God’s Wrath Has Been Quenched
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and man. In order to understand the significance of the work of the Lord Jesus, we must grasp the relationship between God and man. The foundation of this relationship is that God is the Creator and man is His creature. God is the King of His creation, and may justly require man’s obedience. Being King, God is also Judge. He protects those who are oppressed but also punishes the transgressors. The relationship between God and man should be understood as a legal relationship. Since the Fall, man is a transgressor of God’s laws.
In the first chapters of his epistle to the Romans, Paul explains that the wrath of God therefore rests upon man. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteous-ness of men” (Rom. 1:18). The wrath of God is focused upon both Jews and Gentiles upon those who know the Word of God and also upon those who are only confronted with God’s revelation in creation. The entire world is subject to God’s judgment and is guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). Against this background, the Apostle Paul writes about the LordJesus Christ “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25). The focal point of the atonement is the restoration of the legal relationship between God and man.
What precisely is the meaning of the word hilasterion, used in Romans 3:25, and translated as propitiation? Must this word be understood in terms of the Latin word expiation, or in the sense of propitiation? Expiatio refers to complete erasure, and propitiation means the securing of a favorable disposition. In light of Romans 1:18 and 3:20, we would be understating the case if we were to view the atonement as merely a removal of sin. This is underscored by the first epistle of John, in which the word hilasmos is used. Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins, is our Advocate with the Father. This is also an indication that God is the focal point of the atonement. Further confirmation is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, where we read that Jesus has delivered us from the wrath to come. By virtue of the atoning passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s wrath toward sin has been quenched. God has taken away His wrath; He has turned Himself from the fierceness of His anger (Ps. 85:3).
Whereas in Romans 3:25 the word hilasterion (derived from the sacrificial service) is used, we find the word katallassoo in Romans 5. This word means being brought into a friendship with each other. In Romans 5:10, we read, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” In light of the first chapters of the letter to the Romans, the word enemies must be under¬stood in the context of God’s wrath on man. We can also reference the expression “children of wrath,” found in Ephesians 2:3. That passage does not speak of man being angry toward God, but rather God toward man. When the atonement became a historical fact, God’s enmity toward man was taken away. Rather than His wrath resting upon us, He is now graciously inclined toward us. We are not denying that the man upon whom the wrath of God rests is opposed to God and lives in hostility toward Him; rather, we are emphasizing that when we are reconciled to God, not only is the wrath of God quenched, but our opposition is dismantled. In its place grows love for God. However, before we say the latter, we must always confess the first.
As we focus on the biblical basis for the atonement, I also wish to refer to Romans 8, which begins by declaring that there is no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus. At the end of the chapter, the basis for acquittal and peace is stated: Christ has died and been raised on our behalf, and He intercedes for us. By virtue of the death of Christ, acquittal and love replace condemnation. This shows clearly the vicarious nature of Christ’s suffering and death, and that by His death He has quenched the wrath and anger of God. In 2 Corinthians 5:11, Paul speaks of “the terror of the Lord”; whoever refuses to be persuaded to believe in Christ shall once be stricken by the wrath of God. Quite the words τοῦ κυρίου in the Greek expression τὸν φόβον τοῦ κυρίου are seen as an objective genitive. Then Paul speaks here about the fear directed to God, but I am sure that the context demands a subjective genitive. The fear, terror or awe goes out from the Lord and ought to impress men. Over against the terror of the Lord, Paul displays God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
The atoning passion and death of Christ implies that God’s wrath has been satisfied. Both Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 speak of reconciliation with God in the past tense, for this occurred at the death of Christ on the cross. We may not say, however, that at that moment all hostility toward God vanished in those who were reconciled with God. This does not occur until people have personally been gifted with faith. God’s wrath and hostility toward sinful man have been removed by virtue of Christ’s death. On the basis of the atoning passion and death of Christ, a message goes forth to men—men upon whom the wrath of God abides—that He offers His friendship to them. By faith, we become partakers of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished on Golgotha, and we begin to live as those who are friends of God. Christians live by faith, believing in Him who has loved them and given Himself for them (Gal. 2:20).
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the meaning of Christ’s work is unfolded by referring to the Mosaic sacrificial system, and in a very special way by referring to the great Day of Atonement. By making atonement for sin, Christ was a faithful and compassionate High Priest in things pertaining to God (Heb. 2:17). This again makes it clear that the focus of the atonement is first of all upon God Himself. The epistle to the Hebrews offers serious warnings of the wrath to come. There is only one way to escape: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God, who is a consuming fire, is yet gracious, merciful, and full of compassion. Upon death, judgment will await those who are outside of Christ. However, he who looks to Christ as the sacrifice to take away sin may look forward to eternal salvation (Heb. 9:28).
God, in His holiness, demanded satisfaction for sin. The Lord Jesus died on the cross to quench the wrath of God. The same God demands satisfaction and provides it. The Father sent His Son to be the propitiation for sin; it is not only God-oriented, but it also proceeds from God. We may not make a distinction between the Father and the Son—and even less may we suggest a disparity between the two. God’s love is not the consequence but the fountain of the atonement. His love does not issue forth from the atonement; it precedes it. In His eternal love, God did not spare His Son but surrendered Him so that He could bear the punishment for sin vicariously. Christ gave His life for His sheep, and it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who regenerates them, bestowing the gift of faith and conforming them to Christ.
The great difference between genuine Christianity and other religions consists in this: that any pathway to reconciliation with God originating in man is cut off. In all other religions, man must seek to win God’s favor, or that of other gods. The Christian faith testifies, however, that we have obtained the atonement (Rom. 5:11). “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19).