Webster's is an American dictionary, and Webster was a man who I believe, lived in the early 1800s. He was one of the first persons who came up with the idea of compiling a dictionary. In his original dictionary there are a lot of good definitions which are very helpful when applied to the King James version of the Bible, because the language is very close to that time, and Webster's dictionary contains a lot of theological definitions as well.
Webster's dictionary contains two definitions for “propitiation.” The first definition says:
Propitiation: “ The act of appeasing wrath and conciliating the favour of an offended person, the act of making propitious.”
I think this is a definition that pagans understand very well and would heartily agree with.
The Spirit of Prophecy gives us some insights into what happened when Adam sinned, which are helpful in properly understanding the meaning of this word, “propitiation.” When Adam and Eve sinned, God came to them, and the Bible tells us that they were given coats, but not just given coats to wear, they were also given explanations about a few things. They were given explanations about sin and what it was going to cost, and the One who was going to come.
Years later, Cain and Abel came to offer up their sacrifices, and we are told what happened in Genesis chapter 3. Abel offered up the sacrifice which represented what God was going to do for mankind, while Cain decided that he was just going to offer up a sacrifice of his choice, something which represented the labour of his hands. The record tells us that God did not accept Cain's sacrifice.
You know, God was still in communion with man at this point. Here, in chapter 3 of Genesis, God was still talking to Cain and Abel. Cain offered up the wrong sacrifice and God told him, “look, if you offer up the right sacrifice I will accept it just as I did Abel's.” God was still talking with him. In His mercy, God was communicating with Cain so clearly, so intimately, that when Cain killed his brother Abel and the Lord asked, “where is your brother?” Cain was able to literally talk back to God when he asked God, “am I my brother's keeper?” But this was not the end of the story. Something tragic happened as a result of this incident. The Bible tells us very simply that Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, stating that God's sentence, the consequence of his crime, was too much for him.
And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. (Gen 4:16)
Do you know what? It is not only Cain, but mankind on the whole which has been out of the presence of the Lord ever since. But the question is, “why?” Let us consider the subsequent history of the descendants of Cain. Of course Abel had no descendants but we know what happened to the descendants of Seth, his godly brother, as far as their relationship with God was concerned. They continued to worship God with their worship including the offering of sacrifices. But what about the descendants of Cain? The descendants of Cain went from offering fruits and vegetables, to offering other sacrifices to appease the wrath of God.
In actual fact, going by Webster's definition, what they offered to God was a propitiation. That's what it was. When you offer a sacrifice because you need to somehow appease God, you are offering a propitiation. The descendants of Cain became experts at sacrifice. They said “uh oh! There's a storm, God must be angry with us!” So they would offer up a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. This system even survived the great flood in Noah's days and the ideas were passed on somehow by way of at least one of Noah's Sons, Ham. By the time of Nimrod, this was again their natural way of life.
They worshiped the sun, and as the year progressed, the sun would get farther and farther away from the earth and as the sun was receding, it was getting colder and colder while the days were getting shorter and shorter. So they concluded, “God must be angry with us!” So on December 21, they noticed that the sun was starting to come back. The high priest of Baal, whose name was Canabaal, (that's where we get the word “cannibal” from), would take a young man, lay him over a stone, and while the man was still alive, would cut into his chest, pull out his heart while it was still beating (the origin of the “sacred heart” of Catholicism), and he would hold it out to the sun to appease the wrath of god. Then four days later, on December 25, they had a big celebration for the re-birth of the sun. Man's misunderstanding of God and His purposes got so bad, men felt that God's wrath towards us was such a terrible thing, that in order to appease Him, we began to sacrifice ourselves!
During the Old Testament history of Israel, this was going on all around them. As a result of their mingling with the nations this had an impact on them.
In 1 Samuel 15:22 Samuel told Saul that God is more interested in obedience than sacrifice. In Psalms 40: 6, the Psalmist teaches us that God does not desire sacrifice and offering. In Psalm 51:16, David says, “for thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it.” But even Israel came to believe that somehow, it was God who was being satisfied by their sacrifices and they offered these sacrifices in the belief that in doing this, they were giving God something which He needed. It got so bad that God had to tell them that He was fed up with their sacrifices. (Isa. 1:11)
The truth is, there is only one reason why God ever asked men to offer a sacrifice and it was not to satisfy God! In Hebrews 9:28 the apostle Paul tells us,
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Heb 9:28)
Was Jesus offered to appease the wrath of God? E.J. Waggoner makes a comment in his little book on Romans which is helpful. It is almost funny when we read it, but yet, in a way, it is tragic because it probably describes what we have all believed.
