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Propitiation–A Supernatural Love
1 John 4:9 to 11
How bad are you? (Happy Father’s Day!) How evil are you? Are you born good and then later begin to sin? Are you born to be bad? Are you bad to the bone? Most people feel like they’re good. Sure, there’s things you want to change–your waist size, your nose, your conversation the other night. But overall, you’re a good person, like the Stuart Smalley catchphrase, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”
Other people who live in other places are the bad people. The bad people are the ones who do evil things to innocent people. They fly planes into buildings. They rape, they kidnap, they torture, they behead. Those people are evil–they are bad.
Back in 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted experiments at Yale to test conscience and morality. It was after the Holocaust had ended, and he wanted to find out why people did such evil. So he set up a lab where a doctor would oversee a series of tests. A volunteer would come in and quiz a man who sat in another room. Each time that man got an answer wrong, the volunteer would flip a switch to administer an electrical shock.
The shocks started small, and then increased from 30V to 45V to 60V, all the way to 450V. By the time they hit 150V, the man would cry out for the test to stop. If the volunteer continued, the man would beg and plead until by 300V, he had fallen completely silent.
Now the test was a hoax, and the man received no real shock–but the volunteers didn’t know it. They had to make a choice and decide whether they would obey instructions and cause someone pain, or disobey the doctor and refuse to continue. In this, and the many replicated studies that have followed, approximately 65% of people would go all the way to 450V, completing the experiment. They would sweat, they would tremble, they would show extreme stress, but they would do it. We are not always as good as we think we are.
Like you, I’d like to think that I would’ve quit–but I don’t know. How bad are we? How evil are we? The answer is not found in how we feel. I know that many people decide what’s true based on how they feel. This is a case where truth has nothing to do with feelings.
Are you a good person or a bad person? The answer is not found in what you’ve done or what you’ve not done. There are many people who evaluate and depend on their good habits. What you do is not what defines whether you are good or bad. Now we’re going to come back to this question. Today we are looking at propitiation. It’s an aspect of our salvation that cannot be understood until you understand how bad we are.
We’re in week three of an eleven-week series on salvation. We’re trying to unpack some of the amazing things that happen in the moment that you are saved. We’ve had an overview. Last week we learned how we are reconciled with God in the moment we’re saved. In the future we’ll talk about justification, imputation, sanctification, adoption and many other amazing aspects of salvation.
This week we’re going to dig deep into propitiation. The theology of propitiation is everywhere, but the word itself is only mentioned four times in Scripture. Today I want to look with you at my favorite of the big four—it’s 1 John 4:10. If you have your Bible, open up there–1 John is near the back. What you’re going to see is that:
Propitiation displays God’s love for us
Propitiation compels us to love others
First John 4:9 to 11 says, “By this the love of God was manifested in/among us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Now you may have noticed, and even been frustrated by, this–but I have not defined propitiation yet. Everything has technical language. Salvation is no different. If the doctor tells you that you have a failing bivalve, you quickly google it to find out what it means. If the mechanic tells you that your flux capacitor is broken, you take him at his word.
I’m using a fancy, hard-to-spell word, but I haven’t told you what it means. I will, but not yet, because in order to understand propitiation, you have to understand how bad you are.
1. You Are Bad
Not bad like a slightly overripe banana that’s still good for banana bread. You are bad like a blackened, squishy banana that’s been run over by a car—you tell your kids, “Don’t touch it!”
Here’s the thing. Like a goldfish in a bowl, we are so comfortable and familiar with the water that we don’t think a thing about it. Sin has pervaded every aspect of life, but we only notice what we think is really bad stuff.
Keeping the extra change from the cashier = no guilt
Adultery = that’s bad
Long-distance call on work phone = no issue
Physical abuse = vile
Driving 15 mph over the speed limit = everyone does it
Drugs = that’s illegal
So what is sin? Sin is any and every act of rebellion towards God. Anything done contrary to His character and purposes is sin. Whether you failed to fully obey what God commanded, or you acted in direct opposition to Him, you are in sin. You are more sinful than you can possibly imagine.
You swim around in sin every day. You breathe it in from TV, radio, internet, magazines, coworkers, and your own family. We are blind to some of the ways in which the Devil, the current ruler of this world, works.
We groan and grumble about the advance of same-sex marriage. We worry about the PRISM system, and the surveillance state we live in. But we do little about the divorces happening within our extended families. Our ears are covered to the racial bigotry that we hear and even manifest. We enjoy the comforts and distractions of the consumer culture we’re a part of.
