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Online Text Sermon - Propitiation, Romans ch.3 v.25

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitlePropitiation (Poor Quality)
TextRomans ch.3 v.25
Sermon ID1074

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"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, 25).

That word in verse 25 especially - 'propitiation'. "Jesus Christ, Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation." My task this morning is to bring to your attention this one word and its meaning. Clearly, the word propitiation is not a common everyday word and it requires to be explained if it is to be properly understood.

The word 'propitiation' means making somebody to be reconciled when there has been a quarrel between you. A king, let us say, has had a rebellion on the part of some of his subjects: they have rebelled against his authority. The king is angry and he raises an army with a view to overthrowing these rebels - probably by death, certainly by imprisonment. Then, something happens to put an end to this warfare and to this enmity which has arisen. Something is done which restores the honour of the king, which restores his sovereignty, his power, his control of the nation. We say about him, he has been rendered propitious. He has been made to be reconciled and, without taking any further action, he freely forgives the rebels and peace is restored to the country. That is what we refer to when we use this word, 'propitiation'. It means turning away the anger - of God in this case - turning away the anger of God from ourselves, and from people like ourselves, who have not been perfect but have been sinners.

This is a word which is unpopular today, and if you were to spend time looking at the modern versions of the Bible - and I don't recommend you spend long doing this - but if you were to spend time looking at the modern versions of the Bible you would soon discover that this word 'propitiation' is not a popular word with many translators. The reason is that there are many today who do not believe that God is ever angry with this world. Indeed, they would be very indignant if you were to represent the character of God to be such that he is angry with men. They say that what was needed is that men (and women) should be rendered propitious towards God, and they are quite happy to look at it that way. They say it was not that God was angry with us but that we are angry with Him and that what needs to happen is that we should be again restored to a right relationship of love towards God. Many such writers have gone on to say that there never was anything in God but love towards the world, and so there was no place for propitiation. They use other words to translate this Greek word here. They use the word 'expiation' perhaps, or 'atonement', or 'reconciliation', or a paraphrase like 'the remedy for the defilement of sin', or something. There are many different phrases and terms that they could select, but propitiation, I say, is not popular at least.

My friends, that is a misunderstanding of the character and the attitude of God towards our fallen and sinful world. The Bible tells us from beginning to end that there is something in God called anger, and it is a very awful and terrible thought that God can be angry with sinners and with men and with this world. It's a terrible thought from any perspective - terrible because God is not naturally disposed to be angry. There are some human beings who are angry by nature; you get used to that, and it doesn't take much for them to flare up, as we say. You just have to learn to live with that. There are people like that and, indeed, all of us are inclined to be like that, given enough provocation. But God is not like that. God is a God of love, and a God of grace, and a God of mercy and kindness. So, it takes a very great deal to put God into a state of anger, seeing that it was no part of his essential nature to be so. He is not an irritable God. He is not a God who is bad tempered in any sense of the word. Therefore, when such a God is angry it is a fearful thought, something very dreadful has occurred to bring him into a state of angriness, and that indeed is what sin is. If we don't understand that, we haven't begun to realise what the human problem is. The human problem is not just that man is angry with God, it is deeper than that. It is that God is angry with men and women because we are so different from the way he intends us to be.

This word propitiation here refers to the remedy, then, that God himself has provided, not simply to bring us to be at peace with Him, but to bring Himself to be at peace with us. The effect of this propitiation is not man-centred but God-centred. It is the method whereby He has found a solution for the problem of His anger. He can put away His anger for this reason: that Jesus Christ our Lord was made a propitiatory sacrifice, that He was made to suffer infinite pain, made to suffer unspeakable torments both in body, mind and soul. In so doing and so suffering, the Word of God tells us that He became a propitiation, and that is the correct translation here. It is the best possible translation here.

