Love was the Cause, not the Consequence, of the Cross of Christ1
In Hebrews 2:14-18 we are told what it means to say that God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and how he, by dying and rising from the grave, was able to defeat and destroy Satan and to deliver men and women from the fear of death by which Satan kept them enslaved. Continue reading . . .
In Hebrews 2:14-18 we are told what it means to say that God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and how he, by dying and rising from the grave, was able to defeat and destroy Satan and to deliver men and women from the fear of death by which Satan kept them enslaved.
We are also told what it was about the nature of Christ’s death that enabled him to conquer the enemy in this way. We see in Hebrews 2:17 that it was because Jesus, in being crucified as our substitute, satisfied or appeased or quenched the wrath of God that we deserved to suffer. This is what is meant by the word propitiation. In doing so he obtained for us forgiveness of sins, he cleansed our souls from the guilt that our sin had incurred. The only way Satan can exert any meaningful influence on us is if our sins remain unforgiven. But in absorbing and enduring in himself the wrath and judgment of God against us, our sins are forgiven, all guilt is wiped away, and we are reconciled to God. In this way the Devil was soundly and eternally defeated.
But we must be careful to avoid two mistakes people often make in their efforts to understand this remarkable truth.
First, contrary to how some translations read, the word here in v. 17 does not mean “expiation” but rather “propitiation.” So what’s the difference? Expiation has sin as its object and means to wipe away or to dispose of sin so that it no longer poses a barrier between us and God. To “expiate” sin is to cancel it. And of course, that is precisely what happened. Praise God that our sin has been “expiated” and cleansed and wiped away. But Christ did this in his death by “propitiating” the wrath of the Father. Thus, whereas expiation focuses on removing sin, propitiation focuses on satisfying or appeasing God. Sin was expiated precisely because God was propitiated.
Second, and even more important, our author is not saying that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, has by his death transformed God from a mean and cruel-hearted bully into a well-disposed and loving Father. That would be to pit one person of the Trinity against another. God doesn’t need to be transformed from an angry and hate-filled God into a peaceable and loving heavenly Father. Never forget that it was the kindness and tender-heartedness and love of God that moved him to send his Son to die for you and me.
“FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY SON” (John 3:16a).
“BUT GOD SHOWS HIS LOVE FOR US IN THAT WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS, CHRIST DIED FOR US” (Romans 5:8).
“IN THIS THE LOVE OF GOD WAS MADE MANIFEST AMONG US, THAT GOD SENT HIS ONLY SON INTO THE WORLD, SO THAT WE MIGHT LIVE THROUGH HIM. 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” (1 John 4:9-10).
You can’t be clearer than that! Love was the fountainhead, the source, the motivating cause, the principle and the power that led the Father to send the Son and also led the Son to willingly give up himself on our behalf on the cross. God is love, and that from all eternity. The cross didn’t transform the Father into love, as if before the cross he was altogether and only angry and mean. The cross was itself the expression of God’s love! The cross of Christ came to pass because God already is love; not so that he might become love.
So, as strange as this may sound, it is the gospel truth: The love of God sacrificed the Son of God in order to satisfy the wrath of God so that we might become his children.