(Rom. 3:25) What does “propitiation” mean?

The term “propitiation” (hilastērion) refers to way in which God’s wrath was satisfied and taken away. 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 a propitiation to the god Poseidon, asking him to give you a “propitious” voyage. Yet, if Poseidon wasn’t pleased with your offering or “propitiation,” then your boat would get into a wreck.

Many modern commentators take issue with this translation, because (1) it seems to arise from the crude views of paganism and (2) it implies a wrathful God whose anger needs to be appeased. Thus, C.H. Dodd[1] held that a better translation of this term should be “expiation,” not “propitiation” (cf. NET). While propitiation deals with satisfying God’s wrath, expiation deals with covering our sin. To illustrate, expiation doesn’t pay for a man’s crime by sending someone to jail in his place; it simply pardons him of his crime and sets him free. Yet, we think there are very good reasons for rejecting the concept of expiation, and embracing the translation of 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.”[2]

Second, the context deals with God’s wrath. Paul addresses the wrath of God throughout this section of Romans (1:18; 2:5; 3:5). Indeed, when you read Romans up to this point, you would probably be wondering what is going to happen with the wrath of God. The concept of propitiation answers this question quite clearly. 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 an embarrassing concept. 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.”[3] 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 not taking his usage of propitiation from paganism, but from Judaism. In the OT, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant was called the “mercy seat” (hilastērion). The mercy seat in the OT was the place where the high priest would sprinkle the blood for the sins of the people on the “mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2). The Septuagint (LXX) uses this word to refer to the “mercy seat” in 21 out of 26 of its uses,[4] and this is the only other usage of the word in the NT: “Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat [hilastērion]” (Heb. 9:5). Moreover, Moo comments, “The OT frequently connects the ‘covering,’ or forgiving, of sins with the removal of God’s wrath.”[5]

Finally, we see key differences between propitiation:

Differences between Pagan and Christian Propitiation

Pagan Propitiation

Biblical Propitiation

The gods were ill-tempered and moody.

God’s wrath is consistently aroused by sin. His wrath is 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 displayed [Jesus] publicly as a propitiation” (v.25; see also 1 Jn. 4:10[6])

The worshipper initiated with the gods.

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

God gave the propitiation for humans (Lev. 17:11; Rom. 5:8; 8:32).

[1] C. H. Dodd, “ἱλάσκεσθαι, Its Cognates, Derivatives and Synonyms in the Septuagint,” JTS 32 (1931), 352-60.

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

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 115.

[4] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 232.

[5] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 235.

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