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.

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
Dive deeper into the doctrine of propitiation in this commentary of Hebrews by David Levy.

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).

ENDNOTEs
  1. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 5.
  2. Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 151–52.
  3. Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 460, sv. “expiation.”
  4. Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 234–36.

8 thoughts on “Satisfying God’s Wrath

  1. Phyllis, thank you for reading the article and for forwarding your thoughts. The doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement refers to the satisfaction of God’s wrath upon sin. In other words, Christ was punished in our place. He paid the penalty for our rebellion against God. Now, of course, such a work pleases God the Father. But the satisfaction of God’s wrath was a necessary component for our salvation. Either we die to be punished for our own sins or someone else dies for us. Christ did this willingly and pleased God in doing so. But he did more than please the Father. He took care of the sin problem which can be applied to us if we trust Christ for salvation.

    1. One can be pleased without one being terribly angry (wrathful) before. That God was pleased doesn’t mean his wrath was appeased.

      1. Dorothy, in my response I do not argue that God’s wrath was appeased is based upon the fact that he was pleased. I merely assert that he was pleased in the Cross being the satisfaction of His wrath. Those are not the same thing.

  2. If God’s wrath was satisfied at Calvary, why are all the references to his wrath being poured out (to be appeased) described as future events by the writers of the New Testament? That is, the theology is his wrath WAS appeased but they all saw it as a future event from their timepoint. Does his wrath continually need to be appeased?

  3. Dorothy,
    Thanks so much for your interaction on my article on the wrath of God in the Atonement at the Cross. I am not sure I agree that all the references to his wrath being poured out in the NT are described as future events. Especially is this so when we are talking about propitiation and the work of Christ on the Cross. Certainly the OT prediction from Isaiah 53 points ahead to a future event — the Cross as we understand it from NT perspective — when God’s wrath will be satisfied. This is an accomplished fact in history from our point of view and from Paul’s point of view as he wrote his NT letters. Jesus on the Cross was publicly displayed (past tense) as a propitiation (satisfaction of the wrath of God) — Rom 3:25. This refers to his work on the Cross which is a past event. However, this past work is the basis for the fact that we will never face the wrath of God in hell, a deliverance which is accomplished in the mind of God for us but which has both present and future ramifications for our ongoing lives (Rom. 5:10 ). Perhaps this is what you had in mind. Thanks again for interacting.

  4. Hi Mike. I have carefully read your article several times. I think it has some serious problems that deal with how you define propitiation as well as the specific passages you reference. I would like to start a dialogue on this issue and share the problems I see. You mention so many passages that I will not attempt to address them all (but am willing to in-turn). I want to focus on Romans 3 first and get your responses to my comments and questions. I apologize for sounding terse, but I will write them as a list here:
    1) You write: “the word [propitiation] specifically denotes the satisfaction of God’s wrath.” I noticed you used a dictionary reference to define expiation, but you do not use any lexical resource to define any of the three words that get translated as “propitiation”. The most respected Greek-English lexicon, the BDAG, defines hilastērion (propitiation) in Romans 3:25 as “means of expiation” (p.474). Additionally, Thayer’s Lexicon defines hilastērion used in Romans 3:25 as “an expiatory sacrifice; a piacular victim”1. Can you please comment on BDAG and Thayer’s entries? Also, can you provide the most reliable lexicon that has the word hilastērion (as used in Romans 3:25) that specifically denotes it as “the satisfaction of God’s wrath”? From there, we can move the conversation to grammar since denotative meaning is only one part of understanding a word.
    2) Later in the article you actually describe one aspect of Christ’s death perfectly in harmony with the BDAG and Thayer’s lexicons. You describe Christ’s death as “…the means by which sin is expiated.” So, you do show a right understanding of Christ’s death at that point, but there is a serious problem leading up to it. You write, “God is propitiated. His wrath was satisfied by Christ’s death….” This error is easy to spot when we examine the grammar. Not only are you using propitiation as a verb, but then you are claiming that it changes something about God (i.e., his wrath). This explanation simply does not fit in the context of Romans 3. God is the subject who puts Christ Jesus forward. “Whom” refers to Jesus and is the object in the sentence. “propitiation” is the complement to the object in that it describes something about Jesus (i.e. “…Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood…” (Romans 3:24-25, ESV). So, in Romans 3, nothing is presented to God to change something about Him– in fact, it is just the opposite–God is providing something to humanity so they can be changed (i.e. be justified). By using Romans 3:25 to make your point that the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrath, you are a) arguing against the actual denotative meaning of hilastērion in Romans 3:25, b) changing the grammar of the sentence, and c) reaching a conclusion that goes against the immediate context. After doing this, you then argue against the main point of your article and ignore another contextual detail.
    3) You write, “Expiation, though important, is impersonal: Sin is expiated, not a person.” I am not arguing against this sentence, but I am quoting it show that it undermines your main argument. Here 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins”. It can be seen that “sinned”/”sin” forms a book-end in Paul’s thought and that sins are being discussed– not wrath. The context confirms BDAG and Thayer’s entries that discuss hilastērion as rightly focusing on expiation.
    4) The rest of the article functions as an argument from repetition. You merely restate your definition of propitiation and mention verses that use “propitiation” or are related to the death of Jesus. You write: “And we must not reject propitiation as the satisfaction of God’s wrath…. His death propitiated God’s wrath…. The cross of Christ turns away God’s wrath…. The Father made His Son a propitiation to satisfy His wrath…. The idea of the satisfaction of God’s wrath is consistent with the context…. the satisfaction of God’s wrath…. His propitiation of God’s wrath…. satisfy God’s wrath on human sin…. 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.”
    I know you might be thinking, “but I mentioned a ton of passages making my point- what about those!” Again, I am happy to discuss those one at a time (Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 & 4:10). I think going through those passages first will be helpful. The denotative meanings of those words, the grammar, and the contexts will reveal similar problems like the ones with your interpretation of Romans 3.
    Thanks in advance for noticing two things 1) that my concerns deal only with what Scripture says and not any other issue and 2) I completely 100% acknowledge that God has wrath.
    ps. I am not ascribing canonicity or untouchable status to BDAG or any other lexical source, but the point is that it needs to be dealt with as a serious source for what Romans 3:25 means; and it can be demonstrated that “means of expiation” makes perfect sense of the grammar and context of Romans 3.
    Endnote
    1 https://biblehub.com/thayers/2435.htm

  5. In response to Dorothy’s question, some of the NT verses that appear to be referring to the wrath of God in the future tense could be about the wrath of God being poured out on sinners at the end of time, those who have NOT accepted Christ’s substitionary sacrifice for their sins.

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Satisfying God’s Wrath

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.

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