Propitiation is a concept that has led to much discussion among those who blog about the scriptures. Let’s first look at what the NLT Study Bible and ESV Study Bible say and then I will make some observations.
NLT Study Bible:
ESV Study Bible:
2:2 Propitiation (Gk. hilasmos) here means “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor,” and that is also the meaning of the English word “propitiation.” (See note on Rom. 3:25.) As the perfect sacrifice for sin, Jesus turns away God’s wrath (see also 1 John 4:10). For the sins of the whole world does not mean that every person will be saved, for John is clear that forgiveness of sins comes only to those who repent and believe the gospel (see 2:4, 23; 3:10; 5:12; cf. John 3:18; 5:24). But Jesus’ sacrifice is offered and made available to everyone in “the whole world,” not just to John and his current readers.
It is my opinion that these are not good definitions for propitiation because they ignore a critical component of hilasmos. Many scholars attempt to define hilasmos as expiation, that is, God’s wrath being turned away through the sacrifice of Jesus. However, I think the word “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice” is correct and not “expiation” when talking about the effect of Jesus’ death. Consider a couple scholars who argue against the expiation concept when talking about hilasmos.
Vincent in his Word Studies says of the word “propitiation”: “The true meaning of the offering of Christ concentrates, therefore, not upon divine justice, but upon human character; not upon the remission of penalty for a consideration, but upon the deliverance from penalty through moral transformation; not upon satisfying divine justice, but upon bringing estranged man into harmony with God. As Canon Westcott remarks: “The scripture conception of [propitiation] is not that of appeasing one who is angry with a personal feeling against the offender, but of altering the character of that which, from without, occasions a necessary alienation, and interposes an inevitable obstacle to fellowship“ (Commentary on St. John’s Epistles, p. 85).”
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says of propitiation, “The propitiation originates with God, not to appease Himself, but to justify Himself in His uniform kindness to men deserving of harshness.”
Consider Paul’s explanation of “propitiation” in Romans 3:24-26
24and are justifiedby his grace as a gift,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because inhis divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (ESV)
The ISBE makes the point quite powerfully. Paul does NOT define “propitiation” as a wrathful God whose anger had to be appeased. Rather, God is described as a merciful and gracious God who passed over our sins in his grace. The sacrifice of Jesus justified God in being merciful to us. While I do not at all deny that the price had to be paid for sins and that God’s wrath is against all unrighteousness, these do not seem to be the points Paul is making here nor John is making in 1 John 2. Rather, God has been merciful and kind toward his creation and the sacrifice of Jesus was necessary so that God could justify himself while justifying us from our sins. Propitiation.
(As an aside, thus I think the NLT revision of Romans 3:25 was correct and necessary.)