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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:We confess our great need for propitiation
Text:LD 5 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation
 
Preached:2013
Added:2013-07-09
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 95:1-3
Psalm 7:3-4
Hymn 26
Hymn 1
Hymn 75

Scripture reading:  Hebrews 2
Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 5
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Some of you have heard of flippers, googlies, and beamers.  A few of you know what I’m talking about if I say that I’m batting on a sticky wicket.  If you know, you’re probably not from Canada.  All these terms are out of cricket and are probably more familiar to Australians.

But imagine if you’re an Aussie and you come to Canada and you hear people talking about cross-checking, icing, and hat tricks.  If you’re not from here, you might be confused the first time you hear about a power play or getting deked.  All of us had to learn these terms in hockey at some point or other.  It might seem like we’ve just grown up with them, but somewhere along the way, someone taught them to us.  Maybe we learned them at school, or maybe from our dad.  But now we just take it for granted that we understand slashing and sudden death.

Every sport has its own peculiar vocabulary.  Every sport has expressions and terms that people have to learn in order to participate meaningfully, even if it’s just as a spectator.  Well, the Christian faith is no different.  As Christians we also have our own unique vocabulary.  We have expressions and terms that people have to learn.  There is a Christian vocabulary.

That vocabulary includes the beautiful gospel word “propitiation.”  Propitiation refers to the turning away of wrath.  Propitiation means that wrath is turned away and favour is restored. 

It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost this word in our Christian vocabulary.  You might be wondering, “How did that happen?”  Back in the 1930s, an influential theologian named Charles Dodd wrote an essay in which he argued that the Greek word we translate as propitiation should be understood differently.  Dodd was a liberal, which is to say that he ran rough-shod over the Bible.  Dodd had a problem with the justice of God, with people receiving what they deserve from a holy God.  His view became widely-accepted.  Some of you remember when the Canadian Reformed Churches used the Revised Standard Version.  The RSV was influenced by Dodd on this point.  You didn’t find the word “propitiation” in the RSV.  It’s not in the NIV either.  Instead, the NIV uses the expression “sacrifice of atonement” in Hebrews 2:17 and other places. 

However, today, as we move to a new Bible translation, we are in the process of recovering this wonderful biblical word.  In the ESV, we once again find this word in Hebrews 2:17 and elsewhere.  We are recovering this term in our Christian vocabulary and that’s a good thing, because this word expresses a comforting gospel truth.

The word “propitiation” isn’t used by our Catechism, but the concept is definitely there in Lord’s Day 5.  As we begin considering how we are delivered from our sins and misery, we’re directed to the great need that we have for escape from punishment.  We’re directed again to see our need to be received into God’s favour.  What we’re talking about is propitiation.  So this afternoon, we’ll see how we confess our great need for propitiation.

We’ll consider: 

1.      Who must be propitiated

2.      For whom this propitiation is necessary

3.      Who can work this propitiation

If you missed it the first time, propitiation refers to the turning away of wrath and the return of favour.  Propitiation therefore always involves an object, a person who is being propitiated.  There is a someone who has wrath and that same someone can become favourable, once his wrath is turned away. 

That someone here is God.  Our Catechism speaks of God’s righteous judgment – this is judgment which involves us receiving punishment both now and in the age to come.  In QA 14, the Catechism refers to the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin.

The wrath of God is something that many find objectionable.  They don’t want to believe in a God who expresses his justice with the punishment of sinners.  They want an indulgent God who looks the other way, turns a blind eye, or who simply accepts people the way they are.  If people have a belief in God, he often looks a lot like Santa Claus.  He is a kind old man in the sky who is filled with unconditional love for everyone regardless of what they do.  This fairy-tale god is going to give everyone wings when they die so that they can fly up to heaven and be happy forever.

But does that view fit with what the Bible teaches?  The Bible really has to be our starting point here.  We can’t go with what we wish to be true, we have to follow what God says in his Word about himself.  There are many passages in Scripture which speak about the just wrath of the holy God against sinners.  Let me give a few examples.

Psalm 7:11 says that “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.”  This Psalm goes on to portray this righteous judge as a fierce warrior.  He pursues his unrepentant enemies with a sword and with a bow and arrow.  He has deadly weapons and he uses them against those who rebel against him. 

