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!