The terms "propitiation" and "expiation" are essential components to the concept of atonement. Yet
these two different terms are used to translate the Greek nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos". Why?
Some examples of this can be seen between various Bible translations:
"whom God put forward as an expiation 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."
"whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation of His blood through faith.
This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins
previously committed. (NASB)
1 John 2:2
"and his is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for
the sins of the whole world." (RSV)
"And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but
also for those of the whole world." (NASB)
What does "expiation" and "propitiation" mean?
Expiation means "to make amends" or "to atone for", and it implies the removal or
cleansing of sin. It can also be seen as "the removal of the reasons for punishment".
If Christ’s atonement was only an expiation of sin, then it meant that God
acted as the subject that covered the sins of human beings so that God forgave it.
Too much emphasis on expiation risks making God as only concerned with the legal aspects
of sin; Jesus merely covered sin.
Propitiation means "to make favorable", and it refers to averting God’s wrath against
sinners. It is the act that appeased the total and full wrath of God’s judgment for the sins of human beings.
Because of the appeasement’s completeness, propitiation is also understood as "satisfaction."
If Christ’s atonement was only a propitiation, then it meant that God was the
object receiving the sin offering satisfying God’s holy anger towards sin so that forgiven human beings
could come into the presence of God.
Too much emphasis on propitiation risks making God as tyrannical and only concerned
with appeasement, which is contrary to His character of righteousness and justice; Jesus merely satisfied
God’ holy anger.
Let’s define these terms in another way by means of an illustration:
You just stole a piece of candy and you’ve been caught by the furious store owner.
a) Jesus intercedes and offers to pay for the candy and the store owner is mollified.
This is expiation.
b) Jesus intercedes and goes to jail for your crime and to the satisfaction of an
offended store owner. This is propitiation.
The background to the Greek nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos" provide a better to understanding to
the terms "expiation" and "propitiation". They are terms found in both Old and New Testaments, but they
are based on the Old Testament sacrificial system.
The Septuagint (LLX) usage of "hilastērion" and "hilasmos"
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), the Greek term "hilastērion" was used several
times to translate the Hebrew term "kapporet," which specified the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.
Uses of Greek Noun "Hilastērion" in the LXX
You shall make a mercy seat (hilastērion) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and
one and a half cubits wide. You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of
the mercy seat (hilastērion). Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make
the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat (hilastērion) at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their
wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat (hilastērion) with their wings and facing one another; the
faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat (hilastērion). You shall put the mercy seat
(hilastērion) on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you.
There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat (hilastērion), from between the two cherubim
which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for
the sons of Israel.
You shall put the mercy seat (hilastērion) on the ark of the testimony in the holy of
You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front
of the mercy seat (hilastērion) that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you.
the tent of meeting, and the ark of testimony, and the mercy seat (hilastērion) upon it,
and all the furniture of the tent,
the ark and its poles, the mercy seat (hilastērion), and the curtain of the screen;
He made a mercy seat (hilastērion) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and
a half cubits wide. He made two cherubim of gold; he made them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat
(hilastērion); one cherub at the one end and one cherub at the other end; he made the cherubim of one
piece with the mercy seat (hilastērion) at the two ends.
the ark of the testimony and its poles and the mercy seat (hilastērion);
Then he took the testimony and put it into the ark, and attached the poles to the ark, and
put the mercy seat (hilastērion) on top of the ark.
The LORD said to Moses: "Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the
holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat (hilastērion) which is on the ark, or he will die; for
I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat (hilastērion).
He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the
mercy seat (hilastērion) that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die. Moreover, he shall
take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat (hilastērion) on the
east side; also in front of the mercy seat (hilastērion) he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his
finger seven times. Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its
blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy
seat (hilastērion) and in front of the mercy seat (hilastērion).
Now when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice speaking to
him from above the mercy seat (hilastērion) that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two
cherubim, so He spoke to him.
1 Chronicles 28:11
Then David gave to his son Solomon the plan of the porch of the temple, its buildings, its
storehouses, its upper rooms, its inner rooms and the room for the mercy seat (hilastērion);
Ezekiel 43:14, 17, 20
14) From the base on the ground to the lower ledge (hilastērion) shall be two cubits
and the width one cubit; and from the smaller ledge (hilastērion) to the larger ledge (hilastērion)
shall be four cubits and the width one cubit.
17) The ledge (hilastērion) shall be fourteen cubits long by fourteen wide in its four
sides, the border around it shall be half a cubit and its base shall be a cubit round about; and its steps shall
face the east.
20) You shall take some of its blood and put it on its four horns and on the four corners of
the ledge (hilastērion) and on the border round about; thus you shall cleanse it and make atonement for
"Kapporet" has been translated as "mercy seat" or "covering". However, this is not a
In 1523, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the Hebrew term "kapporet"
was translated into "gnadenstuhl" which means "seat of grace". William Tyndale, in his translation of
the Bible, translated Luther’s "gnadenstuhl" as "mercy seat".
Because the noun "kapporet" was probably formed from the Hebrew word "kaphar", which meant "to make
atonement", a more accurate translation would be "thing for propitiation", "means of propitiation" or
"place of propitiation".
The "place of propitiation" was a slab of pure gold (approximately 27 inches wide x
45 inches long). On opposite ends of the lid were two gold cherubim facing each other and bowing toward
the seat. Their angelic wings stretched out towards each other constituted the throne of God. This
indicated the place where God sat when He communicated with Moses.
On the Day of Atonement, the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant
would have specially prepared incense burning so that a cloud would cover the place of propitiation
and provide a smoke screen so that the high priest cannot see the face of God.
