The Atonement

God’s Wrath Satisified: What Propitiation Accomplished

In my last post I looked at the fact of God’s wrath at sin, and showed that in both testaments, the teaching of Scripture is clear that God is justly angry at sin and evil. That he expresses his wrath against sin and sinners is also the consistent teaching of the Bible.

What, then, does Scripture mean when it speaks of propitiation?

It may be that the determining factor in one’s view of the topic is what one sees as included in the word propitiation. Does it involve expiation, cleansing of sin only? Or, does propitiation include the idea of satisfaction or appeasement of God’s wrath? If it is expiation alone—including no thought of God’s wrath—then the logical question is, what becomes of that wrath? What has happened to the expression of divine anger against rebellion and sin, and against sinners? A view that says cleansing from sin has no thought of God’s anger has no biblical answer these questions.

The chastisement of our peace

A pastor who does not believe God’s wrath is involved in our salvation recently asked, “Where does the Bible say God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus?” We find the answer to this in several places,  in both testaments, but chief among them may be Isaiah 53. The common consensus of the church is that the suffering servant of Isaiah is indeed the Lord Jesus. Both Matthew’s gospel and Peter’s first epistle cite passages from Isaiah 53, applying them to Jesus.

In the passage, verse 5 reads “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” The word chastisement is a noun that is linked to a verb that means to chastise with blows, to punish. If the passage does not find its fulfillment in Jesus, who then would it apply to? And if what the passage refers to as chastisement and punishment that brings us peace does not include the satisfaction of God’s anger at sin, what possible reason is there for chastisement? Other words we find in the passage are stricken, smitten. Are we to understand that the striking of him is only at the hands of men? That God was not  active in the cross? Some have suggested it was only man’s wrath against Christ on the cross, but this denies God’s sovereignty and, again, his just anger at sin. Isaiah 53 shows God’s anger at sin is propitiated, satisfied, through the suffering and chastisement brought upon his Son. Peace comes to us only because punishment for sin came to him.

When we turn to the New Testament, the idea of propitiation is there as well. The most prominent passage is Romans 3:23-25:

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

The importance of this passage includes the fact that propitiation itself includes the idea of wrath turned away. It is not simply forgiveness, but forgiveness because of an offering and an offering that satisfies God’s just wrath against sin. In the previous century, C. H. Dodd caused a stir with his suggestion that propitiation is only expiation, with no thought of God’s wrath. Dodd essentially “de-divinized” the wrath of God, suggesting that sin is the cause, disaster the effect. But Dodd changes wrath to something not unlike karma. In the process, he removes God himself from it, no longer is he the holy One who is offended by sin and evil.

But several scholars show that Dodd’s analysis has no lexical nor contextual basis. Leon Morris notes, “If the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves, as a necessary feature, the putting away of the divine wrath, then it is idle to maintain that the word has been eviscerated of propitiation. Dodd totally ignores the fact that in many passages there is explicit mention of the putting away of God’s anger, and accordingly his conclusions cannot be accepted without serious modification.”[1]

Donald Guthrie likewise comments,

“We cannot properly appreciate the idea of propitiation in Paul’s thought without setting it alongside his teaching on the wrath of God (ὀργὴ). It is significant, for instance, that Dodd evaporates from the idea of wrath all thought of anger. For him the wrath of God describes ‘an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’. He admits that this depersonalizes it, but justifies this as a development away from the more primitive concept of a God who strikes terror into men. This, however, weakens Paul’s strong comparison between the revelation of the righteousness and wrath of God (cf. Rom. 1:17, 18)”[2]

Guthrie highlights what I suspect may also be in the thought of those today who deny God’s wrath poured out on Jesus: it is a “primitive” concept of God, an angry deity whom worshipers must mollify. They find it inconsistent with the loving God revealed in Jesus. Such a view likely comes from giving too much weight to scholarship that depicts YHWH as but another tribal deity, not unlike the gods of the nations surrounding Israel. And just as those gods had to be appeased through sacrifice, so Israel imbibed this idea. But that, too, will not square with the revelation in Scripture. It ignores the descriptions of God as both merciful and holy, loving and righteous, and critically, as not like the gods of the nations.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin

The New Testament revelation of Christ as our substitute, our sacrifice for sin is also a statement of God’s wrath poured out on Jesus. 2 Cor 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In saying that God has made Jesus “to be sin,” the apostle is also saying with the uniform testimony of all the prophets, that God directs his wrath against sin. In making Jesus “to be sin” God is setting him forth as the one who absorbs and receives the just wrath of God for sin. This is also taught in Gal 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” It is not coherent to suggest that the curse that came with breaking the law does not include divine displeasure—wrath and anger. The extensive curses outlined in Deuteronomy 28 are incomprehensible if God is not angry at the disobedience of Israel. In saying Jesus absorbed this curse, Paul is saying that God’s poured out his wrath against sin on Jesus.

Finally, the idea of reconciliation presupposes enmity between parties. Scripture depicts mankind as enemies of God, in need of reconciliation. Paul says in Ephesians 2:3 as “children of wrath.” Greek scholar Daniel Wallace refers to this as a “genitive of destination, aka direction. Children of wrath ( = ‘children destined for wrath’)”.[3]

Believers, however, are those who do not have the wrath of God abiding on them, and the reason is because Jesus took that wrath on the cross, he absorbed the curse. This is propitiation; not only the forgiveness of sin, but forgiveness because God’s wrath is satisfied. The close link between sin and God’s wrath demonstrates that when God forgives sin, it is because of an offering that satisfies his just wrath against sin. To deny this is part of propitiation is to go against the witness of both testaments.

The other aspect of propitiation in Scripture is that, unlike pagan ideas, Paul notes that God himself set forth the Lord Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. It is he who provides the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. It is God himself who provides the satisfaction for his own rightful anger against sin and sinners. We gain nothing by a view that says God’s salvation includes nothing of satisfaction for his wrath against sin, but we lose plenty. It introduces a soft Marcionism to suggest some inconsistency between a holy God and a loving God. Indeed, when we come to the New Testament, God’s wrath and God’s love are both amplified, and both are displayed in the cross.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), 156-157.

[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 469.

[3] Daniel  B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996), 101.

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