Knowing God, Chapter 18

The Heart of the Gospel

What is the heart of the gospel? According to J. I. Packer, it involves “averting God’s anger by an offering,” an idea known as propitiation. This subject has become quite controversial in some Christian circles, because the Bible presents us with a God who is neither bad-tempered nor impulsive. Therefore the suggestion that God is full of wrath toward sinners is impossible to believe, and if God is not wrathful, then there is no need for an offering to appease his anger.

Yet Scripture teaches us otherwise. In the Old Testament, the entire sacrificial system centered on making atonement for sin, to turn away his wrath from the people. When we come to the New Testament, the word propitiation is used in 4 key passages. Paul uses it to describe “the rationale of God’s justification of sinners” in Romans 3:21-26, and the writer of Hebrews uses it to explain “the rationale of the Incarnation of God the Son” in Heb. 2:17. The apostle John uses it twice in his first epistle: in 2:1-2, to describe “the heavenly ministry of our Lord,” and in 4:8-10 in his “definition of the love of God.” Could the principle of propitiation be so foundational that it is necessary to explain “the love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, [and] the way of salvation”? In a word, “Yes.”

In order to explain the biblical use of the term propitiation, Packer cites 3 facts about it as set forth by the apostle Paul.

  1. Propitiation is the work of God himself. “It was not man, to whom God was hostile, who took the initiative to make God friendly, nor was it Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, who took the initiative to turn his Father’s wrath against us into love….God set [Jesus Christ] forth to be a propitiation. From this divine initiative the reality and availability of redemption flow.” As it is so clearly stated in the most well-known verse in all the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” God set about to appease his own wrath by sending his Son.

  2. Propitiation was made by the death of Jesus Christ. “When Paul tells us that God set forth Jesus to be a propitiation ‘by his blood,’ his point is that what quenched God’s wrath and so redeemed us from death was not Jesus’ life or teaching, not his moral perfection nor his fidelity to the Father, as such, but the shedding of his blood in death.” This death was illustrated very graphically in the animals which were sacrificed under the law of Moses as representative substitutes for men.

  3. Propitiation manifests God’s righteousness. How can God deal kindly with rebellious sinners without forfeiting his position as the morally perfect Judge of all men? Paul explains that this is simply the “passing over” of sins, not their forgiveness, and that, in fact, “our sins have been punished; the wheel of retribution has turned; judgment has been inflicted for our ungodliness – but on Jesus, the lamb of God, standing in our place. In this way God is just – and the justifier of those who put faith in Jesus.”

Our Creator has become our Redeemer. The very Son of God has become man and has died on the cross to save us from eternal condemnation. His death is described as a propitiation, in that it has satisfied the fire of God’s wrath against us by completely removing our sins from his sight. Jesus Christ has shielded us from the justice which we rightly deserve by becoming our substitute and receiving the wages of our sin. Justice has not been set aside by any means, because sin’s penalty has been paid, and God’s redeeming love has been displayed for all to see at Calvary. It is not an overstatement that a proper understanding of the doctrine of propitiation helps us to put the rest of the Bible into perspective.

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