First I want to lay out the three main ways Christ's propitiatory work on Calvary are described. In the end only one can be biblical and thus right.
The first way might be best described like this. Christ's propitiation for sin was universally offered as payment for the sins of everyone but is only effectual for those who freely choose to receive the payment.
The second description could be stated like this. Christ's propitiation effectually paid for the sins of all those it was appointed for.
The third description may best be stated this way. Christ's propitiation was universally effectual for all of humanity and thus all people's sins have been paid for.
Now depending on your soteriological stance you will probably quickly align yourself with either the first or second option above. Some may even try to say they ascribe to both option one and two. However, no orthodox Christian would subscribe to option three as it is simple Universalism and thus heresy.
So by now everyone reading this probably ascribes to either option one, two, or some hybrid of both. By the end of this article I think we will all see which of the two views is indeed the biblical view, and as such the only right view.
Let me start off by making a bold claim. I believe that any orthodox Christians' reading this are already on the same page. I know, bold right? Please bear with me. I think that no matter what soteriological position you hold (Calvinistic, Arminian, or some mix you hold to.) you're already in agreement and just need some biblical clarification to see that as the case.
I'm going to tackle this by laying out biblical terms, define them biblically, and then examine the biblically described result. I don't think I can do it any safer than that.
OK, so first let's define our terms. Of course if we're talking about propitiation we had better define it biblically. In the NKJV we see the term used specifically four times. For the sake of saving you time checking them against each other, and to be complete, I'm going to copy out all four verses and the respective Strong's Greek definitions.
1. “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,” Rom. 3:25
Propitiation – Hilastērion: Neuter Noun
1) relating to an appeasing or expiating, having placating or expiating force, expiatory; a means of appeasing or expiating, a propitiation
a) used of the cover of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, which was sprinkled with the blood of the expiatory victim on the annual day of atonement (this rite signifying that the life of the people, the loss of which they had merited by their sins, was offered to God in the blood as the life of the victim, and that God by this ceremony was appeased and their sins expiated); hence the lid of expiation, the propitiatory
b) an expiatory sacrifice c) a expiatory victim
2. “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.” Heb. 2:17
Propitiation – Hilaskomai: Verb
1) to render one's self, to appease, conciliate to one's self
a) to become propitious, be placated or appeased
b) to be propitious, be gracious, be merciful
2) to expiate, make propitiation for
As a quick note the last 2 verses use the exact same greek word for propitiation. So I will list the 3rd and 4th verses and then list the definition.
3. “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” 1 John 2:2
4. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10
Propitiation – Hilasmos: Masculine Noun
1) an appeasing, propitiating 2) the means of appeasing, a propitiation
I hope we can all agree that the only major difference in these terms is their respective usage, ie. verb, noun, etc. So now that we've looked at all the verses, I'm going to try to summarize propitiation for us in a way that fits the three different greek words here.
Propitiation is the merciful and gracious appeasement of God's wrath against sin, paid for and absorbed in totality, by Christ on the cross.
I believe that if we honestly adhere to the biblical definition of propitiation we already must admit which of the remaining two possible definitions is the right one.
You'll remember how I boldly said at the beginning that I believed all orthodox Christians already agree about what is meant by Christ's propitiatory work.
So I'm going to make a declaration now and then elaborate on my reasons for the declaration. Be assured that the reasoning flows from the biblical definitions above. As such, it is the biblical definitions above that dictate my belief regarding propitiation, and not vice versa.
That said, the biblical, and thus correct way to understand propitiation is, option two. Let's spell it out again here for review.
Christ's propitiation effectually paid for the sins of all those it was appointed for.
So first, a very short answer. In light of the biblical definitions we see above we must agree that the propitiatory work of Christ was an effectual work and not a conditional work. So now let's get into some more detailed reasoning that I hope will help us clear up any confusion.
Let's start with simple grammar. As we've seen above the propitiation of our sin in Christ is a done deal. Three word's from Jesus ring true and amazingly gracious to our ears: “It is finished.”
Everything we read in scripture and everything we've covered here in this short article makes it clear. Those of us who are in Christ have had our sins propitiated by Christ. Jesus both paid for our sins and suffered God's wrath in our place, on the cross!
That truth is so important to understand! No one who has partaken of Christ's propitiatory work can ever suffer an ounce of God's wrath! Paul proclaims it to us so beautifully!
“For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1 Thess. 5:9
Again, the mere black and white definition of propitiation makes it clear. Those who have received Christ have received the full benefits of His propitiatory work. Praise God for that!
So now let's move on to some logical conclusions based on these biblical truth's. We've established that those who have had their sins propitiated cannot be held accountable anymore for them. In short, they have been saved!
