You might have noticed that Catholic translations of the Bible render Rom 3:25 differently than Protestant and Eastern Orthodox ones.
…God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…
…God set forth as an expiation*, through faith, by his blood…
First, what are the differences between the words? According to R.C. Sproul, “The prefix ex means “out of” or “from,” so expiation has to do with removing something or taking something away. In biblical terms, it has to do with taking away guilt through the payment of a penalty or the offering of an atonement.”
So, when Catholics say that Jesus Christ is the expiation of our sins, it speaks the truth that Christ paid the full penalty on our behalf.
How about propitiation? Sproul writes, “By contrast, propitiation has to do with the object of the expiation. The prefix pro means ‘for,’ so propitiation brings about a change in God’s attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us.”
In short, propitiation means that there is a satisfaction of God’s justice or wrath. Catholics assert that God holds no “hostility” towards those who have sinned against Him. However, several references to God “inflicting wrath” (Rom 3:5) would appear to mitigate against this.
So, what’s the deal? Catholics reject this translation of the same word because they do not wholeheartedly endorse penal substitution, which is the idea that God’s sense of justice demanded that His wrath against sin must be satisfied in the sense that it is exercised somehow. In many ways Catholicism teaches that faith in Christ merely removes impediments between man and God that prevent man from being saved by partaking in sacraments. So both terms include a payment for sins, but only propitiation allows us to infer that God can be fully satisfied by what Christ did, which implicitly removes the necessity for sacraments. To quote Thomas Oden (requoted on an Eastern Orthodox website🙂
The focus of expiation is upon the removal of obstacles to the relationship[ with God]. The focus of propitiation is slightly different: upon the welcoming attitude of the Holy One for whom these obstacles are removed (Eleventh Council of Toledo). Through the cross, God is brought near and conciliated, made propitious, or favorable to our hearing and plea.
In short, being that the word in Greek is only used once in the Bible and it can mean either thing, how do we know it is one or the other? Let’s go to it’s one and only usage and see which one actually makes sense:
[Christ is] whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation/expiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:25-26).
Let’s ask a few questions?
Who was the expiation/propitiation?
How did the expiation/propitiation occur?
The shedding of Christ’s blood, without which there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22).
How does someone attain the benefits of the expiation/propitiation?
According to Rom 3:25 “through faith.”
Why was the expiation/propitiation necessary?
According to Rom 3:25 “to demonstrate His righteousness.” This alone would lend credibility towards propitiation over expiation simply because the demonstration of righteousness means that the offering of a sacrifice was necessary for there to be justice (which is the same word as “righteousness” in Greek.) So, the plain meaning of Rom 3:25 is that God’s sense of justice had to be satisfied, hence Christ’s blood appeased God’s sense of justice. This is propitiatory language.
How does expiation/propitiation work?
“Sins previously committed” before one has placed their faith in Christ are “passed over.” Expiation would require that these sins are simply forgotten or not accounted for. They are just “passed over,” right? Propitiation would require that the sins were passed over man and placed onto Christ. The latter idea is stated explicitly in the Scripture: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor 5:21). So, God did not simply pass over us, forgetting our sins because of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, the Father specifically passed the curse that belongs to us, because of our sins, over to Christ and He bore our iniquities (Is 53:5).
What does expiation/propitiation demonstrate?
“His righteousness at the present time,” that is, the present time in which we are now faithful in Christ compared to the time we did not know Him. So, God’s righteousness is demonstrated meaning justice was satisfied. The Scripture just spoke of the idea that all fall short of the glory of God, so we may infer a payment for the penalty has occurred being that there is justice.
Why did God want this demonstration?
“[S]o that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Can expiation both demonstrate God’s justice and make Him the justifier of those who have faith? I honestly do not see how. However, if Christ’s sacrifice had a propitiatory effect it all makes sense. God is just because He punished sin, because it means that Christ bore God’s punishment and God was just in issuing the punishment. Expiation does not allow for this. Further, God is the justifier in that by being just in punishing sin, He has made unjust men just in His eyes. Hence, He is just in punishing and the justifier in making men just. This puts God both in the justice and justification business!