You are a frog in a pot—a goldfish in a bowl. Rarely do you think about the sin that surrounds you and resides within you. You are bad. You are sinful. And you know it, but you don’t really see the half of it.
Daniel was one of the most morally righteous men to walk the earth. Abraham, the Father of Israel, is prone to lying. But Daniel has no sin recorded about him, though there is a full book about his life. (There are the same number of chapters about Abraham, the Father of Israel). That visibly righteous man said this, Daniel 9:5, “We have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances.” A few verses later . . .
Daniel 9:8 to 10, “Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. 9 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; 10 nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”
Do you own this? How well do you grasp the sinfulness of your heart? Apart from Christ, no one does good–not you, not your grandma, not the pope, not Chris Mueller. Nobody. All our actions, even the good ones–all our thoughts, even the kind ones–all our motives, even the ones we feel good about . . . they’re all tinged with rebellion towards God.
It’s not that we are the worst possible people that we could be, but that everything we do, everything we think is naturally in rebellion towards God. You’re tainted by sin. You, and every person on earth, were born with a nature enslaved to sin. From the day of your birth, you have never been able to do anything other than rebel against God. Every good thing that you did, every kind act, every gift given–they were all tainted by sin.
Isaiah 64:6 says, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” We tend to look at the blatantly evil and think that they are the sinners–the people who steal and kill and vote different than us. They are the wicked.
When we hear a salvation testimony where somebody was on drugs or enslaved to some immorality, then we think–what a miracle of God to save such a sinner. When you think, “How I got saved is nothing special like that,” you show that you don’t understand the doctrine of sin. You don’t get how utterly sinful your morality without Jesus was. A person who lives ethically and is nice, is counting on their lifestyle being adequate to please God. But that really nice agnostic man who spends weekends helping his neighbors is equally a sinner with the drunken skinhead or the wife beater.
Apart from Christ, every person is enslaved to sin. Their father is the Devil–think about that. You were a child of the enemy–a servant of the most evil one. Though made in the image of God, your heart was full of evil intent. To God . . .
you were the kid who would grab a knife and try to strike out at God
you were the one who would scream and cry when you didn’t get your way
you were the child who wouldn’t come home at night because you were out having fun
You were created by God. You were made in the image of God. And you are a rebel against God. There’s nothing pure about you. You are bad. I can’t emphasize it enough.
2. God’s Wrath is Awful
Sin is rebellion towards God. And He is utterly, completely opposed to all sin. He cannot tolerate it–in the same way that your car’s engine cannot tolerate Dr. Pepper, and in the same way that no one would drink from a pitcher of contaminated water. God cannot let such rebellion pass unnoticed and unanswered. His holiness demands consequence. His justice requires wrath. Every act of sin is an attempt to dethrone God. But He is God and there can be no other. If He did not punish, He would not be righteous.
Therefore the wrath of an infinite God will be poured out on sin–not the anger of God, not the discipline of God, not the rebuke of God, but the wrath of a God who views sin as an abomination. He will be unrelenting towards everyone who has rejected Him. His anger towards sin is described repeatedly as a consuming fire. It leaves nothing behind. Exodus 15:7 says, “And in the greatness of Your excellence You overthrow those who rise up against You; You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff.”
And David says in Psalm 21:8 to 9, “Your hand will find out all your enemies; Your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9 You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; the Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, and fire will devour them.” This is equally true for those who hear the truth in church but don’t respond and change.
Hebrews 10:26 to 27, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” And then verse 31, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
This is not the cold, calloused acts of an abusive father. This is not the crazy, vindictive orders of a tyrant megalomaniac. This is the pained, but righteous anger of one who has been abused and sinned against, over and over, for years and years, without any remorse. That is how we’ve acted towards God. Wrath is what we deserve.
Romans 2:5 to 6, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will render to each person according to his deeds.” And it will be terrible, it will be fierce, it will be unending. No one will escape. No one will have excuse. It doesn’t matter what you did on earth. It doesn’t matter how much you made. It doesn’t matter how much other people respected you. No one will be able to stand before the great wrath of God.
Revelation 6:15 to 17, “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’”
Wrath is the natural destiny of every created person, because everyone one of us is a rebel against God. Without Christ, what awaits you and every person in the whole world who has ever lived is the white hot fury of the Creator of the Universe towards your sin. That fierce wrath hits you like a freight train immediately after death. It is unrelenting and unceasing.
