Propitiation, also called expiation, is the act of appeasing or making well-disposed a deity, thus incurring divine favor or avoiding divine retribution.
In Romans 3:25 the NASB translates "propitiation" from the Greek word hilasterion. Concretely it specifically means the lid of The Ark of The Covenant. The only other occurrence of hilasterion in the NT is in Hebrews 9:5, where the NASB translates it as "mercy seat".
For many Christians it has the meaning of "that which expiates or propitiates" or "the gift which procures propitiation". 1 John 2:2 (KJV) reads: "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." There is frequent similar use of hilasterion in the Septuagint, Exodus 25:17-22 ff. The mercy seat was sprinkled with blood on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:14), representing that the righteous sentence of the Law had been executed, changing a judgment seat into a mercy seat (Hebrews 9:11–15; compare with "throne of grace" in Hebrews 4:14–16; place of communion, (Exodus 25:21–22).
Another Greek word, hilasmos, is used for Christ as our propitiation in 1 John 2:2; 4:10; and in the Septuagint (Leviticus 25:9; Numbers 5:8; Amos 8:14). The thought in the OT sacrifices and in the NT fulfillment, is that Christ completely satisfied the just demands of our Holy Father for judgment on sin, by his death at Calvary (Hebrews 7:26-28). TDNT, however, takes a different view of Hebrews: "If the author uses the ritual as a means to portray Christ’s work, he also finds that in the new covenant the literal offerings of the ritual are replaced by the obedience of Christ (10:5ff.; cf. Ps. 40) and the Christian ministry of praise and mutual service (13:15-16; cf. Ps. 50). In other words, total self-giving, first that of Christ, and then, on this basis, that of his people, is the true meaning of sacrifice.
God, in view of the cross, is declared righteous in having been able to justify sins in the OT period, as well as in being able to forgive sinners under the New Covenant (Romans 3:25,26; cf. Exodus 29:33, note).
Propitiation and expiation
The case for translating hilasterion as "expiation" instead of "propitiation" was put forward by C. H. Dodd in 1935 and at first gained wide support. Hilasterion is translated as "expiation" in the NABRE and as "sacrifice of atonement" in the NRSV. Dodd argued that in pagan Greek the translation of hilasterion was indeed to propitiate, but that in the Septuagint (the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) that kapporeth (Hebrew for "covering") is often translated with words that mean "to cleanse or remove". This view was challenged by Leon Morris who argued that because of the focus in the book of Romans on God's wrath, that the concept of hilasterion needed to include the appeasement of God's wrath. Dodd's study is also criticized by David Hill in his detailed semantic study of hilasterion, in the book Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Hill claims that Dodd leaves out several Septuagint references to propitiation, and also cites apocryphal sources.
Theologians stress the idea of propitiation because it specifically addresses dealing with God's wrath. Critics of penal substitutionary atonement state that seeing the Atonement as appeasing God is a pagan idea that makes God seem tyrannical.
J.I. Packer in "Knowing God" designates a distinct difference between pagan and Christian propitiation: "In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ... to be the propitiation of our sins."
John Stott writes that propitiation "does not make God gracious...God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us". John Calvin, quoting Augustine from John's Gospel cx.6, writes, "Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us". Continuing the quote: "... but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, 'God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,' (Rom. 5: 8.) Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity. Accordingly in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us."
Packer also cites God's love as the impetus that provides Christ's sacrifice for the reconciliation of mankind and hence the removal of God's wrath. According to Packer, propitiation (and the wrath of God that propitiation implies) is necessary to properly define God's love; God could not be righteous and "His love would degenerate into sentimentality (without Christ's death containing aspects of propitiation).The wrath of God is as personal, and as potent, as his Love."
Thus the definition of Christian propitiation asserted by Calvin, Packer and Murray holds that within God there is a dichotomy of love and anger, but through propitiation love trumps anger, abolishing it. "'The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath... (John Murray, The Atonement, p.15)'"
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary consistently argues that in the NT sacrifice (hilasterion) does not appease God’s wrath but is best expressed from its Jewish roots (76.89-95) as atonement or expiation (82.73). Recent Catholic studies have depended heavily on the Trinitarian perspective presented by Edward J. Kilmartin:
Sacrifice is not, in the first place, an activity of human beings directed to God and, in the second place, something that reaches its goal in the response of divine acceptance and bestowal of divine blessing on the cultic community. Rather, sacrifice in the New Testament understanding – and thus in its Christian understanding – is, in the first place, the self-offering of the Father in the gift of his Son, and in the second place the unique response of the Son in his humanity to the Father, and in the third place, the self-offering of believers in union with Christ by which they share in his covenant relationship with the Father.