Was Jesus Sent to Heal Man or to Heal God?: A Look at “Propitiation” vs. “Expiation”

The purpose of this article is to explore in greater depth the Orthodox view of Christ’s atoning work. As a convert from Protestantism I find this topic vital for a proper understanding of the primary differences between the Orthodox faith and its Western counterparts, i.e., Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant faiths. Due to the immensity of this topic I will do my best to condense it down to some primary features. My hope is that a deeper discussion will ensue as contributors to this blog chime in with their added questions and comments.

Here are some thoughts on the issue:

The Eastern Church has always understood Christ’s atoning work as that which accomplished true healing of the entire person; a reconstitution of human nature from that of death to that of life; a cleansing of sin rather than a substitution for the punishment of sin. The differing views between the East and West concerning the atonement are animated in large part by how the two sides understand a very important word in the Greek text of Scripture: “hilasterion” (ιλαστηριον).

It is from hilasterion that our English Bibles usually derive the term “atonement” and more specifically “propitiation,” as in Romans 3:25 (“Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” NKJV).

The discussion over the proper translation of hilasterion has been en vogue for quite some time in theological circles, and for good reason. If one chooses to interpret hilasterion as propitiation (literally: “to make favorable,” with the implication of placating or appeasing the deity) then the entire Western notion of substitutionary atonement fits well. However, if one chooses to interpret it as “expiation” (literally: “to make pious,” with the implication of removal or cleansing of sin), one can conceivably force a substitutionary view, but with much difficulty. Instead, expiation leads one to understand the atonement of Christ as a cleansing act of mercy and love rather than an act of pacifying God’s anger and punishment.

The Orthodox Church understands Christ’s atonement in light of expiation, and has not changed this stance in over 20 centuries. Historically, one finds that hilasterion took on the translation of propitiation in the Latin Church after the rediscovery of Greek literature during the Renaissance. Propitiation was the usual Hellenistic rendition of hilasterion and reflected the ancient pagan Greek and Roman idea of placating the gods. For the Jews during the same period, hilasterion was understood as expiation. In a very real sense, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint), the Jews adopted a different understanding of hilasterion which complied with their Hebrew notion of atonement (often the term “kaphar,” literally meaning: “to wipe out,” and not merely “to cover up,” as found in many Latin commentators). One will find this translation trend in Rabbinic literature and in the English version of Hebrew Tanakh. The Apostles and early Church Fathers carried on this understanding and it became the paradigm for which they understood Christ’s atonement, hence its dominance in Orthodox theology; and hence why the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement doesn’t make its way into the Roman Catholic conscience until Anselm – over 1000 years into the story, and the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement does not make its way into the Western Church conscience until the Reformation – over 1500 years into the story.

For the Orthodox, Christ’s work on the cross was necessary, not to satisfy an angry God, but to effect a reconstitution of human nature—to bring about a literal change in human ontology. Christ’s death and resurrection joined human nature with God’s nature. I recently came across an ancient Orthodox hymn of praise which beautifully captures this reality:

“The Lord united two natures; He does not separate them anymore: human and divine. He does not separate them anymore: God and man—One Person. In both respects undiminished, the God-man and Savior” (Prologue of Ohrid, Feb 28th reading).

For me, the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ clarifies Christ’s atoning work better than any other interpretive method. The purpose of God taking on human flesh was to join human nature with the divine nature, a union that was lost by Adam and Eve in the primordial garden. Mankind needed not only forgiveness of sin but also salvation from an ontological constitution of death in their very beings; according to Romans 5:12, it was death, and not sin-guilt, which spread to all mankind due to Adam’s sin. By reconstituting human nature with the life of God mankind once again had the potential to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4). This understanding of salvation—as a living and dynamic reality—allows the Orthodox mind to conceive of ‘working out one’s salvation’ without falling into the trap of ‘works righteousness’ (a phrase that has become a doctrinal boogieman for many Protestants); the general Reformed Protestant view of salvation as a static event in which the believer is “once saved, always saved,” forces the false dichotomy of grace vs. works into the believer’s theology of salvation, but I digress.

Under the view of expiation a person is called to become truly united with God—he or she is called to participate in the great and heavenly re-union. Conversely, under the view of propitiation a person is called to merely accept Jesus and to have righteousness ‘imputed’ or ‘declared’ over him or her. Thus salvation is seen as a passive, one-time event in which, after confession and/or baptism into Christ is accomplished, the person plays no effective role in the relationship.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology summarizes well the differing approaches of propitiation and expiation:

“In discussing reconciliation and atonement it has become customary to draw a distinction between propitiation and expiation. In propitiation the action is directed towards God, or some other offended person. The underlying purpose is to change God’s attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor. In the case of expiation, on the other hand, the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, propitiation is directed towards the offended person, whereas expiation is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT, Vol. III, p. 151).

