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Christ -- The "Propitiation"
By David A. DePra
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 1:8-2:2)
John tells us that Jesus Christ did not merely MAKE propitiation for our sins – He did – but John says that Jesus WAS the propitiation for our sins. But to many, this word "propitiation" is unfamiliar. What does it mean?
In more ancient times, this word referred to the "relationship" between a worshipper of a false god, and that false god. To "propitiate" a false god meant to APPEASE the anger and displeasure of that false god. It meant to do whatever was necessary – to make whatever sacrifice was required -- to appease the anger of that false god, and thereby, avert the punishment which would have otherwise come.
We need to understand this background, not because the word means the same thing with regard to our relationship with God – but because it DOES NOT. The notion that we must somehow appease the anger of God is error. And the suggestion that Jesus Christ, was, by His sacrifice, appeasing the anger of God, or averting His punitive punishment upon us, is likewise wrong. There is no such thought in the New Testament about the Redemption of Jesus Christ.
PROPITIATION is an important word in the New Testament because it carries with it the Truth about God attitude towards us, and what Jesus did for us through the Redemption. Understanding it helps to clear up many of the misconceptions Christians have about this vital issue.
If Any Man Sin
First, we must place John’s use of the term "propitiation" in context. Let’s look at what he is talking about in general. He leads into the term with some teaching about FORGIVENESS.
In our passage above, John is assuring his readers of two things having to do with forgiveness. First, he is assuring them that they will sin. To say otherwise, according to John, is to LIE.
John’s second assurance is that despite the fact that we will sin, we are already fully forgiven in Jesus Christ. We see this assurance in verse 1:9, where the true rendering is, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to have forgiven our sins, and to have cleansed us from all unrighteousness."
It is almost standard operating procedure for Christians, when they sin, to turn and ask God for forgiveness. God looks at the heart, and not the words, and we certainly don’t want to get all tied up in words and methods, rather than in faith. But technically, to ask God for forgiveness is really asking Him to do what He says is already finished. Note that John never tells us to ask God to forgive us. Rather, He tells us to confess our sins.
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to HAVE FORGIVEN our sins." We confess, not to GET forgiven, but because we believe we ARE forgiven.
This distinction is important because when we do ask God to forgive us, most of us ask because we don’t believe God has already finished forgiving us. Our continual asking is often based in fear and concern that we really aren’t forgiven. That is why it is so important to see the Truth of the finality of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
John tells us that if we come into the Light, that we are going to begin to see sins we must confess. The Light will expose them. Then he tells us to confess those sins which we see. If we do, John says, we will see that we are forgiven for those sins, and that we are cleansed from the unrighteousness of those sins.
But again -- most of us get this backwards. We think that we must confess sins to GET them forgiven. No. John tells us to confess them in the Light of seeing they ARE forgiven.
Forgiveness is Finished
John is talking to Christians. Not to unbelievers. Thus, if I have to confess sins to GET forgiven, then in what condition am I before I confess? I’m unforgiven. Right? Yes. So what we would have here is a person who is saved, but because he has not yet confessed a sin, is unforgiven. Thus, we have an "unforgiven Christian."
But wait. It gets worse. Are you and I EVER to the point where we have confessed every sin we have ever committed – even the ones we don’t know about? Hardly. The point is this: There are always going to be unconfessed sins in our lives. Sins we are not even conscious of. Are those unforgiven UNTIL we confess them? If they are, then again, what we have is an "unforgiven Christian." Indeed, that is what ALL of us would be ALL the time – for all of us have some unconfessed sin!
An unforgiven Christian? Is there such a thing? There can’t be. For the way I become a Christian is by coming to Jesus and discovering that forgiveness for ALL my sin is in Him.
Note the clear words of Paul:
In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: (Col. 1:14)
In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. (Eph. 1:7)
If I am a Christian, I am "in Christ." And "in Christ" there is forgiveness for all sin. Thus, it is impossible to be "in Christ" but unforgiven. Again, we confess sin, not to get forgiven, but because we see that, in Christ, we already are.
Confession of sin is really saying the same thing about it that God says. To "say the same thing" is what the Greek word translated "confess" means. And what DOES God say about sin? He says that it is WRONG, and that we must FORSAKE it. But He also tells us that it is FORGIVEN in Christ.
Have you and I realized that – right now – we are as forgiven as we are ever going to be? Have we realized that God has done all the forgiving He is going to do? Have we understood that God’s forgiveness for sin is as finished and as final as the death of Jesus which paid for it? The finality of the Cross is central to Christianity. Understand it and so much other Christian teaching starts to line up and become clear.
