God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
Romans 3:25

How can we be right with God? Paul is explaining this to the congregation in Rome in the magnificent compressed statements of this paragraph.


What striking words open our text. We read that God presented him to us. The Son of God didn’t do what he did on a whim, all by himself, furtively leaving heaven and coming on a self-appointed rescue mission to save us. There was total harmony among the persons of the Godhead. God presented him, as on a wedding day a father, in utter harmony with his daughter’s choice of a husband supports and leads his daughter down the aisle in a wedding service, with her resting on his arm. Then I ask who is the one presenting this woman to be married today, and he says, “I do.” Then the father steps away, he steps back, and he joins his wife, and then all his daughter’s dealings from then on are with the new man and new head in her life, her husband.

So God presented Jesus to the world as its only Saviour. God was not wringing his hands as a helpless and horrified spectator watching as Judas, and the high priests, and the Sanhedrin, and Pilate, and the execution squad did what they each did to his Son at Calvary. God was determining all that happened to his holy child Jesus. I can only think of Abraham as an example of ‘father’ in the same role. You remember that we are told that that particular morning, after God had told him what to do, that Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac and they set out to Mount Moriah. Then he left the servants at the foot of the mountain and Abraham went with his son Isaac alone. Then he built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He then presented his son to God. He bound Isaac and laid him before God on top of the altar. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son (Genesis 22). That is how Abraham presented his son as a sacrifice.

Exercising the same control God presented his Son as a sacrifice. It was not bad luck that Jesus died as he did. It was not the triumph of evil in the death of Christ. He went to the cross by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. Peter declares that in his sermon in Acts 2 and verse 23 at Pentecost. Isaiah says in his chapter on the suffering servant that it “was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Is. 53:10). God made no attempt to deliver him. He gave no command to the legions of angels to rescue him. He did not smite down all those who touched his Son to stop them. He did not even have hurried second thoughts as to how he could make the most of the death of Jesus, how he could work this for our good and his own glory. He was in charge; he was presenting his Son to the world and in the sight of the angels of heaven when he sent him to Calvary. What does this say to us?

i] Sin is exceeding sinful. It is not a fleeting personal problem that you have with your life. It is not some trifle. It cannot be airily dismissed with no effort as though we preachers are making a mountain out of a molehill in talking about it. It is a festering boil in the sight of a holy God. Sin has weakened and corrupted us. Sin has made us unclean and the object of the wrath of God. As it is only by the death of the Lamb of God Jesus Christ that forgiveness and reconciliation to God be ours then how terrible is sin. We must resist every attempt to marginalise what the Bible says over 1000 times when it calls our conduct sinful and iniquitous. Men say that we will turn off young people if we preach about this. We do not believe it. We know that some in the congregation shouted out in Isaiah’s time; “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Is. 30:10&11). If the broken bleeding body of the Son of God on Golgotha was the only price that could be paid for our redemption then sin is exceeding sinful. Again it says to us…

ii] The death of Jesus Christ counts. It was essential for Jesus Christ to be presented to the world in this way if sin was to be put away. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. A sacrifice of immeasurable and infinite merit was needed if the universe was to be de-sinned and all the guilt and blame of sinners – as vast in number as the sands on the seashores – were to be removed. God provided such a sacrifice when he gave none other than his only-begotten Son and spared him not. Again he says to us something else…

iii] Salvation was costly. It could be achieved no other way. My wife and I have been reading the first and second books of Samuel together this year, and we read the final chapter last week. There in chapter 24 a man called Araunah offers to David his own oxen for David to make sacrifice to God as thanksgiving for his deliverance and victory. It was so convenient. There was the threshing floor as a very suitable place for an altar, and there was wood from the yokes of the oxen as fuel for the fire, and here were the oxen to be sacrificed and all were presented to David by Araunah. But David rejected them saying to Araunah, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). We are faced with cosmic rebellion, man’s wickedness and shame. How is God to remain just and holy and pardon the sinner? With a shrug? With a gesture? With a word? “You are forgiven,” and that is all? Think of sin’s horrors and the pain and grief of all men and women. Don’t you realise how costly is the price of deliverance from the just deserts of how we have lived? We have marginalised God totally from our lives. We have lived for ourselves. Yet God loved us and determined to redeem and save us. It was a costly love or it was worth nothing. Here is a man and he tells a girl he loves her and wants to marry her. For an engagement ring he offers her a red plastic ring that looks as if it came out of a cheap Christmas cracker. Is that a costly loving gift? For a wedding ring he suggest he can cut a quarter of an inch off the end of a discarded garden hose. Is that the gift of love? God loved us so much that he gave his only begotten Son. Love so amazing; love so divine. So great a being as the Creator loves and his love is focused on us sinners that he determines to save us, and it is at this price! Golgotha! And so God presented the Lord Jesus as a sacrifice.


