The Propitiation vs Expiation Debate - Day 3

Yesterday we looked at Romans 3:21-26, which is the most quoted verse that uses the English word "propitiation." Should we translate the word "Hilastēron" as propitiation or expiation? If you are like me, you have never used these words in a normal sentence, unless you were reading or discussing this verse or those like it.

Before we dive into the debate, I want to review all verses that use the debated Greek word and its conjugations: (You can click on each title and be directed to Blue Letter Bible. Here is how to use it.)

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. -Romans 3:22b-26

Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. -Hebrews 9:3-5

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. -1 John 2:2

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. - 1 John 4:8-10

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 2:17

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ -Luke 18:13

We can see the Greek words are not translated consistently in English. The reason is the root of the word is best translated as "mercy" which is alluding the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.  This does foreshadow the solution to the debate that we will later address. But we must first define the terms and sides of this translation debate.

Propitiation: the action of appeasing a wrathful god, spirit, or person.
Expiation: the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing.

I do realize these terms are foreign to most of us, since we don't use these words normally. The root of the discussion is trying to figure out how our sin is dealt with. Propitiation focuses on making God not mad, while expiation focuses on the the wrongdoer. Most theologians know they are related, but the question is how. Some call it "expiating propitiation" and some say "propitiating expiation." N.T. Wright clears up the distinctions by saying, "You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, crime, or stain on your character." My point in all of this is that we actually miss the point of the text.

No matter how we look at the translation options, this debate ends in the full meaning being confined. When we limit the word and its understanding, we miss certain aspects and create extraneous theology. The question boils down to, is there a better way to understand and translate "Hilastēron"? Can we find a way that explains the purpose without getting into guessing the mechanics of theology?

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