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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 11, 2017

The Question

By Steve Litchfield | Oct 13, 2017

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of blood — to be received by faith.” Romans 3:25a

Harold “Joe” Brown was a Harvard trained theologian and former professor of mine.

Dr. Brown enjoyed asking graduate students at their oral exams, “What is the difference between propitiation and expiation?”

The words sound big, but the answer he was looking for was simple. Propitiation happens to God. Expiation happens to human beings.

God’s wrath is propitiated or turned away from us. God becomes propitious or favorable toward us.

On the other hand, human sins are expiated or removed. We are forgiven. We are made acceptable to God.

Any dads who happen to read this column, you can ask your family at the dinner table this question. What is the difference between propitiation and expiation? The words are big, but the answer is simple and vital.

Conversely, any family members who happen to read this column, you can put dad on the spot just like Dr. Brown used to do with his students.

If you would like to take your family discussion one step farther, you could turn to Romans 3:25 and see how the Greek word “hilasterion” is translated in your Bible.

Your translation may have “propitiation,” which highlights the turning of God’s wrath to favor, or it may have “expiation,” which emphasizes the forgiveness of human sins.

Your translation may also have “sacrifice of atonement,” which gets at Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that makes atonement between God and humans. So both Divine propitiation and human expiation are in view through Jesus’ atoning death.

One translation has “mercy seat.” You may recall that the mercy seat, or the atonement cover for the Ark of the Covenant, was the location where atonement occurred between God and humans (Leviticus 16).

Animal blood had to be repeatedly sprinkled on the mercy seat because it looked forward to Christ’s single sacrifice which alone would effectively propitiate God’s wrath and expiate human sin once and for all (Hebrews 9:1-10:18).

The question with the big words, “What is the difference between propitiation and expiation” is focused on the heart of the gospel.

Jesus Christ’s sacrifice propitiates God’s wrath and expiates human sin for those that trust in Him. As Luther reminded us, salvation cannot be bought by human means, but justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-10).

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