I guess that a major disappointment that a number of us had with publication of New International Version over forty years ago was its translation of a Greek word in this verse by the phrase “sacrifice of atonement.” Now this is not a lie. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice of atonement. The phrase is simply not the proper translation of the word in the original. The Authorised Version translates the word ‘propitiation’, and the New King James version translates it ‘propitiation’ and the English Standard Version translates it by ‘propitiation,’ and that is the correct word, but it is not found in the NIV, not here or in the other places where the noun form of the word is found in the New Testament in the writings of the apostle John, I John 2 verse 2, and I John 4 verse 10 where again in both instances the NIV translators decided to provide a dynamic equivalent )that’s the buzz phrase) for the Greek word; they wrote down this phrase, ‘sacrifice of atonement.’

Now why didn’t they use the word ‘propitiation’? I guess that they thought it to be an unusual word, a difficult word and a rare word, and that the poor word needed some help by a bit of paraphrasing. I don’t think that they were influenced by the modernists who would tell Christians that they were to believe in the love of God and the brotherhood of man and they were to minimise the importance of those ‘philosophical’ words in the Bible that end with ‘tion’ like creation, and justification, and imputation, and sanctification, and adoption, and propitiation, and glorification. The old liberals dismissed those words as Pauline baggage, a sad bypath to simple Galilean Christianity. The NIV translators were not guilty of that attitude. The Executive Secretary of the NIV was a friend of mine and one of my former teachers at Westminster Seminary, Ed Palmer, chosen for this work because he was conservative and trustworthy believing in the inerrancy of Scripture. I once talked to him about some of the translations of the NIV which I wished had been different. But their judgment was that this word ‘propitiation’ was rather forbidding, even plain and incomprehensible. It is certainly not an elegant word, and not one that you would find in the press. Well, we will learn it. If your hobby becomes mountaineering or motor-bikes then you show your companions that you are serious about your new interest by learning the correct names for the equipment. If you talk about the ‘round thingy’ then they will raise an eyebrow at you and pity you as still in the reception class of that noble interest. I am simply saying that what the word means is in fact crucially important for what Christianity is all about. We might abandon it if there were a better word than ‘propitiation’ to replace it. I will not die for that word, but I would die for the importance of what the word is conveying, because that it is the heart of the Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The word before us means to turn away anger, to appease it and placate it. I will use two simple illustrations. Stuart Olyott’s late brother Stephen was a deacon here twenty years ago and he once illustrated the meaning of this word propitiation for us with this anecdote. His boys, Philip and Richard had made a terrible mess of a room and he was angry with them, “Now you are in trouble and you will be in deeper trouble unless you tidy this room up in half an hour.” The boys were indifferent and did nothing, but their sister Delyth worked away and cleaned up the room, and seeing the results of her action propitiated Stephen’s wrath. This is another illustration. A husband is kept late at work on his wedding anniversary when his wife and he had booked a table in a classy restaurant and were going there, just the two of them, to celebrate. She had had her hair done for the occasion, and then at 5 o’clock he called from work to describe the huge crisis that had arisen and they were all working late to save the firm, and that he was terribly sorry but they would eat out as soon as possible, maybe next week. She was cross and disappointed with her husband, but when he finally came home he had bought a big bunch of flowers, the biggest he could get, to propitiate her anger and make her more forgiving and loving towards him. That is what ‘propitiation’ means, soothing and calming and changing wrath to reconciliation and forgiveness.

