I’m sure you’ve heard one. They like to stand at busy intersections to make themselves heard. They display a morbid fascination with the fate of the unrepentant, as viewed through the lens of people like Dante. These self-appointed prophets only seem to be happy with the negative. Rob Bell did a good job interpreting them in his video, Bullhorn (he has his share of bullhorners following him around to thank him). Fundamental to the message of all these self-appointed prophets is this concept: God is angry.
John has something to say about this. In fact, 1 John 2:2 is one of the two places in the NT that uses the word hilasmos [propitiation/expiation]. As we will see, the idea of God’s anger is fundamentally tied to this concept. While the concept of God’s wrath is to big a topic to fit into this post, a proper understanding of God’s
atoning sacrifice (NRSV, NIV) will start us on the right path.
. . .
Last week we looked at the first two of three provisions God put in place to handle our sins. This week we’ll look at the third:
- You have an advocate
- You have Jesus Christ, the Righteous
- You have an atoning sacrifice [hilasmos]
Let’s start by seeing how the term hilasmos has been translated:
- Propitiation (KJV, NASB)
- Expiation (RSV, NAB)
- Atoning Sacrifice (NIV, NRSV)
The NIV and NRSV use a general phrase that, while broadly accurate, avoid the conflict between the other two translations. We’re left with two options:
He is the propitiation for our sins(KJV): Jesus removes God’s anger toward sinners
He is the expiation for our sins(RSV): Jesus removes the guilt of sin from sinners
. . .
Theological Concerns: There are two approaches to interpreting hilasmos: semantic and theological. A semantic approach is primarily concerned with how the term is used in context. A theological approach chooses a meaning that fits into the systematic framework. Allowing theological concerns to override semantics will make the Bible into a tidy package, but it also removes the untamed beauty of the text. Choosing theology over semantics is putting the cart before the horse.
In Greek literature, the word hilasmos was regularly used to describe a person offering a sacrifice to remove the anger of a capricious god from him. For example, the god of the sea is mad at you for no clear reason. You need to go sailing, so you offer a sacrifice to propitiate him: to remove his anger and allow you safe travel.
This is one of the big reasons the term has been translated as expiation rather than propitiation. Our God is not capricious or arbitrary. He does not expect us to offer sacrifices to buy his favour. Furthermore, the barrier between our relationship with God is our sin, not God’s mood—why use the term propitiation when expiation is a valid translation?
Old Testament Context: The New Testament was written in a Jewish context. Unfortunately, hilasmos and related words are used in both senses (propitiation and expiation) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This leads us with either as a valid option.
New Testament Context: The New Testament doesn’t clarify the meaning of this term, either. In fact, hilasmos is only used twice in the New Testament, both in 1 John. Even closely related terms are used rarely. If we move beyond the actual terms to concepts we find that God is never explicitly said to be propitated, but the wrath of God towards sin is a common topic.
A Verdict: It’s tough to be dogmatic about which term to use here since either choice is valid. I believe propitiation is the best translation because of the immediate context. Remember the three provisions for sin—the advocate, the righteous, and the atoning sacrifice? Since Jesus is our advocate (speaking to God on our behalf) then it follows that his sacrifice averts God’s wrath from us.
One more point has to be made. The idea of our God being propitiated is very different from pagan Greek thought. Here’s the difference:
- Love is God’s motive, not anger. 4:10 illuminates this:
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins.Preach that, bullhorners everywhere!
- God is never arbitrary: it’s a constant truth that God is light and cannot stand the presence of sin. Were God to try to cohabitate with darkness, the light of his presence would dissolve it!
- God himself provided the sacrifice. He solved the problem of our sin—he didn’t wait for us to come up with some grand gesture.
- Jesus is not described as the propitiator: he’s not simply the person who finally offered the right thing to sway God’s mind. He himself is the propitiation! He is the offering!
. . .
We’ve delved into quite a grand truth: out of love, God provided himself as a propitiation to restore relationship with his creation. In the second half of verse 2, John only expands its grandeur:
not for [our sins] only, but also for the sins of the whole world (NRSV). The English word
world is a translation of one of John’s favourite words, kosmos (read: cosmos). This can refer to human beings, but it can also extend to the entire creation. We know from Paul that
the whole creation has been groaning (Romans 8:22, NRSV). It’s groaning for it’s release from the curse of sin. It’s eagerly waiting for God’s children to be revealed and for the new creation to be born.
Jesus’ Christ’s atoning sacrifice extends far beyond you and I.
This verse is so grand and without limitation, it led Kruse to comment,
It is not easy to explain what the author means by saying that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world.’ Later in the letter (e.g. 5:12) John will say things that nuance this statement. For now, let’s worship the Creator who’s love for us moved him to offer himself as salvation for the entire world.