“A propitiation is a sacrifice. The statement then is simply that Christ is set forth to be the sacrifice for the remission of sins. ‘Once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26).' Of course the idea of a propitiation or sacrifice is that there is wrath to be appeased. But take particular notice that it is we who require the sacrifice, and not God.”
Did we get that? We require the sacrifice, God provides the sacrifice. Now remember, Christ was the propitiation, He was the sacrifice for the wrath of somebody or for the offence of somebody, but was it the offence of God, or was it our offence? If the sacrifice was to satisfy God, because He was the one who was offended, then we should be the ones providing the tokens to fix the relationship. But it wasn't God who was offended, it was us. Think about it, would God ever offer a sacrifice to appease Himself? The fact is, it was He who offered the sacrifice to appease you and me! We are the ones with the problem! “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son.” Why did He give Him, was it because God needed the sacrifice? No, it was you who needed a sacrifice! We needed a sacrifice, because there's something wrong with us! We ran away from Him because that's what our fallen nature does, we are out of our minds. We run away from God! Did God run away from Adam and Eve when they sinned, of did they run away from God? It is tragic, but true, that most people only go to the altar of God because they are scared out of their wits.
Waggoner goes on to say:
“It is the height of absurdity to say that God is so angry with men that he will not forgive them unless something is provided to appease his wrath, and that therefore he himself offers the gift to himself, by which he is appeased.”
What a crazy idea! But this is what billions of people, and even hundreds of millions of Christians believe.
Here is the theological definition that Webster gives, in his second definition of the word, “propitiation.” Webster was a protestant, and the thinking of Christendom is reflected in this definition.
Propitiation: “In theology the atonement or atoning sacrifice offered to God to assuage His wrath and render Him propitious to sinners.”
“Christ is the propitiation for the sins of men.” This is what Paul tells us, but how do Christians understand this? Looking at Webster's definition we realize that they believe exactly what Waggoner said was crazy, that is, that God offered His own son to appease His own wrath. This is even worse than the pagan ideas. At least the pagans grabbed somebody else, but Christians say that God grabbed His own son! When I read this, I was flabbergasted. I told my whole family, “I can't believe this.” But tragically, it is true and this confusion has been a major part of the problem affecting the way we relate to God and the plan of salvation.
Let us look again at what happened with Adam and Eve when they first sinned:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (7) And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. (8) And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. (Gen 3:6-8)
Now did God run away from them? Does it sound here like He is angry? does He sound like somebody who needs to be appeased? Actually, it sounds here like He is very gentle, because He knows they are already running away from Him. What did God do to cause them to run from Him? God didn't do anything did He? He didn't do a single thing, but they were running away from Him! You see that's what a sinful fallen nature does. It destroys the relationship with God! Even in human relationships, when we do something to hurt another person we damage the relationship with that person, and sinful nature has the tendency to run away when relationships are damaged.
Adam and Eve ran away, and not only did they run away, but they added to the problem as we see in verse 12:
And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (13) And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. (Gen 3:12-13)
They blamed it on God! But what had God done to harm them? Did He come to have His wrath appeased? God came and spoke to them gently and immediately set out a plan in which He would do everything He possibly could to try to get them to come back to Him. He certainly did not make provision to have His wrath appeased!
Do you see what we have done? Do you see the problem with our natures? It is often a struggle for any of us to come back to God because of that nature, but thanks be to God He has shown us His love and it is a mighty power to draw us to Him. When somebody loves you, you put your guard down and you are willing to get close to that person.
The reality of life is that until we trust a person, we will never put our guard down. We will always have a degree of reservation. That's what our nature has done to us in our relationship with God. The simple truth is, it is not God who has left us, it is we who have left God and God has made propitiation to draw us home, to appease our wrath, to gain our trust, to gain our love!
So when you talk about sin, and the fact that God wants to give you victory, the question is can you trust Him? Can you believe Him? Will you believe somebody you can't trust? It's impossible.
