Christ, Our Propitiation I

One of the most important yet the most neglected biblical terms that describes the atoning work of Christ is propitiation. Sadly, only few Christians can tell what it means.

Was it necessary for Christ to make satisfaction to divine justice for us? Did Christ die to appease the Father’s wrath? These questions are answered by the biblical doctrine of propitiation.


God is righteous and we are not. It is vital to grasp this truth. We are sinners, and because of that apart from Christ, we are children of wrath. His just character demands punishment of the wicked.

Proverbs 17:15 illustrates that God must act according to the strictest rules of justice, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If He pardons the guilty and does not punish every infraction of the law and every act of disobedience, then He is unjust. Paul goes to the heart of this inquiry when he writes to the believers in Rome (Romans 3:26), “How can God be just and the justifier of sinful men?”

God as the judge of all the earth should do right. However, if He does act with justice toward every man and gives to every man exactly what he deserves, then all men will be condemned. This brings us to one of the greatest questions in all the Scriptures: “How can God be just and yet show mercy to those who ought to be condemned?”


The word propitiation comes from the Latin verb propiciare, which means, “to propitiate, appease, or make favorable.” In the New Testament, it was translated from the Greek word hilasmós, which refers to a sacrifice that satisfies the demands of God’s justice and appeases His wrath.

In Hebrews 9:5, the noun hilasterion is translated as mercy-seat or “covering”. It refers to a pure gold used as the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (where the two tablets were) in the Holy of Holies. According to John Gill, “The sacrifice’s blood is sprinkled on it on the annual day of the atonement. Because of it God is appeased and He can be merciful to His people. Christ is the covering to his people; their persons are clothed with his righteousness, and all their sins are covered by it; and they are secured from… wrath to come.”

Since God is holy, and His wrath is His holiness set on fire, none of our own works can satisfy the demands of His justice. His wrath is upon our head and we are in danger of His eternal judgment in hell. Only a person who has an infinite value, the God-man, Jesus Christ can satisfy His righteous demands. Jesus the Messiah is the wrath-removing sacrifice.


There are two ways to view Christ’s work that satisfied the divine justice. Commercial Satisfaction: The debt is satisfied only when the exact amount is paid. A debt of $50 is not satisfied by a payment of $25, nor can a debt of ten ounces of gold be satisfied with a payment of the same weight in clay. Forensic or Penal Satisfaction: The debt is satisfied when the criminal serves the sentence decreed by the judge.

The sentence is not required to be of the same nature as the crime. All that is required is that it should be a just equivalent. For theft, it may be a fine; for murder, imprisonment; and for treason, banishment. In penal substitution, the penalty that is due to us for our transgression is paid by a substitute, namely, Jesus Christ.

Now, we ask: How could Christ’s sacrifice be enough to pay the debt of His people?


Both 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10 exclusively affirm that Christ is “the” propitiation. There is no other way to appease the Father to remove the wrath of God from His people apart from the sacrifice of Christ. The demand of God’s justice is perfection. Christ did not pay the exact penalty under which His people were condemned—He did not suffer eternal condemnation in hell. But His sufferings were exactly (forensic or penal) what a holy and just God determined should be paid in order to satisfy divine justice and release the guilty from the penalty of sin.

The Demands of God’s justice1 are these: (1) that it should be paid by the same nature which had sinned; (2) that nevertheless it should be of an infinite value and worth to take away the infinite demerit of sin. Two natures were necessary in Christ for the making of a satisfaction—a human, to suffer; and a divine nature, to give an infinite price and value to his sufferings. 

In His human nature, Christ suffered; and in His divine nature, He was able to give an infinite price and value to his sufferings. Since the Son of God was the fullness of deity in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), His life was of infinite worth—of infinitely greater worth than all those for whom He died. This is one of the most beautiful truths in all of Scripture.

The Infinite Value of Christ’s Death

Christ alone is able to satisfy the divine justice. The Canons of Dort (2nd Head, Article 3) affirms this, “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

John Murray in His classic book Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, sees the undeniable importance of this doctrine,

...salvation from sin without expiation and propitiation is inconceivable. It is this principle that explains the sacrifice of the Lord of glory, the agony of Gethsemane, and the abandonment of the accursed tree. It is this principle that undergirds the great truth that God is just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. For in the work of Christ the dictates of holiness and the demands of justice have been fully vindicated. God set him forth to be a propitiation to declare his righteousness.

Christ is worth more than anything and everything else in this universe. You cannot pay for your sins and debt. You cannot satisfy God’s justice and wrath. Jesus paid it all. Repent and trust in Him.

It is not a question of whether Christ is worth anything to you or not. Christ has infinite value and worth. He alone satisfied the justice of God, and unless you are covered and washed by His blood, you’ll suffer the eternal wrath of the Father forever.

Run to Him! Flee from the wrath to come.


Note: This lesson is from our weekly Youth Bible Study Based on Paul Washer’s Discovering the Glorious Gospel.

1 Taken from Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. 2  14th Topic, 10th Question, Section XII

Read more on this subject: The Logic of Penal Substitution by J.I. Packer

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

3 thoughts on “Christ, Our Propitiation I

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