The sin offering was the sacrificial ritual by which Hebrews offered the blood or flesh of an animal
to God for a substitute payment for their sin (intentional or unintentional). The sacrificed animal had
to be physically perfect in age and condition. Perfection was thus presented to God, and it symbolized
the requirement that human beings present themselves perfect before holy God.
By God’s judicial standard, death is the penalty for sin.
Blood is of particular significance to God. In Exodus 12, God instructed the Hebrews
to sacrifice an unblemished male lamb and apply its blood to the sides and tops of the door frame of
their homes (Ex 12:1-12).
When God saw the blood, He passed over the homes of the Hebrews while striking down the first born
throughout the land of Egypt. In another instance, God reveals that the life of an animal is in its blood
and that He provided animals so that the Hebrews could make atonement for their souls; it is the blood,
representing a life, that makes atonement (Lev 17:11).
Blood of an unblemished animal is necessary and sufficient for the atonement of sin.
A person making the offering, selects and presents the animal to the alter. The person
lays his hands on the animal and symbolically transfers the sin and guilt of the party on to the animal,
which is then sacrificed. God’s judicial requirement allowed human beings to present sin offerings where
the life of a bull or sheep could be given in place of their own. This substitution covered the sins of
people, made restitution and restored their relationship with God.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the only day that the high priest can enter the Holy of Holies
and is the only day that the nation of Israel can make atonement for all their sin of the year
On this day the high priest sacrificed a young bull to atone for himself and his family. For the nation of
Israel, two male goats were used. One was sacrificed and the other was the scapegoat. The scapegoat
received the sins of the nation, which was released to the wilderness to perish and symbolized the total
removal of sin.
On the Day of Atonement, the blood of the sacrificed bull and goat, represented the
covering of sin (expiation), which sprinkled on the place of propitiation signified the mercy of God to
forgive sin; this may have been why the translation for "kapporet" ultimately became "mercy seat".
The use of the Greek nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos" in the LXX appear to have "expiation" in view.
Extrabiblical Usage of "hilastērion" and "hilasmos"
The noun "hilastērion" is relatively rare in classical Greek and appears largely in late writings
associated with pagan worship. The Greeks used the term when referring to a sacrifice that one brought to
appease the anger of their pagan gods.
The Greek sacrificial rite sought to either win the favor or avert the anger of the gods.
There are distinct differences in the pagan Greek rites compared to the Old Testament
Greek acts of propitiation included forms of worship other than sacrifice. They included
prayer, purification rites and dances. Pagan sacrifices also included the sacrifices of human beings.
Greek rites not only appeased the gods, but they also expiated the guilt of human beings
in the process of reconciliation with the respective god(s).
However, it should be noted that the Greek system was essentially a method to purchase
the favor of their capricious gods.
In extrabiblical Greek writings, the nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos" were intended to mean "propititiation".
The NewTestament usage of "hilastērion" and "hilasmos"
The Greek nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos" are used in four instances of the New Testament:
"whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation (hilastērion) in His blood through faith.
This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously
committed;" (Rom 3:25)
"and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat (hilastērion);
but of these things we cannot now speak in detail." (Heb 9:5)
"and He Himself is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins; and not for ours only,
but also for those of the whole world." (1 John 2:2)
"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be
the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins." (1 John 4:10)
Romans 3:25 and
Hebrews 9:5 draw parallels of Jesus Christ with the Old
Testament sacrificial system and specifically to the process of the forgiveness of sin.
Romans 3:25 refers to the "forbearance of God" in
passing over sins just as the Old Testament sacrificial system of sprinkling sacrificed blood on the place
of propitiation. Hebrews 9:5 reviews the Old Testament
sacrificial system to the New Testament audience and associates the blood of Jesus with the blood of the
sacrificed unblemished male lamb that was sprinkled on the place of propitiation.
Romans 3:25 and
Hebrews 9:5 symbolically identify Jesus Christ as the
place of propitiation.
For the Jewish audience, the sacrificial system reminded them of the ritual requirements
for the expiation of sin.
For the Greek audience, the ritual reminded them of the process of appeasing a wrathful
And yet Paul’s God (Rom 3:25) is like
no other, because He provides the propitiation "in His blood"; unlike Greek gods, no man could bribe or
appease the righteous judgment of God.
While the blood of Jesus Christ expiates (covers) the sins of human beings, Jesus Christ
Himself is the place where propitiation takes place. Only through faith in Jesus Christ is man forgiven.
"Hilasmos" in 1 John 2:2 and
1 John 4:10, refers to the death of Jesus with a nuance of
meaning similar to the extrabiblical Greek usage: a sacrifice that appeases the wrath of God and makes God
propitious (favorable) towards human beings.
In this New Testament usage, Jesus Christ is called the "propitiation of our sins",
because He substitutes Himself in our place and assumes the penalty of our sins.
The context of 1 John 2 casts Jesus as our
Advocate who defends us against God’s anger.
The context of 1 John 4 portrays God
as a God of love, who sent His only Son to atone for our sins so that we may not receive His wrath. God’s
grace should motivate our love for others.
The New Testament use of the Greek nouns "hilastērion" and "hilasmos" bring to light a clearer picture
of the work of Jesus Christ; the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was more than simply an "expiation", and it was
more than simply a "propitiation". It was an act that accomplished both functions and emphasized the unique
character of Jesus and provided the logical basis of salvation: belief in His atonement for your sins.
Because both expiation and propitiation are directed towards God, these acts are viewed as illustrating
the objective aspects of atonement. Yet by themselves, they do not portray a complete picture of Christ’s
work of atonement. Just as important as it is to understand God’s legal and judicial viewpoint, we must
understand God’s intent as atonement was directed towards human beings as well.