Anger is the response of a perfectly loving God when sin is committed against Him and others. Today, Barry Cooper explains the merciful way that God has appeased His wrath against His people in order to spare them from His righteous judgment.
Some words are hard to translate. There really is no simple equivalent in the English language.
Consider, for example, the word prozvonit. In Czech and Slovak, this beautiful word means: “to call another person’s mobile phone, allowing it to ring only once, thus provoking the other person to return the call, thus saving the caller from having to spend any money.”
Honestly, how have the British coped so long without that word? It’s no wonder we lost the empire.
Here’s a Greek word that has no simple equivalent in English: hilastērion. It means: “the appeasement which makes it possible for a just God to forgive sinners.”
Because there was no equivalent word in the English language, about seven hundred years ago, we had to create one. And that word is propitiation. You see it in many modern translations of Romans chapter 3:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as [a hilastērion] a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
So what is a “propitiation” then? When the Bible speaks of propitiation, it is talking about the appeasement of God’s rightful anger at sin.
This can make many people bristle: I thought God was supposed to be loving; why would He be angry at anyone’s sin?
But is anger really the opposite of love? If someone were to harm my daughter, and I smiled at the attacker and said, “Hey, no problem; it doesn’t matter,” would you be left with the impression that I love my daughter? Anger, in this situation, is not opposed to my love; it would actually be proof of it.
In the same way, when we sin against God and against others, would we expect a perfectly loving God to say that it doesn’t matter? Anger is the right response of a perfectly loving Being.
And so a “propitiation” must be offered if that anger is to be dealt with. Doing nothing is not an option. But the wonder of the gospel is that God does not demand a propitiation from us—He offers it Himself. That’s why we have those words in Romans chapter 3:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation . . .
Sometimes words fall out of favor. In a desire to make Scripture more accessible, some modern translations swap out the unfamiliar word propitiation and replace it with simpler words like atoning sacrifice or simply sacrifice. But when we lose the word propitiation, we can lose the theology contained in it. We can lose the reality that we are all sinners in the hands of a justly angry God, that God’s wrath must be appeased if we are to escape an eternity in hell.
We may say to that: “Good. I don’t care for those ideas, and I’m glad to be rid of them.” Tens of thousands of churches in America won’t sing one of the most popular modern hymns because of a single phrase in the second verse:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.
But when we get rid of God’s wrath and we get rid of the word propitiation, consider what we lose. We lose the certainty that evil angers God. That injustice angers Him. As does abuse and greed and so on.
In losing that word propitiation, we also lose the joy of what God has done for us. First John chapter 4, verse 10, tells us God “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Our sins demand the anger of our loving God. But at the cross, in Christ, that anger is propitiated.