Nahum 1 speaks of God in similar terms.  Nahum 1:2 says, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.”  Nahum says that God is a stronghold and refuge for believers, but if you are living in sin, watch out.  If you are not trusting in him, “he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.”  The prophet Nahum is clear that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of God.  He has a holy and just wrath against unbelieving and unrepentant sinners.

Now perhaps you hear that and think to yourself, “Well, that’s all Old Testament.  Things are different after the coming of Jesus.  We can’t really talk about God in the same way now.”  But if you’re thinking that, then you need to consider what we find in the last book of the Bible.  Revelation 19 speaks about our Lord Jesus as the rider on the white horse.  He is called faithful and true.  He leads the armies of heaven.  In righteousness he judges and makes war.  Revelation 19:15 says about him, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.  He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”  That’s about Jesus and that’s in the New Testament.  In the New Testament too, God still has just wrath against unrepentant sinners.  In fact, no one in the Bible spoke more about this than Christ himself.  If we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, there is no question that God hates sin and he will punish unbelieving and unrepentant sinners with a just judgment both now and eternally.

So who must be propitiated?  God, the holy God of heaven and earth, the just Judge.  It is he whose wrath must be turned away.  If it is not turned away, we will face consequences in this age and in the age to come.  In this age, if God is not propitiated whatever misery we face is just a tiny foretaste of what awaits us.  In the age to come, if God is not propitiated we will face eternal self-conscious torment in hell.  This is where Isaiah says right at the end of his prophecy (Isaiah 66:24) that their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched.  He uses these images to express the unending just wrath of God in hell.  That’s where unrepentant sinners spend eternity making the full payment God demands for having offended his holiness.  They will never reach the goal, because the sinfulness of sin is so great, and God’s holiness is so holy. Think of it like a hamster wheel in hell.  Turning, turning, turning, but never getting anywhere.  Never getting closer to making the full payment to the demand of God’s justice.  Thinking of it in these biblical terms makes us recognize that the holy God must be propitiated.  There is no other way, unless you actually want this kind of eternal destination.

But perhaps there is some wiggle room here.  Maybe this propitiation isn’t necessary for everyone.  What if there were some who didn’t need this propitiation?  Maybe God only has this kind of wrath for some people and not for others.  Well, let’s briefly think about this together in the light of biblical teaching. 

Anyone who tries to find an out here has to reckon with Romans 3.  In verses 9-20, Paul has this section where he points out the human condition.  He strings together several Old Testament passages to make his point.  In verses 10-12, he quotes Psalm 14, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  Notice that language:  none, no one, all, not even one.  What that means is that all humanity stands in need of propitiation.  All humanity needs to have God’s wrath turned aside so that they can again be received in favour. 

Paul writes along the same lines in Ephesians 2.  He speaks of humanity without Christ as being children of wrath.  Whose wrath?  Obviously, he is writing about the wrath of God.  Without Christ, all are children of wrath.  That’s what we read in our Form for Baptism as well:  “…we and our children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children of wrath…”  This means that all of us are the objects of God’s wrath – it means that we are the ones in need of propitiation.  All of us – even the little babies of the congregation – all of us need to have God’s wrath turned away so that we can be received in favour.

Now the question becomes:  who can work this propitiation that we so desperately need?  Our Catechism follows a process of elimination here.  It begins with us.  Can we make the payment necessary to work out our own propitiation?  The problem with that proposal is that if we think it’s possible, we underestimate the sinfulness of sin.  We underestimate the holiness of the one that we have sinned against.  We have sinned against such a high majesty, that there is no possibility of us even beginning to make a payment that would turn away his wrath and restore his favour to us.  It’s impossible.  Moreover, the one who would think this way forgets that the debt only increases day by day.  Every day we add to our offenses against this holy God.  For us to try to make the payment that propitiates would be like trying to empty a giant bucket.  God’s justice demands that the bucket be emptied.  To do that, let’s say you can’t knock it over, but you have managed to poke one small hole in the bucket.  The problem is that you’ve got a fire hose blasting water into the giant bucket every minute.  You have an impossible task on your hands.  You’ll never empty the bucket.  You see, self-propitiation is impossible.  You can never make the payment that God’s justice demands, not in this life, and not in hell either.  That’s why hell is eternal.

