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.

Why Is Propitiation Needed? The Wrath of God For Sin

In some of the various theories of the atonement, wrath as a concept has fallen away as having any part in what God is doing. It doesn’t seem to be only a question of viewing the atonement under a Christus Victor model, or a satisfaction model.  Rather, it is that wrath and judgement upon sin are seen as odious ideas—that for God, who is love, to express wrath would be inconsistent with his nature and being. (I am not aware of anyone who who holds to penal substitutionary atonement who does not also affirm God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus on the cross, something I address in the next  post.)
The cross, salvation, and indeed, forgiveness of sins itself does not make biblical sense if God has no wrath against sin. To see the need for propitiation requires an understanding of God’s view of sin, and of his wrath against it.

The wrath of God in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of God’s wrath directed against sin. Leon Morris, in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, notes

“To the men of the Old Testament the wrath of God is both very real and very serious. God is not thought of as capriciously angry (like the deities of the heathen), but, because He is a moral Being, His anger is directed towards wrongdoing in any shape or form.
There are more than twenty words used to express ‘wrath’ as it applies to Yahweh (in addition to a number of other words which occur only with reference to human anger.)
There is a consistency about the wrath of God in the Old Testament. It is no capricious passion, but the stern reaction of the divine nature towards evil. It is aroused only and inevitably by sin.[1]

As Morris describes, God’s wrath is always just—never arising out of pique or lack of self-control. As D. A. Carson has said, “it is not simply God losing his temper.” Secondly, that it is a right response of God toward sin and evil, consistent with his holiness. To say it would be inconsistent for a loving God to show wrath against sin is to say that God is not free in his person, and the attributes Scripture portrays him to have are incompatible. In short, such a view impoverishes the nature of God. That God, who is love, can likewise exercise wrath against sin is clear by several passages of Scripture.

When Moses is granted by God to see but a portion of his being, God announces his name as he passes by.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7.

Indeed, YHWH is slow to anger, and he is abounding in steadfast love, but he does have anger against the guilty. This is frequent and pervasive throughout the Old Testament.
“if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today” Deut. 4:25-26.

“And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deut 31:29.

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath. Ps. 6:1

Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath. Ps. 78:38

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off. Is. 48:9

This is small sampling of the many places the Old Testament speaks of God’s wrath and anger, and that it is directed against sin. But it is also clear that God provided a means of atonement in the sacrifices he ordained.

The entire cultus of the nation of Israel is set forth with a view to atonement, that is, that pardon for sin, cleansing from iniquity is because of an offering. This is true from the opening of Leviticus, and the burnt offering. “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Lev. 1:4. Here there is substitution, acceptance and atonement. The acceptance of the worshiper is because atonement has been made, and atonement is because of the death of the sacrifice, and the offering of its blood. When the instructions for the sin offering are given, it is similar language. “As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.” Lev 4:20.

The blood of the offering is put on the horns of the altar, and poured out at the base of it.
God is propitiated through the sacrifices he has ordained. Someone may ask where the idea of wrath enters in. Sin, as we have seen, is the cause of God’s wrath. Sin atoned for, an offering for sin is the reason God is propitiated, the reason his wrath is no more against the offender.

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

From the opening of the Gospels, John the Baptist asks the Pharisees who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Jesus, speaking of the tribulation to come upon Israel said, “For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Luke 21:23. In John’s gospel, he ends the 3rd chapter with a statement of logical simplicity: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The wrath of God is upon sinners because they sin, entirely consistent with what the Old Testament witnesses.

When we come to the epistles, Romans 1-3 is in one sense an extended argument that God’s wrath is justly directed against man for their sin. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” 1:18. Is is notable that this statement comes after Paul’s great gospel announcement, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” There is a connection of revelation here. The gospel reveals God’s righteousness, and God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness. These two go together, as Mark Seifrid notes.

“This divine dispute with humanity provides the background to Paul’s announcement of the justifying work of the gospel in Romans 1:16-17. Juxtaposed to the ‘righteousness of God’ in 1:17 stands the ‘revelation of God’s wrath’ in 1:18. Although some have appealed to the parallelism between the two expressions as an indication that they represent opposing activities of God, Paul’s subsequent argument shows that he regards them as interdependent. In correspondence with its biblical background, for Paul God’s saving righteousness does not abrogate his righteous judgment against the world, but brings it to completion.”[2]

In other words, the exercise of wrath against sin forms part of the gospel for Paul. The subsequent arguments in Romans will show this. “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” 2:5

“what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” 3:5-6.

