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August 23, 2006

It’s the word of the day.  And that’s really weird because I’ve been thinking a lot about the word lately and plan to include a paragraph about it when I speak at Free Life tomorrow night.

We don’t use the word much anymore.  But 50 years ago there was a raging debate in the theological schools about whether to translate the Greek word “hilasterion” in Romans 3:25 as propitiation or expiation.  Both words refer to an atoning sacrifice.  Propitiation is what the sacrifice does to the wrath of God.  It placates, pacifies, propitiates the wrath of God.  Expiation is what the sacrifice does to our sin.  It cleanses, removes, washes away our sins.

The liberals argued for expiation, because they don’t believe in the wrath of God.  We argued for propitiation and won.  But we need to affirm both.  The liberals were wrong to try to reduce the atonement to mere expiation.  But liberalophobia has caused now to neglect expiation altogether.

Propitiation is the answer to our guilt and fear of punishment.  But expiation is what we need to think about when facing feelings of shame and defilement.  Because of propitiation our sin is covered.  Because of expiation our sin is cleansed.   We are thankful to be clothed in robes of righteousness.  But we also feel like we need a shower.   The good news is that we have been not only covered but also cleansed by the blood of Christ.

Hebrews 9:14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Marc Driscoll sermons lately.  He’s coarse and controversial.  I love him.  You can download his sermons here.  I’ve noticed that he places more emphasis on expiation in his preaching of the cross than I do.  I’m just beginning to think this through, so help me out.  Do you see other benefits of placing more emphasis on expiation (without, of course, diminishing propitiation)?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Oddball permalink
    August 23, 2006 2:48 pm

    I think you’re onto something very profound and important. God isn’t just angered by our sin; he’s also grieved by it. He loves us too much to leave us mired in filth. (I think anyone who’s ever seen a loved one self-destruct can relate to this mixed feeling of anger and grief.) It’s too bad there isn’t an English word that captures the meaning of both propitiation and expiation.

  2. August 23, 2006 7:25 pm

    One of the definitions of “expiate” in the dictionary is “to extinguish the guilt incurred” and another is “to pay the penalty”. I like that word extinguish – to extinguish a flame means to smother it and put it out completely. Some of the definitions of “expiation” are “the act of making atonement” and “the means by which atonement is made”. Jesus’ act was suffering and death…his means was blood and the cross…so his death on the cross propitiated God’s just and righteous wrath, and simultaneously expiated or extinguished our sin and guilt. Through our faith in Jesus’ act and means, God can therefore be both just and a justifier – it would not do us much good to have a just God if we ourselves were not justified (propitiation without expiation), or to be justified by an unjust God (expiation without propitiation).

    Perhaps the difference between propitiation and expiation in terms of Cosmic Churchly Significance is that propitiation happened through one solitary momentous act involving God alone, while the process of expiation started with that act but continues in a much smaller sense in each of us today, through grace and faith, and by repentance and prayer? Does that seem right? If so, then of course propitiation would take precedence, but the benefit of stressing expiation would be the added emphasis on our continued confession, repentance, prayer, and trust, all of which lead to “faith counted as righteousness.” Yes/No?

  3. August 24, 2006 2:30 pm


    Good question. I think that you might be overlapping expiation and sanctification. I think that we should also say that expiation is once for all.

    Also, our continued confession, repentance, prayer and trust do not lead to our faith being counted as righteousness. Rather our faith is counted as righteousness because the gift of righteousness is received by faith and that too happens once for all.

    Why then do we still ask for forgiveness of sins and cleansing for our sins now if they are in fact already forgiven? This is a question that Edwards’ answers in his work on “Justification by Faith Alone” Here’s an excerpt:

    “And that it is so, that God in the act of final justification which he passes at the sinner’s conversion, has respect to perseverance in faith, and future acts of faith, as being virtually implied in the first act, is further manifest by this, viz. That in a sinner’s justification, at his conversion there is virtually contained a forgiveness as to eternal and deserved punishment, not only of all past sins, but also of all future infirmities and acts of sin that they shall be guilty of, because that first justification is decisive and final. And yet pardon, in the order of nature, properly follows the crime, and also follows those acts of repentance and faith that respect the crime pardoned, as is manifest both from reason and Scripture. David, in the beginning of Psalm 32 speaks of the forgiveness of sins which were doubtless committed long after he was first godly, as being consequent on those sins, and on his repentance and faith with respect to them, and yet this forgiveness is spoken of by the apostle in the 4th of Romans, as an instance of justification by faith.”

    In other words, there is a sense in which the forgiveness of today’s sin is dependent upon your future persevering faith and repentance. But that future faith and repentance was “virtually implied in the first act” of faith and repentance. Thus you were justified once and for all through your first act of faith alone, but that faith contained the seek of persevering faith. Justifying faith is always persevering faith.

  4. August 24, 2006 4:22 pm

    I read this post and have been chewing on it since. I found a link on Justin Taylor’s blog to new music by Leeland Moorning. I downloaded a couple songs and then looked up the lyrics for one called “Carried to the Table.” Check it out…

    Wounded and forsaken
    I was shattered by the fall
    Broken and forgotten
    Feeling lost and all alone
    Summoned by the King
    Into the Master’s courts
    Lifted by the Savior
    And cradled in His arms

    I was carried to the table
    Seated where I don’t belong
    Carried to the table
    Swept away by His love
    And I don’t see my brokenness anymore
    When I’m seated at the table of the Lord
    I’m carried to the table
    The table of the Lord

    Fighting thoughts of fear
    And wondering why He called my name
    Am I good enough to share this cup
    This world has left me lame
    Even in my weakness
    The Savior called my name
    In His Holy presence
    I’m healed and unashamed

    You carried me, my God
    You carried me

  5. Ellie permalink
    August 24, 2006 5:01 pm

    Thanks for the corrections and further explanations. Sometimes it is hard for me to believe that the first act of faith, however small, could have such an impact – but that is probably because I still think too much about the work that we do and not enough about the work that God does – or did – because of course you are right, expiation would have to also be once for all, because the alternative is that we would be capable of atoning for our own sins. Is that right? I still have (old) (worldly) ideas lurking about, leading me to believe that I can make amends for myself with God, which of course I absolutely can’t, so my sorry attempts to do so lead to guilt and stress and wrong ideas. Hmm. This is good.

  6. Ellie permalink
    August 24, 2006 5:07 pm

    I thought of this:

    Jesus paid it all,
    All to Him I owe;
    Sin had left a crimson stain,
    He washed it white as snow.

    For nothing good have I
    Whereby Thy grace to claim,
    I’ll wash my garments white
    In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

  7. Egana permalink
    August 27, 2006 4:05 pm

    “I think that we should also say that expiation is once for all.”

    I read this, and teared up. Couldn’t read any more. Couldn’t type.

    Clean. Always clean. No shameful stains. Satan tries to plague me. He says “sure, you’re forgiven, but look how disgusting you are.”

    I’ve put much hope into the new body, the new person I will be in the new Heaven and the new Earth. Too much, I think, hoping to comfort my awareness of my flithiness with the promise of a new, clean me.

    But, if I am clean already, washed by His blood once and for all, perpetually washed by this blood, this precious blood that poured from the veins of the perfect servant-son, the second Adam, the one through whom all things were made and who rejoiced daily in the presence of His Father as he crafted the universe with his words…

    Expiation… what a beautiful word…


    I’ve been scotchguarded?!?!

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