It's not the only part of the Bible where this word is found or a kindred word. You find it where it was said about Jesus, "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (I John 2, 2). You get here: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4, 10). In these places, and in some other related places of the New Testament, we have this idea of propitiation, and we have it oftener and often in the Old Testament where God requires sacrifice, either sprinkling of blood, the killing of a sacrificial animal, the demand that God made for death in animal sacrifice. All of that points to exactly the same thing, that there is such a thing as anger in God - not capricious anger, not anger without a cause, such as you and I, alas, sometimes are guilty of - but anger for a very good cause, that sin in man is the very contradiction of his being. Sin in man is a provocative and a wicked form of rebellion. Sin in man is implacable hatred of God. That is what sin is. We all have indwelling sin, even as Christians, and that's what our indwelling sin is - it is hatred of God - and there's some of it left in us all, even the best and holiest of us. Alas, in this world we have some of it, and that is why we cannot tolerate it in ourselves and we can never be at peace with it in ourselves. We must fight against it until by grace and glory at last it be gone.

The teaching is that the Bible here calls Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the cross by this descriptive term, a 'propitiation' - that is the teaching, which is the way where man's sins are forgiven. It is through Jesus Christ. It is on the basis of His death. He is the vicarious sacrifice, the substitutionary sacrifice, for our sins. Our sins are imputed to Him and, if we believe, then through faith His obedience and righteousness are imputed to us. That is the teaching. That is the heart of the gospel. To understand that is to understand the most important truth in existence. No knowledge is so vital to you and me, and others like us, as to know that that is God's way of peace, God's way of reconciliation and God's way of holiness.

I want to look at that this morning, and as I do so I have in mind one or two special things. First of all, the Communion Season is coming upon us now apace. If we're spared for another two weeks, the Lord's Supper will be observed in our midst again. Then, of course, we are mindful of the fact we have friends among us who, at such a time, examine themselves to see if they are fit and in a right state of soul to profess faith in Christ and become, themselves, personally committed members. With these thoughts in mind I look at the subject of propitiation.

What happens when a person believes in Christ crucified is that they immediately pass from one covenant to another covenant. Let me explain what we mean by the word 'covenant'. A covenant means those terms and conditions upon which God will be a friend to us, those terms and conditions upon which God will be at peace with us. That is what is meant by a covenant. There are two covenants in the history of the world. There is, first of all, the covenant of works made by God with Adam, and the condition of that covenant was perfect, perpetual obedience on the part of our father Adam and his wife Eve. But of course, as you very well know, that covenant has been broken.

I mention that because every person who is not a Christian is still in that first covenant. Every man, woman and child born into this world, living in this world, who is not a believer in Christ is still in the covenant of works, which is broken and which brings death, because the wages of sin is death in terms of that covenant. Everyone therefore who is not converted and who is not in a state of grace and a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, they are yet under His anger. They are yet the objects of His displeasure. Every breath they draw, every step they take in life, is taken under His anger. His eye is displeased. Whatever the unconverted man does is displeasing to God. The ploughing of the wicked is sin; everything he does is sin - his thoughts, his life, his mind, his actions - everything about the unconverted man is sin, even things you and I regard as innocent things. They are sin because he cannot aim at the glory of God. He doesn't love God, which is the first and chiefest of all man's duties.

Everybody is either in Adam's covenant or else he is in the covenant of grace, Christ's covenant. What happens at conversion? What happens when you have faith in Christ is that you are immediately and instantaneously transferred by God from the covenant of works - wherein is the curse and the wrath and anger of God - into the covenant of grace. You are immediately at peace with God. That is the wonderful difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is broken and you can't repair it, you can't patch it up. It's broken for ever and God is not repairing the covenant of works. What he has done is, he has made a brand new way of having fellowship with Him, and this is on the basis of Christ as our propitiation. In particular, it is the faith in Christ whereby we are to believe that He is the eternal Son of God. We are to confess Him as 'my Saviour' and 'my Lord'. My salvation is alone in Him. That is the nature and these are the terms of the covenant of grace. As soon as you believe that with your heart, then you have passed from death unto life. You have passed from the covenant in which God is angry with the wicked every day to the covenant of grace in which God cannot and will not bring judgement or curse upon any man. There is no condemnation to those who are in that covenant of grace. So glorious is this message of the gospel and propitiation that it is of great importance to be ourselves often thinking about it and reminding ourselves how great is the price that Christ paid in order be our propitiation and to give us this wonderful privilege of eternal life.

