Atoning Blood 9

By Philip Graham Ryken

The symbolism of the blood is further clarified by its function in the Old Testament rituals of atonement.  The high priest would take the blood and sprinkle it on the atonement cover, also called the mercy seat.  The mercy seat was the golden lid on the Ark of the Covenant, located in the Most Holy Place of the temple, which was the earthly location of the Divine Presence.  The mercy seat itself was a place of divine judgment, because the ark underneath the mercy seat contained the law of God, which the people had broken.  Sprinkling blood on the mercy seat, therefore, was a way to put the blood of the atoning sacrifice between the holy God and his sinful people.

The sacrificial blood that was sprinkled on the mercy seat served as a propitiation for sin.  This difficult word is necessary to use because it describes an essential truth of salvation.  Propitiation refers to the turning away of anger.  God’s perfect justice has been satisfied, his righteous anger quenched.  Propitiation thus explains what the atoning sacrifice accomplished with respect to God and his wrath. 

Here something needs to be said about the wrath of God, which is one of the most frequently-mentioned divine attributes in the Bible.  Wrath is not a violent emotion or uncontrollable passion, but something more like righteous indignation.  It is God’s holy opposition to sin and personal determination to punish it, what John Stott has defined as God’s “steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations.”[1]  Since it is right and good for God to hate every evil thing, wrath is one of his divine perfections.  It is not something to be ashamed about, therefore, but something to be praised.

God’s wrath against sin explains why the high priest never came into God’s presence without the blood of an atoning sacrifice (Heb. 9:7).  Remember Aaron’s sons!  If a priest came without the blood, he would be destroyed.  Once the sacrifice had died in place of the sinner, however, no further punishment needed to be made.  The priest sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat to show that God’s justice was satisfied, his wrath propitiated.  To say this another way, the sacrifice made God propitious, or well-disposed, fully enabling him to look upon the sinner with favor.

Rather than accepting the biblical doctrine of propitiation, some theologians would prefer to deny God’s wrath altogether.  In fact, this is one of the main reasons why there are so many contemporary attacks on the doctrine of the atonement.  Some theologians argue that what we really see at Calvary is not the wrath of God against human sin, but only the wrath of humanity against God.  According to one contemporary theologian, “In Jesus’ own understanding of the Cross, the element of substitution appears when Jesus humbly endures the wrath of mankind instead of invoking the wrath of God upon us.”[2]

This clever argument preserves the language of atonement and wrath, yet never deals with the very real problem of the wrath of God.  Praise God for Jesus Christ, who turns away the wrath of God by making full atonement for our sins! 

[1] Stott, 173.

[2] Jersak, in Stricken by God?, 27.