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What is Expiation?

Ministry Staff Reflections

In our home in Tulsa we had an oubliette in the garage. Oubliette is French for “a place of forgetting”. Whenever something broke, I would stick it in that corner and leave it. Sometimes this would be for weeks, months, or even a year.

I loved that place. I could just shove something into that corner and forget about it. That is until the occasion when I miraculously had margin, and courage, to deal with the broken object. However, more often than not, someone, perhaps my beautiful bride, would express urgency about the item.

I would then venture into that corner of the garage and deal with the brokenness. More often than not, there was only one solution. I would look at that broken object. Knock it around a few times with a hammer. Crack it open. Tinker with it beyond repair. Then I would gather all the parts and bear them away to the trashcan to be removed permanently from the premises.

This, friends, is a picture of expiation. It’s a broken picture, held together by duct-tape, wire hangers, and whatever other contraptions I typically fabricate to poorly fix stuff. But that’s just the point.

I’m a feeble human. My illustrations hold up about as well as my repairs. I am in need of a master wordsmith to demonstrate the complex task that God accomplished in removing sin. I need a master craftsman to go about the repair necessary. Not just to fix my broken illustration or broken objects in the garage, but to fix everything: me, my family, society, and all God’s creation. Through Christ’s suffering on the cross, not just my brokenness is handled, but all the world’s brokenness is handled.

What is Expiation?

One component of this repair process is often grossly overlooked, but it is critical. It is called expiation. John frame, in his excellent systematic theology, describes expiation. He says, “This means that Jesus bore our sins, took them on himself, and therefore did away with them” (Systematic Theology, 902).

There are a number of helpful verses that give insight to expiation. Isaiah 53:6 says, “And the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Verse 12 says, “Yet he bore the sins of many.” One of the most powerful and vivid depictions of expiation in the New Testament is the exclamation of John the Baptist at Jesus’s approach. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). And possibly the most theologically robust statement on expiation appears in Hebrews 9:28. “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Suffering and Sacrifice

Expiation is indelibly connected to suffering and sacrifice. Christ is pictured as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 who bears sin away. John the Baptist welcomes Christ as a sacrificial lamb in John 1:29.

Remarkably, expiation began before the cross. If you look back to Isaiah 53 it says that the suffering servant is stricken and wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and with his stripes we are healed. In others words, from the beginning of Christ’s suffering at his trial—the shaming, the beatings, the scourging—expiation took place (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, 396). Expiation continued all the way until that final breath exhaled and Christ died.

Christ the Scapegoat

In the Old Testament expiation is pictured through hands transferring sin to animals. Leviticus 16 portrays one of the most pristine examples of this. Aaron, after atoning for the holy places, lays his hands on a living goat. The sins of Israel are passed to this goat. The goat is driven into the wilderness, bearing away the people’s sin. It is the scapegoat.

It is uncanny how Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism (Mk. 1:4-13), chronologically falling near to John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:29, retains marked similarity to Leviticus 16. Recall, that John the Baptist is baptizing all the people for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan River. Then comes Christ who is baptized, too. Immediately the Holy Spirit fell upon Christ like a dove, and he is immediately driven into the wilderness to resist temptation from Satan. Jesus is our scapegoat.

Expiation Is Not Propitiation

Many confuse expiation with propitiation. Others, not liking the propitiation concept, attempt to eliminate propitiation, spinning the Scripture to present only expiation. How is expiation distinguished from propitiation? Propitiation is what Jesus received from God (Rom. 3:25-26). Jesus drank the full cup of God’s wrath against sin (Isa. 51:17; Mt. 20:22). This is an essential aspect of the Christ event. Expiation is what Jesus received from man. Before Jesus experienced God’s wrath on the cross, Jesus bore sin from man. In other words, expiation precedes propitiation.

Expiation Is a One For All Event

Expiation—as Hebrews 9:28 above indicates—is a once for all event. Jesus handled our sin at the cross. Just as all forms of Old Testament sacrificial expiation look forward to the expiation at Christ’s cross, all forms of expiation practiced in the Church, such as prayer and the Lord’s Supper, look back to that one and same event where Christ bore sin away.

John Calvin makes this clear:

And [it] was done but once, because the effectiveness and force of that one sacrifice accomplished by Christ are eternal, as he testified by his own voice when he said that it was done and fulfilled [John 19:30]; that is, whatever was necessary to recover the Father’s favor, to obtain forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and salvation – all this was performed and completed by that unique sacrifice of his. And so perfect was it that no place was left afterward for any other sacrificial victim. (Institutes, 4.18.13)

Christ’s righteousness makes expiation possible; Christ’s righteousness makes expiation beautiful. Referring to Christ’s attribute of righteousness, Herman Bavinck says, “In fact it is precisely the attribute of God that gave Christ as an expiation, so that God could forgive sins out of grace while preserving justice” (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, 369).

Expiation Changes How We Look at Self

So next time you come across brokenness, whether it is a discarded item in the corner of your garage or sin you’ve pushed away into the corner of your heart, remember that if you are Christ’s, then He paid for that sin. Jesus expiate that.

He suffered as a sacrifice that bore sin away, long before you were born and long before that sin sought refuge in your heart. You have been set free. You do not have to permit that sin to dwell in Christ’s home. There is a new resident in your heart; He is King of it all (Eph. 3:17). He will return. This time it will not be as a sacrifice but as a ruler. Before Jesus came to expiate our sin. Now Christ comes to execute His rule.

Joey Cochran is the Pastor of Middle School Discipleship and Communication. He is a Ph.D. student and the Senior Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Center, both at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes at jtcochran.com. Follow @joeycochran on Twitter.