What is a “propitiation?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

Readers are usually intimidated when they see the lengthy term “propitiation” thrice appearing in the King James Bible. What does it mean?

  • “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25).
  • “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
  • “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

“Hilasmos” is the Greek word rendered in 1 John. In Romans, it is “hilasterion,” also translated “mercyseat” in Hebrews 9:5: “And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.” This reference in Hebrews allows us to better understand the matter. Let us refer to the Old Testament Scriptures for some background.


In the Mosaic system, one piece of furniture in the Tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant. This “ark” was simply a box made of shittim or acacia wood covered with gold. Its lid was called “the Mercy Seat,” where the Jewish high priest annually applied animals’ blood to JEHOVAH God. This Day of Atonement—also known as Yom Kippur—is described in great detail in Leviticus chapter 16. You may refer to that, if necessary.

Read chapter 25 of Exodus to learn about the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, and their connection to the Tabernacle: “[1] And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, [2] Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering…. [8] And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. [9] According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it.

[10] And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half [3.75 feet / 1.14 meters] shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half [2.25 feet / 0.69 meter] the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. [11] And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about. [12] And thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in the four corners thereof; and two rings shall be in the one side of it, and two rings in the other side of it. [13] And thou shalt make staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. [14] And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them. [15] The staves shall be in the rings of the ark: they shall not be taken from it. [16] And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee. [17] And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof.

“[18] And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. [19] And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. [20] And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. [21] And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. [22] And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.”

“And he made the mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half was the length thereof, and one cubit and a half the breadth thereof” (Exodus 37:6). Leviticus 16:2 is most important: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.” It was above the Mercy Seat that God’s presence—called the Shekinah glory—appeared. The high priest, once a year, went behind the veil in the Tabernacle—thus entering the Most Holy Place—and applied animals’ blood on the Mercy Seat for his sins, the sins of his household, and the sins of the Jewish nation as a whole. As we learn from Hebrews, this was a temporary arrangement until Christ came to take away sin. The animal sacrifices were pictures or symbols of Calvary’s sacrifice.

Chapter 9 of Hebrews summarizes the Mosaic order, and how it perfectly foreshadowed what Jesus would accomplish on the cross: “[1] Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. [2] For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. [3] And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; [4] Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; [5] And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.

“[6] Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. [7] But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: [8] The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: [9] Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; [10] Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

“[11] But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; [12] Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. [13] For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: [14] How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? [15] And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. [16] For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. [17] For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.

“[18] Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. [19] For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, [20] Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. [21] Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. [22] And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. [23] It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.

“[24] For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: [25] Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; [26] For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. [27] And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: [28] So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

You may also read chapter 10 of Hebrews in its entirety as well. For sake of time and space, we will neither quote nor comment on it here.

The point is, as touching the nation Israel, no longer is needed the annual work of the high priest behind the veil on the Day of Atonement. Jesus was not only the high priest who offered the sacrifice, He was the sacrifice itself. Moreover, not only was He the sacrifice, He was the “mercyseat” on which the sacrifice was made. How could that be? One way of looking at it is seeing His blood shed onto His body on Calvary, and His soul and life being lost in the process. In His Mediatorship, the nation Israel finds access to Father God. (While this is true of us too [see Romans 3:25], Hebrews underscores Christ’s blood forming the basis for the New Covenant of which Israel will partake at His return. See Acts 3:19-21 and Romans 11:26-27.)


We return to our opening verses:

  • “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25).
  • “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
  • “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Obviously, these three passages speak of Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork on Calvary. “Propitiation” is a title of the Lord Jesus Christ because it describes His role with respect to our sins. Our nature (our sin nature, the root of our problems) and our deeds (the fruit of our nature) are offensive to the God of the Bible. “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity…” (Habakkuk 1:13). “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God’s justice will enforce His righteousness. To wit, there must be a penalty for anything and everything that fails to meet His righteous standard. According to Scripture, wrath and judgment will be meted out—ultimately, Hell and the Lake of Fire.

Romans chapter 2: “[3] And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? [4] Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? [5] But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; [6] Who will render to every man according to his deeds: [7] To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: [8] But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, [9] Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; [10] But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: [11] For there is no respect of persons with God.”

Thankfully, the Bible also teaches something called “substitutionary atonement.” In His immeasurable mercy and grace, the God of creation took upon human flesh (Jesus Christ) in order to take our place. As our substitute, the Son of God endured the Father’s wrath against our sin: “For he [the Father] hath made him [the Son] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Simply put, a “propitiation” is “a fully-satisfying payment” or “a fully-adequate sacrifice.” What Christ did on the cross—the merits He achieved through His sinless sacrifice of Himself—serves as the means whereby we can escape the penalty of our sin problem. By faith, we appropriate that righteousness of Christ so that it becomes our righteousness. We take on His identity. This is the Gospel—or Good News—of the Gospel of Grace!

While you can read all of Romans chapter 3, we will look at the conclusion given in Romans chapter 4: “[1] What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? [2] For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. [3] For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. [4] Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. [5] But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

The Apostle John learned from the Apostle Paul that Jesus had not only shed His blood and died for “many”—that is, for Israel (cf. Isaiah 53:8; Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; Mark 14:24)—but also for “all” Jews and Gentiles (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-7). Reflecting Pauline influence, John wrote those two verses in 1 John. We quoted them already, but we will reiterate them. “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2). “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Christ Himself is the “propitiation” or “mercyseat” (Hebrews 9:5).

We would continue, but that is enough.


The ancient Greeks used the verb “hilaskomai” in the sense of “man appeasing or pleasing the gods” (through religious works). However, in the Bible, it is not man pleasing the one true God but rather Father God being pleased because of His Son’s sacrifice of Himself on Calvary’s cross. The cross of Calvary functioned as an altar, where the ultimate sacrifice for sin was given. We can think of “propitiation” in Scripture as either “a fully-satisfying payment for sin” or “a fully-satisfying sacrifice for sin.” God’s wrath against man’s sin was satisfied at Calvary because Jesus’ soul was made an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:10).

Provision has been made—the merits are available to us—but God appropriates (imputes, applies) them to our account only once we place our faith in Christ as our fully-satisfying payment or sacrifice for sin. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Through Christ functioning as our Mercy Seat, we receive God’s mercy (avoiding Divine wrath, what we deserve). Otherwise, we are dead in our trespasses and sins, and lacking the righteousness of Christ, we must pay forever for our sins in Hell and the Lake of Fire. One way or another, God’s justice will see to it that sin is addressed.

Saints, please remember us in your monthly giving—these websites do cost money to run! 🙂 You can donate securely here: https://www.paypal.me/ShawnBrasseaux, or email me at arcministries@gmail.com. Do not forget about Bible Q&A booklets for sale at https://arcgraceministries.org/in-print/booklets-bible-q-a/. Thanks to all who give to and pray for us! By the way, ministry emails have really been backed up this year. I am handling them as much as humanly possible. Thanks for your patience. 🙂

Also see:
» Are lost people already forgiven?
» Is God “unfair” to punish us for Adam’s sin?
» How can a “loving” God send people to Hell forever?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.