John is telling us that the forgiveness of God, in Jesus Christ, is finished. It is a done deal. But only IN CHRIST. In other words, Christ died for ALL. But only those who "come to Jesus" can receive the forgiveness Christ won for them – because it is in Him alone.
You have to "come to Jesus" to be forgiven. But once you do, you ARE forgiven – totally and completely for ALL sin. Thus, if we later sin, it is not a matter of losing our forgiveness, and then getting it back by confessing. If that were the case, we would be popping in and out of Christ our whole lives. This cannot be the Truth.
Rather than try to "keep ourselves forgiven" by confessing sins, we must see that obtaining God’s forgiveness never depended on our confession to begin with. It depended on Jesus Christ. Our confession is an expression of our faith in what HE has done – and completely finished forever.
So there is nothing wrong with turning to God and confessing our sins and faults. We ought to. But we should not be doing this because we think we must in order to get forgiven. Rather, we should do it in the faith and knowledge that we ARE forgiven. Our confession is nothing more than an acknowledgement of our sin, and the fact that Jesus is sufficient for it.
What We Will
John goes on to say to his readers, "My little children, these things I write unto you that you sin not." He then goes onto say, "But if you do sin, we have Jesus Christ."
Human reasoning might suggest that telling someone that their forgiveness is finished might provide them with a license to sin. But John says the opposite. He tells us that we are forgiven. He tells us that is no sin we can commit that can undo the forgiveness of God. But then he says that the reason he is telling us this is "so that you may sin not."
John knows that if a person REALLY sees the gravity of his sin, and embraces the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ, that they will NOT WANT to sin. They can’t want to sin. They will forever be governed by a reverence for what Jesus has done for them. They will have repented of sin.
All of us sin, and we have a flesh that generally likes it. But if I am a Christian, I became one by repenting of sin, and embracing the forgiveness of God. I cannot then turn around and WANT to sin. Therefore, despite the fact that I do sin, and my flesh continues to like it, the "real me" doesn’t want to sin. Read Romans 7. Paul the apostle explains:
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Rom. 7:19-20)
According to Paul, and he ought to know, if you do those things which you really don’t want to do, it isn’t the "real you" who is doing them. You ARE responsible, of course. That is why John tells us to confess our sins. But your will wasn’t "in" the sin. And that makes all the difference in the world.
You and I may not be able to DO very well, or act out what we "will" all the time, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a free will, or that it doesn’t count. What we WILL is what we are more than we can imagine. God looks there, at the heart. If we continue to WILL to obey God, in time, we will see a greater ability to actually DO it.
The fact that Paul is able to say that he wants to do one thing, but finds himself doing another, is a great proof that we have a free will – even if the flesh prevents us from working it out. Free will is what I want. My heart. It is not necessarily seen in my doing or performance. However, it eventually will be – depending upon where my faith rests.
Having laid some groundwork, we can now move to the word, "propitiation." We have already seen that it once embodied the "appeasement" of an angry pagan god. And we have said that this is NOT what it means with reference to the One True God. So what does it mean?
"Propitiation" – in I John – speaks, not of someone acting upon GOD to change HIS attitude towards US, but rather of something which acts upon US -- that changes OUR attitude towards GOD.
This "something" which changes us is, of course, the Redemption of Jesus Christ. WE are changed through it – God is not changed.
"Hilasmos" – the Greek for "propitiation" -- is used in the Bible only twice, here in I John 2:2, and then in I John 4:10. Both times it is said, not the Jesus merely worked a propitiation for us, but that He IS the propitiation. The word means "to graciously remove, or purge sin." It speaks of a CHANGE – from enmity to friendship. It is akin to the Greek words which are often translated "reconciliation."
Jesus Christ became to us everything necessary – yes, to remove our guilt FOR sin. But more importantly, He removed SIN ITSELF.
That is propitiation. Jesus did not merely bear our guilty or punishment. He did. But He bore our SIN. We must see this, or we will never see why we are truly set free from sin.
"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away…" – the what? The punishment of the world? No, "the sin of the world."
So Christ was once offered to bear the… – what? The punishment of many? No, "the sins of many."
I Peter 2:24
Who his own self bore our… -- what? Punishment? No, "bore our sins in his own body on the tree."
He was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the… – what? The punishment of many? No, "bore the sin of many."