I know that much has been left unsaid in this brief article, but in closing I’d like to offer an illustration that aided me significantly when I was first attempting to adjust my theological paradigm to this new found understanding of Christ’s atonement. One can think of Christ’s blood as expiation similar to a healing antibiotic when applied to an infection (in this case, that of death and sin). When the blood of Christ is applied to a repentant believer it acts not as a covering that conceals the Father’s view of the believer, as is often taught in the West, but rather it acts to heal, to remove, to expunge the illness of death and sin from the believer—conforming the believer to the image of Christ. This is why the Scriptures continually refer to Christ’s blood as that which “cleanses sin” (1Jn 1:7), as the “washing of sin” (Rev 3:25), as that which “cleanses conscience” (Heb 9:14), and the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:15). The object of concern for Christ’s blood was not to change the mind of the Father but to change the condition of fallen man. God sent His Son to die for mankind not so that He could love us, but rather because He already loved us (John 3:16, Rom 5:8).

Thanks for reading. And please offer any comments and/or corrections you may have. I would especially like to hear from fellow Orthodox Christians who have more ‘time on the clock,’so-to-speak, in the faith than myself and who may have helpful corrections, as well as those from the various Western traditions who either agree or are at variance with what has been said.

May the Lord bless you and keep you, cheers!

30 thoughts on “Was Jesus Sent to Heal Man or to Heal God?: A Look at “Propitiation” vs. “Expiation”

  1. Again, great insight on the specifics of these two views. Reading slowly helps me get past all the big words and see the meaning behind them. I’m still waiting to disagree with you. One day…

  2. Glad to see you posted this. I was about to write something on your wall bugging you about it.

    So… my thing is… I still can’t figure out why you can’t put propitiation and expiation together, and why you want to make propitiation such a bogeyman. And why does propitiation automatically make God an “angry deity”? And why, in any event, would God’s “anger” at the defection of his creatures render a God that was morally untrustworthy?

    On the contrary, I say (respectively to my questions):

    1) I get the impression from the biblical record that sin is something that BOTH needs to be punished AND cleansed/uprooted/taken away. Doesn’t the Day of Atonement move in that direction? Doesn’t Isaiah 53 move in that direction? Isn’t Paul at once capable of joyfully declaring that Christ “became a curse” for us who have defected from the divine will by hanging on the tree (that he bore the punishment due us for our defection) and that through his blood we are cleansed, that a new covenant is opened up, and that through the Spirit of the Son we are welcomed into participation in the Son’s life before the Father so that our human nature is healed? We are both “clothed in Christ’s righteousness” AND transformed by participation in his life. Why all the (false?) dichotomies?

    2) Why would propitiation automatically make God an angry deity? When a person breaks a law, they are put in a certain debt to society. That debt makes any punitive measure society takes on them morally credible. It does not at all mean that society is angry, though that may be the case. And in any event, going back to point #1, as CS Lewis famously said in the Problem of Pain, if you strip the idea of retributive punishment out of your concept of justice, you actually make the concept of “restorative justice” totally immoral. You can’t put a man in jail to “rehabilitate” him unless he actually DESERVES it. If he doesn’t deserve it, it is immoral for you to punish him. So here again, “retributive, punitive justice” and “restorative justice” are friends and not enemies. But if you take away the first, you cannot have the second.

    Through our rebellion against God, we have committed the highest treason possible in the universe. We have blasphemed and nullified everything through that treason. We deserve death at the hands of the highest court the universe has to offer. It is a debt we cannot pay… we will be plunged into oblivion unless someone stands in the gap for us. And Someone has. And more than taking the punishment (“my God my God, why have you forsaken me!?”), he has risen and restored our nature to God, so that through dying and rising with him we are forgiven, cleansed, and healed. What joy!

    3) God’s getting “angry” at us shouldn’t scandalize us in the least. When I beat up on my siblings, my dad would get angry. He did so NOT because he was evil, but because he was GOOD. His indifference would have been evil. HIS DEEP LOVE MADE HIM ANGRY.

    And so it is with us… our defection causes eruptions of rage in the heart of God NOT BECAUSE HE IS CAPRICIOUS, MALEVOLENT, AND ILL-TEMPERED, but because he is Good and he loves us and IT CAUSES HIM INCREDIBLE PAIN TO SEE US DEFECT FROM EVERY GOOD THING HE HAS TO OFFER US.

    A lack of anger, IMO, would be a sure signal that he just didn’t give a shit.


    Thanks for starting this discussion…

    • Andrew, no doubt I was more excited to receive your response than you were to read my post. So glad you brought up everything you did. I think you’ve propelled this discussion in the exact direction I was hoping for. Let me dive right in.

      1) Yes, sin needed to be both punished and cleansed, but sin is already being punished through death, and if not dealt with will result in eternal death. As Paul said, “the wages of sin is death,” death reigns in our members and increases with our sin. The “punishment” for sin is not due to God turning angry but rather a concomitant of stepping out of God’s nature; like burning your hand on a hot stove even though mom told you to not touch it. Being constituted with death we cannot stand in God’s presence without feeling the results of the death. Think of Mt. Sinai when the people were instructed to not touch the mountain of they would die, or when Scripture says that no one can see the face of God and live. Death cannot remain unscathed when in the presence of pure life, like darkness cannot retain its darkness in the presence of light. The one obliterates the other.

