“…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.” — I John 2:1-2
During the holy season of Lent each year, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, we Christians take special time and opportunity to study in detail and to meditate upon the redemptive work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ — in particular His vicarious or substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world. We follow Him in spirit from Gethsemane to Golgotha, witnessing with eyes of faith riveted upon His precious Word the anguish, mockery, suffering and death which He endured for us poor sinners as the Lamb of God. And when, in the waning moments of His life in the State of Humiliation, we hear Him cry out from the cross those triumphant words, “It is finished!” we ourselves yield a grateful sigh of relief, as it were, not merely because the Savior’s suffering had finally come to an end, but because of what His words, better translated, really mean for us and for all the world: “It is accomplished!” — “The work which My Father sent Me to do has been completed, and the purpose which that work was intended to accomplish has been fully realized: The reconciliation of the world unto Himself by My heavenly Father in view of My all-sufficient work of redemption.” And so we sing with the beloved hymnwriter:
“Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
dearest Jesus, unto Thee!”
(TLH 151, 1).
Had the suffering and death of Jesus Christ been what the so-called “modernists” claim that it was, namely, a historical event of purely social significance, the martyrdom of a “divine” activist in the cause of human justice, love and brotherhood among men of good will, then “we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19), having hope in Christ “in this life only,” as in a social “savior” who couldn’t even save Himself and certainly was not able to raise Himself from the dead! But thanks be to God that He raised up Christ on the third day, glorifying Him and exalting Him to His own right hand in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20); for the Father thereby sealed to us the fact that Jesus Christ is His only-begotten Son, God from all eternity, that the Father was satisfied with Christ’s redemptive work for the reconciliation of the world, and that Jesus Christ, “because He continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25). Christ’s redemptive work was indeed finished and had accomplished its blessed purpose when He died on the accursed tree of the cross, but His work as our perfect High Priest continues as He intercedes or pleads for us with His Father in heaven. There He functions as our “Advocate” (I John 2:1b), our defense lawyer, at the bar of God’s justice, eminently qualified to represent us: Jesus (our Savior), Christ (the Anointed One of God Himself), the Righteous (the only One who can stand before the Father’s throne clad in His own righteousness as the holy Son of God). Approaching God through any other mediator is not only time lost and effort wasted; it is an affront or insult to the Son of God; “for there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).
How effective is His advocacy with the Father? What is the plea that He enters on our behalf at the throne of God? Does He perhaps beg mercy for His clients on the grounds of “diminished capacity,” since we are incapable of saving ourselves? Does He plead us innocent by reason of “ignorance of the Law”? Does He claim”lesser guilt” for those who have tried their best to obey God’s Law and still “come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) or for those who falsely claim to have only “passively resisted” the efforts of His Holy Spirit to convert them? — No, none of those pleas would avail before the throne of Him who demands absolute perfection of all His subjects (Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48), and in whose sight the transgression of just “one point” in His holy Law makes the sinner “guilty of ALL” the Law (James 2:10). What plea then can our Advocate enter on our behalf to gain our acquittal from the sentence of death that we have brought upon ourselves (Romans 6:23)?
The Apostle John answers this question fully in verse two of the passage before us as our title-text. Christ, our Divine Advocate, points not to US but to HIMSELF. He covers our disobedience with His perfect obedience; He drapes the filthiness of our transgressions with the spotless robe of His righteousness; He overlays the death warrant outstanding against us with a copy of His own death certificate, as it were, offering it as a substitute for OUR death.
The word “propitiation,” as we have it in verse two, is often read as “payment” in order to simplify the language for hearers not acquainted with the older and longer word. However well-intended such an effort may be, a simplification often becomes an over-simplification when the full meaning of the original word is sacrificed in the process; and that may indeed be the case here. “Propitiation” means a gift or payment of sufficient value as to win or regain the goodwill and favor of one who has been wronged. It is not a sort of “down-payment” or partial payment, to which subsequent payments must be added; neither is it a payment merely offered but not necessarily accepted as full compensation for a grievance. It is a payment of such overwhelming compensation that the creditor dismisses from his mind and memory the “deadbeat” character of the unworthy former debtor (Cf. Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12).
“He is the propitiation for our sins” — Christ Himself is the ransom-payment to God of sufficient value to win forgiveness for our sins, to gain for us God’s favor instead of His displeasure, to secure for us everlasting life in place of eternal death — and not just of sufficient value but of appropriate and actual value for the purpose, so that the desired result has in fact been fully achieved. “[God] hath made Him who knew no sin (namely, Christ) to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5.21). “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, …He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, …and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah53:4-5). “Thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood” (Revelation 5:9). “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
“…and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Christ’s perfect keeping of the Law in the place of sinners satisfied God’s demands against every single sinner of all times and places, past, present and to come (His active obedience); and His suffering and death in the place of sinners, He Himself having been punished by God in their stead, satisfied God’s justice with the payment of sin’s wages in full (Christ’s passive obedience). What had Christ accomplished (John 19:30) by His redemptive work, by His “vicarious atonement”? “He is the PROPITIATION for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Christ was the payment-in-full, the sacrifice necessary, the righteousness required, to “propitiate” the Father — to satisfy Him completely, to gain back His favor toward those who had offended Him, to persuade Him in mercy to put all our sins behind His back and to remember them no more (Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12).
And the RESULT of that “Propitiation”? “God was IN CHRIST reconciling the WORLD unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). For Christ’s sake (that is, because of what Christ did and bore in the place of sinners to atone for their sins and to regain for them God’s favor, without any merit, worthiness or participation on their own part), God in heaven has already forgiven the sins of every human being in this world, declaring for each one a full and unconditional pardon (Objective Justification). That is what Christ, our “Propitiation,” accomplished for us! That is what Christ accomplished for “the ungodly” (Romans 4:5)! That is what Christ accomplished even for those who ultimately deny Him as their Redeemer, reject the gracious forgiveness He merited for them, and perish everlastingly in unbelief (II Peter 2:1b).
This pardon, whereby God has now reconciled the whole world unto Himself, is announced to all men in the Gospel, which Paul calls “the Word of Reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19b); and he begs us in Christ’s stead to avail ourselves of its precious benefits — not by works, penances, deeds of love to God and our neighbor, or any such device — but simply by accepting and receiving by means of God-wrought faith His gift of forgiveness (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 5:1). Cling to Jesus’ merits alone for salvation and trust without any doubt that, for His sake as “the Propitiation for [your] sins,” you are already forgiven and stand righteous before God. For, by faith in that gracious amnesty on God’s part, merited, secured and won by Christ, you are God’s child (Galatians 3:26) and an heir of everlasting life (4:7). Therefore, confess with boldness in the words of the beloved hymn:
Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
which at the mercy-seat of God
forever doth for sinners plead,
for ME, e’en for MY SOUL, was shed.
Lord, I believe were sinners more
than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for ALL a ransom paid,
for ALL a full atonement made!
(TLH 371, 4 and 5)
— D. T. M.