What is 'Propitiation'?

"...the penalty for our sins has been paid in full, and the righteousness of God has been satisfied. The just wrath of God against sin has been propitiated. The believer has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ and God awards a verdict of 'innocent' in the court of heaven!"

The propitiatory seat, or mercy seat, pointed forwards to Jesus whom Paul described as our "means of propitiation" (Romans 3:25).

Propitiation is really a very fine English biblical word.

Unfortunately, 'propitiation' is also a word which nobody now uses nor understands so newer Bible versions are increasingly withdrawing it. They are withdrawing this word not because the translators are involved in some kind of fiendish plot to undermine Holy Scripture but simply for the aforementioned reason, that is, because the word is no longer used nor understood.

So what is the meaning of this word?

An impression of what the mercy seat probably looked like.

Literally, the sense is 'to appease, or to make amends, through a sacrifice,' or, 'to make an atonement.' The sense is of providing a sacrifice as proven by blood (although the 'blood' part may or may not have been part of the original construction). The word 'propitiation' only occurs three times in the entire New Testament, therefore it will provide no problems for us to consider all three uses here. The relevant verses are Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. We will be considering these verses in the New King James Version.

All three New Testament uses are based on the Greek word, 'hilasmos.' Christ Himself is 'The Hilasmos' (Greek masculine, nominative singular), that is: 'He who propitiates, makes reconciliation, or makes amends, or makes a full atonement for.' The close derivative 'Hilasterion' (a place of atonement, or place of propitiation), was actually used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), to translate "mercy-seat" in Hebrews 9:5. The mercy seat was sprinkled with blood, of course, on the Day of Atonement (See Leviticus 16:14). This symbolized that the righteous sentence of the law had been carried out, and that a full atonement - or, propitiation - had been provided. Many modern translations render 'mercy seat' as 'cover' or 'atonement cover,' and they are not wrong for this was indeed a 'covering' in a very real sense, both literally and spiritually; 'Mercy Seat' only really came into use much later and is not an ideal translation. Of course, the Ark itself contained the tables of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed, providing clear testimony and a continual reminder of the covenantal obligations of obedience upon the Israelites. The Israelites, as we all know, fell short but the sprinkling of blood upon the 'place of covering' (or, 'mercy seat'), once every year upon the Day of Atonement looked forward to the perfect and continual propitious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ - such a complete sacrifice and propitiation that its efficacy stretches both backwards and forwards in time, covering all ages. In this way, a single moment in time in Christian theology becomes an eternal reality, and an ever-present encounter, refusing to be constrained by time and space.

So, with this basic explanation, let us consider the relevant verses:

1. 'But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forebearance God had passed over the sins that were previosly committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.' (Romans 3:21-26, NKJV throughout).

These six beautiful verses are, of course, self-evident for the true believer who can now rejoice in God's bounteous love, forgiveness and mercy - all accomplished through the work of Christ upon the cross of Calvary. So here Paul shows us an amazing aspect of the 'righteousness of God' which had not been wholly clear to the ancients, a righteous mercy which is available for all who might drink of it, being already accomplished upon the cross, a glorious 'once and for all time' propitiation, and even the required 'faith' comes as a gift of God, so the whole matter is entirely of God's grace, mercy and provision.

2. 'And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.' (1 John 2:2).

While the meaning in this verse should be clear enough, sadly, some have chosen to mask these clear words by sowing doctrinal confusion; they want a secret society kingdom of God for the select few with a pre-programmed railtrack sending 90% of human souls made in God's very image straight down the track to hell; this teaching is quite a brazen attempt to read fatalism into Scripture but it should not detain us here since we cover that topic in several other articles. I will simply say here that 1 John 2:2 means exactly what it says: the grace which believers have received in Christ is also available for the world (those who do not yet know Christ).

The final occurrence of 'propitiation' is here,

3. '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.' (1 John 4:10).

So Christ Himself is our 'Hilasmos,' or, 'He who propitiates.'

In the shedding of the blood, and in the death of Jesus Christ the penalty for our sins has been paid in full, and the righteousness of God has been satisfied. The just wrath of God against sin has been propitiated (satisfied, fulfilled). The believer has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ and God awards a verdict of 'innocent' in the very court of heaven! God's people are thereby deemed 'righteous' - no accusation nor slander will ever be countenanced against such people for all of eternity.

'Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him' (Romans 5:9).
Robin A. Brace, April, 2008.