What's the Difference between Expiation and Propitiation?

Expiation and propitiation will only ever make sense if we see ourselves as sinners who once were under the wrath of God, but through the death and resurrection of Christ we have been saved today, tomorrow, and through eternity.

Stephanie Englehart
silhouette of cross against sunset background, expiation and propitiation

If you’ve found this article, then I’m guessing you’ve begun a theological search on atonement. Because expiation and propitiation are words we don't use every day, their slight differences can be confusing. Additionally, the concepts of wrath and sin, which are attached to them, ruffle the feathers of even some Christian scholars. When expiation and propitiation are studied biblically, we become faced with the wrath of God and the despair of our sin. Because of this, we can get stuck in viewing God as an angry, vengeful man, waiting around the corner to ambush us. However, the truth of the matter is that expiation and propitiation actually reveal the very gracious and merciful heart of God through the atoning work of Christ.

What Are the Concepts of Expiation and Propitiation?

The two concepts of Expiation and Propitiation can be placed under the larger theological term of atonement. Expiation is defined as the removal of sin or guilt. Propitiation, on the other hand, has to do with the appeasement of God’s anger. Both expiation and propitiation come together at the cross in the atoning work of Christ. Therefore, it is helpful to understand atonement when thinking about these concepts. With this in mind, let’s first examine how atonement, and by default expiation and propitiation, apply to us. The atoning work of Christ encompasses four needs that we as sinners have, and how Christ’s death meets those needs.

The Sinners’ Needs:

  • 1. We are held accountable for our sin, and the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23). 
  • 2. Because of our sin, we deserve to bear the wrath of God as punishment (John 3:36). 
  • 3. Our sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2).
  • 4. We are enslaved to sin and Satan (1 John 3:4-10).

The Merciful Atoning Work of Christ:

  • 1. The penalty of death that we deserved because of our sin was satisfied through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus meets our needs through the expiation of our sin (Hebrews 9:26).
  • 2. To remove the wrath of God from us, and appease His anger towards our sin, Christ died for us. “In this 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 NASB).
  • 3. In order to overcome our separation from God, we need someone to reconcile us back to God, so that we can live in harmony with Him. Through Christ, God has reconciled us back to Him, and given us the gift of reconciliation with one another (1 Corinthians 5:17-21).
  • 4. Because we are enslaved to sin and Satan, we need someone to redeem us from our captivity. Through Christ’s death, “God the Father has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Jesus redeemed us from the power of the evil one by putting our sin to death on the cross and making a way from us to become children of God (1 John 5:18-20, Romans 6:11).

Is There a Difference Between Expiation and Propitiation?

Biblically speaking, both expiation and propitiation are terms used in part of God’s atoning work. Jesus’ sacrifice both turns away (propitiates) the wrath of God and covers (expiates) our sin. The redemptive work of Christ is both personal and objective. Therefore, the difference between each term in a biblical context involves the focus either being on wrath or sin. When the biblical context is centered around God’s wrath, propitiation is involved; when our sin is the central focus, then expiation is present in our redemption. On Ligonier.org R.C. Sproul wrote, 

"Expiation is the act that results in the change of God’s disposition toward us. It is what Christ did on the cross, and the result of Christ’s work of expiation is propitiation—God’s anger is turned away. The distinction is the same as that between the ransom that is paid and the attitude of the one who receives the ransom."

As an example, let’s consider the case of a pregnant female who was seriously injured work. An investigation revealed that the company was at fault because it did not provide a safe work environment for the woman. Thus, the company was liable for the injuries that occurred while on the job. The court awarded the woman a great sum of money for her pain and debt incurred due to the injury. When the company paid this woman, it expiated its wrongdoings. The company no longer has any responsibility towards the woman (expiation), but we have yet to deal with how the woman feels about her employer (propitiation)—the anger, hurt, resentment, and grief she may feel as her company put her and her unborn child in danger. The physical pain that the woman incurred has been expiated or paid for, but the wrath of the woman towards the company has not yet been propitiated.

In our case, Christ’s death on the cross both paid for the debt of our sins and reconciled us to God by satisfying God’s wrath. Jesus was both the expiation for our sin and the propitiation for God’s anger. His death on the cross supplied the necessary sacrifice to bring us from enemies to children of God (Galatians 4:3-7).

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. - Romans 5:6-11 (NASB)

Why Are These Acts Important to the Christian Faith?

The atonement of Christ was not necessary. God very well could have left us in our sin, and thrown us into the pit of Hell on judgment day with the fallen angels that rebelled (2 Peter 2:4) —leaving us fully separated from Him for eternity. However, God, in His great love for us, made the atoning work of Christ necessary for salvation (Ephesians 2:4-10). Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us so that we could come to know, love, and be fully satisfied in God. Without the atoning work of Christ, we would have no hope in this life, no ultimate satisfaction, and no reason to live out the works of God prepared for us before the foundation of the world.

R.C. Sproul in his book The Truth of the Cross explains the importance this way:

“Therefore, Christ’s supreme achievement on the cross is that He placated the wrath of God, which would burn against us were we not covered by the sacrifice of Christ. So if somebody argues against placation or the idea of Christ satisfying the wrath of God, be alert, because the gospel is at stake. This is about the essence of salvation—that as people who are covered by the atonement, we are redeemed from the supreme danger to which any person is exposed. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a holy God who’s wrathful. But there is no wrath for those whose sins have been paid. That is what salvation is all about.”

If then, we have been saved by God’s grace alone through the atoning work of Christ, expiation and propitiation are important to the Christian faith because our salvation, our very life and satisfaction depend on it. We have no hope apart from salvation through Christ.

How Do I Easily Explain This Concept to Others?

We will never be able to simply explain these concepts to others without first having a firm understanding of the gospel. If we do not see ourselves as sinners, lost under the wrath of God, in desperate need of a savior, then we also will not see the great depths of grace and mercy that God has on us in our sin. Therefore, if you are looking for ways to help others understand expiation and propitiation, commit yourself to understand the atoning work of Christ and how it daily applies to your life (Galatians 2:20). Expiation and propitiation will only ever make sense if we see ourselves as sinners who once were under the wrath of God, but through the death and resurrection of Christ we have been saved today, tomorrow, and through eternity (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. - Hebrews 2:14-17

When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. - Titus 3:4-7

Sources:

Bibliography. C. Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, pp. 151–60. L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross; R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God.

Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Expiation. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 746–747). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Bibliography. C.H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross; R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God.

Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Propitiation. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1784). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (pp. 569–581). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Green, M. P. (Ed.). (1989). Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 sermon illustrations arranged by topic and indexed exhaustively (Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kckate16

Stephanie Englehart is a Seattle native, church planter’s wife, mama, and lover of all things coffee, the great outdoors, and fine (easy to make) food. Stephanie is passionate about allowing God to use her honest thoughts and confessions to bring gospel application to life. You can read more of what she writes on the Ever Sing blog at stephaniemenglehart.com or follow her on Instagram: @stephaniemenglehart.


Originally published June 18, 2020.