      But your point about the Day of Atonement is well taken. However, the Day of Atonement actually testifies to the fact that the blood sprinkled on the alter was not of a subsitutionary manner as in the Satisfaction and Penal Substitutionary Theories of the atonement in the West. The sacrificial blood was sprinkled for the cleansing of Israel’s sin (like an medicinal ointment, or bleach); it was to clean the sanctuary from all the transgressions of the children of Israel, both voluntary and involuntary sin. From the school of Hillel (the Rabbinic tradition from which Gamaliel, St. Paul’s teacher, hailed from) taught that the lamb was to be “kobes,” i.e. “to wash Israel clean” from sin, not a satisfaction or penal substitute.

      Jesus becoming a curse for our sakes means He suffered death for our sake in order to reconstitute our nature with the divine nature. The idea is Pure Life became pure death and resurrected again to Pure Life with our nature united with His. The idea that Jesus was cursed by the Father, as if the two were somehow at odds, is a theological hold over from the Manichaeism heresy (a sect from which Augustine was once affiliated with prior to converting to the Church).

      2) “Why would propitiation automatically make God an angry deity?” It doesn’t. There is no logical necessity for it to be such, but unfortunately that is how it is usually received. But your follow up points are what truly interest me. You bring up the idea of divine justice and your second paragraph makes many illusions to the juridical understanding of atonement. Here’s the problem one encounters if the logic is followed: Divine justice must be served, God love’s His children but cannot save them unless the high court of heaven is first satisfied with the proper payment. This subordinates God to a higher power – divine/cosmic justice; naked, cold, person-less justice, i.e. law.

      The filioque controversy becomes very telling at this point, and it is why the Orthodox make such a fuss over it. If you’ve ever noticed the West tends to emphasis God’s Oneness (i.e. His Substance) whereas the East tends to emphasis God’s Threeness (i.e. His Personhood). This phenomenon is directly tied to the West’s inclusion of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. The Creed in its original form declares the Father as He whom begats the Son and from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. This protects the emphasis of God as a Person (the Person of the Father) who wills His own existence as Trinity. In the West there is no such boundary line, hence God’s Substance is often emphasized lending opportunities for the Western thinker to imagine attributes of God’s substance – e.g. divine justice – to take precedence over God’s Personhood. Without an emphasis on God as Person one can rightly ask: how does God affirm His ontological freedom (i.e. is He a prisoner of fate, as in Greek mythology, or can He will to exist or not exist)? The Orthodox answer that the ground of God’s ontological existence as Trinity lies not in His substance but in His personal existence; the Father wills His existence as Trinity.

      In other words, God is not a servant to fate, or justice, or any other power. God is perfect Personhood. He is not a judge who’s decisions are predetermined by a heavenly civil law code which He must obey. He did not need to figure out a way to save humanity by finding a loophole in divine justice. I know I’m over simplifying, but you get my drift. God is love, and love is the quality of a person not a substance. He judges all things accordingly, and His judgement are perfectly just because they are perfect love.

      3) I pretty much agree with everything you said here. What I’m dealing with in the article is the attitude God has towards us. His anger is as you said,that of a Father who cares for His children. God’s love results in anger towards those things which threaten to harm us – sin and death.

      Man, I hope that wasn’t too convoluted of a response. The deal about the filioque requires much more explanation but I was starting to bore myself, I can only imagine how you must feel if you suffered through reading it all.

    • Hey man –

      Great responses! This has really got me thinking…

      Couple quick points in response (in order of your responses, to stay organized):

      1a) I totally track with this line of thinking (that the death we experience here and now is already God’s punishment for sin, and that death is the logical and natural result of our turn away from Reality Himself). I often preach this way because I think it is really helpful. “If you turn away from Life, what do you think you’re going to get besides death?” EXCEPT THAT (and I struggle with this), doesn’t that make God passive with respect to this whole arrangement? This is a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but you’ll get the point: (To those who touched the mountain): “Sorry guys! I couldn’t help it! It’s the nature of the arrangement that you who are constituted with death cannot stand in my presence without feeling the results of the death! Wish I could help you!”

      I say that because I want to preserve what I think I am seeing in the biblical texts… that often, when folks who were not authorized to enter the divine presence or touch the holy things did so, the text doesn’t read that “the nature of the arrangement was that those who were constituted with death could not stand in the presence of YHWH without feeling the results of the death” but rather “YHWH’s anger burned against them”. Active not passive. What do you make of this?

      That leads (I think) to the next point…

      1b) I think you are muting an important part of the logic of the Old Testament sacrificial system when you declare that “blood sprinkled on the alter was not of a subsitutionary manner”. It certainly DID cleanse. And not just the people either. It cleansed everything. BUT… Leviticus 5:14-19… the discussion about the guilt offering… take a peek and tell me what you think. The offering seems to be a substitute… it had to do with the “value” of the offense… and that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is called a “guilt offering” on behalf man is really, really telling. And then that Jesus self-consciously interprets his cross-work through the lens of Isaiah 53 is even more telling. What do you make of it?