I could cite other passages from the New Testament. Much of 2 Thessalonians is taken up with the theme of God’s coming wrath, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” 2 Thess 1:9. The bulk of Revelation deals with this theme, and even if one takes it to be entirely symbolic or allegorical, it would in now way diminish the idea of God’s wrath directed against sin and sinners. The New Testament, like the Old, shows a consistency in the wrath of God against sin. Indeed, if there is no wrath against sin, the necessity of deliverance, of propitiation is unclear.
Next, I look at the propitiation God provided in Christ, when he absorbed God’s wrath.

[1] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross3rd Ed., (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1965), 149-150.

[2] Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. NSBT.
(Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 48.

Discussing the Atonement As Co-Heirs of Life

In discussions of the atonement, it is far too easy to lapse into lines of reasoning that have an appeal to emotion, or to what seems logical, but for which Scriptural warrant may be lacking. Some of this can be seen even in the terms used through the centuries.

In this debate, there has been an evolution of terms: “limited atonement”, “particular redemption” and “definite atonement.” At various points in history throughout the discussions of the extent of Christ’s atonement, different terms have been used to express the position that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. The origins of the “TULIP” acronym are unclear, but it almost certainly is later than the early contentions over the issue. That is, it did not emerge from Dort or even from the Westminster Assembly. The “L” refers to Limited Atonement, and expresses this position of Christ dying only for the elect, to be specific, that he provided an atonement only for those who will ultimately be saved. For all others, no atonement exists. I am speculating, but it seems that the term garnered some bad press, and in the minds of some may have implied a kind of insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice.  Adherents of this view would reject this. To be fair, I do not understand their position to at all imply any insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice. They believe “particular redemption” better expresses God’s intent to redeem for himself a particular people.

Similarly, the term “definite atonement” means to express the purpose of God in redeeming those for whom Christ died. It aims to portray the link between the provision of atonement and application of atonement that those who hold the view believe to be inexorable and unbreakable. I desire to be charitable to those who hold a view different from mine, and thus while I think there is some sense of marketing involved in using “definite atonement” versus “limited atonement,” I will adopt the term as the one preferred by its adherents. Nevertheless, I do not believe the converse of this is logically “indefinite atonement.” Here, too, there has been a fair bit in the defense of definite atonement that tends to applause lines and a kind of playing to the crowd.  For example, “[God] is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to mere opportunity. He is not glorified when his redemption of lost sinners is abridged to being simply a possibility. God is glorified when he is seen and savored and enjoyed for what he actually bestows: saving grace.”[1]

Without question, adherents of definite atonement believe this to be the case, but it falls into the category of opinion—editorial commentary. One can easily rewrite this from another perspective such as “ God is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to a few. He is not glorified when his redemption is abridged to include only some lost sinners. God is glorified when his love for the lost is seen and savored and enjoyed for what it is: as wide as the atonement he has provided.”

One may disagree with this, but the point is it is similarly posturing, short on exegesis and dealing with the biblical data, trafficking instead in polemics.

Not everyone is as incautious as R. C. Sproul, who famously said that a four point Calvinist is an Arminian.[2] Indeed, in the book that some now consider to be the ultimate presentation and defense of definite atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, several contributors acknowledge the diversity within the Reformed tradition. Amar Djaballah notes this about Moïse Amyraut: “In all this, we should remember that Amyraut wrote as a professor of theology in a confessional Reformed academy and that he was cleared of accusations of heresy by a national synod and allowed to teach theology until his death. Hence, notwithstanding the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of his theses in the history of Reformed thought, he should be studied as a member of the Reformed theological community, with whom one may differ, not as an adversary to reduce to silence.”[3]

Or, as Garry Williams says, “As the examples of Ussher and Knox will show, the Reformed have disagreed among themselves over the intent of the atonement. My argument for definite atonement should not be taken as an attempt to disenfranchise others who share central Reformed convictions, and for whom I am grateful to God for many reasons. Enough Reformed blood has been spilled by friendly fire.”[4]

My appeal is that as much as possible we eschew the kind of hyperbole that can seem partisan. Note well, I do not decry any forceful presentation of a deeply held view, nor strong convictions about what Scripture teaches. Indeed, I encourage this, and engage in it myself, but let these presentations be based on the biblical data alone, not on confessional formulas, nor on unproven or indemonstrable entailments.

[1] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 53.

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/sproul-on-four-point-calvinism/

[3] Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace A Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté De La Predestination” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 168-169.

[4] Garry J. Williams, “The Definite Intent of Penal Substitutionary Atonement” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 462.