Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Propitiation for Our Sins

One word that summarizes what Christ did by drinking the cup of wrath on our behalf is propitiation. It is unfortunate that this word is not used in many modern versions of the Bible, such as The New International Version, which uses “atoning sacrifice” in place of propitiation. Perhaps this is an attempt to avoid difficult and misunderstood terms. But propitiation is a good term because it succinctly describes the work that Christ did on our behalf, and believers would do well to familiarize themselves with it.

The usual definition given for this word includes “to appease” or to “placate”. However, this definition seems a bit deficient in sufficiently describing what Christ accomplished. The usual definition alludes to merely soothing or softening the expression of God’s wrath. Furthermore, it could be taken to mean making concessions to appease an aggressor with the implications of sacrificing principle, which is definitely not the case. [1]

The description of the turning aside of wrath by taking away sin also does not seem to satisfy the real meaning of propitiation. This definition describes a mere deflecting of God’s wrath. But God did much more than just deflect God’s wrath for us. [1] Jesus Christ, as our substitute, fully absorbed God’s wrath. God’s wrath was completely spent which was necessary to satisfy His justice.

Isaiah 53 foretold of this outpouring of God’s wrath.

“4Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”
(Isaiah 53:4-6, NASB)

But perhaps the best word that describes what Christ did is the term exhausted. God unleashed all the fury of His wrath against sin on His beloved son. Every ounce of its fury was laid on Jesus, completely exhausting it so that we would not experience any of that wrath. We could say that the cup of God’s wrath was turned upside down, completely emptying it. There is nothing left in that cup for those who have placed their faith in Christ. [1]

It was this knowledge of what He would have to endure that caused Jesus the agony He expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) and why He cried out in agony on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

But it was at the end of those grueling hours on the cross that Jesus cried out in victory, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The wrath of God was finally satisfied; there was nothing left that needed to be paid.

All of this is a display of the great love that God has for us.

“9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10In 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.” (1 John 4:9-10, ESV)

The work that Christ accomplished was not that of Jesus, being kind and gentle, needing to persuade the Father not to pour out His wrath on us. God purposely sent His own Son on a mission of grace and mercy. This fact of God’s love is clearly affirmed in such passages as John 3:16 and Romans 5:8. [2] God is not content with displaying His wrath, even though it is necessary as a result of the curse of the Law, but desires to display His love. John Piper explains in “The Passion of Jesus Christ”:

“But the love of God does not rest with the curse that hangs over all sinful humanity. He is not content to show wrath, no matter how holy it is. Therefore God sends His own Son to absorb His wrath and bear the curse for all who trust Him. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).” [3]

Scripture describes God’s justice, mercy, wrath and love being fully expressed in Christ’s sacrifice. This is what enables us to experience the “unsearchable riches of Christ”. [4]

“3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Ephesians 2:3-5, ESV)

Realizing what was accomplished through the sacrifice of Christ should produce in us an attitude of deep appreciation and humility. Our Savior endured suffering that we cannot completely fathom. He endured this grief willingly on our behalf, taking on God’s wrath so that we would not need to suffer it for ourselves. Reflecting on these facts is all part of experiencing the unsearchable riches we have in Christ.

1. Jerry Bridges, “The Gospel for Real Life” [NavPress, 2003], pg. 53-54.
2. Bridges, pg. 55
3. John Piper, “The Passion of Jesus Christ” [Crossway Books, 2004], pg. 21
4. Bridges, pg. 56.

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