      2a) God is a servant to nothing but Himself, but that makes my point even more strongly – He will not violate what He is and what we are with respect to Him. If He is our Lord and Maker who declares that if we defect from his will we will die, how does that make him subordinate to anything other than what He is by nature? Which is to say, God is beholden to himself by nature to always be God, and he will not violate what he has spoken.

      2b) God’s justice, as you rightly point out, is a function of his love and goodness… so what I am arguing for is not “cold, naked, personless justice”. I am arguing for warm, redemptive, loving, personal justice… the Judge is also our Father. Actually, back to point #1a, I wonder if saying that death is MERELY a sort of “passive” result of our turn away from God, ironically, makes God cold, naked, and passionless. Again – “Sorry guys! Couldn’t help it!”

      Also, the Prophets and Paul alike are wont to use language of the Lawcourt when talking about God and people… I’m not always comfortable with that, but I don’t want to jettison it either… I think we need to let it do what it’s trying to do… which is to say, “We have defected from the divine will, and when the case is made against us, we are found to be guilty with a concomitant penalty that we have no ability whatsoever to pay… we will be plunged into outer darkness unless something is done… and praise God! – the One who Judges us is also the Justifier who has put in the right those who have confidence in what He has done through the cross-work of his Son, the Guilt-Offering, the High Priest, who has gone before God with his own infinitely valuable blood… the debt has been paid, and we are free!”

      3) I think we have resolved this one 🙂

      Thanks again for doing this… you’re helping me fall more in love with Jesus.


    • Helping you fall more in love with Jesus?… wow, that one statement alone gave meaning to my 20 struggle with this whole topic. Thank you Andrew, and I assure you the “help” is going both ways. 🙂

      1a) “…doesn’t that make God passive with respect to this whole arrangement?” I hear what you’re saying, but for me (taking the Mt. Sinai example) I see God actively protecting His children from the effects of His glory while still making His presence among them possible. Imagine you radiated light, blinding light, and imagine that your children’s baby soft eyes were too sensitive for the light. Just being in their presence you threaten to cause them blindness. But, being their father, you can’t imagine not being with them. What do you do? You put a veil over their eyes and begin the process of maturing them so that one day they can naturally be in your presence without damaging effects. We were created to be in God’s presence naturally like Adam and Eve. Christ’s restorative work – i.e. theosis – makes our death decease more and more until one day we are in Him as He is in the Father (as Jesus prayed), this is why the Bible says that death is the final enemy to be destroyed. If He was to destroy it fully right now He would also destroy us. One also thinks of the parable of the wheat and the tares and why the master refused to uproot the tares prior to harvest). This is why for the Orthodox healing is so crucial and why salvation is so much more than a prayer, a raised hand, and a walk up to the front of the church (‘while everyone’s heads are bowed and eyes closed’). The sacraments are the “avenues” of grace provided by Christ to accomplish the union with both Him and His Body, which is why they are so intrinsic to the mystery of the Church.

      1b) Looking at Leviticus 5:14-19 in the Hebrew Tanakh the English word “atonement” is translated “expiation”. The blood of the spotless ram was used as an expiation – removal, cleansing – of the trespass. The sins committed in regard to the holy things of the Lord is the equivalent of tarnishing the holy – true life – with death. The “restitution” is made in blood because “the life is in the blood”. It is a fitting restitution – offering life to replace the death brought about by sin. I should also say that I in no way claim to be an authority in ancient Hebrew or Rabbinic Jewish worship and theology. I’m convinced that one cannot learn Judaism in a library. One must be immersed in Jewish worship life to even get a clue. So take my commentary for what its worth.

      2a) “God is a servant to nothing but Himself, but that makes my point even more strongly – He will not violate what He is and what we are with respect to Him.”

      True, I suppose the only thing to say here is that what we are with respect to Him is “His image”. What we lost in the garden was “His likeness,” which the economy of salvation had been working to recover and found ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s atonement. Salvific history is a tale of a very active and loving God bringing about a full restoration of human nature. Another aspect to this is the fact that God is eternal. If we tease out the implications of being eternal then we logically can’t rid ourselves of the idea that God is changless. But what our logic leaves out is how it is that God is changless yet still personal. Imagining God as changless leaves us with the only impressions we have to reference – our own experience of life. In our life if something is changless then it is essentially robotic or, at a minimum, disinterested – as civil law courts rulings are. This is where one must know that God is both love and changless, which is impossible if the “knowing” is purely cerebral.

      2b was basically 1a.

      To your very last point, I basically agree. For me it’s important for theology to have a certain amount of built-in protection clauses which prevent me from going off track and developing a schema that eventually ends in heterodoxy. It’s my conviction that allowing one of the various substitutionary theories of the atonement to be the rubric for how I understand Christ’s saving work creates in me a picture of God that is distant and conflicted. One of the main defenses built into the Orthodox framework is against Manichaeism – that is, imagining that the OT and NT have competing Gods and competing stories of salvation. Substitutionary atonement is rejected by Orthodoxy and, for me personally, it gives me the impression that the Father wants me dead (like a judge or a mob boss) and Jesus wants me alive (like a defense attorney, or big brother). If the Father and the Son are the same God they cannot be in conflict in their attitudes towards me, and I certainly don’t want a relationship with a God who can only tolerate me if I’m disguised as His Son (e.g., the Protestant idea of salvation as being covered in Christ’s blood so that when the Father looks at me He sees the Son instead of me; that’s a pretentious relationship if there ever was one. It’s like telling my wife to dress up as my favorite movie actress when she’s in my presence so that I’m tricked into thinking I’m with someone else). These are my own impressions and I understand that not everyone who holds a substitutionary view thinks it through like this, but I do.