II Cor. 5:21
For He made Him, who knew no sin, to be -- what? Our punishment bearer? No, "to be SIN for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
Through Christ, we are not only forgiven for sin, but delivered from it. This is the true intent of the word "propitiation" -- that Jesus also purged us of sin. He evoked a change in us where by we could come back to God.
The Old Man of Sin
The word "propitiation" is descriptive of the fact that we are actually delivered from the power of sin, and in fact, have freedom from it right now if we are in Christ. This is what Paul tells us in Romans 6:
Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he lives, he lives unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. (Romans 6:6-13)
If God merely FORGAVE us for sin, it would not, in and of itself, actually set us free from sin itself. In fact, we would then be forgiven, but still in the power of sin. This cannot be. Paul teaches that we are both forgiven AND delivered. Our "old man" of sin truly died in Christ, and thus, "he" no longer has the power of us. We have the power to walk free of sin, in obedience to God.
Then why do we continue to sin? Because our BODY – our flesh – isn’t saved. Paul explains this in Romans 7. He can’t make his flesh behave, even though he wants to. But he does assure us that if we continue to believe and yield to God, that obedience will become a greater and greater reality for us.
So what we have are people who are, in reality, set free from the power of sin – through the death and resurrection of Christ. But people who continue to exist inside of fleshly bodies which are subject to this fallen creation. Thus, despite the reality of our freedom, it takes time for us to discover and experience that freedom, and to learn to walk in it.
If we are born again in Christ, we are called SAINTS. But sometimes saints act like sinners. This does not change their true identity. They nevertheless belong to Christ, even if sometimes they don’t act like it – or cannot act like it because of the weakness of the flesh.
The Mercy Seat
The ark of the covenant was the most important piece of "furniture" in the tabernacle. It is probably the most complete type of Jesus Christ found anywhere in the Old Testament. And it points directly to the "propitiation" which Jesus is to us as believers.
This is the ark (opened, and without a crown).
The ark stood in the "holy of holies," or "most holy place." This was a room within the tabernacle, which was divided from the rest of the tabernacle by a thick curtain – a veil. This room was a perfect cube, about 15 feet for each dimension. The ark itself was an oblong box, about 3 ¾ feet long, and 2 ¼ feet high. It was made of wood, yet covered with pure gold. Two gold cherubs sat atop the ark, one on each end. They had their wings folded and were looking down upon the top of the ark. Last, but not least, the ark wore a crown around it’s top parameter. (see Exodus 25:17, 18, 21, 22)
The ark was made of wood, which shows the humanity of Jesus Christ. The gold which covered it speaks of His Divinity. But not just any gold. It was both PURE and BEATEN. This shows that Jesus was sinless, but also beaten for our sins.
The items in the ark all point to Christ. The pot of manna shows God’s continual provision to us of what we need while on our "wilderness journey" through life. The manna is Jesus as "the Bread which came down from heaven." The rod of Aaron shows resurrection. In Christ we have new life. The law, however, shows the righteousness, and judgment of God. Jesus fulfilled the law, and bore OUR judgment.
The ark had a lid, called the "mercy seat." It was upon this mercy seat that the two cherubs sat. They sat, equipped with their wings, looking down upon the mercy seat. Thus, what the cherubs saw was the mercy seat, sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice – rather than the broken law of God which was in the ark. This is why the ark – which would have been a judgment seat – could be a mercy seat. Because of the blood.
The cherubs stand for God’s glory. God actually came down and placed His glory between these cherubs, above the mercy seat, or lid of the ark. Thus, we see that the mercy seat is imposed BETWEEN God and His broken law. The blood upon the mercy seat likewise comes between the sinner and the glory of God. So rather than be judged by the law, we are saved by the Blood.
Paul tells us in Romans:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation (i.e., mercy seat) through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. (Romans 3:23-25)
Paul uses the exact word for mercy seat, here, in this verse, in reference to Jesus Christ. HE is our mercy seat. Jesus Christ is the place where God meets man. He is the means by which everything about us which breaks God’s law is paid for. And further, He is the means by which everything about us which breaks God’s law is CHANGED. That is propitiation.
The Fear of God
The ancient thought of propitiation, as we saw, referred to the need to appease an angry god. The worshipper had to do whatever was necessary to change the attitude of the false god from one of anger over to one of being pleased. But we have also seen that this is never the thought in the Bible. It is MAN who needs changed -- not God.
Now, having said that the concept of APPEASEMENT is a thought foreign to the New Testament, it is nevertheless a fact that it IS the thought of many Christians. Many of us think that Jesus was, on the Cross, appeasing God’s anger. And many of us live our lives as if we think we need to continue to appease God. In short, we live as if we are afraid of God.
