Fred Sanders on Pagan vs. Biblical Propitiation

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/22/2014

For people who aren’t familiar with Christianity, the word “propitiation” can bring a pagan concept to mind rather than a biblical one. Fred Sanders outlines some of the differences between the two as part of a series Trevin Wax has been posting on different aspects of the atonement:

In pagan propitiation, the gods need to be propitiated because they are grumpy and capricious. They don’t care much about humans except when something makes them angry; then they smite! And it’s up to humans to get busy doing the propitiating, to make up for whatever they’ve done that angered the gods. The humans find something that the gods like (sweets, or meat, or pain, or blood), and offer it as a bribe to calm down their wrathful deities.

But every aspect of biblical propitiation contrasts with the pagan kind.

  1. First, consider why God requires propitiation: not because he’s moody or easily provoked, but because he is holy and just. God responds to sin with absolute consistency, and his “wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18).
  2. Second, consider who carries out biblical propitiation: not humans on their own initiative figuring out what God likes, but God himself declaring what kind of sacrifice he accepts, and then providing it. Even in the Old Testament, God takes credit for providing the blood of animal sacrifice (“I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement,” Leviticus 17:11).
  3. And third, consider what kind of sacrifice brings about biblical propitiation: not a bribe or something nice to tide him over. No, in the fullness of time, God fulfills the Old Testament symbolism by giving his own Son to die for us.

Dr. Sanders brings this home with a little application:

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

Read the rest of his post.