In the Bible the word ‘propitiation’ focuses on the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. You understand that it does not focus on sin in us being cleansed. The blood of Christ does that too, but that is not what is being said here. The word ‘expiation’ is used in the Revised Standard Version in this verse, but ‘expiation’ means making amends for a wrong; it is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime. A bank has treated you wrongly and they expiate their wrong doing by awarding you a sum of money. That is expiation. Propitiation is a personal word and it focuses on the person who has been offended, vengeful and wrathful because of a sin. I am saying that there are two things that are non-negotiable.

i] God is a God of wrath. When we talk about God’s wrath then we are removing from that concept all the worse elements of human anger, I mean the shrieking at one’s husband or one’s children, the lack of self-control, losing our tempers. None of that is present in the wrath of God. It is a sinless and holy wrath. It is a wrath without the imperfections that characterise the best and purest example of human wrath – the British soldiers entered Belsen, and they saw the death machinery and how those Jews had been treated by the S.S. Nazi guards, and they were angry with them. They could not remain silent. To have been expressionless would have been monstrous! That wrath was a good and proper response, but there was also sin in that anger as in every human emotion in a fallen world. But in God’s anger there is no sin at all.

I am saying that the Bible’s teaching concerning God’s attitude to sin is that he is angry with rape and torture and theft and blasphemy and violence and cruelty and pride. He doesn’t shrug when he sees a king sacrificing his baby in the temple fire to obtain victory in battle – the God who is ‘Holy, holy, holy’ is not indifferent. When a Christian woman is sentenced to stoning by religionists for being a Christian God doesn’t say, “Ah well there are many roads that lead up the mountain to God.” No! God is full of wrath.  He doesn’t say, “Well some people act in that way and others don’t.” God is angry with the wicked every day, says the psalmist. There is a sustained hostility to all that causes the heartache and tears of a mother and children. God doesn’t say, “Come on, pull yourself together.”  He is fiercely opposed to all that contradicts what he is as love and patience and peace and goodness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. We don’t worship Buddha! There is no reality, no being that exists whom men call Buddha. He is just a concept in the minds of millions. There is simply the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible.

God is just like his Son, the Lord Jesus. How did Christ behave when he saw the thieves and extortionists charging high interest rates in the temple to those who would buy lambs for sacrifice for their sin who could only use the currency of the temple and they were charged double the price of a lamb, and he was the Lamb that those sacrifices represented! He made a whip of cords and he drove them out of the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers. “You have made the house of my Father into a den of thieves.” Again, what was his attitude to the Pharisees who utterly distorted the teaching of the grace of God and replaced it with a thick rule book of regulations for every activity, even what you did with the herbs in your garden, piling the guilt on men and women and turning their focus away from the living merciful God? He called them white-washed sepulchres, and a group of snakes. “Woe to you,” Jesus said, in other words they were facing eternal woe for what they believed and what they taught although they were outwardly moral men. They had no sacrifice of atonement to pardon and forgive them. They were under the wrath of God; Jesus revealed it to them and soon they would experience it.

The problem with our translation, ‘sacrifice of atonement’ is that it marginalizes or minimizes the wrath of God. There are twenty words in the Old Testament that define God’s anger at sin, and Jesus said that the Scripture cannot be broken. He said, “It is written . . .” For him it was authoritative for what it said about God. There is a constancy about the wrath of God which the heathen worshippers of their gods didn’t know. They worshipped capricious gods. The prophets of Baal prayed, and shouted louder, and danced until they were exhausted, and cut themselves with knives until the ground was black with their blood but their god said nothing at all, and they didn’t know why. They could never tell whether their gods would be angry with them, or why they were angry, why was there a drought or a plague. Old Testament Christians knew! Their prophets told them; the ten commandments warned them. One thing aroused God’s anger and that was sin. God was always angry with it, with sin generally, with sins specifically, with the abuse of the widow and orphan, with covetousness and idolatry, violence and lies.

