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-What is the difference between propitiation and expiation?

QUESTION: With regard to Christ’s sacrifice, what is the difference between propitiation and expiation? What difference does it make for Christians?


ANSWER: “Expiation” is a word that is not used in the Authorized King James Version of the Bible (KJV). It is used three times in J. N. Darby’s very accurate New Translation. It is somewhat broader in meaning than “propitiation” and refers to the fact that a matter has been dealt with, atoned for, or forgiven. It means that the matter is settled, taken care of, finished. And it will not rise again. It emphasizes the finality of the result of Christ’s work in relation to our sins being fully forgiven, never to be brought up against us again.

To propitiate someone in the purely human sense is to satisfy one who has been offended. Certainly God who is holy has rightfully been offended by our sin. In the Old Testament, Jacob, upon hearing that his brother Esau – who twenty years earlier had wanted to kill him – was coming with four hundred men to meet him, decided to propitiate his brother with a gift. “I will propitiate [appease, NKJV] him with the gift that goes before me, and afterwards I will see his face: perhaps he will accept me” (Gen. 32:20 JND).

But propitiation, as used in the New Testament, is not a matter of our appeasing an angry God. God “loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10 NKJV). We could do nothing to please Him or merit His favor. And 1 John 2:2 refers to the Lord Jesus as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” His work of dying on Calvary’s cross has not only pleased God but has glorified Him as well. We are now “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). The results of Christ’s work are so great that in a coming day the world will be brought into relationship with God.

Walter Scott, author of the two volume Bible Handbook has stated: “Propitiation is for God, and for Him alone, although it vitally concerns us. It is the blessed answer of Jesus meeting, in death and before God, the holy and righteous claims of Jehovah’s throne. God has been infinitely glorified, and His moral government gloriously vindicated in the blood-shedding of Jesus.”

Propitiation is closely related to the term “atonement” in the Old Testament. Just as a goat was sacrificed on the great day of the Atonement, and its blood was placed upon and sprinkled before the mercy-seat in the most holy place in the tabernacle, so the blood of Christ has accomplished all that was needed to bring us near to God. There is a great contrast between what was done on the day of the Atonement and what Christ has done. The sacrifice then had to be repeated year after year, whereas the work of the Lord Jesus has settled things once for all. He is not only our propitiation before God but His work also has made expiation of our sins. They are now gone, once for all!

A Christian comes into the good of these things at the moment he accepts Christ as His Savior and Lord. His salvation is based solely on what Christ has done. The work of Christ is complete and absolutely sufficient. A Christian’s understanding and knowledge of these things adds nothing to the work of Christ. But his appreciation of his salvation and of the value of the work of the Lord Jesus is greatly enhanced as he learns more about the many beautiful facets of what is involved in it.

May we seek to follow the last recorded words of the apostle Peter as he tells us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen” (2 Pet. 3:18).

Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org

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