June 11, 2024

The Propitiation for Our Sins

Sinclair Ferguson
The Propitiation for Our Sins

We all deserve the wrath of God for our sin. But in the wonder of God’s mercy and the terror of His justice, Christ was crushed in place of His people. Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains the crucial work of Christ’s propitiation.


We’re thinking this week about the work of Christ, what He’s done for us. The author of Hebrews, you remember, tells us that He is able to save us completely (Heb. 7:25). But if this is true, then what Christ has done for us, what we often refer to as His work, must meet our needs. But here we should pause. I suspect some people assume they know what their needs are, and the danger of that assumption is that we then begin to assess Christ’s work in terms of our understanding of our own needs. We actually need to turn things around and assess our needs in the light of what Christ has done, because we only really understand our needs when we see what He had to do in order to meet them. So, for the rest of the week, I want to think about four New Testament words that help us to understand our needs and Christ’s work.

The first is propitiation. Paul uses it in Romans 3:25: God put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” And John uses it in 1 John 2:2: “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world.” But what does propitiation mean? It’s not a word family that we use much today. Well, it’s the idea of doing something that averts or exhausts the anger or the wrath of another. So, when Paul and John speak about the Lord Jesus as a propitiation, they’re thinking back to the temple sacrifices that were made in recognition that because of human sin and rebellion, the people were exposed to the wrath of God, and a sacrifice needed to be made.

Maybe that’s the reason we don’t speak much today about propitiation. We don’t much like thinking about the wrath of God, and we like even less thinking that we are under that wrath. Actually, I’ve noticed that when people are awakened to the dangerous condition they’re in, they tend to say things like, “I need to do better.” But even if they were to be perfect from that point on, they’d still not escape the wrath of God because as Paul says, it’s revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. You can’t compensate for your past sin by putting new obedience on the scales to try and balance it. We deserve the wrath of God for all of our sin.

There’s another reason I think we don’t speak much about propitiation. It’s because we don’t like to think of God as so perfectly holy that He can’t look on our sin, or to think that anything that was unholy entering His presence would be undone by it, like Isaiah crying out because he felt he was disintegrating in the presence of God. But you know, the place where we see what sin really is and deserves is not actually in the temple with Isaiah, but at the cross of Calvary with the Lord Jesus.

If we want to understand what the wrath of God is, then we need to see and hear Jesus bearing it. When God’s wrath is poured out, God’s Son, yes, God’s beloved Son supported by the Holy Spirit, and yes in faith saying, “My God,” cries out of the sense of absolute God-forsakenness He experiences. The world outside has grown dark during the hours of His passion. But the world within, the world He inhabits, is one of pain and deep darkness, and His deepest pain is that sense of divine abandonment. Because as Simon Peter came to see, He’s carried our sins in His own body to the tree. That’s where we see the wrath of God, and that’s what we deserve because of our sins. It’s because He bore our sins in our place that He has become the propitiation for our sins.

Many modern scholars, maybe even most modern scholars, think that the word Paul uses here, hilastērion, should actually be translated “mercy seat,” partly because it’s the word used for the mercy seat in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Paul used. Well, maybe that’s right and maybe not, but certainly the mercy seat helps us to grasp something about Christ’s propitiation. Paul says that God the Father put forth Jesus as an hilastērion, and that’s both the horror and the wonder of the mercy of God in Christ. The horror is God’s wrath against our sin. The wonder is God’s love that He provides mercy in the propitiatory sacrifice of His son.

I wonder if you know Elizabeth Clephane’s hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” She speaks about that cross as the trysting place, where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet. That’s why we thank God that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins.