Sin: How is Jesus the propitiation or substitute for our sins?

Sin: How is Jesus the propitiation or substitute for our sins?

…for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. – Romans 2:8

The Bible is filled with examples of God getting angry at sinners and of his anger as hostile, burning, and furious.2 Because God is holy, good, and just, he not only feels angry about sin but also deals with it in ways that are holy, good, and just. Because God is perfect, his anger is perfect and as such is aroused slowly,2 sometimes turned away,3 often delayed,4 and frequently held back.5

God’s anger is not limited to the Old Testament. Even Jesus got angry, furious, and enraged.6 Also, Revelation 19 reveals Jesus coming again as a warrior riding on a white horse to slaughter evildoers until their blood runs through the streets like a river.

Furthermore, God feels angry because God hates sin.7 Sadly, it is commonly said among Christians that “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” This comes not from divinely inspired Scripture but instead from the Hindu Gandhi who coined the phrase “Love the sinner but hate the sin” in his 1929 autobiography.

The Bible clearly says that God both loves and hates some sinners.8 People commonly protest that God cannot hate anyone because he is love. But the Bible speaks of God’s anger, wrath, and fury more than his love, grace, and mercy. Furthermore, it is precisely because God is love that he must hate evil and all who do evil; it is an assault on who and what he loves.

Additionally, God’s anger at sin and hatred of sinners causes him to pour out his wrath on unrepentant sinners. This doctrine is not as popular among professing Christians in our day as it was in past times, but the fact remains that in the Old Testament alone nearly twenty words are used for God’s wrath, which is spoken of roughly six hundred times. The wrath of God also appears roughly twenty-five times in the New Testament.9 Not only does God the Father pour out wrath upon unrepentant sinners, but so does Jesus Christ.10

God’s wrath is both active and passive. When people think of God’s wrath, they generally think of God’s active wrath, where people are swiftly punished for their sin with something like a lightning bolt from heaven. God can and does enact his active wrath upon occasion.11 Still, he seems to also frequently work through his subtler passive wrath. Passive wrath occurs when God simply hands us over to our evil desires and allows us to do whatever we want.12

The truth is that everyone but the sinless Jesus merits the active wrath of God. None of us deserves love, grace, or mercy from God. Demons and sinful people who fail to repent will have God’s wrath burning against them forever.13 The place of God’s unending active wrath is hell.

However, God’s active wrath is diverted from some people because of the mercy of God. This is made possible because on the cross Jesus substituted himself in our place for our sins and took God’s wrath for us. Two sections of Scripture in particular speak to this matter pointedly:

  1. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him [Jesus] from the wrath of God.14
  2. You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.15

Scripture also has a single word to designate how Jesus diverts the active wrath of our rightfully angry God from us so that we are loved and not hated. That word is propitiation, which summarizes more than six hundred related words and events that explain it. The American Heritage Dictionary defines propitiation as something that appeases or conciliates an offended power, especially a sacrificial offering to a god. Propitiate is the only English word that carries the idea of pacifying wrath by taking care of the penalty for the offense that caused the wrath.

Because so many Christians are not familiar with this word, various Bible translations use different words in an effort to capture its meaning. For example, the New International and New Revised translations use “sacrifice of atonement,” and the New Living Translation uses “sacrifice for sin” in such places as Romans 3:23–25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10. But this obscures the appeasing of wrath facet of the original hilaskomai word group.

The Revised Standard Version and The New English Bible deny appeasing of wrath by using “expiation” instead of “propitiation.” These latter two translations change the entire meaning of the verse, because propitiation deals with the penalty for sin whereas expiation deals with the cleansing from sin. The English Standard Version, New American Standard, Holman Christian Standard Bible are translations which have retained “propitiation”. This term includes the other facets of meaning of hilaskomai: mercy seat, the place where atonement was made and God revealed, and expiation, the removal of sin. There are four primary occurrences of the word propitiation in the New Testament:

  1. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness.16
  2. Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.17
  3. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.18
  4. 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.19

These magnificent passages teach us that the Father and the Son partnered together, both agonizing, to perform the substitutionary sacrifice to appease the wrath of the Father and the Son. Revelation 6:15-16 says:

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave[a] and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

Furthermore, God’s wrath will remain on those who reject this propitiatory offering.  John 3:36, says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Romans 5:9 says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” And, Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

At the cross, justice and mercy kiss; Jesus substituted himself for sinners and suffered and died in their place to forgive them, love them, and embrace them, not in spite of their sins, but because their sins were propitiated and diverted from them to Jesus. Jesus did this not by demanding our blood but rather by giving his own.

Why is it a good thing that God looks at all the evil, sin, and injustice in the world and responds with a commitment to defeat it forever?

1Lev. 26:27–30; Num. 11:1; Deut. 29:24.
2Ex. 34:6–8.
3Deut. 13:17.
4Isa. 48:9.
5Ps. 78:38.
6Mark 3:5.
7Prov. 6:16–19; Zech. 8:17.
8Ps. 5:5; 11:4–5; Hos. 9:15; Rom. 9:13 cf. Mal. 1:2–3.
9John 3:36; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:9–10.
10Rev. 6:16–17.
11Genesis 38; 1 Cor. 11:28–29.
12Rom. 1:18, 24, 26.
13Deut. 32:21–22; John 3:36; Eph. 5:6; 2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 14:9–11.
14Rom. 5:9.
151 Thess. 1:9–10.
16Rom. 3:23–25.
17Heb. 2:17.
181 John 2:2.
191 John 4:10.