Propitiation in the Bible: What Does It Mean?

Propitiation is not a commonly used word today. In the Bible it is used in connection with Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. What does this word mean?

Propitiation for our sins

The word propitiation is used in the Bible in connection with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. The Bible states clearly that the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a sinless life; and by His death He paid the penalty for our sins so we might receive the gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-5).

The word propitiation appears in the New King James Version of the Bible in four verses: Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; and 1 John 4:10. In each case the word is used to express the grace of God, which allows Jesus’ sacrifice to be the means by which our sins can be forgiven.

Other translations (such as the New Revised Standard Version and New International Version) use the word atonement instead.

Propitiation in Romans 3:25

Romans 3:24-25 emphasizes that it is by God’s grace and patience that our past sins are forgiven through “a propitiation by” Jesus’ blood—that is, by the atonement provided through His sacrifice. “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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.”

Propitiation also conveys God’s mercy, as indicated by the translation of the same Greek word hilasterion as “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5. This is a reference to the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and represents God’s throne, which is the source of mercy (Hebrews 4:16). See also Exodus 25:17-22.

Propitiation word study

Word Studies in the Greek New Testament by Kenneth Wuest gives this information about hilasterion:

“The word hilastérion is used in Lev. 16:14 [in the Greek Septuagint] to refer to the golden cover on the Ark of the Covenant. In the Ark, below this cover, were the tablets of stone upon which were written the ten commandments which Israel had violated. Before the Ark stood the High Priest representing the people. When the sacrificial blood is sprinkled on this cover, it ceases to be a place of judgment and becomes a place of mercy. The blood comes between the violated law and the violators, the people. The blood of Jesus satisfies the just requirements of God’s holy law which mankind broke, pays the penalty for man, and thus removes that which had separated between a holy God and sinful man, sin, its guilt and penalty.

“The word in its classical form was used of the act of appeasing the Greek gods by a sacrifice, of rendering them favorable toward the worshipper. In other words, the sacrifice was offered to buy off the anger of the god and buy his love. Such a use is not brought over into the NT because our God does not need to be appeased nor is His love for sale.

“The word is used in the . . . Septuagint in the sense of an atonement or reconciliation. It refers to the act of getting rid of sin which has come between God and man . . .

“‘The scripture conception of this word is not that of appeasing one who is angry with a personal feeling against the offender, but of altering the character of that which, from without, occasions a necessary alienation, and interposes an inevitable obstacle to fellowship.’”

Three more uses of propitiation

While the word propitiation is not commonly part of our vocabulary, it expresses the profound love and grace of both God the Father and Jesus Christ in providing a sacrifice that allows our sins to be forgiven so that we can receive the gift of salvation.The word propitiation also is used in Hebrews 2:17 in the New King James Version. It is translated from a related Greek word hilaskomai, which the King James Version translates as reconciliation. This verse explains that Jesus’ experience as a man prepared Him to be our High Priest and for His sacrifice to be the “propitiation” for our sins. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

The same Greek word is also used in the appeal of a publican when he cried out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

The last two uses of propitiation in the New King James Version are from the related Greek word hilasmos.

In 1 John 2:1-2 we see that it is by the atoning sacrifice (propitiation) of Jesus that all the sins of mankind can be covered. “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

In 1 John 4:10 John emphasizes that the propitiation (atoning sacrifice) was not made because we loved God, but because He first loved us. And because of His profound love He sent Jesus to be our sacrifice for sin: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Appreciating propitiation

While the word propitiation is not commonly part of our vocabulary, it expresses the profound love and grace of both God the Father and Jesus Christ in providing a sacrifice that allows our sins to be forgiven so that we can receive the gift of salvation.

Study more about this in our articles “The Greatest Sacrifice Ever” and “What Is the Grace of God?

About the Author

Don Henson

Don Henson

Don Henson, along with his wife, Rannie, is currently the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Akron-Canton and Columbus-Cambridge, Ohio. He has been in the pastoral ministry since 1986, previously serving congregations in Oregon, Tennessee, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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