The hands-down, most horrific nightmare possible is that of a God who is angry without due cause. Could we imagine anything worse?
It would be the most terrible thing if the only person who has the power to destroy you forever were ferociously angry with you for no reason. That God would hate you just because. That he would throw his fury around on a whim. What if he were arbitrarily annoyed with everything about you? What if he were to burn with indignation toward you only because he can?
There is no idea worse, and no idea more untrue.
Now to be clear, God is angry. He “feels indignation every day,” as Psalm 7:11 says. But here’s the crucial point to remember: his anger is always a righteous response to sin.
Because God Is Holy
God is love, not wrath. The reason he wields wrath is because of sin. And the reason sin deserves wrath is because he is holy. He is absolute purity. His triune essence is blinding perfection. Sin belittles this holiness. Sin speaks into existence a lie about the way things really are. Sin slanders God’s handiwork and refuses to recognize his worth. Sin on the loose — sin unpunished — injects the air with a false witness about who God is. It puts the world in the dark.
Sin makes a world of closed eyes and plugged ears — a world that leaves God alone to uphold the value of his name. Only God is left to perceive and love what is most lovable, which is God himself. He alone maintains the righteous orbit of the moral universe. And the way he does this is by wrath against the wrong.
As John Murray writes, “Because he loves himself supremely he cannot suffer what belongs to the integrity of his character and glory to be compromised or curtailed.”1 Sin in God’s economy will always ultimately be punished sin — either one day in the hell of a burning fire, or that one Friday in the hell of a Roman cross.
This is why there was a cross. God’s holiness and our sin explain why at the heart of the Christian message is the death of Jesus in our place — a death that fundamentally was propitiation. In fact, D. A. Carson says that propitiation is what “holds together all the other biblical ways of talking about the cross.”2 So it’s important that we understand what it means.
What Is Propitiation?
First, let me say what it isn’t. Christian propitiation is not the works of sinful man to crudely appease an angry deity. That’s the pagan idea. Rather, Christian propitiation is the work of God to absorb his divine anger toward sinful man. The first is capricious and whimsical. The latter is the calculated selfless act of a loving God — indeed, of a God who is love.
In his classic The Cross of Christ, John Stott parses out Christian propitiation with three crucial points.
First, God’s wrath is the reason why propitiation was necessary. Remember, the nightmare of unsubstantiated indignation is untrue. “The wrath of God is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations” (173). God has wrath because wrath against sin is the fitting expression of a holy God.
Second, God is the one who makes propitiation. This wasn’t man’s idea, but God’s. It is all due to his mercy and grace. Stott is all over this. He writes, “God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath which needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love which did the propitiating” (174).
Third, God was the propitiatory sacrifice. What hung on the cross wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t a basket of fruit or a headless chicken. Stott notes that God giving his Son was God giving God. The blood that soaked into Golgotha’s soil was not the blood of a man partly divine, but of God himself who had become a man.
One fact rings loud in all three of Stott’s points. It is the fact that every right way to parse propitiation is profoundly about God.
It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating, and God himself who in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship. (175)
Do you see it? A God-centered God created a God-centered cosmos that he saves by a God-centered cross. Far from a nightmare, this is better than our greatest dream. God’s God-centeredness doesn’t make him a reckless tyrant who flies off the handle at the drop of hat. It makes him a sovereign God who is great enough to stoop this low to rescue us. It gives him a mighty arm able to stretch to the uttermost with love for those who deserve his anger.
Who can fathom this wonder? Man would not make this up. Man could not. Do you see it? Do you see what he has done? What do we do but bow speechless? We put our hands over our mouths in awe. Do you see what he has done?
He has loved us with a love inexhaustible.
1 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 32.
2 D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Locations 954-955.