Expiation, Propitiation, And The Atoning Work Of Christ

The propitiatory lamb.

Simply put, the Atonement is Christ’s satisfying of divine justice by His sufferings and death on the cross for sinners. Whether this death was vicarious (substitutionary) or not has become a point of contention among brethren. This was brought on, at least in part, by C. H. Dodd’s 1935 definition of the Greek word ἱλαστήριος (hilastērion) as “expiation.”[1] Up to that time, it had been translated in our English Bibles as “propitiation.” We see Dodd’s influence reflected in the RSV’s 1952 translation of Romans 3:25a, which reads, “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood” (emphasis mine). Although many can’t tell the difference between these two words, the actual difference is quite significant, as I hope to demonstrate in this study.

It wasn’t long before Dodd and Leon L. Morris locked horns over this in the 1950s and 60s.[2] As already stated, Dodd insisted hilastērion meant “expiation,” as in the “making amends” for wrongs done (viz., sins), while Morris was convinced the term meant “propitiation,” as in the idea that Jesus’ suffering and death satisfied, placated, or turned away God’s wrath against sinners. As Morris points out:

Propitiation is a personal word; one propitiates a person. Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime.[3]

Morris was eventually backed up by the Anglican and noted Evangelical John Stott in his 1986 book The Cross of Christ. Since then, it has become standard Evangelical theology to contend for a propitiatory atonement.[4] Most brethren, if my experiences are typical, even though they rightly reject the Calvinism that has come to be associated with the propitiatory view, have believed, nevertheless, that Jesus’ death on the cross was, indeed, propitiatory.

Of course, not all Evangelicals agreed. One of these was the influential Anglican C. F. D. Moule. He argued that when the “halis-procedures,” as he called them, are referred to in the NT, God is never identified as the recipient of these actions. He argued that for the word to mean “propitiation” or “appeasement” of God, God would have to be the recipient. He went on to say that whenever the initiator (or subject) of the action is used in the NT, God is always the initiator, never the recipient. He mentioned Romans 3:25, as cited above, and 1 John 4:10, which reads, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” as his examples (emphasis mine), which are passages we’ll take a closer look at as this study progresses. He went on to say:

If then, God is the subject or originator, not the object or recipient, of hilas-procedures, it is manifestly inappropriate to translate them as propitiatory; one is driven to use a word such as ‘expiatory,’ which has as its object not propitiating a wrathful God but removing a barrier.[5]

He concluded with:

“Nowhere in the NT is it said that the wrath of God was satisfied by the death of Jesus.[6]

As there are those among us who have taken up Dodd’s and Moule’s “expiation, not propitiation” chant (viz., “No matter how the word [hilastērion] is translated the object is still our sins and not God’s wrath”),[7] it behooves us to investigate just how well Moule’s assertion holds up.

The idea that hilastērion should be translated as “expiation” (RSV, NEB) completely misses the point Paul is making in Romans 3:25. For by the time we get to this verse, Paul has already made it clear that God’s wrath against sinners is a fact that must be dealt with for both Gentiles (Rom. 1:18-32) and Jews (Rom. 2:1-3:20). Clearly, the expiation of sins is on the table when it comes to God’s grand scheme of redemption, but before sins can be expiated, there must first be a way to placate God’s wrath, and in the Greek language this was the work of hilastērion or propitiation. As Romans 3:25-26 makes clear, this was one of the roles Jesus played in our redemption. It was clearly not the only role, but without Him being the hilastērion, there was no way sinful man could be both reconciled and redeemed. So, even though it has become popular in some sections to reject the idea of a wrathful God in favor of one who is all-loving and never wrathful, the faithful student of God’s word cannot, with any integrity, deny the wrathful side of God’s character.

Keep in mind here there can be no thought of any sort of uncontrollable, capricious anger on God’s part. Nonetheless, many have stumbled badly over the thought that God’s wrath would indicate the ogreish inclination of an unpredictable, bloodthirsty, and totally pagan deity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the best way to view God’s wrath is to think of it “as not essentially different from his holiness, but as holiness itself in its confrontation with sin.”[8] In other words, God’s righteous anger is the manifestation of a righteous Judge who cannot tolerate sin of any sort. But if this is true, how was it that Paul—who described himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)—could say, with any assurance, “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8)? The answer is, of course, that he could do so because of the gospel he personally believed and taught to others—the basis of which he described as:

Christ Jesus, 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, (26) to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:24b-26).