      Thanks again for your posts! This has been the highlight of my week (minus my wife and Lenton services, haha).

    • Yo dawg –

      Your responses were super helpful. Trust me when I say that I think that you and I are in agreement on most things here…

      Real quick (’cause these things start getting far afield of the central point if we’re not careful):

      – To the Leviticus stuff… I agree… (here comes my “both/and” talk again)… but isn’t the logic (I’m looking down at how the text continues in chapter 6), “I could demand your blood for the debt that you have put yourself in; I will take the ram in your stead”? Isn’t the whole OT system foreshadowed in Genesis 20? On the mountain of the Lord (a substitute?) will be provided…? One was supposed to die. Another died in the place of. Show me what I’m missing?

      – Jesus himself picks up the language of “debts” in his parable of the unmerciful servant as a way of understanding what’s going on in the human situation. And again… a debt we cannot possibly pay… we learn later that the mercy shown (the unpayable debt is forgiven) is grounded in Jesus’ self-emptying on our behalf on the cross… again, am I missing something?

      – If the punishment of sin is death, even if that death is already being experienced by us, and Jesus came and took on our flesh and died “on our behalf”, is that not “taking our punishment”, and does that not imply propitiation?

      We deserve to be cast into oblivion for our defection, and in truth even now humanity tastes the oblivion that is proper to our defection… enter Jesus, the God-Man, who “drinks the cup” (a prominent OT symbol of the wrath of God) on our behalf, is cast into the outer darkness on our behalf, and through the power of his Resurrection swallows up Death and Hades forever.

      Again, that he takes upon himself the full and proper (“proper” because it is logical and natural to the nature of the offense) penalty for all of humanity’s rebellion, so that Sin and Death are exhausted… so that the cup is drained of every last drop… so that the Law (“for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) is fulfilled and thereby voided of its power…

      …doesn’t this all imply propitiation?

      Help me.

    • Oh and one last thing… a robust Trinitarianism helps protect against Manichean tendencies… remember that the Son who offers himself (in the substitutionary sense?) is in fact God, and both are of one mind working together for our salvation, so that there is no conflict in the Godhead at the cross…

  3. Sorry to be annoying… but if I’m not mistaken, you EO’s really like Athanasius, and I ran across this a couple weeks ago while studying for a message on Hebrews 2:

    “For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, BECAUSE IT WAS THE PENALTY FOR THE TRANSGRESSION; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”

    – On in the Incarnation

    Athanasius seemed to be able to talk easily of “penalties” for sin… and this line I loved: “…and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having FULFILLED IN HIS BODY THAT FOR WHICH IT WAS APPOINTED, it was thereafter voided of its power for men.”

    Blah blah blah

    • “He saw that corruption held us all the closer, BECAUSE IT WAS THE PENALTY FOR THE TRANSGRESSION”

      Precisely! The corruption of death is a grip that no man can free himself from. This death is the penalty for choosing it over life, which is essentially what sin is (choosing one’s own ways over God’s way, or, choosing one’s own life source – which doesn’t exist – over true life, God).

      “…and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having FULFILLED IN HIS BODY THAT FOR WHICH IT WAS APPOINTED, it was thereafter voided of its power for men.”

      Christ fulfilled the sacrifice – the turning back to God which no man was able to accomplish in his own strength due to death reigning in his members – needed to reconstitute man’s nature with God’s life. We enter into Christ’s “turning back to God” which meant a full turn, even unto death, and it is that death we are baptized into and His resurrected life into which we are raised anew. Death’s power has been voided.

  4. I’m loving the conversation here, and learning a ton (as intro: I’m a former classmate of Andrew’s). I echo Andrew’s point “Why not both?” The following quote from your original article stands out to me: “Mankind needed not only forgiveness of sin but also salvation from an ontological constitution of death in their very beings.”
    In this debate, I often hear that “not only forgiveness” and it is glossed over. But we need forgiveness nonetheless. And perhaps it has been overemphasized as the primary human problem, but the Scriptures speak of guilt (in lawcourt language, as Andrew says). And substitutionary atonement speaks to forgiveness and guilt.
    In the view of atonement that you are proposing over and against substitutionary atonement, what place has the Cross? How does it heal? In this perspective, the place of the Incarnation and Resurrection–Pentecost for that matter–seem clear to me, but not the “it is necessary” of the death. Not to put words in your mouth, but I’ve heard the response, “Well, there has to be death for resurrection to happen or for death to be defeated,” but that does not seem to me to do justice to the weight the NT places on the Cross.

    • Hey Jonathan, welcome!

