Two weeks ago, Don Carson was at my church as our guest speaker for our Fall Family Conference. I was overheard, at one point, referring to his messages as the theological equivalent of a foot-rub.” Indeed it was. Dr. Carson gave us a three-part lecture called “Making Sense of Suffering” which was as enjoyable as his book, “How Long O’ Lord” in which he originally compiled his source material. As always, listeners of all levels were challenged and encouraged.
During the third session, Carson touched on something that intersected with some things I have been thinking about lately: the importance of the Trinity to the atonement and the hypostatic union of Christ. By the “hypostatic union” I am referring to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God (Col 1:19, 2:9, Php 2:7, John 1:14, Heb 2:17). It has been a controversial issue in church history as various heresies have involved stripping Him completely of one or the other. The Aryan heresy sought to strip Him of His divinity, for example, and the Gnostic heresy sought to deny His humanity. It is an important issue because the nature of His atoning work on the cross demands that He posses both natures fully.
This issue, intersecting with the importance of God being triune, was placed on the table by Dr. Carson when he brought up the difference between “expiation” and “propitiation”. I think that some got a bit lost at this point, but here is where Carson doesn’t mind putting some theological cookies on the higher shelves. It was entirely pertinent to his discussion of suffering. Let me lay out a few definitions to clear things up, if necessary:
- Expiation has sin as its object. The goal of expiation is to render justice upon sinners. Sinners sin and God punishes sin. The sin is expiated, punished. God cancels sin, He expiates it.
- Propitiation has the favor of God as its object. Its aim is to make God favorable toward sinners. Expiation stops short of this. Where expiation goes out from God toward sin, propitiation goes toward God.
To illustrate the importance of this, Carson presented the case of C.H. Dodd, a liberal theologian who argued that God’s act upon Jesus on the cross had to have been expiation because His favorable mood, being propitious toward sinners, was evident in John 3:16. God was already propitious, Dodd said, therefore He have His Son. For God to propitiate Himself was nonsense. You don’t make an offering to yourself, after all.
Dodd was missing a few things, though. First, He missed the fact that as God is holy, he must be angry at sin because the sin has not yet been punished. Before the cross, God must be propitiated. He must be made favorable.
Second, Dodd was likely overlooking Christ’s dual nature. Liberal scholars of his ilk had a problem with Christ’s divinity. But it is Christ’s divinity AND humanity, WITHIN the triune Godhead, that makes sense out of propitiation. Why is this? Because propitiation requires that two parties be involved: the guilty party and the offended party. Because Christ took on human flesh and lived a perfect life, He could stand in as humanity’s representative (Rom 8:3). Because Christ was God, he was able not only to withstand the Father’s judgment against sin, but raise Himself from the dead (John 10:17-18). Propitiation is a closed loop between the guilty and offended parties. Christ’s dual natures allowed humanity to be brought into that loop. As both Father and Son are God, God is in fact making HIMSELF propitious.
Nuclear testing was restricted to underground testing after 1963 due to obvious harmful effects on the ocean and upper atmosphere where the tests had taken place up until then. What would it be like standing inside an underground testing facility at ground zero. I imagine it might be a bit like God’s wrath. The strongest, most “righteous” man on earth would be instantly reduced to ashes. Scripture says that the wages of sin is death (Rom 3:23, 6:23). If this is the case, how do we get man out of the room alive? He must also be God. He must be Christ.
This dynamic of the Trinity was brought to my attention be a book I read this summer called “Pierced for Our Transgressions” by Jeffery, Ovey & Sach. More can be said about the particluar need for a sinless substitute, but for now it somply blows my mind that in Christ, humanity is brought into this circuit of propitiation such that God can mevel His righteous judgment on humanity and yet humanity can survive.