In other words, and as frank as I know how to say it, without the propitiation (i.e., the satisfaction or placating) that took place in connection with the death (blood) of Christ, there is no way God could be just when justifying (forgiving) sinners. What this means is that God, because He Is Who He Is (Ex. 3:14), was not able to save man “just any ol’ way!” In order to remain just while justifying sinners, God, the holy and righteous Judge, whose righteous and just law had to be vindicated, was compelled to provide the very thing that would be able to propitiate His holy and righteous wrath. Thus, it was necessary, if fallen man was going to be saved, for the divine Logos, who was with God and was God, to take upon Himself flesh, live a perfectly sinless life of obedience to His Father, suffering and dying, as the voluntary sin-bearer, the One cursed by God on a cruel tree outside of the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. This is precisely what Paul was talking about when he declared, in Galatians 3:13, that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE’).”

So, contrary to the think-sos of Dodd and Moule, God was both the initiator and recipient of hilastērion, as well as the hilastērion Himself. In 1 John 4:10, a different, but equivalent, word (viz., hilasmos) is used: “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.” Therefore, if we really want to get “blown away” by the magnificence of God’s love toward us, then we need to get our minds wrapped around the fact that He loved us so much that He was willing to do for us, from start to finish, what we, as sinners, were unable to do for ourselves. Indeed, when it comes to our reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of our sins, God did it all, praise be to Him!

Thus, we have every reason to reject Dodd’s and Moule’s bold assertion that the wrath of God was not one of the things that needed to be factored into God’s justification of sinners. Truth is, this is one of the primary things being writing about in Romans 3:21-26:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (25) 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, (26) to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Therefore, without the propitiating or placating of the holy and righteous Judge’s judicial wrath, there could have been no remission or forgiveness of sins—a feat that was simply impossible without the shedding of blood (death) of Jesus of Nazareth, the Father’s only begotten Son (cf. Heb. 9:22-28). As such, He “was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). That is, He was made a little lower than the angels in order to “suffer” (“taste”) death “for,” “on behalf of,” or “in place of” (huper, ‪#‎G5228‬‬‬ ) every man. It is in this way that Jesus of Nazareth, who was perfectly sinless in all His doings, was made “sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). Again, the word “for” here is huper, and could just as well have been translated as “on behalf of” or “in place of.” These last two translations, particularly the latter, are vigorously opposed by those who do not believe Jesus died in our place.

It should be clear from these passages, coupled with a correct interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, that the Father “treated as sin” His beloved and only begotten Son, “who knew no sin.” I say it this way because all sorts of “red herrings” have been placed in our path on this. One of these has to do with how Jesus, who was sinless, became a sinner on our behalf. But as none of us on either side of this discussion believes Jesus became a sinner on our behalf, such a ploy appears designed to deny the force of Him being treated by the Father as if He were a sinner on our behalf. In truth, Jesus was not a sinner, nor did He become one on our behalf. Such tactics are used by some who want to deny Jesus suffered any sort of judicial wrath from the Father when willingly sacrificing Himself on the cross for us. As one of these has said, “It is not God that is propitiated but our sins.” However, the one who so argues does not even believe hilastērion should be translated as propitiation. Instead, he advocates for expiation, which is, although related, an entirely different idea which says nothing about satisfying or placating God’s wrath.

As already noted, some reject the idea of propitiation because they do not believe any true wrath exists in an “all-loving” God. Thus, they reject the idea that the atonement could have anything to do with propitiating (averting) God’s wrath. These know very little of the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. Others, and this includes some brethren, reject propitiation not because they fail to appreciate God’s wrath against sin and sinners, but because they believe Jesus’ sacrificial death, apart from any propitiatory effect, was sufficient to expiate or atone for our sins. One reason for this is they reject the idea our sins were imputed (reckoned) to Jesus as He suffered and died on the cross. Truth is, and I long for the day when my “anti-substitutional death of Jesus” brethren come to grips with this, the NT teaches unequivocally that the imputation (reckoning) of our sins to Christ on the cross (cf. Isa. 53:6b,8,11-12; 1 Pet. 2:24; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21), as well as the imputation (accounting or reckoning) of God’s righteousness to us by faith (cf. Rom. 4:3, 5-6, 9, 11, 22-23; Gal. 3:6), are truths taught in the Scriptures. Instead of rejecting the scriptural idea of imputation, as they now do, they need to understand there’s not the first thing wrong with the concept of imputation unless and until some Calvinist has been messing with it.



[1] C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks, 1935, pp. 82-95.

[2] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd revised ed. (London: Tyndale Press, 1965). As referenced in Matthew Black, Romans, New Century Bible (London,1973), p. 68.

[3] Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, Kindle Edition, 2012, loc. 2044.

[4] “Atonement—Propitiation, Expiation,” http://nextreformation.com/?p=8496.

[5] Patrick Moule (author), Robert Morgan (editor), Christ Alive and at Large: The Unpublished Writings of C. F. D. Moule (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology), Canterbury Press Norwich, 2011, p. 114.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A quote from a recent Facebook discussion by brethren on the Substitutionary Death of Jesus.

[8] Jack Cottrell, What The Bible Says About God The Redeemer, 1987. p. 275.

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