      I just posted a response to Andrew in which I think some of of your reply is answered. To the statement that forgiveness of guilt requires a substitutionary atonement I can only ask why is a substitution necessary for God’s forgiveness? In Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, what substitution was required in order for the father to forgive the returning son? What was required was a “turning back” to the father. This is essentially what Christ’s death accomplished – a perfect turning back; a perfect sacrifice of one’s own will and desires and an ‘about face’ back to God. We, in our condition of death, were not capable of fully returning to God. Christ’s expiation of our sin allows us to return to God. We are hopelessly guilty of our sin (in other words, we are wholly “responsible” for our sin – i.e., God is not guilty for our turning away from Him, as Reformed theology would teach – irregardless of the fact that death reigned in our members. Thus, our eternal destiny was life without Life, an ironic eternal death), but God forgives our sin when we repent, what is at issue is the fact that our “constitution” is one of death. Death had to be eradicated from our being in order for us to partake of God’s nature, which is the whole thrust of the story of salvation, not merely forgiveness of sin. Back to the illustration of the prodigal son, the father’s nature was already constituted with forgiveness in that he loved his son unconditionally. However, his “returning” home was necessary for that forgiveness to have any practical effect. Christ is our return home.

  5. Response to Andrew above…

    “Isn’t the whole OT system foreshadowed in Genesis 20? On the mountain of the Lord (a substitute?) will be provided…? One was supposed to die. Another died in the place of. Show me what I’m missing?”


    “Jesus himself picks up the language of “debts” in his parable of the unmerciful servant as a way of understanding what’s going on in the human situation. And again… a debt we cannot possibly pay… we learn later that the mercy shown (the unpayable debt is forgiven) is grounded in Jesus’ self-emptying on our behalf on the cross… again, am I missing something?”

    First, let me ask, to whom is this payment for the said debt paid to?

    This was the question St. Gregory of Nazianzus put to the adherents of Ransom Theory of the Atonement as taught by Origen. He saw only two possibility: (a) the debt was owed to God, or (b) the debt was owed to Satan. How would you answer? The first creates a Manicaeism division and the second makes satan God’s master. “The ransom belongs to the one who holds the other captive” (G. Nazianzan). Ultimately Gregory’s answer is that the language of “debt” in Scripture is illustrative not literal. What is literal is our captivity to death. Jesus’ death served to “pay” for the release of that captivity. That “payment” is understood by the Orthodox as expiation rather than propitiation – expiation aims at that which causes the problem whereas propitiation aims to sooth the offended party.

    “If the punishment of sin is death, even if that death is already being experienced by us, and Jesus came and took on our flesh and died “on our behalf”, is that not “taking our punishment”, and does that not imply propitiation?”

    It certainly could imply propitiation, why else would so many people understand it as such. Not a few theological geniuses have adopted it. But can’t the whole spectrum be understood as expiation just as easily? Expiation doesn’t nullify the fact that Jesus took the punishment of our sins, what it does nullify is the idea that the Father needed placating or satisfaction. The difference may seem too nuanced to amount to anything more than semantics. But the difference is massive when applied to how one then understands the nature of God and/or His relationship to us. The Father (and Son) desired our healing, thus the Son took our death and swallowed it up in His life – His incarnate life. What is at stake here is how one understands what Christ accomplished by taking our sins. He was not changing the Father’s attitude, He was changing our condition.

    “We deserve to be cast into oblivion for our defection, and in truth even now humanity tastes the oblivion that is proper to our defection… enter Jesus…”

    We deserve to be cast into oblivion for our defection, again, paints the picture of a God who grabs hold of us and tosses us out of the kingdom into the outer darkness for offending his honor. This is not the picture the Orthodox have in mind when they consider hell and the consequences of sin. Hell is not a place outside of God’s presence but rather a reality of being in God’s presence and not being equipped for it. For those who are united with Christ the “fire” of God’s glory is experienced as pure joy. But for those who are not united with Christ the “fire” of God’s glory is experienced as a burning fire, as hell. In other words, God’s does not need satisfaction before we return home anymore than the prodigal son’s father needed satisfaction before the son could return home. God waits with open arms for our return through Christ. If we do not return we will eat from the pigs trof for eternity, not due to God’s will but due to our choosing.

    • Good stuff bro. I’ve still got bunches of pushbacks and questions, but I’ll wait for more posts from you. How many more you have planned?

    • Well, I think I was just hoping for a break from all of this… my brain is tired 🙂

      Plus, I think I was hoping for some time to step back and ponder while you cooked up some more theology-stew.

