Christ our Propitiation and Expiation

In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:

lamb1Romans 3:21-25 OSB But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (25) whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed . . .

This word, translated as “propitiation” in the Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers), is in Greek ἱλαστήριον. The usage and meaning of this word is critical in understanding the meaning behind the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

Let us first look at respectable Lexicons.

ἱλαστήριον “that which serves as an instrument for regaining the goodwill of a deity; concr. a ‘means of propitiation or expiation, gift to procure expiation’ . . “the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self.” The place of propitiation and expiation was the mercy seat. (BDAG Lexicon).


40.12 ἱλασμός, οῦ m ; ἱλαστήριον, ου n: the means by which sins are forgiven – ‘the means of forgiveness, expiation.’ ἱλασμός: αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ‘(Christ) himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven’ 1 Jn 2.2. ἱλαστήριον: ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ τῆς πίστεως ‘God offered him as a means by which sins are forgiven through faith (in him)’ Ro 3.25. (Louw and Nida)


ἱλαστήριος, ον with focus on the means by which sins are forgiven having atoning power, bringing about reconciliation; substantivally τὸ ἱλαστήριον means of forgiveness (RO 3.25); by metonymy, with a focus on the place where sins are forgiven by means of the blood from an atoning sacrifice placed there place of forgiveness, place where God forgives sins, often translated mercy seat (Friberg Analytical Lexicon)

and the LEH Lexicon of the Septuagint has :

ἱλαστήριον,-ου+   –   Ex 25, lid of the ark of the covenant Ex 25,17; ledge Ez 43,14 propitiation 4 Mc 17,22

What I find interesting is the 4 MA 17:22 reference :

4Ma 17:20-22 LXX These, therefore, having been sanctified through God, have been honored not only with this honor, but that also by their means the enemy did not overcome our nation;  (21)  and that the tyrant was punished, and their country purified. (22) For they became the atnipoised to the sin of the nation; and the Divine Providence saved Israel, aforetime afflicted, by the blood of those pious ones, and the propitiatory death.

Both concepts of “expiation” and “propitiation” are used in the scriptures according to these reputable lexicons. The main idea of ἱλαστήριον is both “a gift to procure expiation” and “the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self.”  Some individuals want to pick and choose one or the other usages for whatever biased reasons, but both meanings are used in the scriptures and both conceptsare crucial in understanding what Jesus has done for us in His death.

So how are these two concepts related? Thomas Oden,  in his monumental work “Classical Christianity,” ** wonderfully explains how these two concepts are related, based on the usage of the word, the scriptural testimony in the NT, and the consensus of the Church Fathers,  [Bolding is mine – RAS]

Atonement, the satisfaction made for sin, must be offered. The Apostle Paul tells us that it is Christ Himself, who is that offering – the death of Christ that makes possible the salvation of humanity (1 John 2:2; Rom. 3:25). . . .

. . . .  The Hebrew root words that convey the atoning deed (kaphar, kippurim) carried nuances of “purge, cleanse, expiate, purify, cross out, cover, spread over, or forgive.” These words ordinarily denote the satisfaction made for sin by sacrificial offerings. One atones by providing a fitting expiation for an injury or offense. . . Expiatory acts sought to remove this guilt through conciliatory actions offered to God. The expiations so commonly found in the history of religions focus upon the restoration of the damaged divine-human relationship by means of propitiatory actions initiated by penitents. Classic Christianity shows that God himself has made the reconciliation by sending his Son (Cyprian, Epist. 51). . . .

In Christianity it is not humans who come to God with a compensatory gift, but rather God who comes to humanity in self-giving in order to overcome the divine-human alienation. This is a very different idea of satisfaction than is common in the history of religions (1 John 2:1–17; Origen, OFP 2.7.4). It is not that human beings conciliate God, but that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19). God does not passively wait to be reconciled but actively goes out and humbly suffers for sinners to reconcile them. God does not wait for humanity to approach but approaches humanity (Ambrose, On the Sacrament of the Incarnation 6.59). The saving event is not about God receiving our gifts, but God giving his own Gift, his Son, in order to offer us the benefit of salvation (Augustine, CG 22.22). . . . .

. . The particular sacrifice of which Christianity speaks involves a once-for-all reversal: Sacrifice does not focus primarily upon our giving God what God would not have without us, but upon our becoming totally receptive to the radical divine gift (Oecumenius, Comm. on 1 John 2:1–17), which implies a radical human task: being for others as God is for us (Maximos, Philokal. 2:245–49) . . . . .

