Propitiation – Does It Make Sense?

Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.”

I had a chance to look over the relevant scriptures to this doctrine – not surprisingly – none of them actually come out of the Torah (law).

Isaiah 53:6 “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

Isaiah 53:12b “Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.”

Roman 3:25 “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed

II Corinthians 5:21 “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him

Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE

Hebrews 10:1-4 “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins

The idea sounds groovy – because we all hate justice and would hate to have to answer for our own stupid decisions in life. It’s rather ideal a theory like this exists to help calm what we usually refuse to deal with – our personal guilt for hurting others. So God made someone to be guilt for us – well ‘sin’ as how they put it.

Isaiah 53 is prophetic – no doubts – but to build a theory about this person becoming a sacrificial ‘lamb’ to God (on behalf of all of humanity) to fulfill a law that doesn’t exist – is really quite the stretch (theologically). It’s not even clear from Isaiah 53 this is not more symbolic language than literal when dealing with ‘iniquity falling on him’. It’s the kind of imagery that lends itself to a leader standing up for the people – and ‘going down with the ship’ per se.

By the time we reach the NT letters (all written by Paul – or some other later persona from Hebrews) – the theory of propitiation appears.

The word propitiation carries the basic idea of appeasement, or satisfaction, specifically towards God” (Theopedia – propitiation)

A few theories arise about this idea – was the appeasing about sin or righteousness? It seems either way you look at this – God is very mad. Not only is He demanding absolute perfection to the law – but he also condemns those who cannot live up to it…with no mercy. Online dictionaries define wrath as ‘Forceful, often vindictive anger’. This is not the kind of God you really want to be dealing with.

Enter Jesus. This is where it all gets kind of strange.

On one side we have a wrathful God (Father) and on the other hand a loving messiah (also the Son of God – or God). Anyone who ever discusses the issue of atonement will see this dualistic set-up – God’s wrath appeased by God’s Son (both God somehow – yet they display oddly different emotions on the same subject).

Early Christianity picked up on this problem – because it is one – and had to continually re-define the meaning to atonement. Even up until the Reformation this was still being defined. Today, it is also being re-defined. Why? Because this idea makes little to no sense and creates as much theological issues as it seeks to answer.  

I don’t know if their was a propitiation for our sins – seems pretty irresponsible that we would not bare our own guilt and make things right with the people we wronged (bearing our own responsibility for our actions). Also seems to re-write how justice works and overly allows choice (good or bad) to have no consequence.

 My biggest qualm with this idea is – where did Jesus teach this?

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10 thoughts on “Propitiation – Does It Make Sense?

  1. “The idea sounds groovy – because we all hate justice and would hate to have to answer for our own stupid decisions in life.”

    i dunno dawg… i think we are actually addicted to justice. we crave cause and effect because we can measure that… we know what to expect from it. our theology and science concepts reflect this ideal.

    However much we hate justice and ‘the law,’ (whether it be the Torah or even civil law)we are more afraid of grace. Almost all people, inside as well as outside the church, find that the notion of grace stands in contradiction to everything they understand by justice.

    then we get into issues about permissiveness.. here i’ll quote Robert Capon:

    “While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He’s angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue—that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: “Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys anymore. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.”

    – Between Noon and Three

  2. “we crave cause and effect because we can measure that” (Luke)

    For others – yes – for ourselves when we mess up – not really. Although we like rules and order – when applied to us when we fall outside those rules and order we dislike paying that price. Humans are generally scared of ‘facing up’ to their problems – even psychologists have to poke and prod to get things out – sometimes over months.

    “The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping” (Capon)

    I like this persepctive! Human life was (and is) the the most important thing – and saving relationships can even be hinted at in there.

  3. I don’t see how this theory can be easily meshed with the Trinity. The idea is presented that Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God. God, in this case, being the Father. However, if all three people of the Trinity have the same nature, wouldn’t Jesus have had to die to satisfy his own wrath as well? As well as the wrath of the Holy Spirit?

    **It’s rather ideal a theory like this exists to help calm what we usually refuse to deal with – our personal guilt for hurting others. So God made someone to be guilt for us – well ‘sin’ as how they put it.**

    I know you’ve touched on this before, but if someone else is made to be guilt for us, how can people ever grow? Part of growth is facing up to our mistakes, learning from them, or making amends for them. If it all gets put on someone else, then what?

  4. The main problem is that the term ‘propitiation’ has been abused so long that people misread it for “penal substitution” when in fact it directly refutes PSub.

    Propitiation means to turn away wrath, not to re-direct it on a substitute. So to use it to define Psub is self-refuting.

    Rather, the notion of atonement/propitiation is not because God is having a temper tantrum, but more because God’s honor has been tarnished. A good foreshadowing of Christ making atonement is the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25:1-13, where God’s wrath was turned away without Phinehas having to receive it.

    Here is a penal substitution debate where I address all the texts you gave and show that they don’t teach Psub at all:
    http://catholicnick.blogspot.com/2009/01/penal-substitution-debate-negative.html

  5. “My biggest qualm with this idea is – where did Jesus teach this?”

    My feelings exactly!

    To: theoldadam

    Those letters are attributed, some rightly, some wrongly, to Paul, not Jesus……

  6. Don,

    Those letters (Paul’s) were included in the canon because they are believed to be inspired by God.

    Not that they are God’s words (every jot and tittle), but we Christians believe (some of us still do, anyway) that it is God’s Word.

  7. “Those letters (Paul’s) were included in the canon because they are believed to be inspired by God.” (Steve)

    Agreed.

    “Not that they are God’s words (every jot and tittle), but we Christians believe (some of us still do, anyway) that it is God’s Word.” (Steve)

    No one is saying they are not inspired and to be included (only you introduce such thoughts to the argument). I think they should be included – based on the fact Paul wrote some of them and laid out a version of Christianity for the Gentiles (which, if we all want to admit this, we are).

    But just because they are inspired does not mean there is unison in thought biblically – because there really isn’t. Paul actually gets into propitiation very little and his version is really only concerned with our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. Hebrews, a non Pauline letter, actually takes it a few steps further and introduces us to new arguements on this idea….similar to what is found in John’s gospel. The synoptic gospels themselves and James – silence really on the issue (books that actually attribute themselves to Jesus’ very words and Jesus’ own brother).

    I mean, any good study of the Christian NT will reveal why there are over some 3000 denoms in the West and worldwide – the options are all there. This issue has it also – who do we believe? Generically we will all say God and Jesus – but the writer’s vary on the depth of this issue. It seems to me Christianity has used the NT to make a piece-meal framework – one that many denoms have changed over time – for the sake of their seperate churches. In fact, there is for sure 7 options concerning propitiation and a few more yet to come (I would bet on that anyways).

    So no matter what stance is taken – the obvious is it means something. I only comment the gospels (excluding John) are fairly silent on the issue and Jesus himself – unconcerned with what it would all mean. Paul approaches the issue – ignoring Jesus’ words (if they even existed at the time) – simply concerned with Jesus death and resurrection and really nothing else Jesus said on the subject…likely because Jesus didn’t (or was never quoted on the subject).

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