I've opened it like this. First of all, I want to point out to you how much our blessed Lord suffered in His own mind as He was becoming a propitiation for our sins. He suffered, I say, in His mind. We don't always think of this. We do think of the sufferings of His body, and so we should, and we do think of the sufferings of the soul, but we don't always remember how much our Lord suffered in His mind. I must point out to you, it was essential that Christ should suffer in His mind because all His dying and suffering work had to be consciously gone through; that is what makes Him so valuable, that He deliberately offered Himself as the sacrifice to God for our sins. He was not sedated; He did not accept any anaesthetic of any kind: He would not take the drug offered to Him by the pious women who gave Him a sedated drink on the way to the cross. He would not take it because He intended His mind to be clear. He voluntarily, deliberately, actively underwent these sufferings which give them their extraordinary value, as indeed their extraordinary value also was attaching to the fact that He is God, in our nature. Our Lord, then, suffered in His mind.

We see how great these sufferings were, when our Lord was in the Garden of Gethsemane. His mind then began to understand, in a way which had not been so before, just how immense His agonies were going to be, just how extraordinary His sufferings would prove to be. Not only did He feel deep anxiety and strain, as we call it, in the Garden of Gethsemane, but that agony and strain were visible in His very body. He sweated, we are told, like great drops of blood flowing to the ground. That was under the mental impression of what lay ahead of Him.

Every one of us knows that what you suffer in your mind is often worse than what you suffer in your body. Let me suppose, by way of illustration, that you are told that you must have a serious operation next week. Well, it may be that you go through days and nights of tremendous worry and anguish as to what is going to be the outcome of this operation. You may go off your sleep, you may go off your food or you may be in a torment of mind. In the event, let me suppose the operation is quite routine and all is well; after the event, of being two or three days in hospital, you are quite fit again. The operation itself was comparatively easy. What was not easy was the thought and the anticipation, and the forethought and the value attaching to it. The mental side was worse than the physical side. We're all of us prone to do that.

In our Lord's case there was immense mental suffering as He faced the cross and becoming our propitiation. Let me say why - negatively first. He knew that God was not angry with Him personally. A lot of people misunderstand this point. Our Lord knew very well that God, His Father, was not angry with Him personally, but God the Father was angry with Him officially. As the Lord Jesus Christ was Prophet, Priest and King, it was in that official capacity as the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the Lamb of God. In that official capacity God was angry with Him because, of course, He was bearing in Himself the sins of His people. It was with the sins He bore that God was angry, but insofar as Christ was made sin for us, it was with Him that the Father was angry, and Jesus Christ knew that.

Let me give you another negative we must be clear about. We must never say that God hated Christ when he punished Him on the cross. There are incautious preachers who sometimes allow themselves to say what is quite outrageous. God never hated Christ under any circumstance whatsoever. The Father loved Him, and if I can use a phrase I would say: God the Father never loved Christ more than when our Lord was obedient unto death. That was the pinnacle of all obedience that our Lord rendered to the Father. It was the climax, and the acme if you like, the apex if you wish, of all that our Lord rendered to God of obedience and love, and love indeed to our souls. "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life..." (John 10, 17). God the Father treated our Lord Jesus Christ as though He hated Him, so to say. That is to say, the fact that the Father loved Him personally because of His obedience did not, in any sense, relieve the immensity of our Lord's judgement and punishment for our sin. As our Lord faced what He had to face to become the propitiation for the sins of the world, He understood very well that the anger directed toward Him by the Father was not anger which was hatred, but which was necessary because that was the only way for us to be reconciled to God.

The Bible says that He was made sin for us on the cross. We must ask the question: When was sin first imputed to Christ? When did our sin begin to be imputed to Christ? The answer to that is: At the moment of his incarnation. As soon as our Lord became - I'll say flesh - became a man, sin was imputed to Him. Our sin was His responsibility from His birth, from His mother's womb. That's why all His life He must be a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. His life was a life of deep sadness. When He read the Bible - Bible study for Him was not as it is for us - Bible study for Him was to be reminded that before Him, as a young man, years ahead of Him would be the cross. He knew it was coming. He saw it. He saw the misfortunes. He saw Himself to be the Pascal Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. So He knew very well it was only a few years ahead of Him that He must enter into a state of damnation, and that thought was with Him all through His life. "I must be about my Father's business" (Luke 2, 49), said He, as a boy of twelve. That was His governing motive all throughout His childhood and manhood, until He was baptised by John - "I must fulfil all righteousness" (Matthew 3, 15), He says to John. That was His thought as He went to Gethsemane - "Let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26, 39). It was His love for the Father and His love for you and me that bound Him to His duty.

