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Lowell Brueckner

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The Superb Language of the Cross, part 2


On the eighth of this month, I made some comments concerning a message on the wrath of God, preached by Phil Johnson. It is not a common subject in these days and that lack is causing a great imbalance in the evangelical church. We are embarrassed to present a God of wrath. Francis Chan said that we need to stop apologizing for our God and ask His forgiveness for not preaching all that the Bible says about Him.

Because we are not greatly concerned about the wrath of God, we cannot fully appreciate propitiation. Our son spoke on that theme in a church with several hundred members and many came to him afterwards, confessing that they had never been taught on that subject. One of them was a 70-year-old veteran who had been active in church service all his life.

Well, on this blogspot, I hope that we can be faithful to Christ and His flock by presenting the whole counsel of God. May God give us the grace to do so! Commentaries by Albert Barnes, Adam Clarke, John Wesley and Warren Wiersbe will help us. What follows is the second part of “The Superb Language of the Cross”, taken from the book, We Have an Altar, and the three words that we will try to define are reconciliation, propitiation, and justification…




“All these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Co.5:18). No verse of scripture could serve our purpose better, I think, than this one, which states the reconciliatory work of God towards us, as well as our work or ministry of bringing men into a state of reconciliation with God.
In our study of a biblical word, it is always a good idea to go to a dictionary to find the general, common use of the word, and then to a Bible dictionary to find, what I like to call, the gospel sense of the word. Even though we first look for the secular meaning of the word, it is better to go to a Greek dictionary, because there may be a difference between that original term and its English translation. Once we have found that meaning, we must remain faithful to it and take care not to change it for another. Besides this, there may be two or three words in Greek for one in English (such as the word love, which could be agape or phileo in Greek) . So, we have to be sure to see, which Greek word is used in the text that we are studying. We should also notice both the noun and verb forms of the term.

However, we also know that the gospel is spiritual and therefore in the Kingdom of God these terms take on a meaning, which goes beyond what is understood naturally. That is, the natural translation is true, but the word holds far more value and importance, when it is used by the Holy Spirit to define spiritual things. Here we need much help from God to be able to extract, not only the meaning of the word, but the spiritual riches that are expressed by it, the action that God has taken, and the state into which it brings us. In our present study, very simply, the action which God has taken is to reconcile us and the state, into which we have been brought, is that of reconciliation with God. It is no small matter.

In the text above, the Greek word used in various forms, as a noun or a verb, is katallasso. It is a word that has to do with relationships. It assumes that a relationship has been damaged or destroyed and therefore effective action must be taken to restore it. A change must be effected in order to transform a hostile relationship into a friendly one.

Diallasso is another Greek word meaning to reconcile, but this word is never used in reference to our relationship with God. The reason is because this word means mutual concession after mutual hostility. It means that both parties must change their attitude towards one another, assuming that both are at fault in their hostility. In the case of God and man, it is not so. We are the ones who must change; God never changes. He is never at fault and never needs to make concessions.

Therefore, something must be done, not by fallen man, but for him. As always, we find ourselves helpless to initiate any action in God’s direction. If we think we can, we are deceived and know nothing of the height, depth and strength of sin’s wall of separation. Warren Wiersbe states: “ ‘Religion’ is man’s feeble effort to be reconciled to God, efforts that are bound to fail. The Person who reconciles us to God is Jesus Christ, and the place where He reconciles us is His cross.” And Adam Clarke affirms: “It is only by the grace and Spirit of Christ that the proud, fierce, and diabolic nature of men can be changed and reconciled to God.”

We need a representative before a holy God, a mediator, who will take our hand and put it into God’s. We need someone to deal with the guilt of man, the cause of the separation that has distanced him far beyond what can be measured in miles, kilometers, or even light years. The alienation is infinite and potentially eternal, and its cause is far greater than something that man can repair. The enmity is deep, penetrating to the unfathomable depths of his nature. He possesses a traitorous rebellion, which knows no equal in the annals of human relationships, by which we can compare it.
“Dark was the stain that we cannot hide,
What can avail to wash it away?”

