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?

Jesus Christ

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.