. . . .  Christ “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2; Chrysostom, Hom. on Eph. 17.4.32–5.2). The death of Christ was a true sacrifice in the ancient Hebraic sense. Sacrifice formed the core of Levitical worship and ritual. In ancient Jewish tradition, the sacrificial destruction or transformation ordinarily occurred by the death of a living animal or sometimes by the burning of foods or pouring out of fluids. By sacrificing some valued creature for one’s sins and offering it up unreservedly to God, the supplicant acknowledged God’s rightful lordship over his own life, which was symbolically being offered up and destroyed (Ps. 27:6; Phil. 4:18; Pohle-Preuss, DT 5:113). . . .

Christ is a propitiatory covering, sacrifice, or atonement for our sin effective through faith (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Heb. 2:17). This means that the death of Christ is the sacrificial means by which God is brought nearer or rendered propitious to one having that trust in God’s promises by which God becomes favorably disposed to sinners (Augustine, Spirit and Letter 44). To expiate is to make satisfaction. Christ is said to be the living expiation or “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2), enabling God and humanity to draw nearer or be made propitious or favorable. Propitiation has a different root, deriving from prope, “near.” That is propitious which brings God nearer. Propitiation is an act that enables sinners to approach God’s holiness. Propitiation is the means by which another is rendered propitious or favorable to one’s cause or willing to listen to one’s plea (1 John 4:10; Origen, Comm. on Rom. 3.25–26). That is propitious which renders one favorably disposed toward another who has been previously alienated. The focus of expiation is upon the removal of obstacles to the relationship. The focus of propitiation is slightly different: upon the welcoming attitude of the Holy One for whom these obstacles are removed (Eleventh Council of Toledo). Through the cross, God is brought near and conciliated, made propitious, or favorable to our hearing and plea. Those who have been without hope in the world have been “brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). It is Christ’s work both to expiate sin and to enable God to draw nearer to sinners (Ambrosiaster, Epis. To Eph. 2.13). He became like us in every way except sin “in order that he might become both a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).

Furthermore, when discussing this topic, it is forgotten by some that the context of Romans Chapter 1 thru 5 is “The Wrath of God” upon human unrighteousness (Romans 1:18 ; Romans 2:3-9 ; Romans 3:5-6 ; Romans 5:15-18) and the resulting “condemnation” that it brings (Romans 5:16-18). It is that barrier between us and God which needs to be removed in sacrifice before reconciliation, healing, restoration, and sanctification (theosis) can occur. We can not accomplish this, so God accomplished ALL this in His Son.  Those who argue only for a kinder “expiation” (as done by liberal Protestant C.H. Dodd) overlook or greatly underestimate this scriptural problem of God’s Wrath (usually using philosophic reasoning) as portrayed in all the scriptures and, again, in the entire context of Romans Chapters 1-5. Again, Oden explains :

The wrath of God is a recurrent phrase that indicates the continuing revulsion of the holiness of God against sin. The holy God cannot abide injustice, pride, deception, and willful diminution of the good (Tertullian, Ag. Marcion 5.13). God’s righteous wrath is directed against sin (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 5:9; Col. 3:6; Ambrosiaster, Comm. on Paul’s Epis., Rom. 1.18; 5.9). What happened in Christ was an act of substitution by which God demonstrated that his wrath had been turned aside. This enabled an entirely new relationship with humanity, not yielding to sin, but binding it up so as to make a new start (Marius Victorinus, Epis. To Eph. 1.2.1–15). This is quite different from the prevailing forms of conciliatory rituals in the history of religions, where supplicants offer sacrifices to try to change a god’s [a god like like Zeus, say – RAS] attitude from wrath to friendship (Arnobius, Ag. the Heathen 7). Oppositely, here it is God who is taking the initiative to change the broken relationship with humanity. The picture of a human being placating an angry deity is not characteristic of New Testament teaching. More characteristic is the picture of God’s quiet, costly approach to alienated humanity to overcome sin through sacrificial suffering (Jerome, Letter to Pammachius, 27; Liturgy of St. James).

** Oden, Thomas C., Classic Christianity (p. 423-430). HarperCollins.

WOW. Through the cross, God is brought near and conciliated, made propitious, or favorable to our hearing and plea. Those who have been without hope in the world have been “brought near through the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). It is Christ’s work both to expiate sin and to propitiate, removing the barrier and enabling God to draw nearer to us sinners. Christ is both High Priest and sacrifice. This is good news. This is the hope of Good Friday. It is Finished !!

By dealing first with our sin on the Cross once and for all – on behalf of all – and then defeating death in His Resurrection  Christ restored us in our proper relationship with Himself.

The writer of Hebrews summarizes nicely the resulting hope :

Hebrews 9:22-28 And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. (23) Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. (24) For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; (25) not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another; (26) He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (27) And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, (28) so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.

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