Last Spring my Student Ministries group surprised with a rather massive wooden plaque that they made for me with the word “PROPITIATION” plastered in giant letters across its face. I love that plaque! It sits on top of one of the bookshelves in my office at a perfect angle so that I can see it as well as anyone who walks through my door. Many of the people who walk into my office ask me first how to say “propitiation” and then ask me what it means. These are opportunities that I cherish because I think this doctrine is one that has been neglected in the church and even mocked by some professing believers for its seeming harshness. But what seems harsh to some should be breath-takingly beautiful to those who trust God’s Word.
The word “propitiation” is only found four times in the Bible, but the concept is all over the Old and New Testaments. First John 4:10 provides us with some context for this doctrine: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The doctrine of propitiation carries with it two ideas. First, Jesus’ death on the cross was a propitiation in the sense that his blood was spilled so that those who believe in him would have their sins washed away and forgiven. This is usually not the part of propitiation that people have a problem with, but rather the second part, which holds the understanding that God was justly angry with us for our sins and Jesus died to appease that anger. This means that God poured out all his pure, concentrated wrath against our sin on his perfect, innocent Son. Propitiation says that Jesus was our wrath-bearer!
Why is this doctrine not just a doctrine for stuffy theologians to write about in books that only other stuffy theologians can understand? Why is this doctrine important for you today? It’s important because 1 John 4:10 tells us that it was God who sent Jesus as our propitiation. God was the one we offended with our rebellious sin, and yet, he was the one who did everything necessary to make sure that we didn’t feel the agony of his anger. The relevant part comes when you realize that there are people who offend you regularly, many of whom you find it hard to forgive. You feel as if you’re justified in your anger against them because they sinned against you in some real, hurtful way, but how can you stay angry at them if you have planted the doctrine of propitiation in your heart and mind? If God poured out his wrath on his only Son so that he wouldn’t have to pour it out on you, then what sacrifices do you need to make in order to forgive the people who have wronged you? The people who sin against us, do it once, twice, or maybe a handful of times, but we offended God with every minute we didn’t acknowledge him or thank him for his grace, yet he sent Jesus as our wrath-bearer. Remember the doctrine of propitiation because a root of bitterness can’t grow in the soil of thankfulness.