What Is Propitiation?

By Jason Jackson

The English “propitiation” is from Latin, meaning “favorable, gracious, kind” or “render favorable.” The first attested use of this term is in a Latin translation of the Scriptures1.

The Latin form propitiatorium was employed to translate the Greek word, hilasterion, which is found 22 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament2. Interestingly, hilasterion was used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew term “covering” or “mercy seat,” which was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant where the sacrificial blood was placed for the atonement of the sins of the people.

The background of the related Greek terms is interesting. These words were used of a sacrifice one brought in order to appease the anger of the gods. The individual chanced that the attitude of the god or gods might be altered, hoping that the gods would be disposed to look upon the person with favor, from which further blessings might follow.

Although certain characteristics of the word remain, others do not. While Greek pagan gods were believed to despise humans, the true God loves sinful man, and that without prejudice (Romans 5:8).

Our interest in “propitiation” is its use in the New Testament. It is a word that is employed in the context of salvation. Like the words atonement, reconciliation, redemption, and saved, propitiation conveys a particular nuance about salvation that we ought to appreciate.

Propitiation is found four times in the American Standard Version of the New Testament. Consider these passages:

“[W]hom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25).

“Wherefore it behooved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).

“And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

“Herein 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).

Observe these truths relative to propitiation.

The Source

God initiates the propitiation. He already looks upon us with loving favor, even when we are in sin (Romans 5:6-8). In contrast to the secular use of this word, God is the one who provides the sacrifice.

The Sins

Note in every verse above: propitiation has to do with our sins — the alienation results from our rebellion, not from a reluctant God. Sin separates us from divine fellowship (Isaiah 59:1-2; Ephesians 2:1), and we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). Because of sin, men must suffer the wrath of God. God’s wrath is mentioned 585 times in the Old Testament3.

Likewise, the New Testament reminds us of the reality, severity, and righteousness of God’s wrath (Romans 1:18,24,26,28; 2:5,8; 5:9; 12:19; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:10; Revelation 19:15).

The Substitution

Jesus is the propitiation! He himself is the sacrifice who willingly gave himself (cf. Galatians 1:4). His blood (i.e., his death) is the means by which our sins may be forgiven. He is a divine person who took on flesh, was qualified through suffering, and he tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:10). The nature of his sacrifice is this: as an infinite being in the flesh, he bore the divine equivalent of finite man’s condemnation in hell for eternity. Therein is the possibility for our salvation. His sacrifice is sufficient to avert the wrath of God. Therefore, Jesus suffered that God might be just (Romans 3:25).

The Salvation

Jesus died that God might be the justifier also (Romans 3:25). But the benefits of his death are not extended without conditions. We must have faith. “Through faith” means that we must believe what God says and do what he requires. Being the propitiation for our sins, Jesus said that he who believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). We are united with Christ in the likeness of his death when we are buried with him in baptism. Raised from that watery grave, we shall be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). Propitiation means Jesus is the only way. May we obey him (Hebrews 5:9).

Sources/Footnotes
  • 1 Propitiation.

  • 2 Abbrv. LXX; see The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, p. 156.

  • 3 Leon Morris, “Propitiation,” Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, p. 425.