When studying the atonement, you’re likely to run across two technical words: expiation and propitiation. These terms tend to appear in a text without explanation. But since they are not in the Bible and they don’t often come up in daily conversation, it can be difficult to remember what they mean.
The prefix ex means “out of” or “from.” Expiation refers to removing or taking something away. Expiation refers to taking away guilt by paying the penalty or offering of an atonement.
Christ’s death on the cross is our expiation. It is the act that pays the penalty for our guilt.
The prefix pro means ”for.” Propitiation concerns the object of expiation: God. Through the process of propitiation, God is appeased and we are restored to His favor. Propitiation results in a change in God‘s stance toward us.
The result of Christ’s death on the cross is our propitiation because Christ’s death causes God to turn His anger away from us.
Scripture uses the same Greek word to refer to both concepts of expiation and propitiation. We have to decipher from the context whether the author means the act that satisfies God’s wrath (expiation) or the result that God’s turns from His wrath (propitiation).
Saved from what?
This concept that we are sinners who will face God’s wrath is often swept under the modern theological rug. By and large, today we’d rather talk about God’s love than His judgment.
Yet, Scripture is clear that Jesus died to save us from the wrath of God. Jesus and the Apostles frequently speak of the coming day of judgment. Here are just a few places:
- Mat 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
- Luk 3:7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
- Joh 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
- Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
- Rom 2:5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
- Rom 2:8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
- Rom 3:5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
- Rom 4:15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
- Rom 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
- Rom 9:22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
- Rom 13:5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
- Eph 2:3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
- Eph 5:6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
- Col 3:6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
- 1Th 1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
- 1Th 5:9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Therefore, Christ‘s supreme achievement on the cross is that He placated the wrath of God, which would burn against us were we not covered by the sacrifice of Christ. So if somebody argues against placation or the idea of Christ satisfying the wrath of God, be alert, because the gospel is at stake. This is about the essence of salvation—that as people who are covered by the atonement, we are redeemed from the supreme danger to which any person is exposed. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a holy God who‘s wrathful. But there is no wrath for those whose sins have been paid. That is what salvation is all about.The Truth of the Cross by R.C. Sproul.