So, the question is, what exactly did Jesus provide when he died for the sins of the world? Did he secure salvation for all, or something else? Those thoughts caused me to do a bit of thinking which led to a study of propitiation. But, if you’ll forgive me, I would like to share several biblical statements before defining the term.
The sinfulness of men requires propitiation.
What is sin? Sin is anything that displeases our holy God. For example, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s only prohibition in the garden. When they disobeyed, they became sinners and the sinful nature became something passed along to all the race. It wasn’t long before their first born evidenced his sinful nature as the first murderer. The following generations built on his sinful disposition until the world was almost entirely at odds with its Creator (Gen. 6:5-6).
What is the big deal about sin? Aren’t we all human? Yes, we are all sinful human beings, but God is not. He is the holy God who is not sinful. He is totally perfect in all his characteristics. When sin exists, God, who is both holy and just, is not pleased. His righteous character demands that something be done about it. So, what could be done to satisfy God’s holiness and justice?
Animal sacrifices were a limited form of propitiation.
Right after the first sin took place, God could have destroyed Adam and Eve. They had violated his law. They deserved death. But God was gracious to them and provided something that would temporarily satisfy his holiness. We read in later chapters that animal sacrifices were appointed by God to pay for their sins. At some point God required sacrifices of Cain and Abel. This continued throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus.
So, how did this appease God’s holiness? It was the blood of an unblemished ox, goat, or sheep that provided the temporary appeasement of God’s holy character (Heb. 9:22). The sins of the people were transferred to that animal and his life paid the price for their sin. In this way, God’s holiness was satisfied and he did not destroy the one who offered the sacrifice. But these sacrifices were done every year. Was there not a way to permanently appease God?
The Lamb of God was the permanent propitiation (John 1:29)
John the Baptist’s statement says quite a lot. As he saw Jesus walking by, John called him “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” What exactly did he mean? John was comparing sacrificial lambs to what God had sent Jesus to do. Instead of people continuing to offer sacrifices for their sins, God had sent Jesus to be the permanent solution. As the perfect Son of God, Jesus had never sinned. So, he could take all of the sins of the world upon himself when he died (Isaiah 53:6).
Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
Now consider a definition of propitiation. The American Heritage Dictionary defines propitiate as “to conciliate (an offended power); appease,” and propitiation as “a conciliatory offering to a god.” I immediately think of a husband bringing home a bouquet of flowers to appease his offended wife (not that this has ever happened to me of course). That is the basic idea of the English word propitiate. Someone has been offended and something is done to appease the offended one.
With that in mind, understand that our sin caused God’s holiness to be offended. As the righteous Judge of the Universe, he is duty bound to pronounce judgment against those who have sinned. But what could we offer to satisfy his justice? Nothing but death would atone for our sins. But that’s where Jesus comes in. Because he was sinless, Jesus could be the perfect sacrifice for sin. And because he as God is infinite, his death could pay the infinite cost of the sins of the world thus appeasing his Father’s holiness and justice.
“The thought in the Old Testament sacrifices and in the New Testament fulfillment is that Christ completely satisfied the just demands of a holy God for judgment on sin by His death on the Cross. God, in view of the Cross, is declared righteous in forgiving sins in the Old Testament period as well as in justifying sinners under the New Covenant (Romans 3:25,26; cf. Exodus 29:33). Propitiation is not the placating of a vengeful God but, rather, it is the satisfying the righteousness of a holy God, thereby making it possible for Him to show mercy without compromising His righteousness or justice.” Theopedia
Because of Jesus’ death for the sins of the world, God is satisfied. He can righteously forgive our sins because the price has already been paid. But this brings up an important question. If God is satisfied with the death of Jesus for the sins of the world, why then is not every human being forgiven of his sins?
Each individual must make his own choice.
“Christ’s atoning work has made it possible for any one in the world to be saved, but each sinner must personally accept Christ as his Redeemer (cf. 1 Tim. 4:10) ‘Men may—yea, and do—reject the propitiation when they reject the Propitiator—the Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”
D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistles of John, (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1991), 75-76.
As our Lord pointed out, many people have been called to respond, but few have responded (Matt. 22:14). While I believe that God is sovereign over salvation, each person must still receive Jesus for himself (John 1:12). Those who believe are given eternal life but those who reject him receive God’s wrath (John 3:36).
I am satisfied with the above understanding of propitiation. But I must admit that I was greatly helped by studying Lightner’s presentation of the subject. Consider his conclusion below.
The Cross is not the only saving instrument in the Father’s plan of redemption, for apart from faith it saves no one. … Believing that Christ died for all produces no difficulty with the Scriptures that specify His death for the elect. The biblical extent of the atonement is settled by answering the question of the Father’s purpose in the death of His Son. If His purpose was to justify all those for whom Christ died apart from some other consideration, then, of course, He died only for some because all will not be saved. However, if the Father’s purpose was to provide a redemption for all which was dependent upon faith for its personal implication, then His death must be extended to all. The Bible surely speaks of the completed work and absolute salvation secured by Christ. But it speaks with equal emphasis of the absolute necessity of faith before any of the benefits of that finished work are personalized.
Robert P. Lightner, Sin, the Savior, and Salvation, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 125.
The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ did pay for the sins of the world. But it did not secure salvation for all. Instead, his death satisfied the righteous character of God the Father, allowing him to be righteous and just in forgiving the sins of those who believe. And for that I will be eternally grateful.