Propitiation and God’s wrath

John writes that Jesus Christ Himself is the propitiation for the sins of the believer (1 John 2:2a).  There has been much debate about the meaning of the word propitiation.  Some have suggested that it is synonymous with expiation, meaning that through Christ God has canceled the debt of sin.  Others have said it is that and more — that through His death, Christ has turned away and satisfied the wrath of God against the sins of men.

Those who favor the meaning of expiation typically do so because of their aversion to the concept of God’s wrath — the idea of an angry, hostile God is abhorrent to them — so they take the word propitiation to mean something less than a satisfaction of wrath.  God is not angry, vengeful, and wrathful, they assert.

Yet, as John Stott has noted, we must remember that when the Scriptures speak of God’s wrath and anger, it does so in a particular way:

“God’s wrath is not arbitrary or capricious.  It bears no resemblance to the unpredictable passions and personal vengeance of the pagan deities.  Instead, it is His settled, controlled, holy antagonism to all evil.  Secondly, the means by which His wrath is averted is not a bribe, either from us or from a third party.  On the contrary, the initiative in the propitiation is entirely God’s.” [The Letters of John]

In other words, God’s anger is far different than ours typically is.  God’s wrath is always just (righteous), appropriate, fair, and controlled.  And when that wrath was met by the infinitely satisfying sacrifice of Christ, it was fully abated, never to return against those who trust in Christ.

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