Propitiation in Christian theology is the penalty paid by the guilty party as required by the offended party, with the purpose of warding off a just penalty. It has affinities with the pagan idea of “appeasement.” In paganism the irrational and angry gods are kept happy by being offered a virgin as cast into a raging volcano. However, in Christian theology, as opposed to pagan concepts, God requires being propitiated and it is God who both provides and is Himself, in the incarnate God-Man the required propitiation. What God requires in propitiation God provides and pays.
In propitiation the action of the one who propitiates terminates upon the one who is propitiated, and so we say the Son propitiates and the Father is propitiated.
Liberals HATE the idea of propitiation because the doctrine requires the teaching of a Wrathful Deity and the last thing liberals want to preach or teach is a Wrath of God against sin and sinners which can only be quenched by the offering up of a blood sacrifice of atonement in order to turn God’s just wrath away. Liberals earnestly desire to stay away from all notions of “Wrath,” “Blood payment,” and “appeasement.” Liberals instead want to talk about the example of Christ that disciples must follow if they want to be right with God and not the death of Christ which alone can make men right with God.
Propitiation in Christian theology comes from a Greek word group ἱλαστήριον (Hilasterion) which has affinities in translation with the Hebrew word kapporeth, which in the OT means “covering,” and was used for the mercy seat which covered the ark of the covenant.
Exodus 25:21 You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you.
Exodus 30:6 And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.
This mercy seat covering the ark (where God’s presence was most intimately associate with) was the place where on the day of atonement the High Priest would carry the blood of the spotless sacrifice so as to sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat covering, thus making proleptic propitiation for God’s people and so providing reconciliation. One note of interest is that this propitiatory blood was sprinkled on the covering of the mercy seat which contained God’s law. The picture thus is that it is only the blood which can cover the just condemnation by the law which otherwise would stand without the blood of propitiation. The blood of the sacrifice covers the law.
Expiation in Christian theology, a closely associated idea with propitiation, is the idea that sin is taken away or removed. If liberals talk at all about the cross it will be in terms of Expiation and never propitiation.
In Biblical Christianity there is a need for both propitiation and expiation. Without propitiation God’s just wrath against sin and sinners remains un-quenched. Without expiation our sin remains present before God. Jesus Christ takes away (expiates) our sins by propitiating the Father.
In Biblical Christianity Jesus Christ is both our propitiation that satisfies God’s justice and our expiation which removes our sin and so gives us peace with God. In the Old Testament this was typologically signified by the two goats on the day of atonement, which together provided one sin offering.
Leviticus 16:5: “And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a [singular] sin offering”
The first goat was the Azazel goat of expiation (scapegoat). This goat had the sins of Israel confessed over it and was released into the wilderness away from the people.
Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
This was a picture of the sins of God’s people being taken away and removed. That the idea of the necessity of sins needed to be taken away was retained in many older European cultures with the custom of hiring a sin eater. The sin eater would take away the sins of the deceased by consuming food that had been placed upon the chest of the deceased. Symbolically the sin-eater was taking away the deceased sins. The sin-eater was a latter day pagan version of the Azazel goat.
Christ is our Azazel scapegoat. In the words of Isaiah 53:6,
“And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all”
The second goat — the goat of propitiation was sacrificed as a sin offering and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat. This was a picture of God being propitiated by death and blood.
Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull [see verse 14], and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement [Heb. kaphar; covering, cleansing, or purging] for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. . . . And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD [the incense altar], and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.
Leviticus 16:15-16, 18-19
The book of Hebrews teaches us that all this was both proleptic and tutorial since,
10:4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
It was proleptic because inasmuch as this propitiation looked to Christ it had the reality of the fulfillment in it. It was tutorial because it taught there was a promissory fulfillment ahead that gave substantive reality to the typology.
Hebrews 9:12-14 Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
This idea that Christ is the fulfillment of the OT shadows of the goat of propitiation is one reason why Protestants get so exercised about the Roman Catholic mass. Scripture teaches that the “blood of Christ who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanses our conscience from dead works to serve the living God,” and yet Rome insists that sins can’t be forgiven without a constant re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist preformed by the Priest. The Mass says the Scripture is not true and that Christ as the goat of propitiation,
Hebrews 9:25 once at the end of the ages, has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
All of this explains why Christianity teaches a hard exclusivity that insists that unless one knows a known Christ one is without God and without hope. The Father’s wrath continues to burn against those outside the circle of propitiation and expiation.
The good news is that Jesus Christ still offers Himself as God’s solution to God’s wrath.