Big Bible Words: Propitiation

KlingonsLast Fall, Mark Driscoll posted a video for ministry leaders suggesting they stop speaking “Christian Klingon.”  (You can see his tweet about it here, but you won’t have access to the video link unless you sign up.)

I appreciate the image of “Christian Klingon,” because some people don’t even know what Klingon is – which makes the point.  Driscoll’s counsel applies not only to church and ministry leaders but also to anyone who speaks to others about Christianity.

The Bible uses some big words, but most of these words were part of the regular vocabulary of the time.  Certainly, some authors made up words or specialized them to fit their purposes.  But the New Testament authors wrote in the everyday language of the people.  It’s called “Koine” (which means “common”) Greek.

Here’s my point:

We should be able to speak of the Bible and Christianity in ordinary language.

In fact, we should be able to explain it to a two-year-old.  If we can’t, we probably don’t understand what we’re talking about.

For example, 1 John uses a big word: propitiation.

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, ESV).

Can you explain the concept in plain language?

 What does “propitiation” mean?

Crossway’s blog has the following definition of propitiation:

God averting his wrath toward man through the death of His Son.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

Propitiation is the act of appeasing or making well disposed, especially a deity, thus incurring divine favor to avoid divine retribution. simply puts it this way:

The turning aside of divine wrath against sinful man.

These definitions are pretty good, but I think they miss a key component.

Jesus is a person, not an action.  John doesn’t say that Jesus is the act of turning aside God’s anger.  John says he is the thing that turns aside God’s anger.

Let me illustrate.  A friend of mine used to work for a company that made the mixer drums on the back of cement trucks (the big container that spins and holds the cement).

Because of their expertise in engineering incredibly strong and durable materials, they received a contract from the US government to design a concrete barrier (a wall about 3 feet high) to protect important buildings.  My friend was chief engineer for the project, and his job for a time was to sit at a computer and smash virtual pickup trucks (armed with virtual explosives) into various prototypes of the barrier.

Those defense barriers were the propitiation for the government buildings.  In fact, “defense barrier” is a pretty good plain-language definition for propitiation.

Tomahawk missilePicture God’s anger at your sin, racing toward you like a Tomahawk missile.  At the last moment, Jesus jumps in front of you and absorbs the blast.  That’s what propitiation means.

Could you explain this concept to children?  They see propitiation happening all around them (toy armor, kid forts, and baseball gloves immediately come to mind), and we just have to draw the connection to Jesus for them.

Questions: How else might you explain “propitiation” to someone unfamiliar with the Bible?  What big Bible words would you like to see addressed in a future post?


My engineer friend wrote to correct a few details from the anecdote above.

First, the barriers we made were steel, not concrete.  The steel used to make the concrete mixer drums is hardened for abrasion resistance, which also means it is better able to stop armor-piercing rounds.

This leads to a second correction, which is that the barriers we made were shot with armor piercing AR-15 rounds.  I never modelled trucks driving into the barrier, and I don’t believe the inventor ever tested vehicle impact of the barrier.  Other companies have done such tests though, and I might have shown you a video once of a competitor’s barrier stopping a truck.

Finally, the inventor was a local corrections officer hoping to make sales to the government.  We didn’t have a government contract.

Apparently, my memory failed me in these details, and I offer my humblest apologies.  But many thanks to my friend, who is the propitiation for my failure against the mistrust of informed readers.

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  • Alison Amaismeier

    sanctification, justification

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  • Kelly

    Please don’t shun the -tions.

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  • Jen

    I have the gift of a relatively new believer at my Bible study. Why a gift? There are often biblical concepts that we might glance at because the rest of us have an understanding. But we slow things waaaay down to make sure she understands. And we all benefit.

    Case in point? Propitiation. I think we could all say we knew what it meant, for the most part, but could not explain it. As I prepared for the study, I asked God to help me understand so I could explain it to her. The closest example that I saw in the Bible, other than Jesus, was when Abigail turned away David’s wrath with her “peace offering” of provisions.

    So there we are at study. I explain the story of David, Nabal and Abigail. And I unwrap this glorious concept that God provided his own offering, Jesus, to turn away his own wrath. And I am overwhelmed. I get choked up and have tears in my eyes as I think of what it cost God to act on his love for us.

    Don’t oversimplify the Word of God. Do unwrap it in such a way that it is understood and appreciated.