But what if we could find some mere creature to make the payment?  Here too, the door slams shut.  God’s justice says that the human nature which has sinned has to pay for sin.  If his wrath will be turned away, it must be done justly.  Justice requires payment in kind.  But there is an additional problem.  To make this payment requires the bearing of God’s eternal wrath against sin.  The one who would propitiate must take the full weight God’s wrath on himself.  What mere creature could possibly do that?  So on both of those points, this option is out the window. 

For our propitiation we need a Mediator and Deliverer who is both a true and righteous man and true God.  We need Jesus Christ.  Our Saviour Jesus came from heaven as true God.  He took on a true human nature.  The author of Hebrews stresses this in Hebrews 2.  He became one of us to bring many sons to glory.  He shared in our humanity not only so that he could set us free from the tyranny of the devil, and sin, and death – but also from the consequences of all this.  He became a merciful and faithful high priest in order to make propitiation for us.  Again, that word doesn’t appear in the NIV in Hebrews 2:17, but it is there in the Greek and it’s in the ESV as well:  “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”  Jesus died on the cross and he bore the wrath of God that we justly deserve.  In his love, God sent Christ to this earth to bear his wrath against our sins, his wrath against us.  While he hung on the cross, all the wrath of God against us was poured out on him.  The key thing to remember is that he suffered in body and soul.  He was attacked by the wrath of God.  If you want a picture of what happened to Christ on the cross, then read Psalm 7.  Christ endured the fierce judgment of Yahweh in our place.  By doing so, he has turned away God’s wrath from us.  He has restored to us God’s favour.  Jesus Christ works our propitiation!  Brothers and sisters, this is a wonderful, encouraging gospel truth that we ought never to forget or take for granted.

The gospel promises us propitiation.  Baptism speaks this promise to us as well.  All who are baptized have had God publically promise them propitiation through the blood of Jesus.  For them there is the promise that God will not look upon them in wrath, but in favour.  He promises not to look at those who are baptized as children of wrath, but as beloved children adopted in Christ.  That promise has been publically signed and sealed to all of us when we were baptized.

But loved ones, please do not confuse the promise with receiving what is promised.  In baptism, propitiation is promised.  But it is not automatically received by the one being baptized.  We all have to grow up and believe God’s promise of propitiation.  We have to rest and trust in what Christ has done in order to receive his benefits.  There is no automatic reception of the benefits of Christ promised in baptism.  All of us are called to believe what God has said about us in our baptism, we’re called to believe what he has promised.  For Christ to be our Mediator and Deliverer, there must be repentance and faith in our lives.  There has to be repentance and faith in your life, if you will have God propitiated.  The only way his wrath will be turned away from you is if you are clinging to Christ in faith.  If you cast your works to the side, and rest in him alone, then God’s wrath will be gone and his favour will be upon you.  The gospel grants this to all who repent and believe.

The gospel can be compared to a diamond.  A diamond is precious.  A diamond sparkles and reflects light.  It does this because it has different facets.  The gospel has different facets too.  Propitiation is one of them.  It’s not merely one of the facets of the gospel – it’s one of the most significant.  Without God’s wrath being turned away and his favour restored, there is no gospel, there is no good news.  Without propitiation, we’re left either with the false news of a fairy-tale god who has no wrath or the bad news of the true God whose justice will be satisfied with eternal death.  Loved ones, believe what the Bible says about our God, even though it grinds against what sinful human nature wants God to be like.  Believe then also what the Bible says about Christ – believe that he is the one who has taken your place, borne your wrath, the one who makes you one of those many sons being brought to glory.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Our great and majestic God,

We confess your holiness and justice.  We know that you justly demand satisfaction, you demand payment for the sins committed against you.  We need your wrath to be turned away and your favour turned towards us again.  We need propitiation.  We thank you for Christ our Saviour who came to give us what we need.  Please help each of us with your Spirit so that we would always trust in what he has done and in him alone.  Please continue working faith in our hearts, so that would never trust in anyone or anything else.  Help us to teach our children this gospel.  Help us to witness to our neighbours of this glorious gospel.                                                                              




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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