But we need to understand several things that distinguish biblical propitiation from the pagan expressions of it. In pagan religions, the person who is experiencing some difficulty assumes that he has offended the gods in some way, but he often doesn’t know how. The gods are unpredictable, but something apparently got them upset! And, he’s not quite sure which sacrifice will work to calm down the gods so that he or his family can get relief from their troubles. But the shamans have more experience with these sorts of things. So the troubled man pays them their fee, offers the prescribed sacrifice, and hopes that the deities will be happy for a while. His sacrifice is an attempt to propitiate the gods.
But biblical propitiation is much different. In the first place, God’s wrath against sin is not capricious or mysterious. Rather, it is His settled holy opposition to evil, expressed in both temporal and eternal judgments. We see the temporal consequences of God’s wrath in both the Old and New Testaments. God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden and pronounced curses on them, on the earth, and on the serpent because of their sin. He sent the flood to destroy everyone on earth in the days of Noah. He rained fire and brimstone on the decadent people of Sodom and Gomorrah. However you interpret the Book of Revelation, it’s clear that God’s temporal judgments were not limited to the Old Testament. He pours out His wrath on rebellious people right up to the time of Christ’s return. That same book shows what Jesus often taught, that God’s temporal wrath will turn into horrible, eternal wrath at the final judgment.
We’ve already seen the concept of God’s wrath in Romans. In 1:18, Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” We saw that a large part of God’s presently revealed wrath against sin is to let us suffer the consequences of sin, as described in 1:24-32. In 2:5, Paul refers to God’s wrath as it pertains to eternal judgment: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Again in 3:5, he mentions “the God who inflicts wrath.” So the concept of propitiation as the satisfying of God’s wrath is not foreign to the Bible or to Romans.
But there is another major difference between the pagan concept of pacifying the anger of the gods and the biblical concept of propitiation. In the pagan religions, people take the initiative by offering sacrifices in an attempt to placate the gods. But in the Bible, God takes the initiative by providing the specific means of averting His wrath on sin. First, God always spells out what sin is, so that no one should accidentally do something to make God angry. He warned Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and He spelled out the consequences that would follow if they disobeyed: they would die. The same is true in the Law of Moses. God spells out what Israel should do or not do, along with the consequences for disobedience.
Also, in mercy God provides the way to satisfy His wrath and be reconciled to Him. He slaughtered an animal and provided their skins to clothe Adam and Eve. He told Noah to build the ark to preserve his family and him from the flood. He provided the ram, so that Abraham did not have to sacrifice Isaac. He gave detailed instructions to Moses about the sacrificial system. And, finally and supremely, by sending His own Son to die in our place on the cross, God satisfied His own wrath against our sin. Jesus paid the debt that we owed, so that God can show His grace and love to all that trust in Jesus Christ.
Paul makes this clear by the phrase, “whom God displayed publicly.” Other versions read, “set forth” (New KJV), “presented” (NIV, Holman CSB), and “put forward” (ESV). The verb that Paul uses can also mean to purpose or plan beforehand (Rom. 1:13; Eph. 1:9; the noun is used in Rom. 8:28; 9:11; Eph. 1:11; 3:11) and some scholars argue for that meaning here. It would then mean that God planned beforehand to provide Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. But it also can mean to display or set forth publicly. In this view, God’s setting forth or displaying Jesus as a propitiation would refer to His public death on the cross or to the apostolic preaching of the cross. Whichever view is correct, they both point to the fact that God took the initiative in providing the sacrifice that we need to satisfy His wrath.
Evangelical scholars debate one other thing about the Greek word that is translated propitiation. Some (Morris, Godet, and Lloyd-Jones) argue that it should be translated propitiation or propitiatory sacrifice. But others (Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Moo, and James Boice) point out that this word was used many times in the Old Testament to refer to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, where the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement once a year. While perhaps we should not translate the word as mercy seat, it is easy to think that Paul could have had this in mind when he used the word here. The mercy seat was the place where atonement took place. God’s wrath was averted by the sprinkling of the blood of an innocent substitute on that mercy seat. While that yearly ritual was hidden from public view, it pointed ahead to Jesus, whom God publicly displayed (the veil is torn) as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins.