(Rom. 3:25) What does “propitiation” mean? (pronounced pro-PISH-ee-ae-shun)

This comes from the Greek word hilastērion (pronounced hill-iss-TARE-ee-on), which some translations render “propitiation” (NASB). In pagan culture, people would offer vegetables, animals, and even human sacrifices to propitiate the wrath of the gods. If you were going on a sea voyage, you would offer propitiation to the god Poseidon, asking him to be propitious of your voyage. If the offering wasn’t good enough, your boat would get into a wreck. Because this word was used by pagans, Christian translators tried to translate it differently:

(1) Mercy seat. Some translators render this word (hilastērion) as “mercy seat.” The mercy seat in the OT was the place where the high priest would sprinkle the blood for the sins of the people. Because this ritual is symbolic of Christ’s atonement, some translators render this word as “mercy seat.” For instance, Hebrews 9:5 translates hilastērion as “mercy seat.” Both Luther and Calvin believed that this was the proper translation of this word, and others have followed them in this line. Under this view, the atonement performed behind the curtain and the “holy of holies” has now been “displayed publicly” for all to see through the Cross of Christ. The great benefit of this view is that it shows Jesus’ death as a fulfillment of the OT sacrificial system.

(2) Expiation. Another translation for this Greek word is expiation (pronounced ex-pee-AE-shun). While propitiation deals with satisfying God’s wrath, expiation deals with cleansing sin. Expiation doesn’t pay for the sinner’s crime in court; it disinfects the sinner of his sin. The NEB renders hilastērion in this way.

(3) Propitiation. There are a number of reasons for preferring the translation of hilastērion as “propitiation.”

However, there are a number of reasons to affirm the third translation: propitiation.

First, the term hilastērion regularly refers to propitiation. Erickson writes, “In nonbiblical Hellenistic Greek authors such as Josephus and Philo, the word uniformly means ‘to propitiate.’ This is also true of its use in the apostolic fathers.”[1]

Second, the context deals with God’s wrath. So far in the book of Romans, Paul is dealing with the wrath of God (1:18; 2:5; 3:5). When you read Romans up to this point, you would probably be wondering what is going to happen with the wrath of God. Propitiation answers this question. Moreover, it answers the rest of the passages in the NT, which speak of the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4-5; Eph. 2:3; 5:6; Col. 3:6; and 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9).

Third, propitiation isn’t embarrassing. Stott writes, “We should not be shy of using the word ‘propitiation’ in relation to the cross, any more than we should drop the word ‘wrath’ in relation to God.”[2] People who are embarrassed by the notion of a wrathful God might find this concept embarrassing, but others shouldn’t (see comments on Romans 1:18).

Fourth, pagan propitiation is different than biblical propitiation. Paul is lifting the concept of pagan propitiation, but he is applying that well-known concept to God. While there are similarities with pagan propitiation, there are clear differences, as well:

Differences between Pagan and Divine Propitiation

Pagan Propitiation

Biblical Propitiation

The gods were ill-tempered and moody.

God’s wrath is consistently aroused by sin. Not capricious or arbitrary.
The people gave the propitiation to satisfy the wrath of the gods.

God offers the propitiation for the people to satisfy his own wrath.

“God presented him…” (v.25; see also 1 Jn. 4:10[3])

Pagans initiated with the gods.

God initiated with man. “There is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11).
Pagans give the propitiation to the gods.

God has given the materials to man to make atonement (Lev. 17:11; Rom. 5:8; 8:32).

 

[1] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 828.

[2] Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (p. 115). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] The Greek word here is a little different: hilasmos.