Yet, we all agree that not everyone is saved. Therefore, since everyone is not saved, Christ's propitiatory work could not be universal or conditional.
Propitiation cannot be universal because the Bible clearly teaches that all people are not saved(That's a whole other book to write!).
Propitiation cannot be conditional because it's very definition is of an effectual, finished work.
Last but definitely not least here I want to deal with the righteousness of propitiation. This is very important. We have to understand this.
Christ's propitiatory work was not only(or even primarily)because we needed it for salvation. Though we are very happy for that! That may sound shocking but the following scriptures make it abundantly clear that it is truth.
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 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, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Rom. 3:21-26
Friends, do you see the picture here? It would be absolutely scandalous to think that God would punish every sinner from creation to the cross in Hell and yet pass over the sins of His people by simply sacrificing animals! No animal sacrifice could ever pay for someone's sin and no soulless animal could suffer God's wrath for someone's sin!
For a man's sin to be paid, a man's blood must be shed. For the eternal God's wrath against a man to be appeased, the eternal soul of the man must suffer eternally. No animal could accomplish this!
So for God's righteousness and justice to be established unquestionably, the sinful man must pay his debt in blood and eternal suffering!
Now here is what boggles our minds and I believe will do so forever.
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10
Only Christ as a man could pay the blood debt of men. Only Christ as eternal God could propitiate in Himself the full measure of God's eternal wrath and yet rise again!
Absolutely mind boggling and amazing love! I look forward to singing praises for eternity to God who loved me and saved me by His grace and good pleasure. All according the unfathomable yet perfect counsel of His own will in spite of my wretchedness! Praise be to God!
I want to tackle one more issue of justice in Christ's propitiatory work before closing up. In doing so I'm going to ask you to think on your personal sin for a moment.
As Christian's I think it is safe to say that when we think about any of our sins, great or small, we are all grieved by them. This does not take away from our knowledge that they are forgiven yet it does none the less pain us to know we helped place Christ on the cross we deserve.
Yet, even at our most humble, in our most grieved moments over our sin, we never see the full affront that it is to God. Yet for Christ it was not so.
On that cross, the Godman knew the full affront each and every one of our sins were to God. In full knowledge of them, yet with no part in them, Christ propitiated every single one of them. Not for us alone, but for all that believe!
I constantly think of that worship song line that says: “I'll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that cross!” As abhorrent as I know that my sin is, I can't begin to fathom their true depths! What I do know is that Christ does know. He did know in eternity past before He ever made me. Yet, He made me anyway, and grace upon grace still saved me!
Now assuming that you have a similar view of your own sin, think about this.
In light of God's righteousness and justice this last very important detail cannot be overlooked.
It is not possible for God to hold two people accountable for sin. It would be completely unjust for God to exact universal propitiation on Christ for an unrepentant sinner and then exact payment and pour out punishment on the sinner as well.
Despite the fact that by definition, universal propitiation would eliminate the possibility of the unrepentant sinner paying for and being punished for sin. Think about it. Why would the sinner have to pay for what Christ already paid? Now emotionally we would still see the justice of people paying for and being punished for their unrepentant sin. Yet in light of the biblical definition of propitiation it just won't work.
However, all of us would have to decry the injustice of Christ shedding His blood and suffering God's wrath for every filthy, painful sin, of every unrepentant sinner in history! All for nothing! This cannot be so! Do you really believe He paid the price of even the sinners who were already suffering for their sins in Hades? It makes no more sense that He'd knowingly do so for those who He knows will end up there after the cross either!
Sadly, it is the above conclusions that have driven some to embrace the heresy of Open Theism. They can't escape the plain truth of propitiation(Since it is necessary for anyone to be saved.),so they trade off the true God of sovereign omniscience for a god of hopeful ignorance.
Christ's propitiatory work was not universal and thus we should not present it as such. To do so misrepresents the God of the Bible and misleads man.
Let me make some closing remarks in light of how Christians' differing views of soteriology may cause some discomfort. I did not skirt on my promise that any orthodox Christian will be able to agree in the end.
We all believe that God is omniscient and thus has perfect knowledge of all things including time. So, whether your soteriology embraces the libertarian free will of man or the sovereign free grace of God, we can all agree that God's knowledge of those for whom Christ's propitiatory sacrifice was made(the elect)is perfect. God's undeniable omniscience makes any other conclusion impossible.
As such it is biblically right to boldly proclaim that His propitiatory work was individually and perfectly effective for all and only those who have obeyed Christ's command to, “...Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
God bless and thanks for reading and sharing!