It was not an easy thing for Him to face the cross from any point of view. We mustn't imagine that because He was the God-Man that He was in any sense spared some of the punishment due to sin. We, when we are chastening our children, sometimes feel as we begin the chastisement that we will give them six smacks, but then we think later that two or three will do. They've already broken down crying, we don't need to add to the pain - but we call it softening the blow, and we say lessening the punishment - but there was no lessening of the punishment for Christ. Immense as was the Father's love for Christ, it did not lead Him to spare our Lord one single degree of the wrath and curse due to my sin and yours. This was because of the infinite holiness and justice of God. The justice of God is perfect, and every sin therefore against that holiness is, if you like, a sin against an infinity of perfection. In a sense, it was an infinity of evil and wickedness, and therefore nobody could atone for it, or become a reconciler to God for it, except somebody of infinite value. That's how the Redeemer and a Saviour had to be God! But He had also to be God in man's nature, because sin was committed in my nature and yours, and had to be punished in man's nature and yours. God of course cannot sin and God cannot suffer and God cannot die. But the one that had to atone for sin, and make this propitiation, He had to be both God, to be of infinite value, and also man, in order to have a nature in which He could suffer and die. Exquisite wisdom of God therefore provided exactly what we needed - a God-Man, uniquely, Jesus Christ strides all mysteries, the one and only, who bears the nature of God and the nature of man.

He saw the Father's wrath would fall upon Him for the broken law, and that is why the Creed tells us that 'he descended into hell'. We must be very careful how we understand those words - he descended into hell. Whenever you hear those words you must stop and ask yourself: When did our Lord Jesus Christ enter into hell? The answer is: Not after He died, but before He died. He did not enter into hell after He died. After He died He entered into glory; His soul went into glory for three days, into the intermediate state of glory. His body of course went into the grave and there, because He was the Son of God and the perfect Saviour, His body saw no corruption. There was no smell of death, as we might say, upon His body. It was miraculously preserved, because He was what he was - God in our nature - the human nature did not deteriorate. The body was intact, yet indeed in a state of death, certainly - physical death - but without corruption. The soul meantime was for three days in glory, and on the third day soul and body came together, and He rose again with new powers and with new abilities: to appear or disappear. He did not now need to eat or sleep as before; He did not need to open doors as we do, to get into a room; He could appear and disappear marvellously. But He was dead, truly dead, for those three days. The reason why He must die is because 'the wages of sin is death', and our Lord must die.

We may say, What about the divine nature? He did not die in the divine nature, He died only in the human nature. As I said, God cannot die, and that is why the Redeemer could not just be the second person of the Godhead; He must be that second person of the Godhead with our human nature united to Himself. Oh! the wisdom of God!

My friends, what a price was paid for sin! What a price was paid for your personal redemption and mine! Think of you and I living on this spot of dust which we call the world, in this universe of dust which is soon to pass away. That God should have had such love for us, as to send His Son to be the propitiation for our sins! Indeed it is wonderful beyond all thought. Jesus suffered, I say, in His mind. Let us not forget that but, of course, He very much suffered in His body. I said earlier, sin was imputed to Him all His life, from the moment of his incarnation onwards. He was aware of it. All that pain and sadness in His life and the shadow it carried with it which fell upon His life, all His days; it was because He had this sin imputed to Him as His responsibility.

