What were the effects of the atonement upon God? Perhaps this seems a strange question, but only if we forget that the atonement is about restoration of a relationship (at-one-ment). God’s interactions with his people are described in very personal terms; he calls himself husband and Father and describes his abiding love for humankind. God’s love is the cause, not the result of the atonement (John 3:16; Eph 2:4–5; 1 John 4:9–10). Because God is love, existing for eternity in a communion of love, he seeks to embrace his wayward created people in that love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together in all aspects of God’s interaction with his creation. The atoning work of Christ is not something that only affected sinners; first and foremost it affected God himself. This is not just because it was God who suffered in the person of Christ, and in the Father’s giving his beloved Son (Gen 22:8; John 3:16), but because it brought about a profound change in God’s relationship with his creation. Scripture uses two concepts to describe the effect of Christ’s sin-bearing on God; propitiation and reconciliation. This week’s blog will discuss propitiation, the appeasement of God’s wrath. For a fuller development of this topic I recommend Leon Morris’ work The Atonement.(1)
The KJV and ESV retain the old fashioned word “propitiation,” which other translations variously render “expiation” or “atoning sacrifice.” In the original Greek,(2) the words are hilasmos (propitiation, appeasement, expiation) hilasterion (means of propitiating, appeasing, expiation) hilaskomai (to propitiate, cause to be favourably inclined or disposed, conciliate, eliminate impediments). Hilasterion is the Greek translation of “mercy seat,” the cover of the ark, the place where atonement was made (Lev 16:14–16). Through the blood of Christ, we can now approach the throne of grace and find mercy; the veil of separation from God has been torn down (Heb 9).
There are many verses which speak of the wrath of God directed at sin and sinners. God’s wrath against rebellious Israel and the godless nations is a regular theme in the Old Testament (e.g., Ex 32:10; Deut 29:23; 1 Sam 28:16; 2 Kgs 22:15; Ezra 10:12; Psa 6:1; 95:11; Isa 13:13; 51:15; Jer 6:9; Ezek 7:6; 25:14; Hos 5:10; Mic 5:15; Zech 8:14). But we mustn’t join the Gnostics and others who would find a dichotomy between the wrathful YHWH of the Old Testament and the loving Father in the New. “For there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people,” warns Jesus in Luke 21:23. Paul, likewise states in 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.” As in the Old Testament, “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:8). “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience,” says Paul again in Ephesians 5:6. Jesus Christ, the coming Judge is the one who will execute God’s wrath against the ungodly and rebellious at his coming (Rev 6:16,17; 14:9–10; 19:13–15).
God’s anger is not like human anger, which is irrational, fickle and selfish, a rage born of pride and self-centredness, one-upmanship and greed. God’s anger is holy wrath and is intrinsic to the character of a holy and loving God, who hates and is wrathful toward the sin that mars his creation. God is love, and therefore he shows wrath toward sin and jealousy for his relationships. Unlike affronted humans, God is slow to anger and delights to show mercy (Mic 7:18, Psa 85:2–3, Ex 34:6). Nevertheless, he is a holy God and he will not look upon sin. Sin separates us from God (Isa 59:2; Ezek 14:5–7; Eph 2:12) and prohibits us from coming into his presence. To be separated from God, the giver of life, inevitably results in death; spiritual death and physical death (Gen 3:22–24). “You,” Paul states bluntly, “were dead in trespasses and sins… and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:1, 3). But God did not leave his highest creation, formed for his glory, in that state. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4–5).
Sinful humanity is under the wrath of God. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,” says Paul in Romans 1:18. And in Ephesians 5:6, “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” John concurs: “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” (John 3:36). The ultimate and final expression of God’s love is in his propitiating our sins once and for all through the sacrifice of Christ. To reject this sacrifice means God’s wrath remains on that person because the wrath of God rests on unredeemed mankind. It is Jesus who “delivers us from the wrath to come” (1Thess 1:10). “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9).
For what can mere humans do to appease the wrath of a holy God in his unremitting antagonism to sin? The answer is, contra to the attempts of pagans to placate the capricious wrath of their deities, absolutely nothing. There is no work, no intrinsic righteousness, no ransom that we can offer God; we deserve nothing but judgment and condemnation. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God himself took the initiative; “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s love is the cause, not the result of the atonement, and this was so from eternity. But God could not merely ignore sin, pretend it didn’t exist. He had to deal with it in such a way as to be just (righteous) as well as be the justifier (making us righteous). (Rom 3:23–26)
“(Christ Jesus) whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom 3:25).
