Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Expiation, Propitiation: Forgiveness and Justice

Because I love those who frequent my blog, I want them to be the most brilliant and Christ-honoring people on the planet. To that end, I want to teach and to discuss some big words that are indispensable to good Christian theology. Those words are expiation and propitiation. Further, I want to press on to demonstrate the practical application of these doctrinally key terms so that Jim will keep reading and Christ will be honored. This discussion will not really help us along in our General/Particular atonement discussion, but it is an edifying and educational one nonetheless.

Before we can be educated, we must first be able to admit ignorance. So, I will give a short exam to see where we stand. It is called the "so what?" test. Here is one verse in two translations for your quiz:

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

"And he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2 Revised Standard Version).

Did you notice that the words in bold print are not the same? You say, "Yeah, so what?" Excellent question! We need to figure out if this really makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. I think it does, and I hope that you will soon agree.

Let's start with definitions. I doubt that many church folk can define either word, they are, after all, fairly infrequently used in speech and writing. I you are using these words frequently in speech and writing, you are are probably too smart to be reading this blog. Here are the definitions according to Wayne Grudem:

Propitiation - a sacrifice that bears God's wrath to the end and in so doing changes God's wrath toward us into favor

Expiation - an action that cleanses from sin

Here is what is at stake in the discussion according to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology. You can find this quote on page 575. He writes:

Many theologians outside the evangelical world have strongly objected to the idea that Jesus bore the wrath of God against sin. (Here in a footnote he refers the read to C.H. Dodd's work, The Bible and the Greeks.) Their basic assumption is that since God is a God of love, it would be inconsistent with his character to show wrath against the human beings he has created and for whom he is a loving Father.

Now we've come to it. The word expiation does not carry the idea that the atonement of Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God. Propitiation does. Did Jesus actually bear the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world? Or did he simply cleanse the whole world of sin? Was God angry at sin or wasn't He?

Of course, as with all other dilemmas, we will simply look at the Greek word to solve this quandry. As I break out my Nestle-Aland Greek Bible, I find that the Greek word we are dealing with here is hilasmos. Let me now turn to my trusty Bauer Greek-English Lexicon. The definition states:

hilasmos - (1) appeasement necessitated by sin, expiation
(2) instrument for appeasing, sacrifice to atone, sin-offering."

Gulp! I motice that a certain word is conspicuously missing. I have a note beside the definition in Bauer to see a related word in the previous entry. That word is hilaskomai. Here is the definition:

hilaskomai - (1) to cause to be favorably inclined or disposed, propitiate, conciliate (2) to eliminate impediments that alienate the deity, expiate, wipe out.

This makes things as clear as mud, doesn't it? I have one other note that I should mention. Bauer has "see also Dodd and Hill." Hmmmm....where have I heard that name before?

Unfortunately, dear friends, our lexicons will not help us end this problem. When the scholars contest things, they even monkey with the sacred Greek definitions. And since the scholars write the lexicons, then the definitions will reflect the leanings of the authors. (Remember this the next time you hear a pastor say, "What this really means in the Greek is... Just take that sort of comment with a grain of salt.)

Translations of the Bible aren't helping us with this, and even our Greek lexicon has failed us. I spent a ton of money on that Bauer book. I think I went without food for it in seminary. Alas! What shall we say? I will leave this information for you to mull over and discuss. In the next post, I'll tell you where I side and why I believe it makes better sense and lends itself to real practical application. Stay tuned!


Josh Buice said...


Great topic for discussion. Grudem is right, the majority of people in our society view God as a Grandfather “type” in the sky who could never pour out wrath against His creation, much less His own Son!

I think to realize the truth of propitiation one must also look at the severity of sin in the face of a Holy God. Romans 1:18 says “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;”

God hates sin! He hates all sin. Once we come to grips with the fact that God hates sin (all sin) and He pours out His wrath against all sin – along with all of those who commit that sin – we will understand our position before God (without Christ). In order to be reconciled to God as pure and cleansed – we must be “expiated” by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Now the question remains, “What did the death of Christ accomplish?”

I believe we can say with biblical proof that the death of Christ accomplished both “propitiation” toward God for sin and “expiation” for the sins of the elect.

One text we can read to gain some insight into the fact that God actually poured out His wrath upon Christ on the cross is in Matthew 27:46 “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The Holiness of God the Father turned His back on the Son while He bore our sins upon Himself on the Cross (1 Peter 2:24).

We know that Christ actually accomplished the “propitiation” (pleasing of God) for the elect (the children of God). We know that the death of Christ actually accomplished the “expiation” of the sins of the elect as well.

One question remains - ”Did the death of Christ “propitiate” God for the sins of the pagan (non-elect – those who die outside of Jesus Christ)?”