On the subject of reconciliation, Albert Barnes had some especially good things to say: “Man was alienated from God. He had no love for Him. He disliked His government and laws. He was unwilling to be restrained. He sought his own pleasure. He was proud, vain, self-confident. He was not pleased with the character of God, or with his claims, or his plans. And in like manner, God was displeased with the pride, the sensuality, the rebellion, the haughtiness of man. He was displeased that His Law had been violated, and that man had cast off his government. Now reconciliation could take place only when these causes of alienation should be laid aside, and when God and man should be brought to harmony; when man should lay aside his love of sin, and should be pardoned, and when, therefore, God could consistently treat him as a friend. The Greek word used here (καταλλάσσω katallasso)… in the New Testament means to change one person toward another; that is, to reconcile to anyone. It conveys the idea of producing a change so that one who is alienated should be brought to friendship. Of course, all the change which takes place must be on the part of man, for God will not change, and the purpose of the plan of reconciliation is to effect such a change in man as to make him in fact reconciled to God, and at agreement with him. There were indeed obstacles to reconciliation on the part of God, but they did not arise from any unwillingness to be reconciled; from any reluctance to treat his creature as his friend; but they arose from the fact that man had sinned, and that God was just; that such is the perfection of God that He cannot treat the good and evil alike; and that, therefore, if He should treat man as His friend, it was necessary that in some proper way He should maintain the honor of His Law, and show His hatred of sin, and should secure the conversion and future obedience of the offender.”

All this God proposed to secure by the atonement made by the Redeemer, rendering it consistent for him to exercise the benevolence of his nature, and to pardon the offender. But God is not changed. The plan of reconciliation has made no change in his character. It has not made him a different being from what he was before. There is often a mistake on this subject; and people seem to suppose that God was originally stern, and unmerciful, and inexorable, and that he has been made mild and forgiving by the atonement. But it is not so. No change has been made in God; none needed to be made; none could be made. He was always mild, and merciful, and good; and the gift of a Saviour and the plan of reconciliation is just an expression of his original willingness to pardon.”

The entire plan was initiated by a loving God, unwilling to let His creatures perish in eternal darkness. He sent His Son to cover the distance of separation, when “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn.1:14). He and he alone did the work of reconciliation in its entirety, tearing down the wall of sin between man and God. He took that corrupted, rebellious nature of man and nailed it to His cross. He replaced it with a new nature, formed after His own, possessing all the beauty of heavenly attributes, and put it within man. He took those hands, once stained by sin, and secured it in the holy hand of His Father. Now man could enjoy his Creator, revel in His presence, and rejoice in His lordship. He was reconciled to God.

The love of Christ compels him to no longer live for himself, but to accomplish God’s purposes on the earth. He is given the ministry of reconciliation, reaching out to a world as lost as he once was. He will not accept their state of darkness and alienation from God, but takes on the task of proclaiming repentance and remission of sins to all nations. He cannot accustom himself to the sound of Christ-less feet on the road to damnation…
“Without one hope or ray of light,
With future dark as endless night,
They’re passing to their doom,
They’re passing to their doom.”

We have an altar of reconciliation that brings us into fellowship with God…

The Greek term for propitiation is used in three forms in the New Testament – hilaskomai, hilasmos, and hilasteerion. In the last section, we studied what Christ did for us to reconcile us to God. The point was made very clearly that God did not need to be reconciled to us, so Christ worked the change in us to bring us to God. However, in propitiation we see that something is done for God in order that He can be merciful to us.

The Greeks used the verb, hilaskomai, as something that they must do “to appease the gods and make them propitious (merciful)”, and this is the mentality evident in all heathendom. The pagan fears the gods and will stop at nothing to quell their anger. Unfortunately, he never achieves it and so he lives his lifetime under a slavish fear.

In the Holy of Holies part of the Hebrew tabernacle, and later their temple, lay the Ark of the Covenant. The two stones, upon which the Ten Commandments were written, were inside the ark and there was not an Israelite, who had not broken them and thereby offended their Holy God. The top lid of the ark, with two cherubim overshadowing it, was called the Mercy Seat, but literally, it was called in the Greek Septuagint, the Propitiation (hilasteerion) Seat. Outside the tabernacle or temple, an animal was sacrificed in a violent, bloody death. Then his blood was brought into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled seven times upon the Propitiation Seat. The transgressions of the people were literally covered by the blood-sprinkled lid and in this way God could be propitious to the Israelites.

The tax collector, who prayed in the temple at the same time as a Pharisee, could not look heavenward, beat his breast with his fists and exclaimed, “God be propitious (literally) to me, the sinner!” (Lk.18:13) It seems to me that he heard the Pharisee claiming that he certainly was not a sinner like he, the publican. Therefore, he prayed, “God, I admit it. I’m that sinner, he’s talking about! Please God, don’t be angry with me! I need you to deal with me in mercy or there is no hope for me!” God has found a way to justify that kind of grieving, repentant sinner.

In the first chapter, we noticed various places in the Old Testament, where a propitious act was performed to appease an angry God. Here is another occasion, when the people grumbled because of God’s judgment upon Korah and 250 leaders in Israel (Nu.16:41-49). God’s wrath was kindled and He warned Moses, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Moses and Aaron fell to their faces and Moses exclaimed, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun!” The account continues stating that “Aaron took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. But those who died by the plague were 14,700.”

In 1 John 2:2, it states that Jesus Christ, “Himself is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins”. It means that Christ is an expiator, an atoning victim. He has so dealt with sin, removing the guilt and remitting the sin, that God has turned from His wrath and can now show mercy on the believing sinner.

