whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,” (Rom 3:25)
Examples of propitiation include the prophets of Baal seeking to “appease the gods” by sacrifice and self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:21-29). Propitiation in a Christian context however cannot be likened to this bribery of an angry deity.
In reality, man has nothing to offer God to appease His righteous anger, even if he wanted to.
Some contend that speaking of God being propitiated, turns the loving God of the Bible into a vindictive deity who inflicts punishment on those who do not bribe Him with their gifts and offerings. They conclude that, because God is a loving God, God therefore cannot be propitiated. This view however denies God’s wrath as being incompatible with the truth that God is love.
As much as we are tempted to gloss over certain Scriptures, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, speaks directly and personally about the wrath of a Holy God. The early chapters of Romans are a perfect example of apostolic New Testament theology on this point.
In Romans 3:25 (KJV). Paul says that God has set forth Christ as a “mercy seat” for sinners. The Greek word, hilasterion, translated ‘propitiation’, is used in the LXX to designate the cover on the Ark that was the “place of propitiation” in the Day of Atonement ritual.
When sin was judged in Christ, God’s holy and righteous character was vindicated. Now, because sin has been dealt with, God’s wrath has been appeased. We, the believing sinner, now receive mercy in the removal of our guilt and the remission of sins.
The Zondervan Bible Encyclopaedia rightly divides the truth concerning the propitiationary sacrifice when it says:
“Note should be taken of the important truth that this propitiation in Christ does not originate, as in heathen worship, with the one who brings the sacrifice. Rather it is God Himself, motivated by love, who provides the propitiation as a free gift. In this teaching are preserved both the severity of the divine reaction against sin, and the depths of the divine love for the sinner.” THE ZONDERVAN PICTORIAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE BIBLE, Zondervan, ISBN 0-310-33188-9
To reconcile means “to make friends and bring together those who are at variance, or at enmity” or “to cause to be conformed to, or adjusted to, a specified norm or standard”.
The Greek thought of reconciliation is “to exchange mutually, to compound a difference , to exchange, to adjust, to conciliate, or to restore to favour.”
With regard to the relationship between God and man after the fall, it is God who took the initiative to affect reconciliation. God did not need to be reconciled to man, but man to God. The ‘debit’ on the ‘account’ was on man’s side and God made the adjustment to reconcile the account in terms of satisfying God’s justice and imputing His righteousness to man. He did through Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:19-22; Matthew 5:24; Ephesians 2:16; Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
Through the cross God is propitiated and man is reconciled. This reconciliation takes place in two distinct phases, with God Himself taking the initiative.
The two phases:
God has reconciled Himself to the world through Christ.
“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18,19).
Man is now to reconcile himself to God through Christ.
“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Willmington’s in his ‘Guide to the Bible’ outlines the chronology of this transaction as follows:
- In Eden God and man faced each other in fellowship.
- After the fall, God and man turned from each other.
- At Calvary God turned his face toward man.
- Through repentance and faith man turns his face toward God.
In Christ God balanced the account, accounting our faith in Christ Jesus as righteousness (Galatians 3:6). Christ’s perfect righteousness is deposited into our account as a gift, and our massive debt (which was entirely impossible for us to pay) is written off (being paid in full by Jesus).
Oh, the depths of Christ’s love and the lengths that our God has gone to affect such a reconciliation! What a wonder the gospel truly is!
Atonement means “to cover, to make at one”. To expiate (ex·pi·a·tion. making amends, showing remorse, or suffering punishment for a wrongdoing; something done or given to make up for a wrongdoing);
“to harmonise, satisfaction or reparation given for an offense.”
- To cover, or to expiate, condone.
- To purge, to purge away.
- To reconcile.
- To answer or make satisfaction for, to expiate.
- To appease, which is to make quiet; to allay; to satisfy, pacify, especially by giving in to the demands of someone, i.e. to appease wrath.
- To make amends or reparation (for wrong-doing, a wrong-doer).
- At-one-ment; agreement; concord; reconciliation after enmity or controversy.
Complete the following Scriptures, quoted here from the NKJV:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.” (Leviticus 17:11–12 KJV)
“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13 KJV)
Biblical Illustrations of atonement include:
The Old Testament prefigures the atoning work of Christ in many ways:
On the basis of daily sacrifices, the innocent for the guilty, the people of God were accepted both individually and nationally. Each day the people of Israel were atoned for in the ordained sacrifices. (Lev 1:4; 4:20,26,31,35; 5:6,16,18; 6:7; 7:7; 12:7-8).
Aaron would make atonement for himself and the people (Lev 9:7)
The Day of Atonement.
Details of this high holy day in Israel’s calendar is described in Lev 16; 23:26-32; Exodus 30:1-10 and Num 29:7-11.On this day the High Priest made atonement for himself and for all the people. Once each year, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and placed upon the mercy seat the blood of the sacrifice offered on the brazen altar. This blood on the mercy seat was the evidence the penalty of transgression had taken place. The penalty of sin is death. The blood payment for transgression now covered the sins of the people. This was the atonement.
This covering blood of an animal did not cleanse the sins of the people, it merely acted as a temporary covering, hiding the sinner from the wrath of a righteous God (Lev 4:22-35).
The blood of Messiah by contrast completely cleansed the sins of those who receive Him, once and for all (Hebrews 10:1-4,11)
New Testament Fulfilment of OT Types
The New Testament reveals that the Old Testament foreshadowed the atoning work of Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews deals particularly with atoning sacrifices and the significance of the Day of Atonement. Christ Jesus as our High Priest, and as the atoning sacrifice, perfectly fulfils all that was foreshadowed in the atonement ceremony.
As Kevin Conner explains in ‘Foundations’:
“He (Jesus) offered the sacrifice at Calvary’s cross, the New Testament sacrificial altar. His body was broken and His blood was shed there. In His ascension He entered within the veil of the heavenly and the true sanctuary. There He presented Himself and His blood at the throne of God, the New Testament Ark of the Covenant. He Himself is also the mercy-seat (Hebrews 6:19-20; Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 9:1-28; 10:5-22; 13:11-15.20; Revelation 11:19; 15:5). Paul says of Christ: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation (Greek “Hilasteerion” or “Mercy-seat”) through faith in His blood…” (Romans 3:25).
J. A. Seiss ably expressed it in the following manner: “The atonement is the actual and official presentation of the blood of Jesus Christ at the throne of God by Himself, our Great High Priest”. This is the atonement, the reconciliation, and ‘the finished work’ (John 17:1-4; 19:30).””
“Foundations of Christian Doctrine”, Kevin J Conner
The results of Christ’s atoning work include:
- The sins of the believer are cleansed, not just covered (I John 1:5-7).
- The believer is accepted by God in Christ’s righteousness (2Corinthians 5:19-21).
- God’s wrath is appeased and His Law vindicated (Rom 1:18; 2:5; 5:9).
- God is propitiated towards sinful man (Luke 18:13; Hebrews 9:5; 1John 2:2; 4:10; Romans 3:25).
- God and man face each other in Christ, reconciled (Hebrews 2:17).
- The believer has a blood-sprinkled mercy seat by which he can approach God without fear or condemnation (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 4:16).
- Christ is now our Great High Priest (Hebrews 7:16).
- The blood of Jesus Christ is ever available for cleansing until the believer is brought to a state of sinless perfection (I John 1:5-7; Revelation 12:11; Heb 7:11).