Of course, the Bible speaks about "the fear of the Lord." But what is it? – if not "being afraid of God?"
When the Bible talks about "the fear of the Lord," it is never referring to "being afraid of God." We know this for certain, because of what John tells us in I John 4. He says, "God is love." (I John 4:16) But then he adds, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear." (I John 4:18)
Now notice: If God IS love, and perfect love casts out fear, then God casts out fear! Quite the opposite of what some of us believe: That God incites fear. No. God cannot incite fear because everything about Him actually casts out fear. God is the embodiment of love.
So what is "the fear of the Lord?" It is a REVERENCE and AWE. It is reflective of the great value and worship I accrue to God. It IS love!
Have we realized that all of the ideas we have had about God – about needing to be afraid of Him – are lies? That these are lies of the enemy? I think it to be universally true: All fear goes back to some place I have embraced a lie about God. Perhaps subtlety. But for sure. I cannot be afraid of God if I am resting in the Truth about Him – for such Truth would "cast out" fear.
All of this points us to the Truth of RECONCILIATION. It is mankind that has been deceived about God – and therefore stands aloof of Him. It is mankind that has a mind that is at enmity against God. It is mankind that is hiding from God. WE need to be reconciled to God. God does not need to be reconciled to us. In short, God needs no propitiation. We need it – and have it through Christ.
"Reconciliation," in the Bible, comes from a group of words which mean "to exchange enmity for friendship." For this to happen, there is, of course, the necessity for CHANGE within someone’s heart and attitude. It is the heart of man that needs changing, and never God.
We see this clearly expressed every time "reconciliation" is spoken of in the Bible. NEVER is it said that God needs to be reconciled to man. It is always that man needs to be reconciled to God, and that Jesus Christ both made that reconciliation possible, and IS that reconciliation personified.
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:10)
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. (II Cor. 5:17-20)
Through the sin of Adam, mankind was set at enmity against God. But through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we were all given the means by which we could be reconciled back to God. God was, and is, waiting. Indeed, He Himself, took our sin upon Himself so that we could be reconciled.
How do we do that? We COME TO JESUS. HE is our reconciliation. If we hear the Word of God – the true gospel – we will hear that God has already done everything necessary for us to come back to Him. The gospel – which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16) – will give us what faith we need to take that step to "come to Jesus." It will give us at least that much faith, for "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." But we must do this. God will bring the Light. But He isn’t going to force us into it.
This is why Paul says, on the one hand, "we WERE reconciled to God by the death of His Son," and on the other, "be ye reconciled." God has done everything possible to reconcile us back to Himself. But we are here talking about LOVE. You can’t force love or mandate it. By definition, it is totally voluntary.
Adam, Where Art Thou?
A wonderful picture of God’s eternal attitude of reconciliation towards us is found in the Genesis account of the fall. Adam sinned. He died spiritually. And in Genesis 3, we see the aftermath.
And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. (Genesis 3:8-10)
Just look at the attitudes. WHO is hiding from WHO? And WHO is seeking out WHO? Adam is hiding. God is seeking. So ask: Who is pictured as the one initiating reconciliation?
God. Instead of a God who gets mad, withdraws, and hides Himself because of sin, we see a God who comes seeking out the sinner.
Let’s face it, it isn’t likely that God did not know from top to bottom everything which had happened. He did. He knows everything. When He came saying, "Adam, where art thou?," it wasn’t because God got lost. God was saying, "Adam, you have become lost. You have forsaken Me. To where have you fallen?"
Adam was hiding. And there, in the garden, behind the trees, we see everyone of us, fearful and hiding. There is no thought on the part of Adam of reconciliation with God.
God, from the start, begins working at reconciliation. But He knows that this is not simply a matter of "kissing and making up." Adam killed his affinity with God. There was no reconciliation possible – even had Adam wanted it. Thus, God had to deal with what Adam had become. He started with that animal sacrifice he used to clothe Adam and Eve.
Through Jesus Christ, God has purged everything about us which made fellowship and reconciliation with God impossible. This was accomplished in the only way possible: Adam had to DIE. He did, in Christ. And then God raised up a new creation – one able to fellowship with God. That is why Paul says, "You are a new creation. Be you reconciled to God."
Right now, there is absolutely nothing standing between yourself and God – except anything YOU put there through unbelief. God beckons us TO believe – because Jesus Christ Himself is our propitiation – God’s place of reconciliation. *
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