Paul explains more fully in Romans 3:25, why Christ became the propitiation: “Whom God displayed publicly as propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness…” By the death of Christ on the cross, God made a public demonstration of His righteousness. It shows to all of mankind that He will not tolerate sin, but will violently punish it to the death, and Christ paid dearly as the atoning victim. The offended God poured out His wrath on His Son. In this verse we see clearly that God willed and brought about Jesus’ death. Through it, God was propitiated and his holy, righteous character was vindicated. Peter confirms it in Acts 2:23: “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross…” and in 3:18, Peter adds, “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.”

One of the prophets, who announced the sufferings of Christ, was Isaiah, who made it very clear that God Himself was behind His sacrificial death: “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him… The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief…” (Is.53:6,10).

How can God be pleased to punish His Son? First, He has pleasure in all His work, because it is all to the completion of a wonderful design. Christ joins in that pleasure: “Who for the joy placed before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (He.12:2). Secondly, with God there is constant displeasure in sin. A Christian told me of coming into a place, where worldly music was playing loudly, and met there other believers, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. They answered, when questioned about it, “Oh, we’ve become accustomed to it.” God never becomes accustomed to sin and He is not pleased, no matter the price involved, until He has gotten rid of it. Thirdly, He takes pleasure, because of the fruit, which will come of it. The Moravians, who gave themselves to the Great Commission of Christ, going to the most unpleasant corners of the earth, had this watch cry: “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.” They were there to do God’s pleasure whatever the cost!
Read these words of John Wesley: “Whom God hath set forth – Before angels and men. A propitiation – To appease an offended God. But if, as some teach, God never was offended, there was no need of this propitiation. And, if so, Christ died in vain. To declare his righteousness – To demonstrate not only his clemency, but his justice; even that vindictive justice whose essential character and principal office is, to punish sin.”

Albert Barnes: “The proper meaning of the word (propitiation) is that of appeasing, turning away anger, rendering propitious or favorable. The idea is, that there is anger or wrath, or that something has been done to offend, and that it is needful to turn away that wrath, or to appease.”

We conclude this section with 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, he who believes upon Him is, by God’s own judgment upon His Son, delivered from the wrath that he so justly deserves and he comes into the covenant of grace. We now see that not only does God demonstrate His righteousness through the cross, but His wonderful, all-surpassing love. This is passionate love of the very highest order. Nothing on earth compares to it and, for this reason, the world cannot recognize it and misinterprets it.

I want you to read now a very important observation made by Warren Wiersbe (with some emphasis of my own): “Christian love is a special kind of love. 1 John 4:10 may be translated: ‘In this way is seen the TRUE love.’ There is a FALSE love, and that kind of love, God must reject. Love that is born out of the very essence of God must be spiritual and holy, because ‘God is spirit’ and ‘God is light’. This true love is ‘poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us’ (Ro.5:5, NASB). We must understand ‘he that loveth not knoweth not God’ IN THIS LIGHT (1 Jn.4:8). Certainly many unsaved people love their families and even sacrifice for them. And no doubt many of these same people have some kind of intellectual understanding of God. What, then, do they lack? They lack a personal experience of God. To paraphrase 1 John 4:8, ‘The person who does not have this divine kind of love has never entered into a personal, experiential knowledge of God. What he knows is in his head, but it has never gotten into his heart’… True theology (the study of God) is not a dry, impractical course in doctrine — it is an exciting day-by-day experience that makes us Christ-like!”

We are not abandoning the theme of propitiation, when we speak of the love that can only be found in God, as we can see in 1 John 4:10. Once the wrath of God is appeased, by means of the propitiation, we enter into this love. This fact is so important that we must stop and contemplate it a little more. God’s love is not at all like man’s corrupted love and man cannot fathom it. God’s love is seen in that He always does what is best. When He demonstrates His love, He does not give people what they want, on the other hand, Scripture proves that God often gives them what they want in order to punish them. His love is certainly not humanistic and not always does it relieve a human being of his poverty, sickness, or uncomfortable situation. Paul was willing that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by live or by death”(Phil.1:20).

In paganism, often two gods exist in the minds of the people. One is a good god, who does only pleasant and lovely things. The other, who brings calamity, is a bad god. There are not a few Christians, who have that concept, but God says this about Himself: “I am the Lord and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these” (Is.45:6,7).