When He came to the sufferings of Gethsemane and the cross, He now entered into the climax of His sufferings. Here He not only suffered as He had done all His life, but here was the crown of all His sufferings. Here His sufferings reached their height and pinnacle as they had not so done before. These are well known to you. Our Lord was tried six times, and then scourged, and then made to take His cross from the place of judgement to the place of execution. The soldiers escorted Him. He was mocked by them. Their treatment of him is a commentary on human nature. I say what they did to our Lord had very little to do with justice. The way the Jews treated Him was totally without any excuse in their own scriptures. They did everything they could to hasten His death. It is illegal for a court of law to meet through the night, but that's when our Lord was condemned, when there were no members of the public to hear what they were doing. They did everything in their power to hasten Him to his death. What they hated about Him was His claim to be the Messiah. But they couldn't put Him to death for blasphemy because they had no powers to execute; the Romans had that power but they did not, and they were a separate nation. When they took Him along to Pontius Pilate, they didn't charge Him with blasphemy - that was not something that Pontius Pilate had the slightest interest in; blasphemy to him was a joke - what did he care about God, after all? And so they twisted the charge against Him now into that He claimed to be a king, and if He was a king then He was an enemy to Caesar, a danger to the Roman Empire, if you please, a pretender to be another king. That was the corrupt way in which they twisted the charge from blasphemy, which was the real thing that they objected to, to having political aspirations. Pilate tested Him and tried Him and investigated Him on those grounds you remember. "Are you a king?" said Pilate. "I am," said Jesus, "but my kingdom is not of this world." And on the basis of that, weakly Pontius Pilate, when he was pressed and pressed and pressed again by the crowds, washed his hands to clear his soul of guilt - as he hoped - and scourged Jesus and sent Him to be crucified. There our Lord was crucified between two thieves to fulfil the scriptures which said that "he was numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53, 12).

You know the story well. Our Lord was six hours on the cross and the climax of His sufferings was at midday, and until 3 o'clock. Nay, there's no man can understand what our Lord suffered in those hours; it is beyond the comprehension of the human mind to know. He suffered damnation in all the fullness of it, and drank deep draughts of the curse, which you and I deserve, from the Father's cup which was placed into His hands and to His lips. That's what wrung from Him that cry, which no one can understand, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" (Mat 27, 46). We do not know what he suffered, and the early church used to say that in prayer when it used the expression, "Oh Lord, by thine unknown sufferings, we pray to thee..." They're unknown and unknowable. Perhaps in heaven we shall understand a little better, but not here.

Then when the work was done our Lord cried out, "It is finished...(John 19, 30); Father into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23, 46). It's no wonder that there were miracles that occurred at that time. These miracles, if you like, are divine signs or divine omens which proclaim to us the glories of what He had done. The veil of the temple rent in two from the top to the bottom in the temple. This was a sign that the enmity between God and man was removed. It was rent and taken and torn away. The veil was something in the temple which prevented the priests and others from entering into the holy of holies, the very presence of God. The rending of the veil, therefore, is a sign that there is no more enmity on the part of God. Be reconciled to God because he has removed the enmity. There is no barrier for sinners of all nations coming to faith in Christ and being blessed in Christ. Then that other amazing miracle whereby we are told that after the resurrection of our Lord the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints arose and appeared in the holy city to many. They were recognised. We don't know the names of them but, obviously, it's the saints from the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and men like that. They were raised from the dead. Please don't ask me what happened to them after they appeared - we do not know. It's absolutely marvellous and so mysterious. Perhaps they were given to appear for a short time in the holy city and then taken straight back to heaven. The details are impossible for us to say. What we do know is that it is the proof that Christ's death is the death of death. Christ's death is the end of death for all believers. To them who have the Saviour, death itself has no terrors, because He has become the Lord our Righteousness and He is the Resurrection and the Life. He that liveth and believeth in him shall never die but have eternal life. He has turned death into a sleep for His people, a sleep whereby their bodies enter the grave at death but their soul enters at once into glory and they are at peace, at rest, in love and holiness with all the saints above.

These sufferings of Christ, and all the sufferings of Christ, form a wonderful Sacrifice by which he has been set forth as a propitiation by God the Father - that's what my text tells you. God's love provided it. This is the way God has made Him available to us, by setting Him forth on the cross. Now also, through the preaching of the gospel, it confronts everyone that hears it. It says to you that if you believe in this Saviour, and in His death and trust in his propitiatory work, then God will be at peace with you. In living and in dying, in sickness and in health, all the journey of life through, God is with you when you are in the covenant of grace through faith in Christ. He has set Him forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, and that is the great core of the gospel. It is the proof of the love of God. Which one of us would sacrifice our children, were it possible, for the salvation of others? Which one of us would lay down our own lives for wicked criminals? Not many of us would do that. But God sent his Son to die for a criminal world, and the call unto you is to faith, to believe, to take Him for yourself as your own Lord and Saviour, and to crown Him Lord of your life and of your soul, with this promise attaching, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. No wonder, my friends, this gospel is the salvation of the world. No wonder this has given hope and joy and consolation to innumerable multitudes of men and women. It is the love and grace of the everlasting God, who has set forth his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

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