At every celebration of the sacred liturgy just after the absolution we hear the famous Comfortable Words (BCP, p. 76). This portion of the liturgy, which is unique to the Anglican tradition, reads, Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him. A selection of scripture passages follows which are meant to give us encouragement and strength (which is what the word comfort means in its Latin root, confirmo).
The Comfortable Words are one of the most cherished parts of the classical Anglican liturgy. It is not unusual to see people mouthing the words along with the priest, speaking them to themselves and God in their hearts whilst he recites them aloud. However, despite their popularity and familiarity, their meaning can be somewhat difficult to understand. This is the case with the last set of Comfortable Words, which comes from St. John’s first epistle (ii. 1,2). It reads: Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.The inclusion of the word propitiation can make it hard to grasp the meaning of what is being said. So what does this word mean? Why is it so important that it is said at each service of Holy Communion?
In his excellent book, Knowing God, the venerable evangelical Anglican theologian and scholar James I. Packer, masterfully unpacks the meaning and spiritual significance of the word propitiation. To propitiate means to avert God’s anger by the offering of a sacrifice. Thus, when in the Comfortable Words we quote the passage from St. John, Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins, we are saying that Jesus Christ is the sacrifice for sin that has averted God’s wrath against us. One sometimes hears priests recite that passage in the following way: And HE is the propitiation for OUR sins. This emphasizes that Jesus satisfies the wrathful indignation of God against all sin. Jesus’ sacrificial offering of himself on the cross of calvary not only takes away our sins, but also appeases and transforms God’s wrath into forgiving love.
Some modern translations of the bible has replaced the word propitiation with the word expiation. What, if anything, is the difference? According to Dr. Packer the difference is that expiation has only half of the meaning of propitiation. He writes, Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes covering, putting away, or rubbing out sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God. Propitiation, however, in the Bible, denotes all that expiation means, and the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby. (Knowing God, p. 163-164. Packer’s emphasis) This is an important difference.
The Bible speaks of God as having wrath against man for his sins. In Romans 1:18 St. Paul writes, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. We should take sin very seriously because it makes God angry. The wrath of God is not an arbitrary, capricious wrath like that of the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. Rather, sin is an affront to the very person and being of God, who is holy and righteous, so his anger against sinners is perfect and just. In the first four chapters of his epistle to the Romans Paul comments on the wrath of God towards sinful man.
But then in Romans 5:10 the tune begins to change, as Paul speaks of how the death of the Son has reconciled us to God, saying: We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. Thus, as Dr. Packer says, By his sacrificial death for our sins Christ pacified the wrath of God. (Knowing God, p. 165)
What is amazing is that propitiation is first and foremost an act of God. In pagan religions deities are propitiated by their followers offering sacrifices. In the Christian religion the entire work of salvation is accomplished by God in Christ. Packer writes, It was God himself who took the initiative in quenching his wrath against those whom, despite their ill-desert he loved and had chosen to save.This is all Good News indeed, and very spiritually comforting. The next time we hear those Comfortable Words may we thank God in our hearts for his lovingkindness in forgiving our sins and putting away his wrath.