There are certain Bible stories that you just don’t talk about, not even in church. God sending a flood to wipe out mankind in the days of Noah; God throwing down fire to consume Sodom and Gomorrah; Korah’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses, which resulted in God opening up the earth to swallow the rebels; or Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead on the spot for lying to Peter.
For many people today, Bible stories having to do with divine wrath are embarrassing. And yet, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel, it is nearly impossible to get through a book (sometimes a chapter!) of the Bible without coming face to face with these forgotten attributes of God. In a culture that capitalizes on tolerance and love, a focus on divine judgment is considered harsh, even primitive. Gordon Rupp captured the mentality of our day well when he said, “What it means to feel oneself under the Wrath of God is something that modern man can hardly understand.”
However, feeling oneself under the wrath of God is exactly the path that leads us to the good news of the gospel. In fact, the love, grace, and mercy of God in the gospel make little sense apart from the wrath of God. It is only when we realize that we, as sinners, stand condemned before God and therefore deserve his eternal, unending wrath that we can even begin to comprehend and appreciate the depth of the riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, the one who bore the wrath we deserve on the cross.
I am continually amazed the more I study the Bible how often a crucial doctrine of the faith can hinge on the significance and meaning of just one word. In preparation for Good Friday, I want to focus on just one word in 1 John 4:10, and that is the word propitiation. 1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
The word propitiation means that Christ acted as a sacrifice and bore the wrath of God that was ours in order to turn God’s favor toward us. The word is used in other passages too:
1 John 2:1-2a — “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins…”
Romans 3:25 — “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
What these passage convey is that Jesus stood in our place as the perfect, sinless sacrifice. Why? To take the penalty for our sin: the very wrath of God against us. As Isaiah 53:5 says, the suffering servant “was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
This word propitiation in 1 John 4:10 makes people uncomfortable and squeamish, as if it makes the Son the loving one and the Father the angry one. Those who level this accusation, however, have not paid attention to what all of 1 John 4:10 says. Yes, God is a God of wrath, and, yes, his wrath burns hot against our sin. But the very fact that God poured out his wrath on Christ instead of us was itself an act of love, mercy, and grace. Listen to all of v.10 again: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Here we come to the very essence of the gospel. We did not love God. So often even Christians misunderstand this fundamental truth. The gospel is not something people can find within themselves. No, it’s alien to us. The gospel comes to us as a stranger. Why? Because we were rebels against God. Love did not characterize us, but hatred. What makes the cross such good news is that in the very midst of mankind’s rebellion, God loved us. How do we know this? He sent his own Son to be the propitiation for our sins. He sent his own Son to absorb the wrath that was ours! As John so famously said in his gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”
God is a God of wrath (how could he not be if he is to remain just and holy). We, as children of Adam, deserve his wrath for all eternity. But God, out of his unfathomably love, sent his own Son to substitute himself and take the wrath that was ours. And as John says, in this is love. It’s at the cross, therefore, that wrath and mercy kiss. How, then, do we spell gospel? Propitiation.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett is also Senior Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. Two forthcoming books include, Owen on the Christian Life and God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. You can read about Barrett’s other publications at matthewmbarrett.com.