By David Prairie
The world lost an evangelical giant with the recent passing of Dr. R. C. Sproul, whose faith became sight on Thursday, December 14, 2017. Dr. Sproul pastored the Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and was the founder of Ligonier Ministries, which publishes theological literature that is used around the globe. Dr. Sproul was an intellectual phenomenon, the likes of which Christianity needs many more of these days. I didn’t agree with him on everything—in fact, I think it quite likely that his understanding of eschatology has been corrected greatly over the past few weeks—but no one could be more firmly committed to the truth of the gospel than he was.
One aspect of the gospel that I learned from him was one that I had not heard much on from anyone else. It’s not that others don’t believe it, but that he more clearly brought it out than others. It’s the oft-forgotten aspect of expiation.
The Bible speaks a great deal about the concept of atonement. The OT book of Leviticus serves as a guide for the way Israel’s priests were to help God’s people ensure that sinful people could stand in the presence of a holy God, and for how that pure and perfect God could dwell among unclean people. The NT book of Hebrews reveals that Jesus is both the perfect High Priest and the sacrificial Lamb who offered himself to God for the justification of all who would believe in him. That, in a nutshell, is the idea of atonement. It answers that all-important question: How can God (who is completely set apart in his holiness) and people (who are contaminated with sinfulness) dwell together peaceably?
Sproul correctly recognized that there are two things at work in the atonement: propitiation and expiation. In most circles, propitiation seems to get much of attention.
The word is used twice in the NT, both in the apostle John’s first epistle:
“He [Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 ESV).
“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 4:10 ESV).
Propitiation carries with it the idea of an atoning sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. It was used even in pagan cultures to describe how cults would go to great lengths to satisfy their gods and thus avoid judgment. Though the term “propitiation” is only used scarcely in the biblical texts, its concept is prevalent throughout the scope of the Bible. In fact, J. I. Packer has said:
“Were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that” (Knowing God, 214).
Others who have summarized the message of the whole Bible have done so similarly. Jim Hamilton uses the phrase “Salvation through Judgment,” while Peter Gentry and Steve Wellum describe it as “Kingdom through Covenant,” but the idea is the same. God relates to sinners by justifying them through the willing sacrifice of his own Son, which atones for our sins before him.
But to speak only of propitiation is to only explain half of what atonement accomplishes. I will quote Sproul at length to make this point.
“We may distinguish between the negative and the positive aspects of Christ’s work of satisfaction. In the atonement Christ satisfies the negative side of God’s justice. Here, again, by imputation, Christ pays the penalty due our sins. He receives, for us, the punitive wrath of God that our sin deserves. He takes the consequences of our demerits, our unjustness. He receives the judgment due our guilt. In this regard God’s justice is satisfied” (Faith Alone, 104).
The doctrine of imputation, as Sproul explains, is more than simply being declared righteous, which is the traditional understanding of justification. Imputation means that the righteousness of Christ is imparted by faith to those whom he redeems. The redeemed are not just counted righteous, they are righteous before God. Without the transfer of this righteousness to us, we stand condemned to be punished for our sins. The perfect obedience of Christ in his life and the sacrificial substitute of Christ in his death are both necessary to justify the ungodly. Sproul continues,
“Christ is the sin-bearer for his people, the Lamb of God who takes away (expiates) our sin and satisfies (propitiates) the demands of God’s justice. The cross displays both God’s justice (in that he truly punishes sin) and his grace (because he punishes sin by providing a substitute for us).”
Expiation and propitiation then, are not competing terms, but rather are the two sides of the “atonement” coin. Atonement was the goal of the Levitical sacrificial system, most notably the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) where “both propitiation and expiation” are emphasized (Schreiner, The King in His Beauty, 51n16). Despite the presence of two goats for the Day of Atonement ceremonies, Geerhardus Vos sees “one sacrificial object; the distribution of suffering death and of dismissal into a remote place simply serving the purpose of clearer expression, in visible form, of removal of sin after expiation had been made, something which the ordinary sacrificial animal could not well express, since it died in the process of expiation” (Biblical Theology, 163).
Of course, these OT procedures served as the shadows of which the substance was the final work of Christ. Sproul concludes,
“The atonement totally expiates the sin of the believer, fully satisfying the demands of God’s punitive justice. The value of Christ’s sacrifice satisfies all the negative judgment of God with respect to our demerits before him. On the positive side, the perfect active obedience of Christ fulfills all righteousness, earning all the merit needed to save the believer. Nothing can be added to Christ’s atonement or to his righteousness to enhance their value or merit” (Faith Alone, 144).
What does all this theology have to do with churches and preaching and missions and discipleship? It should affect the perspective of every believer with respect to how he/she views himself before God. Those who are truly born again stand wholly righteous before God. They are not guilty of sin. Christ has taken away sin by placing on himself and absorbing the justice due it.
Sing passionately the hymns that celebrate these truths. Preach boldly the Scriptures which articulate them. Read the Bible with others and pray to be informed by its words. Make this gospel known to people and in places where it is not yet believed.
Praise God for men like R. C. Sproul, who lived and died standing for the truths of justification by faith alone, imputed righteousness, atonement, propitiation, and expiation. Praise God that, because of Sproul and many others like him, these truths continue to be passed on to others.