What, then, are we to do with the ideas we’ve been discussing? Does “propitiation” relate only to removing God’s wrath, or only to purification of pollution? Was Dodd right, or was Morris? My point of view is that both are correct. Each has identified crucial elements in the usage of the word groups, and both have omitted essential elements from their usage.
There are three kinds of passage where the Greek OT (LXX) uses the word group that we translate “propitiate.” First, because of “propitiation,” as Exodus 32.14 says, “The Lord (as the Jewish Publication Society translation reads) “renounced the punishment” that He said He would carry out against Israel” (see also Zech 7.2; 8.22; Mal 1.9). Thus, the sacrifice “turned away God’s wrath.”
Second, frequently the word group is associated with cleansing (Lev 12.7-8; 14.18, 19, 20, 21, 29, 31, 53; 15.13-15, 30; 16.30; Num 6.11 (the defiled Nazirite); 8.21; 29.11 (sin offering); 35.33 (purification of the land after a murder); Ezek 43.22-23, 26; 44.27 (sin offering); 45.18, 19). Two of these passages are of special importance. In Leviticus 14, Moses is receiving instruction on the purification of the leper. His condition imposed a major defilement such that only a week-long ritual could remove the taint of “leprosy.” The key in each of the verses listed above is that it is “propitiation” that makes possible the cleansing. So in Leviticus 14.19, 20, καὶ ποιήσει ὁ ἱερεὺς τὸ περὶ τῆς ἁμαρτίας, καὶ ἐξιλάσεται ὁ ἱερεὺς περὶ τοῦ ἀκαθάρτου τοῦ καθαριζομένου ἀπὸ τῆς ἁμαρτίας αὐτοῦ … καὶ ἐξιλάσεται περὶ αὐτοῦ ὁ ἱερεύς, καὶ καθαρισθήσεται, translated (ESV): “The priest shall offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness.… Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.”
The other crucial verse is Leviticus 16.30, in the Day of Atonement ritual (JPS): “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.” The words in italics represent the Greek words often translated “propitiate.”
So far, then, as we have gone, sin creates defilement and the defilement of the sin requires God to remove whatever is unclean from His presence. Thus, either the defiled sinner must be removed, or the defilement must be removed from the sinner (these ideas will become clearer in the next post). To do this, rituals of cleansing must occur, including the application of blood to what is defiled for the removal of sin’s taint. Consequently, both Dodd’s idea of expiation and Morris’s idea of propitiation are valid for “hilasterion” as used in the Bible, and especially in the five passages Romans 3.25; Hebrews 2.17; 9.5; 1 John 2.2; 4.10.
The third way that the word group translated “propitiate” is used covers a large number of references relating to the “sin offering” (as, for example, Lev 4.20, 26, 31, 35; 5.6). This sacrifice is distinct among Israel’s five offerings in its attention to the application of the blood from the animal. As we pointed out in Part 5, sprinkling the blood accomplishes cleansing (Lev 16.19). But the objects sprinkled in this offering are shocking. Because this issue is critical to the exposition of Leviticus 4–5, and because we will deal with the offerings later, I will defer to that time the discussion of this idea.
The ritual of the cup in the Lord’s Supper signifies the application of the blood to the defiled sinner. When we receive the cup trusting the work of Jesus, we are claiming our part in the cleansing power of His cross. We have drunk the cup of wrath and salvation. As we have trusted in Christ alone for our salvation, we may, indeed we must, trust in the continuing cleansing power of His blood to rid us of the defiling effects of our sin.