A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Pagan Propitiation vs Biblical Propitiation

Gospel Project Blog

“Propitiation” is one of those five-syllable theological words that tend to break up polite parties. But it’s also a word that’s well worth the work of understanding, because whether we know it or not, all of us are walking around working on some sort of plan for propitiation. The big question is whether our plan is a Christian one.

The Ancient Meaning

Here’s what I mean: Propitiation is an ancient word, which we as Christians have in common with other world religions. To propitiate a god is to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the god’s wrath. Anyone who believes in a god knows that they need some way to stay on the friendly side of that god. So they give gifts to the god, or serve in the temple, or give alms. And if the god is angry with them, they pay a price, or make a sacrifice, or find some way to soothe the god’s anger: they propitiate him.

This description may conjure up images of animistic tribes cravenly placating their volcano gods by tossing in victims; and in fact some modern Christians have argued that, whatever the Old Testament may have been about, the New Testament can’t possibly have anything to do with propitiation. But the fact is, the idea that God’s wrath must be turned aside by a sacrifice is very much a New Testament idea. It’s just that, as John Stott has argued, “the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions.”

Pagan Propitiation vs. Biblical Propitiation

In pagan propitiation, the gods need to be propitiated because they are grumpy and capricious. They don’t care much about humans except when something makes them angry; then they smite! And it’s up to humans to get busy doing the propitiating, to make up for whatever they’ve done that angered the gods. The humans find something that the gods like (sweets, or meat, or pain, or blood), and offer it as a bribe to calm down their wrathful deities.

But every aspect of biblical propitiation contrasts with the pagan kind.

  1. First, consider why God requires propitiation: not because he’s moody or easily provoked, but because he is holy and just. God responds to sin with absolute consistency, and his “wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18).
  2. Second, consider who carries out biblical propitiation: not humans on their own initiative figuring out what God likes, but God himself declaring what kind of sacrifice he accepts, and then providing it. Even in the Old Testament, God takes credit for providing the blood of animal sacrifice (“I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement,”Leviticus 17:11).
  3. And third, consider what kind of sacrifice brings about biblical propitiation: not a bribe or something nice to tide him over. No, in the fullness of time, God fulfills the Old Testament symbolism by giving his own Son to die for us.

As Stott summarizes, in biblical propitiation, “God himself gave himself to save us from himself.”

This stark difference between pagan and biblical propitiation is the background for the bold statements the New Testament makes: that we 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” (Romans 3:24-25); and “he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). In both cases, the apostles use the Greek word hilasterion (also five syllables!), best translated by our big word propitiation.

Why Propitiation Matters

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

(This piece was published in 2014 as part of an online series for The Gospel Project, edited by Trevin Wax. It’s gone missing from the web somehow, and it’s little more than a blog post. But it doesn’t fit with my standard blog output, because it was solicited by an editor, written to fit a publication context (800 words sharp!), and edited by somebody else. So I’m including the text here, but no link.)