In his classic book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer includes a chapter entitled “The Heart of the Gospel.” And what is that chapter all about? Propitiation.
Propitiation (according to Packer) is the heart of the gospel; it is central to the gospel. And yet that word is strangely absent from the vocabulary of far too many believers. Worse yet, it is often absent in the preaching and teaching of the church. No doubt the former is largely the result of the latter.
Concerning the vital doctrine of propitiation, Packer writes,
Has the word propitiation any place in your Christianity? In the faith of the New Testament it is central. The love of God, the taking of human form by the Son, the meaning of the cross, Christ’s heavenly intercession, the way of salvation – all are to explained in terms of it, . . .and any explanation from which the thought of propitiation is missing will be incomplete, and indeed actually misleading, by New Testament standards. (p.181)
He even goes so far as to say that “a gospel without propitiation at its heart is another gospel than that which Paul preached” (p.182).
What, then, is propitiation? What does the word mean? The New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition, IVP, 1996) defines it as “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift” (p.975). The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Book House, 1984) offers a better definition of the biblical use of this word as “The turning away of wrath by an offering” (p.888).
The Biblical use of the word expresses the idea that on the Cross Jesus Christ took the wrath of God for the sins of His people upon Himself – that God’s wrath for our sin was poured out upon Him in our place. It is the same idea expressed (even if the word itself is absent) in Isaiah 53:5 where Isaiah says that “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.”
Perhaps the key use of the Word in the New Testament is found in Romans chapter 3, where Paul writes,
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 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 3:23-25a, ESV, emphasis mine)
God put forth his own Son “as a propitiation by His blood.” The death of Jesus Christ turned away the wrath of God from His people. We who were “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) are redeemed, forgiven, reconciled and even adopted as children of God in Jesus Christ because of His death in our place, taking the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself!
No wonder Packer holds this great truth to be central to the Christian faith! It really is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel just isn’t the gospel without the truth of propitiation.