God will not be affected by the cries. He will not relent to the begging. Whatever your vision of Hell may be, it is inadequate. The real one will be worse–far worse. And if you understand your sinfulness, how bad you really are–and you understand the enormity of God’s wrath as a consequence of His righteousness, then you’re ready to get what propitiation is.
To understand propitiation requires that you understand sin and God’s wrath towards it. You only appreciate propitiation when you know the depths of your sin and the righteousness of God to judge and condemn you. Let’s return to 1 John 4:9 to 11, and discover what it means that Christ is the propitiation of our sins. You are more sinful than you can possibly imagine, and more loved than you ever dared to dream.
3. God Defines Love
First John 4:9 to 11, “By this the love of God was manifested in/among us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
People think that they know what love is. They write love songs to try and capture the emotion of love. They tell us:
All You Need is Love (Beatles)
Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen)
You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling (Righteous Bros)
I Want to Know What Love Is (Foreigner)
I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston)
The Power of Love (Huey Lewis)
Right here, John tells us that our whole definition of love is wrong. Love is not about our feelings towards someone. Love is not even defined by our love for God. God defines love. The love of God is Him sending His Son into the world to reconcile sinners. Love is not that you feel warm and fuzzy towards someone who is nice to you. Love is defined as making sacrifices for your enemies with the goal of rescuing them.
The love of God is defined in verse 9 as Jesus was sent into the world for us to have life . . .
we who were rebels and haters of God
we who were children of the Devil
those in bondage to sin
we knew of God, but purposefully deny His existence
This is love–rather than allow us to receive the justice and punishment we deserve, He sent His Son to earth so that we could be reconciled to Him. God desired to save and restore sinners like us–because He loved us. He wanted to renew the corrupted image of God which dwells within us. So He sent His Son, Jesus, to live the perfect righteous life that we never could. He lived completely free of sin, and then was put to death so that He would experience the wrath of God on behalf of all who would believe.
The result is that His righteousness delivers us from death. And in His death, He absorbed the full, unmitigated wrath of God for us. This is the doctrine of propitiation–He takes God’s wrath for us. Romans 5:8 to 9, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
And compare that to 1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” These two verses say the same thing. God’s love for us is manifest in Christ saving us from the wrath of God. God’s love for us is manifest in propitiation.
So that’s the definition–here’s the meaning of the big word. Propitiation is the putting away of God’s wrath. God’s love for us is manifest through Jesus saving us from God’s wrath. God’s love for us is displayed and felt by Jesus absorbing God’s fierce anger towards our sin. The consuming fire you would’ve felt for your sins was felt by Jesus on the cross instead.
Can you believe it? This is the good news of the Gospel! God could not avert His wrath towards our sin. So in love, He chose to take it on Himself rather than allow us to experience it. The perfect, Holy One crushed His Son, who drank the bitter cup reserved for you. Jesus satisfied God’s wrath towards your sin. That is propitiation.
There was a teenage girl stopped for speeding in Texas—and they are very strict on lawbreakers there. So she is taken to court right away, and waits her turn to stand before the judge. He reads the indictment and she pleads guilty—there is no appeal for her, she was caught and she knows it. The judge renders the verdict–$100 or one day in jail.
Then something unusual happens—the judge steps down from the bench, removes his robe, and steps up next to the girl. He then takes out his wallet and pays her fine. The judge is her father, and because of his love for her he doesn’t want her to spend a night in jail.
He has taken her punishment. There would be no justice if he declared her innocent–justice must take place. So he satisfies it himself–that’s propitiation. And propitiation displays God’s love for us. God sent His Son to propitiate, or turn away, God’s anger by offering Himself.
It was prophesied in Isaiah 53:5 to 6, “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”
That is the truth of propitiation. Though it was accomplished on the cross 2,000 years ago, it becomes real and actual and finished in the moment in which you believe. When you genuinely believe that Jesus’ righteousness is your only hope to be delivered from God’s wrath, then you will be. And I would plead with you–believe! You will be delivered by Jesus from the wrath of God, and you will be reconciled to God and renewed with a desire from the heart to find your joy and meaning in the Creator, rather than the created.
Colossians 1:21 to 22, “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”
Do you believe it? I find many Christians, myself included, who can wallow in guilt over sins. You feel condemned because of what you have done, whether recently or long ago. You have confessed it, to God and to men–but still you feel weighed down. In effect, you’re denying the propitiation. You are saying that Christ didn’t fully turn away God’s wrath. You worry that there is still some you will receive.