At first, I want to rush in and say – YES! But then I stop to clear my head and realize that those who are in hell are being punished for their own sins (Romans 1:18). I then ask myself – “Would God require double payment for sin?” In other words – would He require one payment from Christ in the form of “propitiation” and another payment from the individual?

I will leave it open ended for further discussion……..

I would like to recommend the following sermon by Rev. David Miller on that subject:

The Wrath of God Manifested in His Righteousness

Found at the following link:



Josh Buice
Practical Theology Discussions

Jeremy Weaver said...

I would tend to think that either word would be an appropriate translation for the word transliterated 'hilasmos'.
Determining which word would be appropriate in context however, is a different story.
Propitiation has more to do with the one being appeased and expiation with the reason for the appeasment, although both aspects can be found in both words.
That is what makes this passage difficult. Both aspects are mentioned.
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1Jo 2:1-2)
In verse 1 we see Jesus as our advocate before the Father (the propitiatory aspect) and in verse 2 we see Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins (the expiatory aspect).
I would tend to translate the word, just like most other translations have translated it, as 'propitiation'. It seems to fit the context better since the main thought seems to be Jesus as our advocate before the Father.

Am I close?

Sojourner said...


You are correct sir! Once we define what Christ actually accomplished on the cross, then we can be in a position to discuss if He potentially accomplished something on the cross. That is, does the New Testament speak of the atonement as something that is a potential for sinners or as something accomplished.


You will just have to wait for the next post. I have to have that cliffhanger effect to keep folks coming back.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Thanks for the link.
I don't think I should be included in any category that has the word 'genius' in it.
Moorhead is quite simply 'Genius' in every sense of the word.

Gummby said...

Dude--where's the answer?

Gummby said...

Whoops. I found it.

Hey, you might also mention that the translations that use the word "expiation" instead of propitiation. They include the RSV, NRSV, Revised English Bible (REB), and the Catholic New American Bible (NAB).

Renegade Gospel said...

You can find the complete answers to atonement in a kindle book called Renegade Gospel The Jesus Manifold by Jamey Massengale.
1. God is the creator completely soveriegn
2 My separation from God is due to my knowledge of good and evil because i use it to judge god i.e. why do the innocent suffer etc. is an accusation in interrogative format.
3 If God is omniscient I cant do other than what God KNEW i would do before He created me and He created me as He did; therefore God is responsible for my sin
4 If God is responsible for my sin then God should die for my sin
5 In Jesus God did die for my sin or Jesus as god died for all sin ( which is by the way the ultimate statement of soveriegnty, where God says in essence “I do it all” cause effect and resolution.)
6 However Jesus the man did not sin nor was He under original sin so He didn’t deserve to die, but being God as man, now by the rule of equity, all men are equal to God, syllogism: Jesus is a man and all men are human therefore Jesus is human and Jesus is God therefore all men are in Jesus equal to God in their HUMAN/GOD rights.
7 Therefore since only God as the “potter” had the rights of life, liberty, and property; and since Jesus transfers to all humans like Himself those rights, we don’t need a law saying by fiat “thou shalt not kill”, because all men now have the right to life; I know I violate that right if I kill a man. Thereby the law is fulfilled in right-eousness, or “the having of the rights of God”.
That’s it in a nutshell and it explains a lot of ambiguous statements Paul makes. I haven’t quoted much scripture for brevity’s sake but I find the Jesus manifold completely supported from genesis to revelation. It affirms the homoousion, it satisfies the complete taxonomy of sin(ontologic, deontic, and relational), and it satisfies all of Abelard’s criteria: 1. it’s logical 2. It’s not arbitrary if God is omniscient, therefore actions are predestined, and love demand’s it to satisfy the human cry of injustice. 3 It’s intelligible being stated capable of syllogistic treatment in plain unambiguous language. The implications to a multiverse for an omniscient God require He know everything in all possible universes, this single incarnation would then only be required in this one to satisfy it’s precise constraints, as it exists within the multiplicity of universes in God’s consciousness.
I apologize if the first part is ambiguous as to the idea of multiverse. Only in science fiction and thought experiment is a multiverse with divergent timelines considered. This universe has the timline it does because of physical constraints that cannot be changed if human life is to exist as it does(see Anthropic principle). There are approximately 20 such constraints that are so precise the universe would cease to exist as it does if they varied even one plank measure. Those multiverses actually possible would be defined by changes in those constants. Therefore there can be no other universe which would value the atonement as this one does(anthropically); however these constants do not forbid interactions at the quantum level, and may derive their stability from these interactions. In that case the incarnation in this universe has it’s meaning only in this universe but would have implications to all other possible universes.

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