The wrath of God is intensely personal. The God of the Bible is not an absentee God just letting the universe go on in its own way. He is active in the affairs of men. If he numbers the hairs of our heads then he certainly numbers the victims of Jimmy Saville the sexual pervert and also he knows what was done to his victims and the pain the little girls and boys and the sick old women endured at that wretched man’s hands. Listen to God speaking through Ezekiel and imagine that he is talking to Saville, “I am about to pour out my wrath on you and spend my anger against you; I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices. I will not look on you with pity or spare you; I will repay you in accordance with your conduct and the detestable practices among you. Then you will know that it is I the LORD who strikes the blow” (Ez. 7:8&9). The wrath of God is fair of course; it is just; the wrath of God is vivid; the wrath of God is frequent. It does not fade away if you cover it by calling sin by some other name. You know that God’s wrath is not the anger of some short-tempered bitter deity. He is not a god who displays his wrath at the drop of a hat. Ten times in the Old Testament we read that God is “slow to anger,” he is “slow to anger,” he is “slow to anger . . .” We even read, “Time after time he restrained his anger” (Ps.78:38). He is a merciful God, but slow though he is in revealing his anger to men with God taking every factor into consideration for how we’ve behaved as we have, his anger is real. It is still a fearful thing for an unrepentant and Christ-rejecting sinner to fall into the hands of the living God.

Nothing in the Bible allows us to hold that God is indifferent to the evil that we do. God demands uprightness. Remember these great words in the prophecy of Zechariah, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbour, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the LORD” (Zech. 8:16&17). Or listen to the psalmist decribe God’s opposition to the wicked; “the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates” (Ps. 11:5). You do not do justice to the Bible if you deny the plain meaning of these words. You do not understand God if you neglect these words. If you do not believe them then you are worshipping another god than the Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible is an incurably loving God, and also a God implacably opposed to evil. His anger against sin is inseparably bound up with his love of righteousness. His love is a purifying fire; his affection is the strongest opposition to everything that distorts and corrupts those whom God loves. So God is a God of wrath.

ii] The Cross of Christ Propitiated God’s Wrath against Favoured Sinners. Consider one of the other places where this same word for propitiation is found in the New Testament, I John chapter 2 and verses 1 and 2. The Authorized Version translates it thus: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”  For me that is the most superb translation of the underlying Greek, and it could not be bettered. Even C.H.Dodd, the great opponent of the word ‘propitiation’ said about its appearance here that “the sense of ‘propitiation’ is in place.” Surely more than that, it is demanded. Jesus Christ is presented to John’s readers as an advocate with the Father. What does that imply? That we are in trouble. We need an advocate. We are in the dock. God is judging us and angry with us because of our sins. But here comes Jesus Christ, and he is the righteous one. No sin in him and God has presented him with this task of dealing with our sin and being our eternal Advocate. He will be our mediator. He will speak up for us and deliver us. How can he do this? By the fact that he has made propitiation for our sin. He has appeased the anger of God against us by standing in our place, in our stead, as our substitute, in our blame and shame, taking the judgment we deserve, the just wrath of God, the divine verdict, the heavenly judgment falling on him. We have been condemned already for the sins that God arraigns before us. The Lamb of God has died bearing that condemnation. Punishment God will not demand again when Jesus Christ has dealt with it comprehensively and placated the Father’s hatred of all the thoughts and imaginations, and feelings and words and omissions and actions that were polluted by sin and worthy of the judgment of the Almighty God of light who hates sin. Jehovah Jesus is there. He does not need to speak. He does not need to persuade the Father to change in his attitude to us. God can find no sin in us because it was all imputed to Golgotha, and there God condemned it once and for all in Christ, completely dealing with his holy and righteous wrathful justice in condemning us. It has been condemned for us all. John stands in solidarity with the Christians who are his readers, the recipients of his letter. “We have an advocate with the Father,” – “me too with all of you, we have an advocate with the Father,” but he adds the reality that it was not just, say, them in their congregation – plus John, not just the hundred of them, but others like them in the whole world – people like us here – for whom Christ became our propitiation too.

