Satisfying God’s Wrath
A look at the vital importance of the doctrine of propitiation.
The biblical doctrine of propitiation is under attack in our culture. Adherents of postmodernism and even some people within the church have rejected biblical teachings they perceive to be too harsh—such as judgment, hell, and the doctrine of propitiation.
Also called “penal substitutionary atonement,” propitiation refers to the fact that Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against sin by His death on the cross for the sins of the world. Propitiation is more than the mere idea of satisfaction; the word specifically denotes the satisfaction of God’s wrath. Those who have an aversion to the idea of God’s wrath strip away the doctrine of propitiation from the meaning of the cross of Christ. Some even refer to the doctrine as “divine child abuse.”1
Rejection of propitiation is not something new. Even some Bible translators have avoided using the term. The Revised Standard Version, for example, uses the word expiation instead of propitiation in Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; and 1 John 2:2; 4:10. The difference is enormously significant.
Expiation, though important, is impersonal: Sin is expiated, not a person.2 Sin is covered or sent away. One standard Bible dictionary defines expiation as “atonement, purification, or removal of sin or its guilt.”3 Sin was certainly expiated when Jesus died on the cross, but propitiation also took place.
Propitiation is highly personal. God is propitiated. His wrath was satisfied by Christ’s death—the means by which sin is expiated. We must not confuse the concepts, nor accept one without the other. Both are vital aspects of the atonement. And we must not reject propitiation as the satisfaction of God’s wrath; Christ acted as our substitute, taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins.
It is impossible to overlook the many Bible references to God’s wrath. In the Old Testament, the entire sacrificial system implies Israel had to deal with it. The nation needed to offer animal sacrifices to God to receive temporary forgiveness for sins. The sacrifices pointed toward the final sacrifice for sin—the Messiah—as described by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 clarifies the relationship between God’s wrath and our sin. The Messiah, or “Suffering Servant,” is not only “despised and rejected by men” (v. 3) but also “smitten by God” (v. 4). Verse 5 describes the work of God: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”
God made Christ an offering for sin (v. 10). Words like wounded, bruised, and chastisement point to God’s punishment poured on the Messiah. His death propitiated God’s wrath, just as the Mosaic sacrifices temporarily satisfied God’s anger before Christ’s final sacrifice. Thus Isaiah 53 provides the best picture of the notion of propitiation.
The New Testament also speaks of God’s wrath. In John 3:14–15, Jesus compared His future death on the cross to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was referring to the incident in Numbers 21 when God sent snakes into the Israelite camp to bite the people because of their sin. God instructed Moses to set a bronze snake on a pole so all those who looked at it by faith would be healed from their bites and live (vv. 4–9).
In the same way, all those who look to God’s Son will live and receive forgiveness of sins. The cross of Christ turns away God’s wrath, just as looking to the serpent turned it away. To interpret the passage differently makes no sense of Jesus’ analogy. John 3:36 states plainly the “wrath of God abides on” those who do not believe in the Son. They do not obtain the cure for sin, the penal substitutionary death of Christ. His sacrifice satisfies God’s anger.
Some New Testament passages specifically use the word propitiation relative to Christ’s death for our sins. In Romans 3:25, the Greek word for propitiation (hilaste¯rion) appears in one of the Bible’s most comprehensive sections on the various aspects of Jesus’ work on the cross—such as righteousness, sin, faith, justification, redemption, propitiation, and Christ’s blood (vv. 21–26).4 The apostle Paul said, “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 as a propitiation by His blood” (vv. 23–25). The passage clearly states propitiation is a work of God through the blood of Christ. The Father made His Son a propitiation to satisfy His wrath and save sinners who trust in Christ. That truth is the most powerful message in the Word of God.
First John also contains passages that mention propitiation. First John 2:2 says, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” While many discussions about this passage focus on the extent of the atonement, we must also recognize the importance of the word propitiation. The idea of the satisfaction of God’s wrath is consistent with the context. In the previous verse, the apostle John described Jesus as the Advocate who defends believers before the Father. He also described Him as “righteous,” which makes Him qualified to be our propitiation, the satisfaction of God’s wrath.
First John 4:10 also recognizes the Son of God as the “propitiation for our sins.” The verse’s context indicates that the depth of God’s love found in Christ’s death on the cross and in His propitiation of God’s wrath should motivate Christians to love one another.
In addition, both Luke 18:9–14 and Hebrews 2:17 teach about God’s work in providing propitiation through Christ.
In Luke 18:9–14, a Pharisee and a tax collector were praying—the former in his pride, the latter in his humility. The tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (v. 13). His statement could also be translated, “God, be propitious to me a sinner” or “God, count Your wrath upon my sin to be satisfied.”
Hebrews 2:17 states, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” This verse emphasizes the necessity of Christ becoming the incarnate God-Man so Jesus could make a human sacrifice. If He were not 100 percent God and 100 percent man, His sacrifice could not properly satisfy God’s wrath on human sin.
Through Scripture, the Bible clearly teaches the reality of God’s wrath and His intention to turn it away through Jesus. The divine plan sent Christ to the cross to die as a punitive substitute for our sin so God’s wrath would be satisfied. This is the concept of propitiation. It is required because God is just and holy. He must condemn and judge sin. But His provision of Jesus to make propitiation for sinners demonstrates the great love He has for all of us (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8).
- J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 5.
- Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 151–52.
- Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 460, sv. “expiation.”
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 234–36.