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Propitiation is a Greek word, translated in the New International Version as sacrifice of atonement. The word is taken from the temple system. The consequences for failing to keep the stipulations of the covenant fall on the substitutionary sacrifice; the worshiper is pronounced clean and is reconciled to God.
Putting together these three images, justification means that an amazing change has taken place: the sinner is no longer guilty of sin; the slave is no longer a slave; the covenant breaker is no longer estranged from God.
Justification means that there is a change of status: from guilty to not guilty, from slave to free, from foul to clean. This change of status takes place by means of the blood of Christ. The centrality of the death of Christ is in view when we speak of the “cross of Christ.”
There is something mystical in the blood of Christ, some spiritual power at work. Sin is fatal. No one gets out of this world alive. For reasons that we can barely glimpse, Christ’s death is an acceptable substitute to God for the consequences of our sin; his death unleashes spiritual, transforming power.
Gospel-hymn writers of earlier centuries embraced the blood of Christ in ways that can seem strange to twenty-first-century readers.
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Robert Lowry).
“There is power, power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb” (L.E. Jones).
“There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins” (William Cowper).
Living in a world preoccupied with the dimension of the physical makes it hard for us to grasp such a spiritual power available by means of the blood of Christ. To really embrace the wonder of Christ’s blood that produced justification, we need the broader rationality that allows us to take out all the pieces in the puzzle box, not just the ones that are acceptable to a materialistic and rationalistic age.
C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, used the death of Aslan to portray the mysterious power of the blood of Christ. Aslan dies in the place of the traitor, Edmund. Susan and Lucy are filled with grief. They are shocked and thrilled when they discover Aslan alive the next morning. Aslan explains:
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic still deeper which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back . . . before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”2
The power of justification is activated by faith. We must believe it. Martin Luther unleashed the Reformation because the teaching of justification by faith captured his heart. He understood that no power on earth, not even good intentions and good works, was enough to save us from sin. Faith was the power that opened the soul’s door to receive salvation. Luther said:
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