I have been showing you that there is a divine hostility from heaven towards Satan and towards evil. And that we must bring that into account when we think of how we can receive forgiveness for our sins. To be saved means that God’s sustained anger towards our sins must have been justly appeased. “Our sins,” I say. “My sins,” I say. They are the object of the wrath of God. Every one of my sins is displeasing to God and unless something is done with my sins then I face a day of reckoning when I stand before him in my sins, my un-atoned sins, my un-forgiven sins, my un-pardoned sins. I am guilty and I have to answer to God. And the awful reality is that if I have never in this life of mine fallen before God and asked him to be merciful to me a sinner then I will not do that when I meet him. I hate him too much to acknowledge to him that I need pardon through the cross, and my death doesn’t change that attitude, and my sight of him changes nothing. I rejected his mercy in my life and I will reject it in death, I will not have this man rule over me for ever. I say to you that you may be nearer wanting the mercy of God in Jesus Christ today than you will ever be in the future. What if you face a steady decline of spiritual concern, a future of indifference, boredom and hostility all the way to hell? Cry to him for life! Ask him with all your heart that it may not be so.


How then can I find a shelter from the wrath of God? How can I be covered when God pours out his vials of wrath on man’s sin. The great day of his wrath is coming; who shall be able to stand? The Scripture before us tells us, “Have faith in his blood.” What is meant by ‘blood’ here? It is not focusing our minds on Jesus’ haemoglobin. It does is not only homing in on the dying of Jesus, but ‘blood’ refers to violent death, his life wrested from him by evil men, that we are to look to Jesus the Lamb of God slain as a sacrifice for sin. Trust in him because voluntarily he shed his blood. Jesus has propitiated the wrath of God against the sins of men and women. But how can anyone appropriate that forgiveness? How can the smile of God beam down on them? How can they be safe? God presents him to you today, saying, “Here is my Son and he is for you.”

i] Jesus Christ speaks wisely to us. Isn’t that always sensible advice? When will you hear better words of counsel than that? Read his words in the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to his wonderful promises. Read his parables. Heed his warnings. You can’t go wrong if you follow the teachings of Christ. Don’t become religious. There is no answer in religion, but answers are found in the Lord Christ. I assure you. Listen to Jesus.

ii] Jesus Christ promises us shelter. Towards the end of his life Jehovah Jesus had been preaching to a largely indifferent city of Jerusalem. He finally cried to them, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). You notice his tone? He doesn’t say to them sharply, “Right. Now you are in for it. The wrath of God will fall on you and you’re done for, and it’s only what you deserve!” There is nothing like that. There are the awesome hints that all his hearers were in deep trouble because they had killed the prophets and stoned those God had sent to them and now their rejection of the Messiah Jesus was nothing new. So they were in need of protection from the judgment coming on them. Jesus himself was offering to be their protector, that he longed to gather them into a place of safety, and it was he himself who was the place of safety. He was willing to spread himself – his loving arms and his robe of righteousness – over them, like a hen spreads her wings over her chicks when the hawk hovers above. Then they are safe. “I am ready to receive you. I am willing to take you to myself and keep you in the safest place in all the universe.” If judgment falls then it will fall on him and not on them, and that is Calvary. That is why he died, taking their condemnation on himself and not on them.

iii] Jesus Christ offers us rest. You may have been awakened to the fact today that one day in the future you are going to judged by the living God. He has been a good and loving God to you all your life. All the best and enduring blessings you have known in your life have come to you from him. What have you given to him? Have you trusted in him? Have you repented of your sin? Are you going to face the great white throne of God’s judgment in your guilt? Listen to what Jesus says; “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Just go to him for deliverance. That is all. Entrust yourself to him. Believe on him. He is all your hope and so you trust in him, you trust in his shed blood.

You must come to him. You in all your vulnerability and helplessness and guilt must come to the one who hung on the cross and bore the wrath of a sin-hating God in our place. You must be very humble in his presence. You must plead with him that he will give you a covering for your sins and that covering is his life blood. In other words his death alone protects sinners from the wrath of God. Nothing else will, only the crucified and risen Jesus. Entrust yourself to him. Believe in the shedding of his blood as your only hope. It will be enormously humbling for some of you because you are such moral and religious people. Some of you are academically very well qualified. It is very hard for you to acknowledge that you are a sinner facing the wrath of God for your sins, but if Jesus is true then that is your case. He tells us that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (Jn.3:36). He says that he longs to gather you. He wants you to dwell for the rest of your days in the secret place of the most high and abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Come to Jesus Christ the refuge. Come and hide safe and warm in the Lord, the one who bore our judgment, the entire wrath of the God who hates sin, that we might be ransomed and justified and free from condemnation by him.

29th June 2014    GEOFF THOMAS