You know Christ and you are truly in Him, but you lack joy in life. You act as though God’s wrath on Jesus was inadequate and you need some more. You fail to grasp the greatness of the doctrine of propitiation. Through Jesus, your rebellion is forgiven. Through Jesus, God’s wrath is satisfied. Through Jesus, the image of God is made new in you. Through Jesus, you are a new creation.
How does all this happen? By believing that Jesus lived a perfect life, that His death paid the price for your sins against God, and that He was resurrected on the third day, triumphing over death. And when you believe that, you know who you are and you know why you exist.
You are created by God, made in the image of God. And though a rebel, deserving of God’s wrath, God saved you through Jesus. He is your propitiation. He turned God’s anger away from you. He set you free to enjoy Him and find more pleasure in obeying Him than you would in your sin. Propitiation is a display of God’s love for us. It’s the means by which we are reconciled to God. And if you really get this, then you will see that . . .
4. Propitiation Compels Us to Love Others
That’s the apostle John’s conclusion on this. First John 4:11, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” If you understand the depth of your sin and the greatness of your salvation, the result will be a supernatural love for others. Understanding God’s supernatural love in the act of propitiation should cause you to love others in the same way.
If you understand how much you’re forgiven, it gets hard to hold a grudge. If you understand how much you’re loved, it gets easy to overlook flaws and even sins. You see…
God did not love us because of something we did.
God did not even love us because Christ died for us.
There is no reason that God loved us, other than for His own glory and fame.
Christ died for us because God loved us.
Our reason for loving others is not that they’re sweet, they’re nice to us, they’re like us.
Our reason for loving others is that we are loved by God.
And now the apostle John asks you . . .
If God so loved you when you were a sinful rebel, shouldn’t you now love others?
If you know the love of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness of God . . .
Then how can you withhold forgiveness?
How can you nurse bitterness?
How can you look down on someone else, thinking yourself better than them?
The amazing love God has for you should fill your heart with charity for the liberal democrat and hyperconservative republican, grace toward the adulterer and the homosexual, love for your children when they are unlovely—even compassion for those who like country music.
God’s love for you means that you can’t look at the felon or the drug addict or the adulterer and think that you are above such things. Your heart should be filled with compassion and mercy and love for them because you know the depths of your own sinful heart, and what it means to be forgiven. How can you feel righteous in condemning another, when you know the forgiveness which you’ve experienced?
You sinned against the sinless. How is it that you cannot forgive your spouse for what they said to you? You rebelled against the Creator. Can you really be that angry and mad about somebody who cut you off on the freeway? If God had such love for you when you were dead and enslaved to your sins, why do you avoid that other person at church? God’s propitiation of our sins should compel us to love others.
Now we don’t do this from guilt. There are plenty of people who live by guilt. There’s a danger that you may be acting nice and being moral to try and win God’s approval. You make people meals and come to church every Sunday because you want God to be happy with you. You don’t drink and you don’t smoke and you don’t curse. You donate to disaster relief, you give at church, you volunteer at the senior center.
It could be that your love for others is motivated by self-interest. You love them so that they love you. You love them so that God loves you. That is not what’s being described here. Propitiation motivates–it doesn’t guilt. It doesn’t make extra work for you. You love others as you are overwhelmed by the love God has for you. It’s the natural consequence of personally knowing God’s love. First John 4:8, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
If you can’t forgive others and love them, you may not know the love of God. If you find yourself regularly stewing on other people’s sin, if you find yourself always in conflict with people, if you cannot forgive others for what they’ve done–then look to see if you genuinely grasp the love of God. If you understand the wrath you deserve, then you will recognize yourself as the biggest sinner you know. That’s not a trite saying–that’s truth. You are the biggest sinner you know.
If you know your own heart and your own bents towards sin, then it is amazing that God would love and forgive you through Christ. And it becomes a very small thing to forgive others for their sins against you. If they knew you like you know you, then their slander and their gossip would be far worse and it would be true. You are bad.
God’s wrath is awful. God defines love by propitiating your sin. The God who was wrathful towards your sin provides the means of satisfying His wrath. God lovingly appeased His own righteous anger by bearing it His own self in His own Son when He took our place and died for us.
This is the great Gospel. This is our great salvation. Jesus Christ dying in our place and propitiating God–removing His righteous anger from us. So in Him there is now no condemnation. That kind of love compels us to love others just as we have been loved. So now love becomes the hallmark of following Christ. John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”