Atonement and Propitiation

Day of Atonement

Let us briefly review the procedure followed on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).

The high priest (Aaron) takes one bull and two goats from the people.

And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (Lev. 16:5 ESV)

The bull is a sin offering for himself and his house. It enables him to draw near to God to do the remaining tasks, which would be impossible to do without first atoning for his own sins.

"Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. (Lev. 16:5-6 ESV)

"Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. (Lev. 16:11 ESV)

Then two goats are selected, one designated as the sin offering, and the other as the scapegoat.

8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Lev. 16:8-10 ESV)

After sacrificing a bull for himself and his house, Aaron shall:

-- Atone for Holy Place, using the goat designated as the sin offering

15 "Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (Lev. 16:15-16 ESV)

-- Atone for sins of Israel, using the goat designed as the scapegoat

20 "And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:20-22 ESV)


The two goats being offered serve different purposes and are offered in different ways. It seems that the first goat, the goat of the sin offering, is not offered to atone for the sins of the people, but rather to atone for the holy place being in an unholy setting, in the midst of unholy people. It seems instead that the sins of the people are dealt with by the second goat, the scapegoat, upon whom the sins of the people are confessed and then who carries these sins out to the wilderness where it will die by itself.

Thus, the atonement for the sins of the people is made by carrying their sins away from them. The sin-bearing goat bears them and dies because of them; he dies by being cut off from food and shelter and probably at the hands of a predator. The picture this gives of atonement is one of removing, carrying away, bearing our sins far from us. See, for example, 'as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.' (Ps. 103:12 ESV)

Removal from home and safety is an expression of punishment in the OT. Here are two verses using the same root 'remove' as above:

and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Isa. 6:12 ESV)

For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. (Jer. 27:10 ESV)

Hebrews 13:10-14

We consider this passage from Hebrews 13:

10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Heb. 13:10-14 ESV)

This passage makes clear reference to the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement. v10 appears to say that the people of God today have an altar before God that is superior to the one that the high priests of the Old Covenant had, a very bold statement for a first-century audience and for us as well. v11 appears to refer back to:

And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. (Lev. 16:27 ESV)

Then v12 speaks of Jesus 'suffering outside the gate', and this wording is highly significant. Recall that the sin offering on the Day of Atonement was killed in the camp, in the tabernacle itself, and the scapegoat was sent out to the wilderness, where it suffered and died. Heb 13:12 appears to compare Jesus' suffering with that of the scapegoat, whose suffering was that of removal, expulsion from the camp.

Consider Jesus' suffering on the cross, and his cry: "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?" This is the only specific clue I know of that speaks of Jesus' experience of suffering with respect to the Father on the cross. We know he suffered brutally in physical torment, but this verse suggests that it was not the primary or ultimate suffering; rather, his ultimate suffering was being cut off from the Father.


An aspect of atonement not directly addressed in the Leviticus 16 passage is that of propitiation, although it is present implicitly. [Also see End Note below.] The Scripture is clear that Jesus was the propitiation for our sins. We find the related words hilasmos (ἱλασμός) and hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον) in a few places in the New Testament translated as propitiation, atonement, or place of atonement. These words do not appear prominently, but are undoubtedly present. Here is a brief survey:


hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον) (noun):

whom God put forward as a propitiation [ἱλαστήριον] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Rom. 3:25 ESV)

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation [ἱλαστήριον] for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17 ESV)

Note that Heb 2:17 gives evidence that the work of OT priests involved making propitiation before God.

Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat [ἱλαστήριον]. ... (Heb. 9:5 ESV)

hilasmos (ἱλασμός) (noun):

He is the propitiation [ἱλασμός] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 Jn. 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 [ἱλασμός] for our sins. (1 Jn. 4:10 ESV)


It is no surprise that we find several forms of hilasterion in LXX Leviticus 16 which speaks of the Day of Atonement. These translate the Hebrew kaphar (root meaning 'cover'), e.g., ‎הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת (Lev. 16:13), translated as 'mercy seat' in English. Indeed, the Hebrew forms are the basis for the Greek usage of hilasterion, and not the opposite.

Central Question

We come to the central question of this posting: Does the propitiation of Jesus offered to God for our sins involve or imply that the full wrath of God was vented upon him at his crucifixion and death? Reformed theologians have held the so-called Penal Theory of Atonement, which states that Christ bore the penalty of our sins as part of his work of atonement. If so, then it is assumed that part of this penalty is the righteous wrath of God against us for our sins. As one point of comparison, Anselm promulgated the so-called Satisfaction Theory of Atonement:

Anselm, by contrast, regarded human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ's death, the ultimate act of obedience, gives God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ's surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ's death is substitutionary in this sense: he pays the honour instead of us. But that substitution is not penal; his death pays our honour not our penalty. (Theopedia, reference below)

This posting does not intend to address the varying theories of atonement which have been put forth over the ages. Instead, we ask whether the scriptural evidence summarized above supports the penal view. The primary theme which emerges from the scriptures cited appears to be that atonement is related to removal of sin, taking sin away by means of a designated sin-bearer. The sin-bearer is taken far from God and suffers from that separation what is the ultimate suffering one can suffer. This conclusion can be justified from the scriptural evidence.

Is God a god of justice? Yes, of course. Given that atonement involves separation from God by a designated sin-bearer, and that separation is bearing the penalty (consequence) of our sins, we ask: does bearing the penalty then involve bearing the (righteous) wrath of God? We know Jesus propitiated the wrath of God, so we ask whether that propitiation demanded his endurance of God's wrath against sin, was his separation from the Father on the cross itself a sufficient propitiation, or are these in fact distinct but inseparable?

My consideration of this scriptural evidence has led me to give much greater emphasis than before to atonement understood as separation from God by a designated sin-bearer. In the past, I have placed emphasis purely on the penal aspect and was invariably forced to conclude that the Father directly vented his wrath on his beloved Son. The considerations in this posting do not rule this out, but certainly compel us to acknowledge the significance and centrality of Jesus' abandonment on the cross by the Father in the work of atonement, in a manner hearkening back to the OT Day of Atonement.

Book Reference: The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, by Leon Morris, Eerdmans 3rd rev. ed. 1965.


Expiation and propitiation are related concepts. It has been said that propitiation deals with appeasing wrath, whereas expiation deals with the turning away of wrath. Some authors and references appear to treat expiation and propitiation synonymously, but some (particularly more classic theologians) do not. For example, John Murray, in The Atonement (reference below), says that propitiation is "the removal of wrath" (p 11), whereas expiation is "the removal of the liability accruing from sin" (p 13), and expiation is associated with offering of sacrifice.

Can one propitiate without also expiating? It appears not, for if wrath is propitiated, is it not thereby turned away as well? Can one expiate without also propitiating? In biblical terms, I'd say no, since 'without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins'. (Heb. 9:22 ESV) That is, the shedding of blood is an expression of propitiating the wrath of God against sin and is necessary for turning away his wrath. Note that God's wrath against us for our sins is completely righteous.

Reference: The Atonement, John Murray, International Library of Philosophy and Theology, BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL STUDIES, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978.

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