How well do you understand the significance of the Christian term propitiation? The meaning of this word is absolutely central to the Christian gospel, and therefore, it is important to understand. So, I’d like to spend a few minutes helping to shape our thinking about this word.

First of all, for the geeks, the word in Greek is ἱλαστήριον. For the non-geeks, the English transliteration is hilasterion(Hih-La-Stee-ree-on). What’s interesting is that this word is used many times in the LXX (Greek version of the Old Testament), but it’s only used twice in the New Testament. Of further interest is that the word doesn’t appear to be used in the same way in both instances. I’m gonna simply put before you the two passages in English, and I’ll bolden the word which is translated from hilasterion.

[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:24-25).


“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 9:4-5

You will have noticed immediately that the first instance (Romans 3) uses the word in a technical theological sense with a potentially broad semantic depth (propitiation). But the Hebrew writer uses it in a very straightforward way. In essence, he’s referring to hilasterion as the lid or cover that was placed above the ark of the covenant, i.e., the mercy seat.

Feel free to read Exodus 25:17ff for more about God’s instructions concerning the mercy seat. Significantly, in Levitical worship, the mercy seat was to be sprinkled with the blood of bulls and goats on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16).

So, in Jewish theology, the mercy seat was a profoundly important object on account of its relation to the ark of the covenant, but it took on a technical meaning because this was the place of atonement.

Now, here’s the critical question. Does Paul mean for us to conceive of Jesus as the Christian mercy seat? In other words, does Romans 3:25 simply mean that Jesus is the location for Christian atonement (much in the same way that the ark’s mercy seat served as a location for atonement)? Or does he mean that Jesus is the instrument of our atonement?

This difference in interpretation has been the subject of considerable debate. I believe, however, that the evidence points to the latter interpretation. Jesus is the means of our atonement. Jesus is the instrument God used to avert his wrath from us by allowing Jesus to serve a punishment in our stead. Jesus is the one we hold up before the throne of God to say, in essence, “I have nothing that I can bring, but may you be appeased by the blood of Jesus which covers me.” Here, I’ll give two brief reasons for this interpretation.

First, In the Greco-Roman world, hilasterion did not refer to a Levitical worship rite.

According to BDAG, the most comprehensive and respected Greek/English lexicon available, this is said of hilasterion: “In Gr-Rom. lit. that which serves as an instrument for regaining the goodwill of a deity; concr. a ‘means of propitiation or expiation, gift to procure expiation” (Danker 474).

Some have suggested that Paul’s use of the word in Romans is an allusion to Jewish tabernacle furnishings (mercy seat), but Leon Morris refutes that idea pretty powerfully with these few points.

  • First, throughout the LXX, nearly everywhere that hilasterion refers to the mercy seat, it maintains the definite article. Likewise, the Hebrew writer uses the definite article because he was definitively referring to the mercy seat. It is “the mercy seat.” But in Paul’s use, he doesn’t use the article, meaning he likely isn’t referencing the mercy seat.

  • Second, the book of Romans really doesn’t present itself in threads of Levitical symbolism (like Hebrews does).

  • Third, the community of Jewish/Gentile Christians in Rome would have unlikely grasped a passing reference about tabernacle furnishings if that is indeed how Paul intended for it to be understood (“The Meaning of ἱλαστήριον in Rom. iii. 25,” NTS 2 [1955-56]: 33-43).

In short, the most natural meaning of hilasterion for a Christian reader in Rome would have been the basic and common definition in Greco-Roman vernacular. Jesus was put forward by God as an instrument to appease his own wrath toward us. Jesus is our means of propitiation.

Second, The broader context of Romans supports the idea that Jesus was our propitiation.

In Romans 1-3, Paul lays out a powerful argument for the sinfulness/depravity of all mankind.

  • In chapter 1, he speaks of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles.

  • In chapter 2, he passes equal blame onto the Jews, God’s covenantal people.

  • In chapter 3, he concludes by saying, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? By no means! For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9).

This guilt, which is equally possessed by all of mankind, has incurred and invoked the wrath of Almighty God.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”…Romans 1:18

If all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), then all are under the wrath of God.

Now, Paul has clearly made the case that we will not appease God’s wrath by means of our own works,

For by works of law no human being will be justified in his sight”…Romans 3:20

This is why he says,

“We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of law”…Romans 3:28

The question becomes, how do we appease God’s wrath? If my own works merit nothing, indeed my own works are worthless (3:12), what can I bring before the throne of God to divert his wrath? What can I offer to bid his grace?

Paul says that 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”…Romans 3:23-25

The whole context of Romans points to how God provided the solution for mankind concerning his own wrath toward us.

  • In Chapter 1, Paul spoke expressly of God’s wrath toward us.

  • In Chapter 3, he presented the solution for our sins, namely, Jesus.

  • In Chapter 5 he says this: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

Jesus saves us from God’s wrath. God gave Jesus so that we might have someone under whom we could be protected and covered from his own wrath. Jesus is our propitiation. Jesus is the one by whom we appease God’s wrath. In a sentence, the gospel is God rescuing his people from his own wrath directed at them.

Daniel Mayfield
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"Daniel serves as a preacher and teacher at the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He does this work with the invaluable aid, wisdom, and encouragement of his wife, Miranda. They have two young sons, Judah and Zion, and one beautiful daughter, Eden. Daniel had served in Oklahoma for nearly five years, before which time he and Miranda served as missionaries in the Caribbean. Daniel is a graduate of both Bear Valley and Oklahoma Christian University. His greatest passion is to preach the gospel of Jesus to anyone who will listen."