Doriani on Romans
Editor’s note: Place for Truth is pleased to post an excerpt from Dan Doriani’s forthcoming commentary on Romans, part of the Reformed Expository Commentary series from P&R Publishing (Late Fall 2021).
It is vital to revisit and reaffirm essential doctrines, especially society questions or even attacks them. Propitiation is just such a topic, for it represents a vital aspect of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus.
In Scripture, “propitiation contemplates our liability to the wrath of God and is the provision of grace whereby we may be freed from that wrath.” To propitiate means to appease wrath, to placate one who is angry. Scripture teaches that sin evokes God’s proper displeasure, but he instructed Israel to make sin offerings to satisfy that displeasure (Lev. 16). Skeptics doubt that God is really angry at human misdeeds. If he is, is it about the right things? Why should he care, for instance, what humans do to get pleasure from their pain-riddled bodies? And if he is angry, why would a sacrifice solve the problem? Skeptics also point to ancient propitiation myths, in which capricious gods demand preposterous sacrifices to appease their wrath.
The Trojan War illustrates the problem. In that war, legend says, Odysseus slipped into the city of Troy and stole its principal statue of Athena. This deprived Troy of Athena’s protection and the city fell to the Greeks. Athena's priestess Cassandra was at her altar at the city’s fall. When a Greek warrior, Ajax, claimed her as a prize, he offended Athena and she determined to punish him. Alas, before Ajax could return to his home in Locris, he died. This spelled trouble for Locris, for the death of Ajax, its hero, meant Athena’s wrath fell on his city. The Locrians suffered for years until an oracle proposed a remedy. If Locrians sent maidens to serve in Athena's temple annually for 1,000 years, the punishment would stop and Locris would be free.
In this account, mankind’s problem is its tendency to offend the gods. If Ajax had claimed a slave as plunder, Athena would not have been angry, since she didn’t care about sin. But when Ajax took her priestess, he offended her honor. So her wrath fell on the Locrians, although they did no wrong. In this account, people offend the gods and must appease their wrath. In the pagan story, the gods have power to make life hard for humans. They take offence, then punish humans, who must bribe them with costly gifts. In paganism, propitiation is bribery that manipulates capricious gods.
This misleading cultural analogy taps into questions people ask. Is God really angry with humans? Does he really needed to be placated? Scripture does teach that God is angry at sin, as this commentary explained when we considered Paul’s previous comments on God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18, 2:5, 2:8, 3:5). “Propitiation” is the best term in Romans 3:25 because the context for propitiation language features God’s wrath toward sin, which is the topic of 3:21-23. Jesus’ sacrifice satisfies and removes God’s wrath. Yet, the biblical concept of propitiation differs from pagan notions in the way each conceives of the need, the author, and the nature of propitiation.
The need: In Greek mythology, propitiation is necessary because the gods are vain and prone to take offense. In Scripture God has a proper interest in justice and in his own honor, and therefore a proper wrath toward sin in all its forms (Rom. 1:18-32).
The author: In Scripture, God himself provides the atoning sacrifice. In Greek mythology, humans must offer a gift to assuage the wrath of the gods, which, like human wrath, may be excessive. In Scripture, humans cannot placate God’s valid wrath toward sin. But God, in his mercy and love, did what we cannot by presenting his Son as an atoning sacrifice. 1 John 4:10 says, “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.”
The nature: In pagan thought, humans placate capricious deities. They come as supplicants, bearing bribes - food or even (rarely) a human sacrifice. Branches of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism can be similar. Each has a self-flagellation movement, in which devotees beat or flay themselves before a god in an effort to appease divine wrath. In God’s law, by contrast, Israel offers God what he already gave his people (Lev. 17:11). Then, in the Gospels, Jesus gives himself. He is the Good Shepherd who “laid down [his] life for the sheep (John 10:14-18). The Father “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8:32). In short, God gave himself to atone for sin and propitiate his own wrath.
In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to the Christian revelation, God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin, and died our death.
Because he is both merciful and just, Jesus determined to bear the wrath that sin deserves, in his body, on the cross. This satisfies God’s justice and averts his wrath. The triune God shows mercy that is consistent with his justice. God the Father presented his beloved Son as a propitiation and substitute. This teaching is essential to our eternal salvation. Because Jesus propitiated God’s wrath, we have objective peace with God and can live with subjective peace when we sin, knowing that it is forgiven
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.
 John Murray, Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), 1:116-7.
 Alan Jacobs, Original Sin (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 1-3.
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 144-3. For wrath, see especially 179-84.
 This schema of the need, author, and nature of propitiation follows John Stott, Romans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 115.
 Stott, Romans, 115.