Propitiation and atonement are two different things, but are both related to the same thing – neither would be required if sin did not exist. Bibles, such as the NIV that substitute propitiation with atonement, are doing a disservice to God at best and is belittling the work of Christ at worse, disregarding the fact our righteous God’s wrath required appeasement in order for grace to abound. Whilst atonement, which relates to the reality of cleansing, has at its focus an individual, and thus concerns reconciliation of sinners to God or more rightly denotes the way that reconciliation occurs, in that atonement provided by the blood of Christ reconciles the sinner to God, propitiation is concerned about God, in particular appeasing His wrath in order to satisfies His righteousness, enabling Him to justify those that turn to Him in faith. Propitiation enables God to demonstrate his love and grace; it does not produce these, but allows God to become consistent with his character in order for Him to have communion with people.
These two words have their commonality in the mercy seat, found on the Ark of the Covenant, under Mosaic Law. On the great Day of Atonement the high priest carried the blood of the sacrifice he offered for all the people within the veil of the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the “mercy-seat,” with it and so made propitiation. It is upon the mercy seat (which can be called the propitiation, i.e. as a noun) that the atonement takes place; the sacrifice of Christ, once for all, who offered himself, satisfied all that God’s righteousness requires in order to exercise grace to those that believe.
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:28)
I noticed that other day when someone was reading Romans 3:25 that they used the term atonement, when I knew that the noun was propitiation:
Jesus Christ 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 (Romans 3:24b, 25)
At first I thought I had misheard the reading, but on reflection it was clearly chapter 3 of Romans, and I had not misheard, because the reader had used the NIV version of the Bible. That raised the question, could the noun atonement be substituted for propitiation?
The first place I started was to read the verse in Greek – what was the actual word being translated? The word used by the Apostle Paul in verse 25 of Romans 3 is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which is a noun and speaks of the means of expiation.
Furthermore, I found ‘propitiation’ is used four times in Scripture, all of which are translated from this word, or a form of this word. The others are found in Hebrews 2:17 (hilaskomai, verb), 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 (hilasmos, noun). It is from the root word ἱλασμός which means expiator according to Strong’s Concordance, and more correctly appeasement necessitated by sin (BDAG).
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.
1 John 4:10
Related to this we find in Hebrews 9:5 (ἱλαστήριον, hilastērion) the place of propitiation where the noun is usually translated mercy seat, being the actual place propitiation takes place.
Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. (Hebrews 9:5a)
The verb ἱλάσκομαι (hilaskomai) can be found in Hebrews 2:17 meaning to eliminate impediments that alienate (the deity) (BDAG)1.
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. (Hebrews 2:17)
Propitiation focuses on God; so when we think about what it means we need to think about what holiness and justice really mean. Although out of favour, it is still true that God will judge all things and His wrath will be upon all who reject Christ. But what about His wrath when He justifies those that put their faith in Him? How is this possible? Humans tend not to think about how our sin has impacted God. He created a perfect world and He saw (and said) all that was in it was good, including the first two humans, Adam and Eve. This was until they sinned, which had devastating consequences for the whole universe (Romans 8:20), who from that time awaited a solution (Romans 8:22).
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16, 17)
Note clearly that sin brings about death, and hence what follows is the doctrine of the wages of sin being death, which was brought into force from the time Adam sinned (Romans 5:14). Since that time, we learn that:
God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day. (Psalms 7:11)
This continues today, due to the natural hardness of man’s heart, which rejects Christ, and therefore, the righteous God must pour His wrath upon them:
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Romans 2:5)
This means God will act in accordance to His character and punish all who are descendants of Adam, all of whom have the original sinful nature. This being the impact of Adam’s sin – prior to this punishment of His perfect creation was not in His preview – there was no sin. Yet we learn (see also from the Letter to the Romans) that God is merciful:
But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath; For He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes away and does not come again. (Psalms 78:38-39)
Escaping this penalty requires the exercise of God’s grace manifested through our faith in Jesus, but this would not satisfy the wrath of God. Wrath naturally flows from righteousness which is exercised in justice and is an element of holiness, in that a holy God’s just response against that which is not righteous is wrath. That is, to remain just, God’s holy wrath against sin must be satisfied. Thus since the penalty for sin is death, God demands a payment of death, which can be substitutionary (undertaken by Jesus Christ – no one else is good enough); it is this substitutionary sacrifice which turns God’s wrath, and which is propitiatory. The alternative is God’s wrath exercised – Satan and his angels, along with all the wicked (those who reject Christ’s redeeming work on the cross) will be thrown in the lake of everlasting fire, called Hell.
Why Christ as a substitute? A person who substitutes dying for us cannot be that of another sinner (i.e. any other person, for all have sinned), because their death would merely become payment for their own sin. Thus, our propitiation must be someone who was innocent of sin and this means someone who did not have a sinful nature; only the Lord Jesus Christ could fulfil this criterion. (Evidenced from the fact Christ did not need to offer a sacrifice, as earthly priests such as Aaron had to, for his own sin, because he had none - Hebrews 7:27). He could be the substitute for you or I because Jesus was born of a virgin, thus He did not inherit the sin nature of Adam, and therefore was not in rebellion against God, as Adam and all his descendent are (or where) (Romans 5).
Propitiation is God focused and concerns reconciliation (it literally expiates sin, in particular our guilt); atonement is man focused and concerns cleansing.
While we delight with joy and adoration in Christ because of his sacrifice on the cross and because he saves us from God’s wrath there is a tendency to think only of Christ’s work as being solely for our benefit, when the ultimate benefit was to bring glory to the holy and just God who was glorified in the work of Christ (John 17). The principle reason for Christ’s death is God-ward: meaning the most important aspect is God’s benefit as it provides a means by which He can turn his wrath away from His creation, and in particular His people, and whereby He can exercise His true character of love. In relation to people, propitiation stems from His love for us (1 John 4:10); we were unable to love God, so He sent his son to provide a means by which we could love Him.
Propitiation refers to the satisfaction of God's righteousness and justice as a result of Christ's death for the sins of mankind, Romans 3:25, 26.
A true understanding of propitiation is revealed by the Ark of the Covenant, Exodus 25:10-22; 37:19 and Leviticus 16.
The Greek word hilasterion, found in Hebrews 9:5 mean’s Mercy Seat, the place of propitiation.
The Ark of the Covenant is the foreshadow of propitiation and where it was to take place. Propitiation can be understood in light of the Ark of the Covenant, Exodus 25:10-22; 37:19; Leviticus 16; Numbers 17:8 - 10 & Hebrews.9:4, 5.
The ark was a box of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It contained three items;
 (BDAG) Danker, F.W. & Bauer, W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago, Chicago 2000