The New International Version footnote helps us understand the meaning of “sacrifice of atonement” with an alternate reading of “as the one who would turn aside his [God’s] wrath, taking away sin.” The atonement, then, assumes the wrath of God against sin, and our consequent liability to His holy and just wrath. Paul affirmed this quite clearly in Romans 1:18 when he said, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men,” and then in Ephesians 2:3 where he said, “We were by nature objects of wrath.” By the wrath of God, we should not understand uncontrolled passion and hatred. Rather, as the late British pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote, the wrath of God means “His settled opposition to all that is evil, arising out of His very nature.… His nature is such that He abhors evil, He hates evil. His holiness of necessity leads to that.”
Some Bible translations use the word propitiation where the New International Version says, “sacrifice of atonement.” Though propitiation is seldom a part of our evangelical vocabulary today, it is a word with which all Christians ought to become familiar. Propitiation in the context of salvation means that which appeases the wrath of God against sin. So the Lord Jesus Christ by His sacrifice on the cross appeased and turned aside God’s just and holy wrath, the wrath we should have borne.
We should notice two important points about this propitiatory act of Christ. First, God presented Him, or set Him forth as an atoning sacrifice. It is God the Father who initiated the whole plan of salvation. It is God the Father who provided the sacrifice of His Son to satisfy His justice and appease His own wrath. When we are acutely conscious of our sin and think that God’s wrath must somehow be hanging over us, we need to remember that God the Father Himself is the One who devised a way whereby His wrath against sin might be fully executed apart from our experiencing the force of that wrath.
The second point is that this propitiation is appropriated by us as sinners through faith in His blood. The blood of Christ, referring to His death, is to be the object of our faith by which we appropriate His propitiation. “The blood of Christ,” in connection with our salvation, is a favorite expression of New Testament writers, occurring about thirty times. It is the blood of Christ that cleanses our consciences from the defilement of sin (Hebrews 9:14); it is the blood of Christ that purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7); it is by the blood of Christ that we have confidence to enter into the Most Holy Place—the very presence of an infinitely holy God (Hebrews 10:10). It is the blood of Christ, according to the Romans passage we have been examining, that turns the holy and just wrath of God away from us.
Therefore when we are smarting under the conviction of sin, when we realize we’ve failed God one more time, perhaps even in the same sin, we must resort to the cleansing blood of Jesus. As a well-known gospel hymn from the nineteenth century expressed it,
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
It is not our contrition or sorrow for our sin, it is not our repentance, it is not even the passing of a certain number of hours during which we feel we are on some kind of probation that cleanses us. It is the blood of Christ, shed once for all on Calvary two thousand years ago but appropriated daily or even many times a day, that cleanses our consciences and gives us a renewed sense of peace with God.