Atoning Blood 10

By Philip Graham Ryken

John Newton wrote about this atoning grace in his diary.  Newton had been heavily involved in the slave trade and was guilty of many crimes against humanity and sins against God.  As he lamented his lost and sinful condition he was weighed down with shame and tempted to despair.  Yet when he was in the very depths, Newton looked to Christ and said, “But now I may, I must, I do mention the Atonement. I have sinned, but Christ has died.”[1]  Newton finally understood that atonement only comes through the death of Jesus Christ.  His crucifixion is our substitution; his cross is our mercy seat; and the blood that Jesus sprinkled there is the propitiation of the wrath of God.

On rare but important occasions, the New Testament uses the language of propitiation to describe the saving work that Jesus did on the cross.  We see this not only in Romans 3, but also in Hebrews 2, which describes Jesus as a “faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).  We see it as well in 1 John: “He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).  Or again, “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).  Out of his great love for lost humanity, God has made atonement, quenching his own wrath in order that we might be saved.

The atonement is not a way of getting something that God does not want to give, therefore, but God’s plan for reconciling sinners to himself.  We should never think of propitiation as an angry Father reluctantly appeased by the death of his sweet Son.  Christianity is far removed from such a pagan notion because the initiative for salvation always comes from the Father’s loving heart.  In the atonement and on the cross God propitiates God’s own wrath!  John Stott writes:

It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating, and God himself who in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.[2]

[1] John Newton, entry for 18 September 1779, quoted in D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 232.

[2] Stott, 175.