Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: The Heart Of The Gospel Part I

Section Three is where Dr. Packer begins icing the cake he has spent the last seventeen chapters baking. He takes the title for this section from Romans 8:31 “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” However, before we contemplate the 18th chapter, The Heart Of The Gospel, and the first of this section, we need to do a little housekeeping. If you are new to this study, you can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. There are also study materials for the book available at

We will take two weeks to navigate this chapter. After all, the heart of the gospel cannot be rushed through, especially since this is the place where God’s redemptive sacrifice meets our sinful soul and transforms us into a new creation. That needs a bit of pondering, especially because the central theme and primary theological concept is so unfamiliar to most Christians, the biblical doctrine of propitiation.

The apostle John hits the nail on the head concerning this chapter’s theme when he said in his first letter

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [propitiation] for our sins. 1 John 4:10 NIV

That insertion of propitiation, which is the word actually used in the English Standard Version, notes the classic meaning of the Greek word used here, hilasmos, and helps to separate the fundamental biblical meaning from the watered down version which uses instead the idea of expiation. Modern men have sought a less demanding term more amenable to progressive theologians who want to distance themselves from the need to propitiate God’s wrath against sin, if not deny it altogether. Propitiation, you see, has a long history of use in pagan religions, where men attempted to mollify the anger of the gods by making offerings to them. Packer notes that this “appeasing of celestial bad tempers, takes its place as a regular part of life…” As a result, some might think that this idea would be foreign to Christianity, but instead we see the opposite. The need to deal with God’s anger toward sin by making an offering is a major theme in the Bible.

There have always been those who have argued against idea of God expressing wrath against human sin. But we already dealt with the legitimacy of that argument when we looked at chapter 15 and the wrath of God. Therefore the claim that God does not need propitiation, as if the mere thought was denigrating to him, is bogus. However, that doesn’t stop those who claim the mantle of Christ from rejecting the idea that God should need to be appeased or admitting that it is anathema to them. But, the problem doesn’t stop there, since if the wrath of God is really anathema then so is the passion and the cross, as well as the whole process of atonement. If you don’t believe those claiming the mantle of Christ go this far, then let me introduce you to retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

What wee need to admit is that those who take this road have forgotten any appreciation of God’s complete and utter holiness. I don’t want to get into why they embrace such heresy here but I will say that we need to remember that God’s holiness is what drives him to deal so radically with sin. God can be no less holy than he is loving and despite how hard it is for some to see, it is through propitiation that God uses his enduring love to reconcile his utter holiness, which kindled his wrath against sin in the first place.

Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD. Ezekiel 22:31

As a way of trying to side step the issue there are those who try to argue that all of this wrath and propitiation stuff is a holdover from the “primitive” Old Testament. Not so. Paul is very explicit while giving council to the Colossians.

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience… Colossians 3:5-6

Therefore our goal starting out this section is to meld forever in our understanding God’s justice with his mercy without ever giving short shrift to either. We want to balance wrath with redemption and the demand for holiness with forgiveness. But to do that we have to understand propitiation.

Dr. Packer introduces four New Testament passages covering this pivotal idea that he believes are of “transcendent importance” in understanding the biblical doctrine of propitiation.

1. Romans 3:21-26. God’s justification of sinners.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

2. Hebrews 2:17. Incarnation of God the Son.

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

3. 1 John 2:1-2. Heavenly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

4. 1 John 4:8-10. Definition of the love of God.

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

If you need to, please reread the lesson on God’s wrath, but in this chapter Packer uses John Murray to remind us that his wrath is “the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness” and I might add, against his very nature as God. Those who would carve out his holiness and wrath at the behest of his love create a caricature of God, fashioned in an agreeable image that lets them continue in their sin.

We will close this first half of chapter 18 with Packer’s description of propitiation, which he takes from Paul and divides it into three elements.

1. It is the work of God himself. Contrary to pagan religions where man was the agent of propitiation, in Christianity it is God through Christ and the cross that accomplishes the atonement and propitiates God’s wrath against sin.

2. It was accomplished by the death of Christ. There must be an offering, which was prefigured as far back as Abraham and Isaac. Without a sacrifice, the shedding of blood (for life is in the blood Genesis 9:4), there is no atonement, no propitiation.

3. It manifests God’s righteousness. Justice must be served and it is through Christ’s substitutionary death that a just judgment is rendered, the penalty is paid and the debt freed.

In closing, propitiation is the demand, rooted in the holiness and immutable character of God. God is not a man that he should lie. He cannot deny himself for he is God and what propitiation demands, love found a solution to. But, without a full appreciation of propitiation and its place in the economy of creation and redemption, the love of God immediately degrades into mushy sentiments that are manipulated by evil men to excuse their sin and like the blind leading the blind they lead a long procession into hell and damnation.

Harsh words? Yes they are, but holiness and the character of God demands them. Remember the words of the author of Hebrews.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31

May the grace and mercy of God always bind within your life his forgiveness to his demand for righteousness and may the blood of Christ forever wash you free of the stain of sin and be your eternal propitiation, now and forever, amen.

2 thoughts on “Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: The Heart Of The Gospel Part I

  1. “Knowing God” is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, it is languishing on a shelf about 5,000 miles away from my current locations. Thanks for refreshing my memory. It makes me want to read his book again (for the third time).

    I have been learning about Open Theism recently, and I can surmise how that doctrine would totally undermine the atonement. If they deny that God is wrathful, than they must deny that the atonement is a propitiation. I’m not sure where they would go then–Groetianism?

    Sorry to get off topic! It is good to read some sound doctrine for a change rather than the heresy I’m been looking at this week.

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