If I had to sum up propitiation in one word, it would be “satisfaction.” In propitiation, the wrath of God is satisfied.
An angry God
We may underestimate the importance of propitiation until we have a proper estimate of the wrath of God against sinners. The Scripture teaches that God “feels indignation every day.”1 That “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness”2 and that this wrath is not passive or distant, but actively “remains” on those who reject Jesus Christ.3
I’ve summed up propitiation in the one word “satisfaction,” but I want to give a more detailed definition. To propitiate is to turn away wrath by means of a sacrifice. So when the Apostle John says that God “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,”4 what he is saying is that what Jesus came to do was to turn away the wrath of God by a sacrifice. What sacrifice? The sacrifice of himself on the cross. God has looked on the work of Jesus Christ at the cross and he is satisfied. But why?
Tying in substitutionary atonement
This is where the substitutionary nature of the atonement comes in. In propitiation, Jesus Christ satisfied the wrath and judgement of God by bearing it on himself as my substitute. God made Jesus “to be sin”5 even though he had no sin of himself. Then he was “smitten by God,”6 but not for his own sin. “He was wounded for our transgressions.”7
Isaiah says that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him.” But why did God want to crush his own son? Because it was necessary in order to propitiate his own just wrath. “Out of the anguish of [Jesus’] soul [God] shall see and be satisfied.”8 In other words, God poured out the full fury of his wrath and condemnation on Jesus Christ at the cross so that when he looks at the believer in Christ, there is no more wrath left. There is no more condemnation left.9 God has been satisfied in relation to the sin of that person.
The fire cannot go where the fire has already been
Propitiation has often been illustrated using a bushfire. It is counter-intuitive that fighting a bushfire often requires starting fires. Yet this is a common way to fight fires. If houses or lives are in danger, it is not uncommon to burn off large strips of land. And if one is caught in a bushfire, he would do well to huddle on such burnt land. Why? Because the fire cannot go where the fire has already been.
At the cross, the Son of God bore the full fury of the burning wrath of God. When sinners stand in danger, as they surely do, they must run to the cross and huddle there for safety. Why? Because the fire cannot go where the fire has already been.
Jesus Christ bore the wrath I deserve so that I don’t have to. “For God, the Just, is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.”10
When every unclean thought and every sinful deed
Was scourged upon his back and hammered through his feet
The innocent is cursed; The guilty are released;
The punishment of God on God has brought me peace!11
Join me as I huddle at the cross.
Grace to you.
1 Psalm 7:11.
2 Romans 1:18.
3 John 3:36.
4 1 John 4:10.
5 2 Corinthians 5:21.
6 Isaiah 53:4.
7 Isaiah 53:5, emphasis added.
8 Isaiah 53:10, emphasis added.
9 Romans 3:25, Romans 8:1.
10 Taken from the text “Before the Throne of God Above” by Charitie Lees Bancroft.
11 From the text “When Love Came Down” by Stuart Townend. Copyright © 2006 Thankyou Music, Inc.