Atonement’s Two Aspects. The atoning work of Christ on the cross is one work, but it has two aspects. The word ‘atonement’ does not occur in the New Testament, but its two aspects – propitiation and substitution – occur many times. The word “atonement” simply means “covered up”, and doesn’t give the thought of a full and final dealing with sin, because it had to be repeated year-by-year (Lev. 16).
Propitiation. Propitiation is required because of our sins, but it is the aspect of the sacrifice in which Christ has perfectly glorified and satisfied God. The word ‘propitiation’ simply means ‘satisfaction’. All that God required and more was supplied when Christ offered Himself without spot to God. We read of both propitiation and substitution for sins (plural), but when the issue of sin (singular) is dealt with – the whole principle – it is always in the aspect of propitiation. God is satisfied as to our ‘sins’, and also as to the outrage of ‘sin’ in general, and because of the latter, propitiation is the grounds of God’s mercy to all mankind. As a result of this, the Gospel can go to the whole world, and anyone who comes to God in faith will be saved. “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). See also 1 Tim. 2:3-6; Heb. 2:9; Rom. 3:24-25.
- The Offering of Himself. It is instructive that, whenever propitiation is mentioned, it is the offering of Christ Himself, the whole Person up to God. Christ appeared “…to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself“ (Heb. 9:26). “…and He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2). God “sent his Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “…Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation” (Rom. 3:25). God has “made Him to be sin for us…” (2 Cor. 5:21). “…when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (Isa. 53:10). This is exceedingly precious. The whole Person of our Lord Jesus Christ was offered up to God at the cross. The burnt-offering in the Old Testament speaks of this. In the instructions for burnt offerings, we read that they were to be consumed, and that “the whole ram” was to be burned for “a sweet savour… unto Jehovah” (Exodus 29:18). In like manner, “Christ… hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour” (Eph. 5:2).
- A Twofold Application. It should be noted that there are actually two applications of propitiation. It is a wrong idea to think of propitiation as only general. Propitiation is for God, but it has a twofold application. “He is the propitiation for our sins” (the first application is to the believer), and also “for the whole world” (the second application is to the world). In both cases it is a satisfaction rendered to God, but there is a specific aspect for believers, and a general aspect for the world. It is beautiful to see the force of this in 1 John 2:1-2; Jesus is a righteous advocate for us (believers) on the grounds that “he is the propitiation” for the sins we have committed. Even Christ’s being “made sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), which is connected with propitiation, is said to be “for us”. Yet it is wonderful to see that propitiation is not limited to us, because in a general way it is also for the whole world. It is important to see these two applications.
Substitution. Substitution is for the believer. It is needed because our individual ‘sins’ (plural) must be accounted for. The checks and balances are perfectly kept by the righteousness of God. To stand in the presence of a holy God, our sins must be expiated, so Christ must suffer for them in the believer’s place, so that I can say “He died for me”. When scripture mentions bearing sins, the word “all” is intentionally avoided. Instead, the word “many” or “some” is used, because not “every man” will believe, and Christ could not be punished for the sins of those who believe not. Unlike propitiation, substitution is limited to only the elect. See Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45, Matt. 26:28, Heb. 9:28, Rom. 4:24-25, Gal. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:24. Both propitiation and substitution are brought together in Rom. 3:22.
An illustration. Also, the Holy Ghost inspired a beautiful picture of these two aspects in the Old Testament. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to take two goats, and cast lots over them; one goat would be “the Lord’s” the other would be the “scapegoat”. The first goat (Lev. 16:7-19) was “for the Lord” and it had no individual sins confessed over its head, but it was slain and its blood was sprinkled before the Lord to satisfy His holy nature! This represents propitiation. The second goat (Lev. 16:20-22) was for the people, and had all the individual sins of the people confessed over its head. The goat was sent into the wilderness never to be seen again – picturing our sins being taken far away (Psa. 103:12)! This represents substitution. The two goats form a single sin-offering, but each represents a different aspect of the work of Christ.
|Substitution||Propitiation (Specific)||Propitiation (General)|
|Primarily for…||the salvation of man||God’s satisfaction & glory||God’s satisfaction & glory|
|Limited to…||the elect||the elect||unlimited|