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Only the sinless Son of God was qualified to bear our sins in our place and impart to us the gift of righteous standing before God. It wasn’t that God needed a reason to love us, he always loved us, but he needed a means of reconciliation. Reconciliation is, once again, God’s initiative and it was achieved through Christ. “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). But the Saviour had to be more than human. To bear the wrath of God for the sin of mankind required more than a representative human, and more than a good example. True, Christ is our representative (1 Cor 15:22–45), and he is our example (1 Pet 2:21), but he is also our substitute (Isa 53:4–12; 1 Pet 2:24). He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The atonement is a work of God; there was no (mere) “man,” able to do it, so his own arm brought salvation (Isa 59:16) and God himself provided the Lamb. God reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:18–19) and purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
To deny that propitiation, the turning away of God’s wrath, is a key aspect of atonement is to ignore the weight of Scriptural evidence. Unfortunately, in Christadelphian treatises “propitiation,” if it is dealt with at all, is dismissed, often after being misrepresented. For example, “Popular teaching brings it down to a level with the sacrifices of idolatrous superstition, by which wrathful deities are supposed to be placated by the blood of a substitutionary victim.”(3) Essentially, Roberts explains the atonement as the satisfaction of the law; human nature deserved death and so Christ, having human nature, died. He was a representative, but not a substitutionary, sacrifice. As our representative, he enables us to go through what he went through and in so doing declared the righteousness of God. Because he was sinless, death could not hold him and so God raised him. If we align ourselves with Christ, we share in his resurrection. The key “mechanism” of the atonement for Roberts is this “declaration” of the righteousness of God in Romans 3:25–26.
(all) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Declaration (show) is endeixis, a proof, sign or demonstration, but Roberts doesn’t seem to realise that it is the very propitiation itself that demonstrates God’s justice/righteousness. Only by propitiation of his wrath in dealing with sin the way it ought to be dealt with, rather than passing over it, could God be both justifier and just; righteous and the bestower of righteousness, the verdict of “not guilty” upon the sinners he loves who could not do this for themselves. The more contemporary Christadelphian writer Harry Tennant also dismisses the propitiatory aspect of the atonement, finding a dichotomy between God’s wrath and his love.(4) He seems not to allow that the wrath of God against sin, rather than contradicting his love, is a necessary and consequent aspect of his love for his creation.
Christadelphians deny the substitutionary aspect of the atonement and see Christ merely as a representative of sinful humanity, his death an example of what sinful humanity deserves and his sinlessness an example to be emulated.(5) But this perspective is an erroneous oversimplification: God says, “Here’s what I think of sin, sinful nature deserves crucifixion. Accept that, identify with it, and that’s the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation.”(6) Where is the rich Scriptural tapestry that speaks of a judicial declaration of righteousness, the substitutionary sacrificial system, the costly ransom, the literal bearing of our sins and propitiating the wrath of God? Scripture is clear, repeatedly, that Jesus Christ bore our sins. He didn’t just represent them, he bore them, carried them, nailed them to his cross and died for them. Isaiah 53 is no metaphor or “figure of speech.”(7) The antitype of the scapegoat, Jesus took away the sins of the world. How could a single human being bear in himself the sins of the world and the punishment for them? How could any finite creature? The answer is, one couldn’t. God himself was the Just One, requiring propitiation, and also the Justifier (Rom 3:25–26). The Saviour had to be Christ, the LORD (Luke 2:11).
It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.” (8)
1 Leon Morris, The Atonement, Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove: IVP, 1983).
2 FW Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian Literature (BDAG) (University of Chricago Press, 2000).
3 Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006) page 1.
4 Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians: What they believe and preach (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1998), 70.
5 (Thomas, “Forgiveness of Sins,” Benson, “Monotheism and the Atonement,” in Thomas Gaston, ed. One God, The Father (East Boldon: Willow, 2013) 42–45, 264, 265, 268 See also Robert Roberts, The Christadelphian Instructor: “Concerning the Death of Christ” and “Concerning the Way of Salvation” available on line at http://www.thechristadelphians.org/btcd/BTCD/htm/ci/index.htm
6 Roberts, Blood of Christ, 14.
7 Roberts, Blood of Christ, 12.
8 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: IVP, 2006) 175.