Joseph learned to know the love of God in his years of slavery and imprisonment. He could clearly see that God had brought it all to pass to strengthen his relationship with Him and bring him to spiritual maturity. It was God’s love that was at work to bring his brothers to repentance. He spoke to them roughly, then went alone and cried. In the end, he could say, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Ge.50:20). Thirteen years of suffering in Joseph’s life brought wonderful results. We have a bronze (symbol of judgment) altar, which appeases God’s holy anger and carries out His judgment…

Perhaps the most important verse in the last section was Romans 3:25 and now that our subject is justification, we look to the previous verse: “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” In verse 25, as we already saw, Paul speaks of the public display of God’s righteousness on the cross and he repeats it in verse 26. In the same verse, he gives us the purpose that God had in mind in willing the sacrificial death of His Son; that is, to show that He is righteous or just, and yet He found a way to justify the offender: “So that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

The Greek word for justification is dikaiosis and its definition is very simply acquittal – to be declared not guilty. The verb form is dikaioo to render just or innocent. Imagine the accused person before the bar of justice. He has been brought up for trial and the evidence has been heaped against him. The moment of truth has come. He stands to hear the decision of the court, thinking that in a few seconds, his freedom could be taken away and years of imprisonment could await him. Then, he hears the pronouncement of those wonderful, two words – not guilty! He walks out of the courtroom a free man.

Earth’s halls of justice have never held the drama that is displayed in the case of every sinner, who is charged before God’s judgment seat, for it is not a payment of a fine or the question of a number of years of incarceration that is at stake. He is accused of high treason against the Ruler of the universe and the resulting death of His Son, for were it not for his crimes, the Son of God would not have had to go to the cross. The penalty is eternal punishment in the torments of a hell that has no exits. There will be no hope of any relief forever. To seal his doom, there is no question of his guilt and the sure conviction of his guiltiness shakes his poor soul.

The wonder of it all is that the very God, whom he has offended, has designed a plan whereby he may be freed. It is this great work of justification that we are now contemplating, in which God continues to be perfectly righteous and yet the sinner can be acquitted. Never has there ever been so massive a problem confronting the human race and never has there been a solution so superb. It involved the incarnation of the eternal Son and His earthly life ended on a rugged cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. In a few excruciating hours of torment, he achieved the unachievable and three days later, arose to seal our justification, which was accomplished on the cross.

The propitiation was complete. God’s righteousness was safe and His anger was appeased and now He can show mercy. Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of justification, a dikaioma (Greek, meaning an ordinance, a declaration, a concrete expression of righteousness), declaring the believer in His work not guilty. It is legal and official. God is entirely satisfied and so should that one be, who places faith in Him. He can rest with God in that work. The publican, who cried, “God be propitious of me the sinner” went to his house justified, because of this work. He was freely justified by a gift of grace. The genuine remorse for his sin was evident and from his heart he called upon God. There was nothing left for him to do. So it was for the thief on the cross.

An understanding of the word for righteousness used in Romans 3 is very important. The Greek noun is dikaiosune and it does not refer to an attribute of God, but the plan of God to declare man righteous, which comes from and does not compromise the righteous character of God. The word means justification.

Once again, I look for some help from Albert Barnes in bringing this all-important matter before you. I want to be sure that you capture this great truth: “He secured the proper honor to his character as a lover of his Law, a hater of sin, and a just God. He has shown that if sinners do not avail themselves of the offer of pardon by Jesus Christ, they must experience in their own souls forever the pains which this substitute for sinners endured in behalf of people on the cross. Thus, no principle of justice has been abandoned; no threatening has been modified; no claim of his Law has been let down; no disposition has been evinced to do injustice to the universe by suffering the guilty to escape. He is, in all this great transaction, a just moral governor, as just to his Law, to himself, to his Son, to the universe, when he pardons, as he is when he sends the incorrigible sinner down to hell. A full compensation, an equivalent, has been provided by the sufferings of the Saviour in the sinner’s stead, and the sinner may be pardoned.”

This is the uniqueness and the wonder of the gospel. Even while pardoning, and treating the ill-deserving as if they were innocent, he can retain his pure and holy character. His admitting them to friendship and heaven does not show that he approves their past conduct and character, for he showed how much he hated even their sins by giving his Son to a shameful death for them. He shows no less regard to his law in pardoning than as in punishing. This is the grand, glorious, special feature of the gospel plan of salvation.

Here is a short synopsis of Paul’s teaching in this supremely important portion of anointed scripture: God’s plan of justification has been shown openly through the gospel, comes by faith in Jesus Christ and is for all those who believe – who trust in His person and base their stand in faith firmly upon His work. They receive it without any merit or worthiness on their part, but as a gift of God’s grace. This is possible because of the redemptive work (the price paid to free from sin and its evil consequences) of Christ Jesus, who had to take upon Himself the guilt and punishment that belonged to them, thereby appeasing the wrath of God and satisfying his righteousness. This means of justification is now in effect and God remains perfectly righteous, and yet acquits the guilty sinner. He is declared not guilty because he has placed his trust in Christ! We have a justifying altar that acquits the guilty sinner.


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