      I think that so much of this hangs on what we mean when we say “expiate” and “propitiate”… The Holman Bible Dictionary writes:

      “Expiation emphasizes the removal of guilt through a payment of the penalty, while propitiation emphasizes the appeasement or averting of God’s wrath and justice. Both words are related to reconciliation, since it is through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins that we are reconciled to a God of holy love…”

      If that’s even in the ballpark of what you mean when you use the terms, then:

      1) It is clear to me that sometimes what I meant by “propitiate” and was arguing for in propitiation is actually a function of expiation… so maybe Andrew needs to be more precise in his use of words 🙂

      2) If that definition of propitiation is true, I think the Bible teaches it. Almost the whole of the prophetic witness is God’s wrath against either Israel (for breaking the covenant) or humanity (for violating some other standard)… it seems to me that in the prophets, it is not God’s “honor” that is offended (like Anselm would say), but rather… something else is at work… and that Jesus “drinks the cup” in Gethsemane tells me that he has taken into himself the full weight of God’s righteous wrath… he has not done so as some innocent victim, but as God of very God who loves us as the Father loves us…

      I’ll say it again… if, when I was a child, I had committed some unspeakably horrible act against one of my siblings… it would be my dad’s goodness and love that drove him at once to see to it that justice was done AND THAT somehow, if possible, I was restored to the family through it. The wrath and the mercy come from the same place.

      If we differ on this, then I suppose we differ on this 🙂


    • *For those who might have been reading along, Andrew and I randomly began carrying on this discussion via Facebook messaging. If you want the conclusion you’ll have to buy the rights :)*

  6. Mr. Hyde – great post. I’d been wanting to read something about the orthodox view of atonement and had also been curious about the original language used. I’ve been finding God seeming to bring me to this type of understanding. As I’ve pondered this, I keep being drawn to the announcements of Jesus’ birth where he is proclaimed as the savior who would save his people from their sins

  7. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading these discussions as this is an issues I’ve been wrestling with for the past year or so. You seminarians may have to excuse my lack of erudition but I’ll jump in, regardless.
    1a. Is the death that entered the race, a “disease” that entered through sin or is it the expression of God’s judgement; or somehow both. The answer to that would seem to go a long ways toward understanding the nature of atonement. 1b. I think this question also goes to the question of God’s wrath in general: much of it seems to be more a lifting of protection than a proactive causation of punishment.
    2. How much of the legal terminology used in The NT is to help the Jewish converts understand the new covenant in terms of the old? The old covenant was certainly a law and thus any reference to it would necessitate legal language. However the law is not God’s desired way to relate to humanity but only established to show what was right/wrong and to keep be a guardian for israel. Within this system god clearly established a system of blessing and curses. Thus in terms of the law, a substitution was needed to remove the curse for the violations of the law. However as the law (as a system) is not reflective of God’s highest intent, is the view of the cross through the lens of the law only a secondary consideration?
    3. How much weight should we give old testament statements of God’s anger/wrath in understanding the cross? In line with my above comments, I think they only had a partial view of God’s ways and purposes as they understood and spoke for God through the system of law. God’s ultimate plan in Christ was a mystery and God was not dealing with them through Christ.
    4. For Eric- could the difficulties you note stemming from propitiation have more to do with a misunderstanding of God’s heart in judgment than from a natural progression of what propitiation actually means? It could be that in our fallen state we are inclined to view God’s judgment in retribution terms that needed to be satisfied. However, if one views God’s ultate judgment as that which ultimately rids the world of evil, Christ’s work rescues us from that future judgment of eternal death. In that light, Christ took our place.

    • Jacob, great to have you on!

      1a. The Orthodox see the death that entered the human race due to sin as a reconstitution of human nature as it originally was – constituted with the life of God and ever pressing into further union with him. Both sin and death are spoken of by the Church Fathers as diseases, but not in the sense of “sin-guilt” as Augustine would have it. Rather, death creates a disposition towards sin. Man is guilty of his own sin not Adams.

      2. Great points. I think that some people have a wrong impression of the OT and the Torah. The OT is full of expressions/teachings of God’s mercy and love, and the prophets roundly acknowledge with near unanimity that God desires mercy not sacrifice. Rabbinic Judaism is replete with the same language of faith and grace as one finds in the Apostles and the early Church writings. It is a bit of a Western invention the idea that the OT represents works righteousness and law whereas the NT represents faith, grace and lawlessness. Not that that was your point, but I wanted to make the note. I’m not entirely sure why there is a logical necessity for a substitute for the absorption of the curse of the law. We had already received the curse – death – and were preparing ourselves for eternal death without Christ.

      3. True, the revelation and work of Christ was not complete for the OT believer but if one looks closely God never really changes the way He relates to us. It was always a matter of love and mercy. There is a final judgement and those not united with Christ will suffer, but the suffering, as described above, is a matter of suffering as one not prepared to live in God’s presence. As the NT says, what fellowship has light with the dark? For those found in Christ His light is warm and embracing, for those not found in Christ His light is a burning flame, causing torment. Christs words do not stray from the prophets of old. There is still judgement for those who are “lawless,” arrogant, unrepentant, unforgiving, etc. Cold obedience to the law without the sincerity of love could not save one in the OT nor in the NT. But one does not love God if he/she does not obey Him, as the apostle John said with striking clarity throughout his letters (his are some of the most clear, though one will find it in Paul, Peter, Luke, and the rest).

      4. Christ’s death was indeed taking on the combine wages of sin, all sin, ever committed. In order for death to be defeated death had to be swallowed up. Nothing was big enough to swallow it up other than God Himself. Christs death and resurrection altered the reality of death for eternity. This is expiation in its greatest. However, if one wants he can read propitiation into it, but my argument is that in doing so one alters the correct understanding of Christ’s work to that of a substitute. If Christ is a substitute for me, rather than a healing for my illness, then that leaves me with the impression that everything is done and I have no effective role to play. “Working out my salvation with fear and trembling” becomes worse than mysterious, it becomes ridiculous, and the whole emphasis of ongoing healing and union in Christ becomes lost.