In conclusion, it is our contention that propitiation is the clear and obvious choice.
While this line of argument applies to the RSVCE and NABRE, the older Douay-Rheims bible actually does use the word propitiation for this verse:
Romans 3:25 “Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to the shewing of his justice, for the remission of former sins”
I would also say on a theological level that it’s a question of “both-and”. Christ both showed His Justice, removed the obstacles within man, removed the obstacles outside of man, removed the obstacle between God and man, and satisfied the Justice of the person of the Father (as in the classic Anselmian definition). Some prefer to think of the Atonement on one level or another, but the Scriptures and the Fathers talk of it by multiple analogies and angles.
I attended a “Greek Fest” at the local Greek Orthodox church. A man from the church gave us a tour of the sanctuary and in his explaining, he said that Orthodox Christians don’t believe that Jesus paid a debt, or that he had to be punished for our sins/sake. I was flabbergasted. I mean, what’s all the exitement about Xristos Anesti if we aren’t celebrating that Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins, and we can be free? I’m quite perplexed. And, I’m quite confused and just can’t make sense of it all, including the (seemingly, to me, at least) fine distinction between the Catholic and Orthodox views of propitiation. So, I’ll have to re-read your good blog. Is there any simple way to ‘splain it to me? Appreciate it!
Sure 🙂 I hope this from the Longer Catechism of Saint Philaret helps:
208. How does the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross deliver us from sin, the curse, and death?
That we may the more readily believe this mystery, the Word of God teaches us of it, so much as we may be able to receive, by the comparison of Jesus Christ with Adam. Adam is by nature the head of all mankind, which is one with him by natural descent from him. Jesus Christ, in whom the Godhead is united with manhood, graciously made himself the new almighty Head of men, whom he unites to himself through faith. Therefore as in Adam we had fallen under sin, the curse, and death, so we are delivered from sin, the curse, and death in Jesus Christ. His voluntary suffering and death on the cross for us, being of infinite value and merit, as the death of one sinless, God and man in one person, is both a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God, which had condemned us for sin to death, and a fund of infinite merit, which has obtained him the right, without prejudice to justice, to give us sinners pardon of our sins, and grace to have victory over sin and death.
God hath willed to make known to his saints what is the riches of the glory of this mystery of the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Col. i. 26, 27.
For if by one man’s offense death reigned by one, much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Rom. v. 17.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and, death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit. Rom. viii. 1-4.
As a FYI the post you wrote back to is something I wrote as a Protestant (and I have since converted.) But that being said, the hymnography of the Church says that our sins are all nailed to the cross. So Christ paid a penalty…but He did more. He also conquered death and He gives us new life so that we also conquer death. So, he pays more than a debt, He also gives new life.
Thank you, Craig! As a Protestant, I also believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty and more — that he gives us new life, victory over sin, death, satan. I thank you for this affirmation of what I suspected. One more question: do Orthodox believe that a person must personally accept this victory/salvation for themselves in order for it be real in their lives?
Well, we “Accept” as you put it in the same way the old hymn goes: “Trust and Obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to Trust and Obey.”
So faith is how we personally accept the reality of the resurrection, and the fruits of that faith (work) are how we live out that resurrection and take ownership over it.
The most popular Orthodox Pascha (Easter) hymn is “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” So His death conquers death by destroying it. He has put death to death. And He has given life by resurrecting, because this redeems the fallen human who was destined to die before our Pioneer has made it possible for humans to now live eternally–because He does! So He demolished death and the fruits of the victory over the grave in His resurrection is eternal life.
I hope this helps.
Hey Craig, you were a Protestant? What have you converted to?
Within Eastern Orthodoxy, from my experience after conversion a couple years ago, the EO almost without exception, reject Penal Substitutionary Atonement. A much more common understanding of the atonement is far more similar to Christus Victor. From your writing, it appears you are hearing something different from your priest?
