Christ’s sacrifice was not to appease God. It isn’t God who needs to change, it’s us. Nor was Jesus accepting punishment instead of us, in order to balance out the guilt we’ve piled up.
Now and then, we come across the word “propitiation” in our reading. Or, depending on your translation, it might be “expiation”. What do these words even mean? Given where we find them, they are clearly important.
The English word “propitiation” means appeasement, or an act or sacrifice that appeases. “Expiation” means extinguishing guilt, via showing you are sorry by doing something or accepting a punishment.
Do either of these strike you as good descriptions of the atoning work of Jesus Christ? Both of them are, in fact, rooted in false teaching. Christ’s sacrifice was not to appease God. It isn’t God who needs to change, it’s us. Nor was Jesus accepting punishment instead of us, in order to balance out the guilt we’ve piled up.
It’s our sin that’s the problem, not God’s anger.
In the Greek of the New Testament, there is a family of words that get into our English translations as one of these terms. Interestingly, one of the words, hilaros, has come directly into English as “hilarity”, and is best thought of as indicating cheerfulness or pleasantness. What the verb form, hilaskomai, actually means is to conciliate or make reconciliation.
Who is reconciled to whom? It’s our sin that’s the problem, not God’s anger. It is we who need to be reconciled. Christ’s sacrifice was to change us, so that we may come into fellowship with the Almighty.
Given the family of words, I picture the Father as grinning from ear to ear when one of us becomes reconciled. He laughs in pure joy, arms outstretched in welcome. He is not a grumpy God who reluctantly mutters, “Oh, all right,” in response to Jesus’s sacrifice.
When you come across one of these words in your reading, you might make a note in your margin. Here are a few verses, with “propitiation” or “expiation” replaced with (I believe) a truer rendering, in bold.
Don’t these passages come much more alive now? They convey the amazing, overwhelming love of God, providing the way for us to be reconciled, since it’s clearly beyond us to accomplish it.
They call on us to acknowledge the righteousness of God, who is completely just in condemning sin. They call on us to acknowledge our own weakness and sinfulness. They call on us to acknowledge that there is only one way to come to God and be reconciled, “at-oned”, and that way is Jesus Christ. And, that one way requires that we change.