The heart of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners. As human beings, we are born into this world separated and alienated from God because of our sin. This sin has caused the wrath of the righteous and just God to be held against all men. Jesus came to appease (propitiate) this wrath, God’s holy response to our sin and the breaking of his laws. And in Jesus the wrath of God against men, both present and future, has been quenched. Through faith in Jesus and by his blood sinners may be reconciled to God.
The term propitiation describes the turning away of wrath by an offering. The term used in the Greek is hilaskomai, which in the classical use of the term, always carried the idea of averting wrath. Hilaskomai was used amongst the Greeks with the significance “to make the gods propitious, to appease, propitiate,” inasmuch as their good will was not conceived as their natural attitude, but something to be earned first. This use of the word is foreign to the Greek Bible, with respect to God whether in the Septuagint (LXX). or in the NT. It is never used of any act whereby man brings God into a favorable attitude or gracious disposition. It is God who is “propitiated” by the vindication of His holy and righteous character, whereby through the provision He has made in the vicarious and expiatory sacrifice of Christ, He has so dealt with sin that He can show mercy to the believing sinner in the removal of his guilt and the remission of his sins.
Exactly how the pagan cultures treated the idea of appeasing their gods is described in Homers Odyssey. When Agamemnon was chasing after Paris who had carried off Princess Helen to Troy, the Greek war expedition ran in to contrary winds and was unable to press forward. Agamemnon sent home for his daughter and sacrificed her to the gods. Apparently appeased by so large an offering the gods granted favorable winds and the Greek fleet was able to reach Troy. This perfectly describes the character of the Greek and Roman gods, who were all too human and whose tempers were whimsical at best. They were easily angered and their wrath had to be appeased. Apparently disgusted by such a concept a number of scholars attempted to disprove the concept of propitiation. Most notable among them is Dr. C.H. Dodd, who argues that the word group when it appears in the Septuagint or in the NT describes expiation (the cancellation of sin) and not propitiation (the turning away of wrath). Dodd however only succeeds in showing that the word doesn’t necessarily have to carry the idea of propitiation, not that it cannot have that meaning if the context demands such translation. Abelard (1079-1142) voiced a similar idea, stating that the idea of satisfaction harbored a false view of God, what kind of God after all would be pleased with the death of his sinless son. This could only be a barbaric and cruel Being and certainly not our God. Abelard believed that the grand display of God’s love in Jesus caused in humans a desire to love God, which in itself is enough to fulfill God’s demands and enable us to be forgiven. This is a thoroughly unbiblical idea. Romans states clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), “the wages of sin is death” (6:23), and that we all “were God’s enemies” (5:10). We were separated from God through our sin and his wrath is a righteous response to our sin.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
There are a number of scriptures that go along with this description of us being freed from the wrath of God, namely Romans 3:21-25, Hebrews 2:17, 1John 2:2 and 4:10. All of these describe that idea of God’s wrath being appeased through Christ’s death on the cross. Each of the scriptures uses the Greek word hilaskomai (ilaskomai or ilasmos), which carries the concept of appeasing wrath. It certainly has a causative meaning; “to make gracious, to appease” (e.g. Homer, Odyssey 3, 419). In the OT the word in the LXX is hilaskomai and the compound form exhilaskomai, which is used predominantly in the active sense, “to propitiate” and refers to the cultic activity of the priest, who offered sacrifices to the LORD. Where the NASB and the NKJV translate propitiation the NRSV translates “sacrifice for atonement”, the NEB translates “remedy for defilement”, and the NIV “atonement for sins”. While these are describing what Christ accomplished for us they nonetheless leave out one crucial aspect of Jesus’ ministry. He was the answer to our dilemma. Jesus is the one, who alone could appease the righteous wrath of God against our disobedience.
Why is this idea of propitiation so uncomfortable for many in the Christian community? Many people believe with Abelard that a loving God cannot have any wrath against us, and that the mere idea of hell is contrary to a loving God. What these people neglect to see is, that God cannot be completely loving without being absolutely just. Imagine a judge, who is presented with the case of a man who has broken into his neighbor’s house and stolen articles of value. The judge decides that, since the man was sorry and promised never to do it again, he would let the man go. A second case is presented to the judge, this time a man who has robbed a series of banks and has shot a guard in the process. The judge gives the same response, declaring that he was sure the bank robber was really a good man deep inside and that he was just misguided in the robberies and would surely not make such a mistake again. A third man is presented to the judge, this time a murderer, and again the judge allows the man to go free. By now our sense of justice is deeply aroused and we are anxious to remove said judge from office, after all justice must be served.
We are quick to declare that there should be forgiveness, especially for ourselves. We are good at heart and deserve such forgiveness we reason. God is loving so he has to forgive, right? This idea is clearly contrary to the scriptures. God has given man clear guidelines as to how we are to live, and each one of us has violated this law. For God to be just there has to be judgment. The consequence is either for us to carry this judgment or for God to provide a way out for us. John puts it this way.
My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not only for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1John2:1-2)
Jesus came to appease the wrath of God. This shows that the propitiation is not initiated by man, but by God, who Himself provides a way out for us. God demonstrates his love for us in this; “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5:8).
When Hebrews speaks of the great high priest, the author talks not only of a new and superior priesthood, but also about a superior and sufficient sacrifice. This sacrifice was the death of Christ at the cross, so that we may be reconciled to the Father, and be restored to a right relationship with Him. It is therefore quite obvious that man does not bring about this act of propitiation. In the pagan religions, man appeases his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and bribery. Christianity on the contrary is God reaching out to man, propitiating his own wrath and offering peace to man. When we talk about peace this is much more than a sense of inner tranquility, and carefree happiness, but it is being made right with God. We who were God’s enemies are now adopted into his family.
God loves sinners and sent His Son to reconcile them to Himself. It is amazing to study and almost to good to be true. The God, who created the universe and whose laws we as humans have broken again and again, loves us so much that he would send His only begotten Son to atone for our sin. When we look at the gravity of our actions against God, we as humans cannot come up with a workable solution as to absolve us from our guilt and to recreate the relationship with God. Our actions as the human race and as each of us individually have alienated us from God and nothing we would do can atone for our sin. God’s wrath is therefore well deserved through years of rebellion against his laws and rejection of His love. Instead of judgment, however, God provides for the propitiation of His righteous wrath. He sends His Son to suffer and die in our place, so we can be brought back into communion with God.
Our response to so great a gift, the amazing love of God, has to be twofold. First we must accept his love with gratitude and in humility acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. We must accept in faith, that we can have forgiveness of our sins through His blood and the completed work on the cross. Second we ought to realize the value God places on man, his creation, to be willing to pay so great a prize to reconcile them to Himself. As we see the desire God has to save sinful man and to adopt him into His family, we must share the Good News of Redemption in Jesus with all the earth.
 J.I.Packer, Knowing God, p.165
 Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 493
 Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.888
 Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3, pp.148-166
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God, pp.166-167