This was written before my conversion 🙂
Hi Craig, I just read this last comment, and also most of another of your articles , about the nature of the fall, and perhaps the fact that you wrote THIS article prior to your conversion to Orthodoxy explains why it seems like you are taking a different (and in this case, possibly “heretical?) view of the nature of our salvation, and from what it is that Christ has redeemed us. So, if that is true, why not take down this article, which seems to promote a very non-Orthodox view of the nature of who God is (is He an ” angry” God?) . Secondly, I would like to point out that the Romans reference is NOT the only place the word propitiation is used. I am no scholar, but found your article looking for more clarity on the word propitiation as I found it in this morning’s lectionary reading from Hebrews ch 2 ( v 17). BTW I am also a convert (25 years ago) and am a reader at St Timothy OCA parish in Toccoa Georgia. I have 5 kids, 8 grandchildren. Christ Is Risen!
Indeed He is risen! I’m unsure to do with my old stuff and simply leave it up so maybe it gets Protestants to look into Orthodoxy.
Hello Craig, I’ve been benefiting from reading your articles and watching your YouTube videos. I was for 40 years an evangelical Christian before converting to (traditional) Roman Catholicism almost 3 years ago. This post I’m replying to (“Expiation vs. Propitiation of Sins”) specifies “sins previously committed before placing one’s faith in Christ”. What about sins committed AFTER placing one’s faith in Christ? Unfortunately, after putting my faith in Christ , during my 40 years as a Protestant, I did not understand that masturbation was sin, and a grave one at that. It was a regular part of my life for all those years. A year after becoming Catholic, with God’s power, I finally gained the victory (have been free for 18 months) and firmly purpose to never commit this sin again. However, I am very concerned about how God regards persistent sin committed: 1) after placing faith in Him, and 2) after Confirmation in the Church. I’ve gone to Confession with this, but I would appreciate your explanation of how you think one can truly “get right” with God in this scenario. How is His wrath removed in this case? Thank you in advance!
This article was written before my conversion to Orthodoxy, so please take what it states with a grain of salt. That being said, Orthodoxy maintains a tension between two truths. First, all sins are forgiven upon baptism and repentance, which we see as synonymous with faith. The hymnography states this and Saint Gregory Palamas says so quite explicitly (if someone *really* needs me to dig this quote up, I can but for the sake of time simply trust me). Second, the other issue is that we are forgiven inasmuch as we are conformed to the likeness of Christ, Saint Filaret of Moscow states this in his catechism. So, when we are faithless, and “backslide”/not repent, there is no sacrifice for sins for those who willfully keep sinning as Heb 10 states.
St Nicolai of Zica states oftentimes we have to confess our old sins a second time when we feel a real yearning to do something. If we confess with tears, for example, and actually stop doing the sin (this is the most important factor) this is generally the sign we have actually been forgiven that sin.
So, in short, if one repents and does not do pre-meditated, protracted sin, then one should be assured forgiveness of these sins. That does not mean we are not still sinful, constantly prone to sin, but God forgives our falleness. However, we must still repent. It sounds to me you are going in the right direction.
I find the following statement from St Gregory Palamas helpful and I have it immediately on hand:
Somewhere else Paul exhorts us, “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth” [Eph 6:14]. When our thoughts revolve around divine subjects and abide in God’s truth, holding back and taking care of the desiring part of the soul and driving away the body’s desires carnal thoughts leave us. Then the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear hear, neither have entered into the heart of such a man [cf. 1 Cor 2:9]. This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation. (Homily 20.16)
Thank you for your prompt and thoughtful response. The various statements by the Saints are helpful (and beautiful). I’ve had the yearning to do penance (beyond that prescribed by the priest following my Confession) for these past sins. I’d be interested in your opinion on whether this is advisable and what forms the penance might take? Thank you, again.
I’d recommend asking your spiritual father. One can always voluntarily take on more fasts and give more alms. You don’t need an occasion for that, either.