It is the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. Maybe you got caught up a little in the Black Friday deals yesterday. Maybe you have had some family tensions resurface as you visited home and your responses and actions weren’t always Christlike. This might mean you shied away from conflict where conflict was needed or possibly that you charged in when tact and thoughtfulness were called for. Maybe you are setting up your Christmas tree and simply got to thinking about the one who would die upon a tree and take our curse upon himself. Whatever it was or is I thought I might draw our attention to the gospel – specifically how Christ propitiated the wrath of God and what that means. These words are taken from John Murray’s little book Redemption Accomplished and Applied.
To propitiate means to “placate,” “pacify,” “appease,” “conciliate.” And it is this idea that is applied to the atonement accomplished by Christ.
Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the very purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious [favorable] to his people.
Perhaps no tenet respecting atonement has been more violently criticized than this one. It has been assailed as involving a mythological conception of God, as supposing internal conflict in the mind of God and between the persons of the Godhead. It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.
When the doctrine of propitiation is presented in this light it can be very effectively criticized and can be exposed as a revolting caricature of the Christian gospel. But the doctrine of propitiation does not involve this caricature by which it has been misconceived and misrepresented. To say the least, this kind of criticism has failed to understand or appreciate some elementary and important distinctions.
First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love. It is loose thinking of the deplorable sort to claim that propitiation of the divine wrath does prejudice to or is incompatible with the fullest recognition that the atonement is the provision of the divine love.
Secondly, propitiation is not a turning of the wrath of God into love. The propitiation of the divine wrath, effected in the expiatory work of Christ, is the provision of God’s eternal and unchangeable love, so that through the propitiation of his own wrath that love may realize is purpose in a way that is consant with and to the glory of the dictates of his holiness. It is one thing to say that the wrathful God is made loving. That would be entirely false. It is another thing to say the wrathful God is loving. That is profoundly true. But it is also true that the wrath by which he is wrathful is propitiated through the cross. This propitiation is the fruit of the divine love that provided it. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The propitiation is the ground upon which the divine love operates and the channel through which it flows in achieving its end.
Thirdly, propitiation does not detract from the love and mercy of God; it rather enhances the marvel of his love. For it shows the cost that redemptive love entails. God is love. But the supreme object of that love is himself. And because he loves himself supremely he cannot suffer what belongs to the integrity of his character and glory to be compromised to or curtailed. That is the reason for the propitiation. God appeases his own holy wrath in the cross of Christ in order that the purpose of his love to lost men may be accomplished in accordance with and to the vindication of all the perfections that constitute his glory. “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through the faith in his blood to show his righteousness . . . that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).