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Theology in Romans - Propitiation Print E-mail
Theology in Romans

I.  Introduction:

 We argued this morning that Paul is teaching us in Romans 3:21-26 that at the cross Jesus bore the wrath of God for our sin.  Paul calls this propitiation and tells us that it was accomplished by his blood, referring to the death of Christ.  Thus, Jesus died in our place bearing the wrath of the Father that we rightly deserved due to our sin.  Yet, does the rest of the bible teach this?  I mean, is this really what the cross was about?  My answer to those questions is obviously ‘yes’, but I want us to spend some time tonight looking at how the rest of the bible supports the idea of propitiation.  As before, we will begin with biblical theology and then move to systematic theology.

II.  Biblical and Systematic Theology:

 A.  Biblical Theology: It could be argued that biblical theology prepares us more for propitiation than systematic theology.  Of course, I think both agree with Paul’s teaching, but it is interesting how poor biblical theology will lead to false conclusions about the cross, in particular the propitiatory nature of the cross.  For example, John Chalke concludes after quoting from John 3:16: “How then have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to ven his anger and wrath on his own Son?  The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.” 1 

If the bible tells us that God is loving, then how can He pour His wrath on His own Son?  We need biblical theology to answer this question, for in biblical theology we see that although the bible does teach that God is loving, it also teaches that His love is holy and just.  His love never ignores sin.  He does not have such unholy love.  No, the bible teaches that God is holy and just.  When Adam and Eve sin, they are kicked out of the garden and face the consequence of their future death.  When mankind is full of corruption, we see the judgment of the Flood.  When nations turn against God and follow their own ways, they face temporal judgments for their rebellion.  Thus, the question that biblical theology keeps before us is how could a holy God love such terrible sinners?  How could He forgive them without compromising His own holy character?  The ultimate answer to this question is found at the cross, particularly in the propitiatory nature of the cross.  Likewise, when we begin to consider the whole bible, and not just certain verses, we see that the cross was indeed loving, while at the same time involving wrath and judgment.

 So then, we could state it this way: biblical theology teaches us that God is holy and just.  We see that repeatedly in the stories of scripture.  He never takes sin lightly and His character demands that every sin be paid for.  We see this from the repeated temporal judgments to the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant.  God is holy and He deals with sin justly.  Yet, biblical theology also teaches that God is gracious and merciful.  He shows grace to Adam and Eve by providing clothes and a future promise of victory.  He has grace on Noah and Abraham and David.  He calls Israel to be His people.  He is a God who is full of grace. 

So then, how can these various characteristics of God come together in the redemption of a people?  How is God going to justly deal with their sins while at the same showing them grace and mercy?  The only answer is the cross of Christ.  At the cross, God was both just and merciful, holy and gracious.  As Paul concludes, He is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  Some might want to avoid this teaching of Paul or try to explain it in different ways, but to do so, one must ignore what the bible says about God and his dealings with man and man’s sin.  Biblical theology helps us avoid such an error so that we can understand the cross faithfully.

 B.  Systematic Theology: I want to break up our passages along two headings: the gospels and other passages that speak of or allude to propitiation.  We will look at these in turn.

  1.  Gospels: In particular, the passages in the Gospels that describe Jesus in the  Garden of Gethsemane point to propitiation.  Look at Matthew 26:36-46.  In each account  in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus prays for the cup to pass from  Him.  ‘The cup’ is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath, as referenced in several Old  Testament passages (see Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17, Ezekiel 23:31-33, see also Revelation  14:10 and 16:19).  Jesus knew that He did not just face physical death, although that  alone was terrible.  No, He prayed to be spared from the wrath of the Father, for He  knew, far better than we ever could, just how dreadful it would be.  Yet, even in His  prayer He willingly submits to the will of the Father.  The Father did not abuse His  unwilling Son.  No, Christ willingly laid His life down to satisfy the holy wrath of God  toward sinners.  This is what we learn from Jesus’ prayer in the garden.

  Likewise, there is a particular saying that Jesus utters on the cross that points to   the fact that in that moment He was bearing the wrath of the Father.  It is recorded in  Matthew 27:46.  Jesus became our substitute, our sacrifice for sin.  As He did, the Father  forsook Him, turned His back on the sin that Jesus had taken upon Himself.  In one sense,  this is a picture of the wrath of God that Jesus faced: alienation and judgment from the  Father.  It is a deeply profound moment, one the most significant, if not the most  significant, in all of human history.  The perfect, willing Son bearing the holy wrath of  the Father for worthless sinners.  There has never been nor will there ever be a more  gracious act.  Thus, we see propitiation even in the Gospel accounts of the cross.

  2.  Other passages on propitiation: Let’s begin with the Old Testament.  Look at  Isaiah 53:4-12.  Over and over again Isaiah makes the point that the coming Messiah will  pay for the sins of the people.  He will bear their punishment.  And who will this  punishment be from?  Isaiah says that it will be from God.  He will be smitten by God, for  the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all and it was the will of the Lord to crush him;  he has put him to grief.  Thus, even though Isaiah does not use the language of  propitiation, it is clear that the coming Messiah will suffer in our place for our sins at the  hand of the Lord.

  The actual term translated ‘propitiation’ is used four times in the New Testament.   First, it is used in the passage in Romans that we considered this morning.  Next, it is  used in Hebrews 2:17.  The author of Hebrews makes an extensive argument that Jesus is  both our priest and sacrifice.  He intercedes on our behalf by offering Himself at the  cross, to make a propitiation for the sins of the people.  The term is used twice in 1 John.   Look at 1 John 2:2.  Jesus is our advocate with the Father (our priest) because he is the  propitiation for our sins.  He has cleared a way through His death for us to be reconciled  with the Father even though we are sinners and only liars if we claim not to be.  Look  also at 1 John 4:10.  Interesting that many would see such an idea as ‘divine child abuse’  and unloving when John actually speaks of the propitiation of Christ as evidencing God’s  love for us.  If you want to really understand the love of God then you have to understand  propitiation, for in the propitiation of Christ for our sins, we see the holiness, justice,  graciousness, and mercy of God meet.  It is the greatest expression of love ever.  So then,  the teaching of the rest of the bible on propitiation is in complete agreement with Paul’s  words (and how we have interpreted them) in Romans 3:21-26.

III.  Implications:

 A.  Avoid making the cross only personal.  Is the cross personal?  Of course.  And we must personally repent and believe in what Christ did there.  Yet, we must not make the mistake that the cross was all about us or all about humanity.  No, the cross was about God redeeming a people and displaying His character in the act.  It was about God being the justifier of sinful men, but it was also about Him being just in His justification of men.  Thus, the cross was for us and our redemption, but it was ultimately for the glory of God, as all things are.

 B.  Avoid disconnecting the Old and New Testaments teaching about God.  We need to see the continuity in the bible’s teaching about God’s character.  Was He just and holy in the Old Testament?  Yes.  Is He just and holy in the New Testament?  Yes.  Is He loving and gracious in the New Testament?  Yes.  Was He the same in the Old?  Yes.  God has not changed.  He will never change.  The whole bible teaches us of His holiness, justice, graciousness, wrath, love, etc.  We need to believe it all.  We cannot afford to pick and choose.

 C.  Praise God for His just justification of sinners like us.  It is not hard to praise God for the fact that our sins have been forgiven and we have been justified.  Yet, we should also praise Him for doing this without compromising His character.  Only our God, only the triune God of the bible could redeem us in such a way.  He is worthy of all our praise!  Amen.

1 Quoted in Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, It is Well (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), p. 114.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 11 August 2010 )

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