Words Matter: Propitiation

Very few Christians today use the word “propitiation” as part of their regular vocabulary, even fewer Christians actually understand its meaning and it’s just plain confusing to the unchurched. Surely, it should pass away from usage in preaching and teaching like beseech, begat, and bulwark have passed from common usage. Let’s just update it. Or should we?’

What the word means…

The concept of propitiation is built off the doctrine of God’s wrath. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible says God’s wrath refers to “the settled opposition of his holy nature to everything that is evil.” It goes on to describe how propitiation relates: “When the NT says ‘propitiation,’ then, it means that Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of mankind put away God’s wrath against his people once and for all.” Simply put, propitiation conveys God’s justice and God’s love at the same time in one word. This makes it an utterly unique word.

Why it’s important

In his book, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, D. A. Carson states propitiation “holds together all the other biblical ways of talking about the cross.” It is impossible to understand the wrath of God throughout Scripture or fully grasp the concept of God’s justice at the cross without the concept of propitiation. Other words can be used to help explain the doctrine or idea of propitiation but no single word can replace propitiation and still convey its meaning.

OK, so there’s only one good word to describe the concept. Does that mean we should necessarily keep it? Since no other word fully captures its meaning, it is impossible to simply use another word, and putting a phrase (especially a longer one) into a verse to capture its meaning makes it burdensome to read and can alter the way the entire verse is understood in relation to the original Greek or Hebrew words.

A final consideration is that there are times when accuracy is more important than simplicity. When we use the word propitiation, we are employing a very precise, specific word to describe the central doctrine of the entire Christian faith and the greatest hope of every human being on earth.

Not the baby with the bathwater

Many modern translations have substituted other words or phrases in the place of propitiation. For example in 1 John 2:2, The New International Version uses “atoning sacrifice” and the New Living Translation uses “sacrifice that atones.”

Other more word-for-word translations, like the English Standard Version & Holman Christian Standard Bible use “propitiation” here. While the NIV and NLT are trying to be accessible (a worthy goal for a translation), the ESV and HCSB seek accuracy, knowing that the word propitiation more fully captures the meaning of the word in the Greek.

I understand the desire for pastors to be clear, relevant and accessible to their listeners but in an effort to do just that we can clear away too much language. For example, the word “gospel” is not one used by our culture, yet we hang on to it. Why? Because no other word captures the actual meaning. It is better for people to be slightly confused by a word they don’t know than misled or given an incomplete picture by one they do know.

On the Today Show in 1994, Brian Gumble and Katie Couric once debated, “What is internet anyway?” and discussed whether “@” means “at” or “about.” What they didn’t recommend was that we should come up with a better word for the internet, because people find it confusing. The word internet perfectly captures what the world wide web is and individuals just needed some explanation to fill in the picture. That’s what the word propitiation does for the cross.

Use it/explain it/delight in the cross

The unchurched struggle with lots of Christian words but don’t make the mistake that we can be faithful to God’s Word and somehow reduce all of the language to the lowest common denominator. We do need to be sensitive to our listeners and probably should not just throw the word “propitiation” into a sermon without explanation or clarification unless we are speaking at a seminary.

One final truth to keep in mind is that helping people to understand propitiation is not simply some theological vocabulary exercise but is bringing people to the foot of the cross to perceive the cross in all its glory. Propitiation is central to our hope. It is central our peace. It is central to joy. That makes it an important word.

For further study

D.A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
John Stott, The Cross of Christ


Published March 23, 2015