The Heart of It All: Salvation

October 30, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Propitiation and Redemption

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In the previous article we saw that God’s plan for the redemption of humans was set in place before the creation of humanity, and that it was rooted in His love, mercy, and grace, which are part of His nature.

Now we’ll look at some specific insights as to how Jesus’ death on the cross brings forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God—how His death results in our atonement.


The word atonement in the Bible is the translation of the Hebrew word kippur, which is derived from the word kaphar, meaning to cover, cover over, or be covered.

J. I. Packer defines it as follows:

Atonement means making amends, blotting out the offense, and giving satisfaction for wrong done; thus reconciling to oneself the alienated other and restoring the disrupted relationship.[1]

The biblical concept of atonement refers to the revealed way to reconciliation with God through the mediation of His Son.[2]

In the New Testament it’s very clear that the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection is central to His mission on earth. Matthew devotes about one-third of his Gospel to the last week of Jesus’ life, Mark over one-third, Luke one-fourth, and John just under half.[3]

Jesus’ death on the cross, His shedding His blood for us as the Lamb of God, brought something unique into the world of humanity: eternal reconciliation with God. From that point on, human beings could be permanently reconciled with their Creator.

A question that is often asked is: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? What did His death do that brought us forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God? A combination of four scriptural concepts gives a well-rounded understanding of how Jesus’ death saves us from the punishment of our sins and reconciles us to God. These four concepts look at the same picture from different angles.


The first concept is propitiation. The basic meaning of propitiation is an offering that turns away wrath. This concept has to do with the wrath of God, in that due to His holiness and righteousness, God must judge and punish sin. However, the sacrificial offering of Jesus’ death, like the sacrifices made in the Old Testament, propitiates or satisfies God’s wrath. In His love for us, God made a way to pardon our sin, while remaining true to His nature.

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.[4]

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.[5]

How was it that Jesus’ death turned away the wrath of God from us? He turned it away from us by taking it upon Himself. We justly deserve God’s wrath, but Jesus took the guilt of our sin upon Himself and suffered the penalty for our sins. He bore the wrath of God in our place for our sins.

Authors Lewis and Demarest explain it this way:

The Judge of the world, whose moral law is constantly violated, found us guilty and pronounced the just sentence of death. Then, leaving heaven, the Son became a man, lived without sin, and paid in full the inestimable penalty for our sins. To demonstrate how He remains just while justifying the ungodly who believe, the Father sent the Son as a sacrifice of Atonement. The Judge who found us guilty came in the person of His own Son to atone for our sins.[6]

Some people object to the concept of an innocent person taking the punishment of the guilty, saying that it’s immoral. However, in this case, a member of the Trinity—God the Son—is the one taking the punishment. So God, who is the one that has been sinned against, is both the Judge who is passing judgment and also the one who is paying the penalty for the sin. The sacrifice of God’s Son is the propitiation that satisfies God. The wrath of God, His righteous judgment, is poured out on sin, but God Himself, having taken on the form of a man, bears that wrath in our place. This is something far beyond fairness and justice—it is the compassionate and loving plan of our very loving God.


Another biblical concept which helps to explain how Jesus’ death has brought us salvation is redemption. The words translated to redeem and redemption come from the Greek family of words lutron in the noun form and lutroo in the verb form, which means to loose, to set free through a ransom payment, to ransom. Other variations are a ransom price, the act of ransoming, to pay a ransom price. Some of the verses using these words are:

Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.[7]

There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.[8]

Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.[9]

Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.[10]

The use of the words ransom or redeem in these verses expresses the concept of paying a price, a ransom, to set someone free, to remove them from bondage or dominion.

Theologian Jack Cottrell gives clarity to this concept by explaining the redemption of the firstborn males in the Old Testament. He wrote:

The Old Testament practice providing the sharpest background for understanding Christ’s redeeming work is the redemption of the first-born males from their status of special consecration to God. God decreed that every first-born male, man or beast, belonged to Him. From those animals classified as clean, the first-born was to be sacrificed as an offering to God. With unclean animals such as a donkey, there was a choice. One could either break its neck, thus destroying it; or he could redeem it—buy it back—by paying the price of a lamb to be sacrificed in its place (Exodus 13:13). It was expected that everyone would choose the second option (Numbers 18:15). With regard to human beings, there was no choice. Every first-born male had to be redeemed—bought back from God—by paying the “money of the redemption,” five shekels of silver (about two and one-half ounces). This practice demonstrates the basic meaning of redemption; i.e., the payment of a price to set someone or something free.[11]

In the verses quoted above, Jesus said He came to give His life as a ransom for many. Through His sacrificial death, His blood shed for us, we are redeemed or ransomed. He paid for our freedom from the penalty for our sins by taking the punishment in our place.

The ransom is paid to God the Father, since He is the one who has put the penalty in place. Jesus, God’s Son, pays the ransom by way of His death. It is as if the judge passes a guilty verdict on a criminal, then he leaves his judgment seat and goes and pays the fine for the criminal. The criminal is judged guilty and by law must pay the penalty, but the price is paid by the judge. Justice is done, the penalty for the crime is paid, and the guilty one is now free. The guilty one is not only declared innocent, but is also transformed into a new creature, and ideally begins to live a life of love for God and others in gratitude for receiving God’s great gift.

We see in the above analogies that due to God’s love for us, He both judges and redeems us. His plan satisfies the need for righteous judgment, but God the Judge has also paid the price for our redemption by the shedding of the blood of His only Son.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.[12]

[1] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Chicago, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 134.

[2] W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 51.

[3] W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 52.

[4] 1 John 2:2.

[5] Romans 3:23–25.

[6] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 399.

[7] Matthew 20:28.

[8] 1 Timothy 2:5–6.

[9] Titus 2:13–14.

[10] 1 Peter 1:18–19.

[11] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 438–439.

[12] John 3:16–17.