"It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins."
As reconciliation points to the effect of Christ's work on the cross manward, so propitiation points to its effect Godward. By the cross, man was reconciled and God was propitiated. God did not need, however, to be propitiated in the sense that we use the word today. In common usage, propitiation means to appease, or to cause to become favorably inclined. God was favorably inclined toward mankind before propitiation was effected by Christ on the cross. It was, in fact, God's love toward man that brought about propitiation. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (I John 4:10).
No, God did not have to be appeased. Nevertheless, before His mercy could flow out toward us, the sin question had to be settled. He is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13), and "the wages sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), eternal death. In the face of this, and because "all have sinned, and come short of the glory God" (Rom. 3:23), God's mercy and grace could not flow out until His righteousness had been exonerated and maintained. This is just what God did at the cross, when He brought us to Himself "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:24-26).
The word "propitiation" itself means that which propitiates, or an atoning sacrifice. It also means place of propitiation. Our Lord Jesus Christ is both the propitiation and the place of propitiation. By His death on the cross God was satisfied about the sin question; for He "hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). Now, because "Jesus Christ the righteous…is the propitiation for our sins: and not for our's only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:2), God can "be propitious" to all who believe.
Some form of the word "propitiation" occurs seven times in the New Testament, although it is not always so translated in the Authorized Version. These references are as follows: "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [place of propitiation] through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God" (Rom. 3:25); "And He is the propitiation [that which propitiates] for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:2); "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation [that which propitiates] for our sins" (I John 4:10); "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful [be propitious] to me a sinner" (Lk. 18:13); "Wherefore in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation [propitiation] for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17); "For I will be merciful [propitious] to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Heb. 8:12); "And over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy-seat [place of propitiation]; of which we cannot now speak particularly" (Heb. 9:5).
We repeat, propitiation means to make atonement for, or make satisfaction for; and that which propitiates, or that which expiates. Thus it means to make satisfaction for, and that is exactly what our Lord did on the cross; He satisfied God's justice and righteousness, that His mercy might flow out. Let us never think that God hated the human race and that this hatred had to be appeased before God would save any. Such a thought is foreign to the Word of God. God's great and perfect heart of love has always been favorably inclined toward man, but He is also wholly righteous and, before that love could be satisfied, His righteousness must be satisfied and maintained. Propitiation then means that God's righteousness has been satisfied by the atoning work of Christ, so that He can now be merciful to the believing sinner.
In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was made about the third century, B. C., "mercy-seat" is translated by the word "propitiation," and thus we have "mercy-seat" as the "place of propitiation" in Hebrews 9:5. Looking back to Israel's annual day of atonement in the tabernacle, we note that the mercy-seat was a place of mercy and propitiation because it was sprinkled with the typical sacrificial blood. "And he [the high priest] shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy-seat eastward; and before the mercy-seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times…And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation" (Lev. 16:14, 33). God could be propitious to Israel for another year because the atoning blood, which pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ, had satisfied His justice. It was there at the blood-sprinkled mercy-seat, and only there, that a holy God could meet with a sinful people. "And there I will meet with thee," said the Lord, "and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat" (Ex. 25:22).
In Luke 18:13, where there is written the record of the publican offering his prayer to God, we see a blessed illustration of what propitiation means. He prayed thus, as he "would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast," and said: "God be Thou propitiated to me the sinner" (ASV, margin). He was saying, in effect "Do not look at me in my sinfulness, but look rather upon the propitiatory sacrifice." God did look upon the atoning sacrifice. He was propitious to the publican, and "this man went down to his house justified" (vs. 14). With us today, propitiation is not typical as it was with the publican. It has now been accomplished, for "He is the propitiation for our sins" (I John 2:2). All who look to Him and trust in His shed blood are saved for time and eternity. Excepting Luke 18:13, mentioned above, all the references to propitiation concern our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both "the place of propitiation," and "that which propitiates." He "bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (I Pet. 2:24). He is the place of propitiation. And He is the One who propitiates, for God "sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (I John 4:10).
Looking again at the references to propitiation, we observe in all of them an allusion to the effect of Christ's death Godward. God could not, by means of the Old Testament sacrificial offerings, be satisfied about the questions of sin and righteousness, "for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (Heb 10:4). So God sent His Son, who was "set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God" (Rom. 3:25). But Christ on the cross not only satisfied God about sins of past ages, but about our sins too, and His righteousness was vindicated in it all. "For the showing, I say, of His righteousness at this present season: that He might Himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (vs. 26, ASV).
What about our sins as Christians? How can God forgive them when we repent and confess them? Simply because Christ on the cross satisfied God's righteousness, so that now, in faithfulness to Christ, the Father can forgive the sins of His people. "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:1, 2). Therefore "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
I John 4:10 points out the fact that God's love caused Him to send His own Son to satisfy His holiness and righteousness, so that, the sin question being settled Godward, He might give eternal life to those who believe. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (vs. 9, 10).
In order for our Lord to be the propitiation for our sins, it was necessary for Him to become Man. "The Word was made flesh" (John 1:14). "Wherefore it behooved Him in all things to be made like unto His brethren, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17, ASV). First, as this compassionate and ever-faithful High Priest, He "offered Himself without spot to God" (Heb. 9:14). Thus "He is the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:2) and is now in heaven as our "merciful and faithful High Priest," ministering to our every need, "for in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted" (Heb .2:18).
Hebrews 8 shows us the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. While the old was a shadow of the new, the typical sacrifices of the old covenant could never satisfy God about the sin question. But the New Covenant, based on Christ's shed blood (see Matt. 26:28), completely satisfied God's judgment upon sin, so that He can now say of believers in Christ: "For I will be merciful [be propitious] to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Heb. 8:12). The Old Covenant had "the ark of the covenant...and over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy-seat [place of propitiation]" (Heb 9:5). The New Covenant is different and incomparably better. "But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come…by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us" (vs. 11, 12).
Before the cross, it was perfectly proper for the publican to pray: "God, be Thou propitious to me the sinner" (Lk. 18:13, ASV, margin). Now the one atoning sacrifice has been made and is effectual forever. "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2:2). God offers that propitiation, yes, He offers His only begotten Son to all who will believe. God is satisfied with and rests in what His Son accomplished by His shed blood and His resurrection. Reader friend, are you resting in Him "whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood"?
From Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation by John B. Marchbanks. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970. Chapter 9.