23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (Romans 3:23–25)
1) WHAT IS A PROPITIATION?
Romans 3:25a Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood…
1.1) The Meaning of Propitiation
“To be a propitiation” (hilastērion). Propitiation is an old and difficult word, but it is also an important Biblical word. What does propitiation mean? It is an offering that appeases someone’s wrath. A husband bringing flowers to his angry wife is bringing a propitiation. Alva J. McClain says that a propitiation is… “a reason for not executing punishment which is deserved.”1
Do you remember how Jacob and Esau had a falling out and Jacob ran away from his brother for two decades? When Jacob came back home, he was really worried that Esau would kill him for stealing his birthright. So he sent ahead a present consisting of animals. Listen to what he said:
…I will appease him with the present that goeth before me, and afterward I will see his face; peradventure he will accept of me. (Genesis 32:20)
The word “appease” is, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Greek word for propitiation. Jacob was hoping that the present of animals would be a propitiation that would appease Esau’s anger.
Propitiation assumes that there is someone who is justly angry and needs to be appeased. It’s not politically correct to think of God as being angry or wrathful, even among Christians. But it is what we find in the Bible. For instance,
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; (Romans 1:18)
God hates sin and ungodliness and unrighteousness. He is angry with it. What could possibly placate the wrath of God against sin? Keep that in mind as we look at…
1.2) The Picture of Propitiation
Literally, the Greek word for propitiation (hilastērion) refers to the mercy seat or the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. You can find it translated as “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5. Also, in the Greek Old Testament, it’s translated as “mercy seat” (e.g., Exodus 25:16-21).
The Ark of the Covenant was the gold-covered box that God ordered the Israelites to make. The on the lid of the Ark were two cherubims of gold facing one another and between them, also made of pure gold, was the mercy seat. One of the items inside the Ark were the Ten Commandments, written on tablets of stone (Exodus 25:17-22).
It was to set in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later, the Temple. Once a year, the high priest would come into the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the people’s sins by sprinkling the blood of an animal on the mercy seat.
Now, here’s the picture—and it’s very deliberate. The people had broken the Ten Commandments. We all do…we’re sinners. Imagine God looking down from Heaven and seeing His commandments in that Ark and thinking, “My people have broken My commands.”
But then, the blood of an innocent is sprinkled on the mercy seat—the lid of the Ark. Now what does God see when He looks down at His commandments which are in the Ark? He sees the blood. This is the picture of propitiation.
Propitiation is the appeasement of God’s wrath against sin. Propitiation is the payment of the wages of sin.
1.3) The Parable Of Propitiation
In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable that illustrates propitiation for us. It was about a Pharisee and a publican, or a tax collector, who had come to pray at the Temple. Do you remember what the Pharisee prayed? He prayed:
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Luke 18:11–12)
Was the Pharisee right in what he prayed? Probably, so. He was probably a very righteous man. But do you think that God accepted his prayer? No, He did not. Why? Back at the beginning of the parable, Luke writes:
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (Luke 18:9)
The Pharisee was trusting in his own goodness to gain favor with God. His propitiation was his good works. He hoped that his good works would be enough to appease God’s wrath against his sin. But unfortunately, like everyone else, our good works can never be good enough to pay for sin. Just look at this Pharisee, while he did good things, he was also proud, and pride is the worst of sins.
That’s why it says:
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (Ephesians 2:8)
But then we look at the publican. He was a tax collector, and tax collectors in those days were known for cheating people out of more money than the government wanted, just to line their own pockets. They were the people that other people despised. How did the publican approach God?
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Luke 18:13)
He was not proud of what he had done, and he knew that he had nothing to give to God. So he says, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Now, can you guess what Greek word is behind “merciful”? It’s the same root word that is translated “propitiation!” The publican was saying, “Lord, find a way to propitiate me. Find a way to take my sin away.” That leads us to the question:
2) WHERE DOES OUR PROPITIATION COME FROM?
In the Old Testament, propitiation was based on the blood of animals. Leviticus, for instance, is a manual for how to make proper sacrifices. It’s a very bloody book. Here’s just one verse (notice that the word, “mercy seat” is the Greek word for propitiation):
15 Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: (Leviticus 16:15)
So God would look down, and see His commandments on tablets in the Ark, and think, “My people have broken My commandments.” But then He would see the blood and be appeased—temporarily. It would be only temporary because the Bible says,
4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)
How can a permanent propitiation be made? What can appease God’s wrath against sin forever?
Romans 3:25 Whom [Christ Jesus, verse 24] God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood…
Jesus came to this earth as a man. He came to die as a sacrifice for us. To be a propitiation for our sins. To be a permanent sacrifice!
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; (Hebrews 10:12)
The Old Testament high priests constantly made sacrifices. They ran to and fro in the Temple, killing animals left and right. The blood never had time to dry. But Jesus sat down at the right hand of God because His job was done. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins, forever.
