J.I. Packer entitles Chapter 18 “The Heart of the Gospel.” Then he spends many pages on two terms that we don’t use very often, propitiation and expiation. We don’t use those words as part of our day-to-day vocabulary, so most of us aren’t really sure what they mean in Scripture. As I indicated in the previous post, I found the word propitiation used three times in the Bible. I had to use a concordance to confirm the word’s use.
Not being a theologian, I had no idea that there is ongoing debate about the ideas of propitiation and expiation, some theologians arguing that there is no need for propitiation, that expiation is good enough.
But we are discussing J.I. Packer’s book and for him, man needs both propitiation and expiation.
You see, he is writing about “The Heart of the Gospel.”
By way of review, expiation is the blotting out or removal of sin. After expiation, communion with God can occur. Packer elaborates: “Expiation means only half of what propitiation means. Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God” . Note that the quote from Packer says “only half of what propitiation means.”
To represent the point of view of expiation alone, Packer chooses theologian C.H. Dodd who believed “there is no such thing as anger” in God due to man’s penchant for sinning, so there is no real need for propitiation.
Remember that propitiation is the need to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the wrath of God. Anyone who believes in a god knows there is a terrific need to stay on the friendly side of that god. It is a universal belief across many religions in order to appease the “gods” sacrifices should be made, alms should be offered up, or some price must be exacted. Dodd and others cannot accept this idea [especially in the New Testament context] that God’s wrath must be appeased with a sacrifice.
But again, Packer is discussing what he calls “The Heart of the Gospel.”
I stand with Packer. As Christians, we need both propitiation and expiation.
God’s wrath is real and it certainly can be felt as man sins. Packer points to Romans 1: 18 where the Apostle Paul says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of man.” Many New Testament readers think that type of Godly wrath is no longer relevant; this is an Old Testament thing. The New Testament is all about grace and mercy, God’s forgiveness of our sins. Not so fast. Here Paul is revealing that man can turn away from God so much that God can give up on man. In fact, Packer cites three verses from the King James Version [verses 24, 26 and 28] where it says “God gave them [man] up.”
In short, God’s wrath is real today.
In Romans 2: 1-16, Paul discusses the idea that it is certain man will experience a day of God’s wrath. That day will be at every man’s judgement when God will look at man’s earthly works. Let’s dig into parts of this Scripture that make the case. “The day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God; who will render to every man according to his works:…unto them that …obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation…in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my Gospel, by Jesus Christ.”
Sounds like sinning will incur the wrath of God. God’s wrath is real today.
Packer continues with Romans 3 with Paul’s argument that every person, Jew and Gentile are “under sin” [verse 9]. We are under sin in the present and we will be under sin in the future. Paul writes that the natural state of man is sin and without the Gospel, we are subject to God’s anger. This Gospel exposure is the saving grace we all depend on. It is the Gospel [Packer writes] that is the controlling reality of our lives. Without God’s word, we are in danger of experiencing the active anger of God.
Yes, God’s wrath is real today.
Instead of denying the need for propitiation, I stand with Packer. We do need it and it is a good thing we have it. Again, it is hard to understand that we have to have a sacrifice to save us but we do. That sacrifice is Jesus Christ. Without it, we can be considered God’s enemies. With it, we can be justified in the sight of God.
If God’s wrath is real today, by the sacrificial death of God’s only Son, we have a way for God’s wrath to be pacified.
Unlike other gods who may be seen as moody, grumpy or capricious, our God requires propitiation because He is holy and just. God has told man repeatedly that sin is not appropriate behavior. He is consistent in both the Old Testament and the New. Yes it really says in Romans 1: 18 “[My] wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”
God declares what sacrifice He needed and then He provided it. He is not asking for man to be hung on the cross. He insists that His only son be put to death up there. He takes credit for providing Old Testament sacrificial blood [see Leviticus 17:11] and He takes credit for providing our New Testament sacrifice.
God gives His only Son to die for us. This is not just a bribe to appease some pagan God, some animal, some alms, some first fruit. This is God’s only Son. Theologian John Stott writes “God gave Himself to save us from Himself.”
We have a contemporary expression that fits in well right here. When a person today struggles to understand they might say “I am having a hard time wrapping my head around that idea.” That is very true about God’s need for propitiation.
Let’s go further with two more words that are less obscure than propitiation and expiation. In fact, they are thrown around so much that maybe we don’t appreciate them.
One is atonement. Atonement means the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus as our “Atoner”, we would be lost. He took our place up on that cross. God tried over and over to communicate to man what He needed for us to measure up and He finally did that with the earthly life of His Son. Jesus experienced a lot of wrath from this world, wrath He did not deserve, for He had lived a sinless life. The sacrificial death of Jesus appeased God, Packer writing that His act “abolished God’s anger against us and ensured that His treatment of us forever would be propitious and favorable.”
Yes, instead of showing Himself to be against us. God shows us that He is for us.
The last word is salvation. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is God’s way of saving mankind. Just the other night I heard a pastor give an alter call. He used that old familiar question, “Are you saved?” R.C. Sproul [another noted theologian] says “trying to explain salvation can give you a headache, because the word salvation is used about seventy different ways in the Bible.” But salvation is what we get by the propitiation, the expiation and atonement of Jesus Christ. We are a people covered by the atonement. We are all sinners and we need to be redeemed from the clear and present danger of our sinning. We have a God who has every right to be angry about our poor behavior. We all deserve God’s wrath. Sproul writes “There is no wrath for those whose sins have been paid. That is what salvation is all about.”
God’s sacrifice of his Son for us is an act of love for mankind that is so unbelievable most of us cannot comprehend it. Packer writes “the wrath of God is as personal, and as potent, as His love; and just as the blood shedding of the Lord Jesus was the direct manifesting of His Father’s love toward us, so it is the direct averting of His Fathers’ wrath against us.”
I know it is hard to understand propitiation, expiation, atonement and salvation but I stand with Packer. As Christians we need both propitiation and expiation [atonement and salvation].
This is the heart of the gospel.
We need them all…