It has been a challenge; one that I am glad I accepted, commenting on J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. I make no claim to being a theologian but I do have a hunger to learn more about God, from a layman’s perspective. I began writing on Knowing God on April 22, 2019. Here it is February 17, 2020 and I am beginning part three of the book, entitled “If God Be For Us,” the last section of the book.
The rest of the phrase of “If God be for us” is “then who can be against us.” It is based on Romans 8: 31: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
After a section of the book entitled “Know The Lord” and another entitled “Behold Your God” we are in “If God Be For Us” and we are face to face with the word propitiation.
That’s a word that is not used in everyday parlance.
What does it mean?
Why would Packer start the last section of his book bringing up the word propitiation?
We can look the word up in a concordance, see it used in Romans 3: 25, and First John 4: 10 but Packer refers to First John 2:2 [King James Version] “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” He of course, refers to Jesus Christ.
Propitiation means the act of appeasing a deity, thus incurring divine favor or avoiding divine retribution.
That’s not a new idea. Many religions have this concept as a foundational idea. It seems that humans have always tried to appease the gods by offering various gifts or sacrifices. Packer begins chapter 18 with the tale of Agamemnon, the Greek general who slaughtered his own daughter to appease his gods. His army was on ships trying to reach a destination and the winds were blowing against the ships, keeping them from moving. Agamemnon gave orders for his own daughter to be sacrificed to change the winds. It worked. The gods were appeased, and the fleet reached Troy, the intended destination.
How does this relate to us knowing God?
Of course the Bible is full of human beings sacrificing to God. The Israelites used many sacrifices to the Lord. Burnt offerings were made of bullocks, rams, goats, doves and pigeons. Meal offerings were made of grain, flour, and cakes without leaven. Peace offerings were made of cattle, sheep or goats [unlike burnt offerings, peace offerings were partially eaten]. Sin offerings and trespass offerings were made according to the sins that were committed.
We all know of the meticulous rules for the Jewish priesthood, the system of laws administered by the Levites, the tribe of the Israelites that were in charge of the Tabernacle and all associated activities [read the Book of Leviticus].
But there was no human sacrifice [Abraham got very close with Isaac]. *
Until Jesus Christ.
Then we have the ultimate propitiation.
Modern Christians have argued that, whatever the Old Testament may have been about, the New Testament can’t possibly have anything to do with propitiation. The fact of the matter is that the concept of God’s wrath needing to be appeased by a sacrifice is very much a New Testament idea. Is this the same model as the Greek model of Agamemnon? Does this follow the pagan model of sacrifice that was common in Jesus’ day? Theologian John Stott has argued that “The Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions.”
What makes it different?
First of all pagan gods were “grumpy and capricious.” They did not care much about humans and did not even attend them until they were angered. Then the angry pagan god “smote” humans and to avoid additional wrath the god must be placated with a sacrifice.
Our God is not moody and easily provoked. He is holy and just and His behavior is consistent. Man never sees God’s wrath unless he commits some ungodly or unrighteous act.
In addition, God carried out propitiation, because He declared what He wanted and then provided it. God fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy by giving His own Son to die for our sins. Stott says “God gave Himself to save us from Himself.” We must read Romans 3: 24-25 “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God has put forward as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”
Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God and we cannot understand the Bible or any teaching about Christianity apart from this. We deserve harsh punishment, because we sin every day we are alive. Jesus’ supreme sacrifice on the cross placated God because God’s wrath would cause us to be eternally condemned if not for His Son.
Jesus saved us from God’s wrath which we deserve.
He saved us from the danger brought about by our own sins. He atoned for our sins.
We can understand propitiation now, the sacrifice of another for our benefit. There is no offering that man can give to God that would make us acceptable in His eyes. We are incapable of satisfying God’s justice, appeasing His holy wrath, and living up to the standard of His perfect nature. For this reason, the perfect sacrifice for our sin is His own Son, who came into this world in human flesh, to experience what it is like to be a human, to inspire us to live a righteous life through His perfection and to take “that cup” which in a moment of weakness He wanted God to take away from Him. Quickly He knew that was not to be, as He said “Yet not as I will, but as you will” to His Father right after asking for this favor.
All this benefits us, as Jesus is our substitute. He gave His all for us.
Let me throw another word at you related to this act or sacrifice.
Because of Jesus’ propitiation, we experience expiation. Expiation means the blotting out or the removal of sin. When we have expiation, we renew our communion with God because sin is no longer in the way.
Jesus saved us and if we can profess our faith in God, we can experience the salvation that God offers.
Two words we don’t use much, but two words every Christian should know…
Propitiation and expiation.
Truly, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
*The Hebrews (and especially the authors of Scripture) were aghast at the practice of human sacrifice in the cultures around them…even though some of their own rulers were sometimes guilty of it. King Ahaz did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, and he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, not God. Also Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel, offered up human sacrifice (his own daughter!) to the God of Israel. These examples were abominable practices of nations that had too much influence on Israel. Scripture is quite clear—from the “sacrifice of Isaac” onwards—that God isn’t asking his people to engage in human sacrifice.