But while Jesus’ blood does pay the penalty for sin, His payment must be applied to our lives by faith. Look at what our verse says:
Romans 3:25 Whom [Christ Jesus, verse 24] God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood…
So that leaves us with one last huge theological question:
3) WHAT IS FAITH?
Faith is a word that is thrown about carelessly today. Here are some ideas that people have about faith that are not true:
3.1) What Faith Is Not
3.1.1) Faith Is Not A Feeling
I think a lot of what passes for faith in America is simply a feeling. People think that if they believe sincerely enough—it doesn’t matter what they believe, they will be okay. I am not just talking about Hindus and Muslims and so on. People who call themselves Christians have some pretty unbiblical ideas about Christ.
Some years ago in a rather extended discussion about religion a young man told me that he was a Christian. As we talked, I discovered that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was fully divine. He said he was God’s Son, but only in the sense that we are all God’s sons. He did not believe in the resurrection. He did not believe that Jesus died for our sin or that the New Testament contains an accurate record of his life and ministry. He did not acknowledge Christ as Lord of his life. When I pointed out that these beliefs are involved in any true definition of a Christian, he answered that nevertheless he believed deep in his heart that he was a Christian. The thing he called faith was only a deeply held gut feeling.2
Faith is not a feeling. It’s not believing whatever you want and calling yourself a Christian.
3.1.2) Faith Is Not A Positive Attitude
Another popular misconception about faith in America is that it is having a positive mental attitude. You see this in slogans like, “Just believe in yourself, and your dreams with come true.” Or, “Don’t worry, have faith, everything will work out.”
Now, someone with a true faith in Christ will have a positive outlook. But the positive outlook is based on Christ and what He has done for us, not on some act of our will to make ourselves “dream the impossible dream.”
3.2) What Is Faith Then?
Charles Spurgeon defined faith as “…believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.”3
This is a wonderful three part definition that keeps us from the misunderstandings of faith. Let’s look at each part:4
3.2.1) Faith Is Believing What The Bible Says About Jesus
Spurgeon called this “…believing that Christ is what He is said to be.” How do we find what Christ is said to be? By going to the Bible!
17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)
In order to believe in something, we must know something true about it. In order to believe in Christ, we must know Who Christ is and what we know about Him must be true.
The young man described earlier claimed to be a Christian, but what did he believe about Jesus? He said that Jesus did not die for our sins, rise from the dead, or was God Himself. Don’t think that he is alone. In a Barna poll from 2014, 93 percent of Americans said that they believed that Jesus was a real historical person. But only 43 percent said that He was also God in the flesh.5
This is a common trend that you can see in poll after poll: Americans claim to believe something about Christianity—it’s in our culture. They say they read the Bible or believe in Jesus, but when you start asking specific questions like: “is it Biblical to live together before marriage?” or “is Jesus God in the flesh?”, the number drops dramatically.
Can you be a Christian and not believe that Jesus is God? No. Absolutely not. It’s essential, just like it is essential to know that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. These things (among others) are what define Christianity.
17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17)
To have faith, you need to believe what the Bible says about Christ. You need to believe that Christ is what He is said to be.
3.2.2) Faith Is Relying On Jesus To Do What He Has Promised
James says that the demons believe (James 2:19). Satan and his demons certainly believe that Jesus is God, that He died, and that He rose again. But they cannot be said to have faith. Why? Because faith is more than knowing about Jesus…it’s also relying on Jesus to save you.
Spurgeon said that real faith would believe “that He will do what He has promised to do.” In other words, we rely on Him to fulfill His promises. What has Jesus promised to do? Many things—like never leaving us or forsaking us, providing comfort in trials, and so forth.
But the first promise of Jesus that you must rely on is this:
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
Is that a promise that you are relying on?
Faith is believing what the Bible says about Jesus; Faith is relying on Jesus to do what He has promised; and…
3.2.3) Faith Is Committing Oneself To Jesus
What did Spurgeon say faith was? “…believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.” To know Who Christ is, to rely on Him to do what He has promised, and then to “expect this of Him.”
What Spurgeon was getting at when he says that faith expects this of Jesus is what we could call commitment. This is what Romans 10:9 is talking about where it says, “…if thou confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus.” It’s a life commitment to Jesus. It’s the evidence of your faith.
Think of it as being like the movement of a man and woman towards marriage. First, they date or court one another. That’s the knowledge part. They are getting to know one another.
Second, there’s the coming to rely on the other person. Or, you begin to trust that they are reliable. To know that what they have promised or what they say is true.
But then what is the final stage in getting married? It’s the commitment that is verbally expressed when the couple says, “I do.”
Have you said “I do” to Jesus? Is He more than a historical figure to you? Do you have a real faith in Jesus today?
Faith is believing what the Bible says about Jesus; Faith is relying on Jesus to do what He has promised; and…Faith is committing oneself to Jesus.
1 Alva J. McClain, Romans, (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1973), 1093
2 James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library, 1988), 66.
3 Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace (Pasadena: Pilgrim, 1978), 47
4 For this section, I relied heavily on James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library, 1988), 67–68.