  8. Eric – liked the article when I first read it, and then got a double kick out of realizing it was you. Very will written.
    So, perhaps I’ll be able to flesh out my thoughts a bit more this time as last time i was on my iphone and trying to keep an eye on our puppy.

    2-3. While perhaps not a major point, I think I disagree with your characterization of essentially no difference between how God related to man in the OT vs NT. While God’s desire to show mercy is replete throughout the OT, and God desired more though heartless obedience, I believe there was clearly a difference in how God & man related. This does not mean God’s heart was any different, only that his way of relating to man was different. The reason being that since man’s heart could not be changed through Christ, the only way to keep sinful mankind relatively righteous was through a system of law with blessings and curses.

    Consider some of the statements by Paul, seemingly contrasting the old system of law with that of the system of faith and grace: God was no longer counting men’s sins against them; the law brings death but the spirit give life; the law was given to show people their sins, but was only to last until the coming of the child who was promised (gal 4:19); Paul further describes the law as a guardian until the way of faith came; in Collossians, the the record of the charges againsts us (seemingly contained in the law) were taken away and nailed to the cross. Collectively these seem to suggest a difference in the system under which God and man related. If not, I do not understand why Paul focused so much on this, unless God was just superconcerned with doing away with the necessity of circumcision — which for adult males before anesthesia, I’m all in favor of too.

    4. I’m still not sure of my take on this, and I’ve found a lot of life in growing understanding of expiation, but as others above have indicated, I’m not yet convinced that expiation and propitiation must necessarily must be exclusive. I think it quite possible that the realties of sin, death, salvation are so complex that all the different language in scripture about it covers aspects of a deep spiritual reality that is beyond our comprehension except through a variety of metaphors. And I think I disagree with your conclusion that if Christ’s death was in any way substitutionary, then I have no role to play. When one understands the logic of grace in purely abstract terms, that is the natural progression of thought, as Paul’s responses to hypothetical questions in Romans indicate (what, shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?). However, I think that this reflects a difference between grace as an abstract and grace as an experienced reality. Grace, in purely abstract terms is license to violate; grace received through trust in God is transformative. (BTW if you want a really good book that showcases grace and God’s love in amazing ways, check out Tatoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle – he’s a catholic priest who spent years in LA dealing with gangs. The stories he tells of what love and grace can do to change lives is incredble and I think very reflective of God’s love).

  9. Jacob, I’m more thrilled than you to find you posting on my blog than for you to realize you were posting on my blog. 🙂 I’m honored that you’ve taken the time.

    Just a couple observations:

    I didn’t mean to announce that there are no changes from OT to NT as touching how God relates to man, or how man relates to God, but rather that one must be careful not to repeat the ancient Church heresy of Manichaeism by placing the OT at odds with the NT, or worse, imagining that we have two separate God’s at work – one wrathful and angry, and one gentle and kind. I think Protestantism, with its current trends of dispensationalism, balances a very thin line in this respect. The main point I was hoping to convey is that we modern Westerners have a tendency to make this division but when one peels back the layers of ancient Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism he finds that the NT is a continuation of the story of salvation with very little divergence as to the nature and character of God and how one relates to Him.

    To you second major point, I do not believe that substitutionary atonement theories *necessitate* a parallel appropriation of grace as a get-out-of-obeying-Christ free ticket. However, can you deny that it tends to play out that way? That is the issue. How does it effect one’s attitude and practice of the faith? is the question one should ask, because, ultimately, it’s the only question that matters. For me, not only do I see expiation throughout Scripture, throughout Jewish worship, throughout the ancient Church worship, and the modern Orthodox Church’s worship, but it safe guards my own soul from treating Christ and His work on the cross with disrespect. The idea of propitiation, which leads one to substitution, plants the idea that the Father just needed a whipping boy for sin, and once He found the perfect whipping boy – Christ – I’m off the hook, in the sense that I can sin all I want since the ultimate price was paid already. If the ultimate price was paid and no more payment is needed then let us sin it up. But when one understands that sin will continue to generate death and illness in its practitioner then it changes the whole concept. Christ’s blood as expiation allows me to truly grasp the depth of God’s love and desire to heal and if I continue to deny Him it is to my own detriment and if I continue to turn from Him will totally negate the healing of Christ in my soul.

    It’s late, hope all that made sense, 🙂

  10. Pingback: Big Words Matter | Paths of Christianity

  11. Whether propitiation or expiation, the result is the same.
    We are all very fortunate that a theological degree is not a prerequisite for justification.

  12. I just happened to write a blog on the same thing, but a much more simplistic version…I plan to link to yours when I get a chance for anyone who wants to learn more facts and history on this topic.

  13. Pingback: The Problem With The Premise of Religion 2: The Orthodox Christian Rebuttal – Capitalist Cthulhu

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