You know, God forgave men from the very beginning, if not, He would not have instituted the plan of salvation. Do we understand what I mean by that? I am not saying we don't need to confess our sins to God, but God could easily forgive us because that is how true love is.
Jesus paid the price for sin, totally and completely, for the whole world. When did He make that decision? He made that decision before we even did anything. That's what Jesus was born for, the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world. But still, in the light of all this, we run away from God.
When we read the scriptures, we see that some of these Bible characters really knew God much better than many Christians today. Take David for example: When David numbered Israel, God told Him that there were three possible consequences which could happen as a result of his sin, and God told him to choose which of them he preferred. David's answer shows us that he truly understood the kind of person God is.
And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man. (1 Chr 21:13)
For the person who believes that God's wrath must be appeased, choosing to fall into the hands of the living God would be the most scary of all the possibilities which were available. But this was not so for David. David said, “forget falling into the hands of men, I would rather fall into the hands of a merciful and kind and just God.” Of course there were consequences, but he made the right choice. He could do that because he trusted the One whom he had been following all those years.
Well what about the sacrifices given to the Jews? The sacrifices of the pagans were designed to appease the wrath of God, but were the sacrifices given to the Israelites different? Why did God ordain so many sacrifices to be offered by ancient Israel? These sacrifices were often abused and misunderstood, but the truth is that the sacrifices given to Israel were no different from the ones which were given to Adam and his descendants in Eden. They were to be a reminder of what God was going to do, not something that they had to do because of their sin, but a reminder of what God was going to do.
When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, what was it that God told him? Abraham understood it completely because he was doing what God was going to do. This is why he told Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering:” From pagan circles it looked like Abraham was going to sacrifice his son to appease the wrath of God, but God was saying, “no, I'm going to offer my son to appease you, to let you know how much I love you, to restore the relationship between us.”
In our married life we often take the attitude, “I'm not going to talk to her because she did it; I'm not going to talk to him because he did it,” but God said, “well I didn't do it but I'm still going to correct this relationship.” And that's the way we need to be as Christians in our relationships.
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. (Heb 10:1)
So do we see what the real purpose of the law was? Do we see what all the sacrifices were intended to point to?
For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. (Heb 10:2)
In other words, if I, as an Israelite, by taking a sacrifice for sin for my family and offering that sacrifice could have corrected myself, made myself right, then I would never have had to offer a sacrifice again. But we know that they offered them year, after year, after year.
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. (Heb 10:4)
But because of their connections with the pagans, that's what they began to believe. They came to believe that God's wrath needs to be appeased, so they brought the bulls by the thousands instead of just allowing God to give them righteousness. They felt they had to appease His wrath because they forgot the simple truth of what God is really like.
In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. (Heb 10:6)
I would like to conclude with Colossians 1:20,21:
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (21) And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled. (Col 1:20-21)
Our warped, sinful minds have always made us lean to the idea that God has not loved us, has been angry with us, that His wrath needs to be appeased. This is deeply rooted in “Christian” thinking today. This is so subtle that we often do not even recognize the underlying motivation for our actions. Do you realize that every time we try to do good things in order to please God, we are offering a sacrifice to appease His wrath? We are doing it in order to earn our salvation, that's what we are doing. We try to be good so that God will accept us.
This distorted thinking finally plays itself out in the most bizarre way of all. In the end of time God's people are going to be hunted down like animals as we already know. Do you know why this will happen? Jesus says they will persecute you “because they think they are doing God's service.” they are going to kill you because they believe God is angry at them, and in order to appease His wrath, you must be destroyed. Is that not so? You are the sacrifice they will offer to pacify God's anger! The plagues are going to be falling all around and in that case there will be wrath, wrath against sin, and when there's wrath against sin, there will be a consequence against sinners. In their desperation and pitiful ignorance those who have never taken the time to know God will make an all-out effort to gain His approval and favor, by offering Him a sacrifice. A sacrifice of their fellow men, you and me. They feel that this is the only way to appease His wrath and obtain not only relief from suffering, but ultimately, salvation.
But in this final crisis, God's truth does not change. It remains the same as it has always been. God says, “no, I was never angry at you. You were angry at me.”