A Commentary by John Stott
First, the need. Why is a propitiation necessary? The pagan answer is because the gods are bad-tempered, subject to moods and fits, and capricious. The Christian answer is because God’s holy wrath rests on evil. There is nothing unprincipled, unpredictable or uncontrolled about God’s anger; it is aroused by evil alone.
Secondly, the author. Who undertakes to do the propitiating? The pagan answer is that we do. We have offended the gods; so we must appease them. The Christian answer, by contrast, is that we cannot placate the righteous anger of God. We have no means whatever by which to do so. But God in his undeserved love has done for us what we could never do by ourselves. *God presented him* (sc. Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement. John wrote similarly: ‘God…loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice (*hilasmos*) for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). The love, the idea, the purpose, the initiative, the action and the gift were all God’s.
Thirdly, the nature. How has the propitiation been accomplished? What is the propitiatory sacrifice? The pagan answer is that we have to bribe the gods with sweets, vegetable offerings, animals, and even human sacrifices. The Old Testament sacrificial system was entirely different, since it was recognized that God himself has ‘given’ the sacrifices to his people to make atonement (E.g. Lv. 17:11). And this is clear beyond doubt in the Christian propitiation, for God gave his own Son to die in our place, and in giving his Son he gave himself (5:8; 8:32).
In sum it would be hard to exaggerate the differences between the pagan and the Christian views of propitiation. In the pagan perspective, humans beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to the Christian revelation, God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself.
This is the righteous basis on which the righteous God can ‘righteous’ the unrighteous without compromising his righteousness. Charles Cranfield has expressed it with care and eloquence:
‘God, because in his mercy he willed to forgive sinful men, and being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against his own very Self in the person of his Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.’
Professor Cranfield returns to the theme in his final essay on ‘The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ’. He argues that God purposed Jesus Christ to be a propitiatory sacrifice in order ‘that he might justify sinners righteously, that is, in a way that is altogether worthy of himself as a truly loving and merciful eternal God’. For God to have forgiven their sin lightly would have been ‘to have compromised with the lie that moral evil does not matter and so to have violated his own truth and mocked men with an empty, lying reassurance, which, at their most human, they must have recognized as the squalid falsehood it which would have been.