The words Propitiation and Expiation are used interchangeably among Christians when they refer to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, as if they were synonymous, but in strict theological terms, they mean two different aspects of the redeeming sacrifice of Christ.
PROPITIATION is the act of amending carried out by Lord Jesus to appease God’s holy wrath towards humanity for their evil.
EXPIATION, on the other hand, deals with the cleansing of sinfulness Lord Jesus gained for us on the Cross.
Seeing them separately, Propitiation focuses in God’s reaction towards sin, and in the actions of Jesus to stop God’s holy anger; while Expiation pays attention exclusively to the atonement Lord Jesus paid for our sins in order to erase our guilt and free us from God’s just punishment. The problem starts when some prefer to obliterate one aspect of the redemption of Christ in favour of another. Among Eastern Christians, the concept of Propitiation has been misunderstood as being God’s resentful wrath caused by the offence of human rebellion that He placated in the person of his own Son instead of us. This has provoked a total rejection of the concept in the East as a distortion of western theology.
However both concepts are attached to each other within the redemptive work of Christ.
When humanity fell into sin, we made ourselves worthy of God’s punitive Justice and eternal damnation. (Mt 10:28; 25:46; 2Th 1:9; Rev 21:8). This punitive divine Justice is not generated in anger, as God is not subjected to uncontrollable passions like humans are (Nm 23:19; 1Sam 15:29; Ps 89:34; Is 40:8; Hos 11:9; Mal 3:6; Jm 1:17). The punishment for sin, is dispensed by God’s Perfect Justice, that cannot possibly by nature, leave wrong incorrected and guilt without retribution. This divine perfect justice is what keeps balance in the universe and keeps all creation a liveable place for created beings, in temporal and eternal existence. This perfect Justice is the one who compensates the victims of abuse, murder and corruption; and this same Justice is the one that rewards the martyr, the holy and the righteous. (Dt 10:18; 32:4; Ps 9:7-8; 140:12; Col 3:25).
When Lord Jesus suffered and died on the Cross, He suffered the punishment due to humanity for their sinfulness in general, not only for the sin of Adam so that no debt would remain for us to pay before God’s Justice (1Pe 3:18; Col 1:22; 2:14; Heb 9:14).
Lord Jesus suffered and died not to placate a divine selfish moody anger; but to save us from God’s punitive Perfect Justice by erasing our guilt with his own life. In that way, God’s love, who is the author of this Plan of Salvation, found the way to rescue us from eternal damnation while at the same time fulfilling spiritual eternal principles within God’s divine nature.
Jesus sacrifice on the Cross was expiatory, suffering on our behalf to erase our sins so that no guilty charge would be left for us to answer before God’s Tribunal; and it is also propitiatory, cancelling God’s punitive Justice towards us, sinners, by taking away the reason of the punishment, through his own suffering and death on the Cross.