There is a theological doctrine that I have been thinking about and studying for many years: the concept of appeasement. Often it is declared that the sacrifice of Jesus appeased the wrath of God. Many commentaries use the language of appeasement at various places in the scriptures. I will use a variety of John Calvin’s statements in his commentary on the scriptures.
“When, therefore, he says, that victory has been given to us, you are to understand by this in the first place, that it is inasmuch as Christ has in his own person abolished sin, has satisfied the law, has endured the curse, has appeased the anger of God, and has procured life; and farther, because he has already begun to make us partakers of all those benefits.” (1 Corinthians 15:57; Calvin’s Commentaries)
“The blood of the cross, therefore, means the blood of the sacrifice which was offered upon the cross for appeasing the anger of God.” (Colossians 1:20; Calvin’s Commentaries)
“By saying, without spot, though he alludes to the victims under the Law, which were not to have a blemish or defect, he yet means, that Christ alone was the lawful victim and capable of appeasing God; for there was always in others something that might be justly deemed wanting; and hence he said before that the covenant of the Law was not blameless.” (Hebrews 9:14; Calvin’s Commentaries)
“When he adds, through the offering of the body, etc., he alludes to that part of the Psalm, where he says, “A body hast thou prepared for me,” at least as it is found in Greek. He thus intimates that Christ found in himself what could appease God, so that he had no need of external aids. For if the Levitical priests had a fit body, the sacrifices of beasts would have been superfluous. But Christ alone was sufficient, and was by himself capable of performing whatever God required.” (Hebrews 10:10; Calvin’s Commentaries)
Calvin is certainly not alone in these declarations. Most of the commentaries I have on my shelves read similarly. But the idea of appeasement has always been troubling to me. Appeasement carries with it concepts from paganism. Worshippers of pagan deities were concerned about appeasing the various gods so they would not strike out against them wrathfully. This idea is seen in cartoon where the worshiper must offer a virgin to the volcano god before the volcano god erupts, destroying the island. The Greeks and the Romans may have used words like propitiation (hilasterion) in their language for appeasement of their gods because this is all they knew. But should appeasement be the doctrinal teaching for what God has done through Christ?
I have not come to a full answer to this question, nor am I going to write a doctoral thesis on the subject. But I want people to consider a simple thought: If God was appeased, then was God actually gracious? Consider what I mean. If wrath still had to be vented, but was simply redirected wrath from us to Jesus, then God was not gracious. One could argue that Jesus was gracious for being willing to take the wrath. But grace was not extended to us by God. Rather, wrath was redirected by God to another individual.
Consider this another way. If I commit a crime and the judge sentences me to death for my crime, the judge is not being gracious if another person takes my place and receives the penalty for me. The one who took my place showed amazing grace, love, and mercy. But the judge did not. The judge carried out the task and administered the full vent of the penalty. The law has been appeased, but the law certainly was not gracious. The judge has also been appeased, but was certainly not gracious in character.
Or, suppose I need to punish my child for breaking the household rules. If another child says that she will take the punishment in place of the one who ought to be punished, am I being a gracious father when I discipline the other child? The grace was shown by the volunteering, innocent child who took the place of the sister, not me. I still vented my displeasure and punishment. I did not show grace, only appeasement.
What I want us to consider is that appeasement and grace are not compatible. It is important to notice that appeasement is not the problem in Romans 3:25.
22 For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22–26 ESV)
The problem, according to Paul, is not that God’s anger needed to be appeased, but that his grace and “divine forbearance” needed to be justified. God “passed over former sins.” But a just judge cannot overlook crimes. A judge who turns a blind eye to crimes is no longer just. The sacrifice of Jesus, therefore, is not the appeasement of wrath, but the acceptable redemption/ransom price to maintain the justice of God (cf. Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; Romans 3:24; Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18; Revelation 5:9). Consider that none of these scriptures say that Jesus came as the appeasement of the world or was an appeasement to God. Rather, Jesus gave himself as a ransom, setting us free from our debt to sin by faith through him. God’s grace is seen in that, rather than demanding an “eye for an eye” appeasement, he graciously puts forward Jesus as the sacrifice of atonement so that God can be “just and the justifer of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25).
I am still thinking on these things. Perhaps there is a flaw in my thinking or something that I am missing. But I wanted to put this forward as a concept because this is the language of the scriptures: grace via redemption, not appeasement from wrath.