Chapter 11 – Sin, Filthy Rags, Propitiation, Expiation

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Filthy Rags?

Isaiah 64:6 has been a popular verse since the Reformation (Martin Luther – early 1500s). Isolated from its context, this is what it says, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” KJV.

A lot of bad theology and psychological manipulation has been based on this isolated passage. But this verse is usually being used out of its context, and is not to be applied to everyone. Isaiah 64 is a prayer of Isaiah to God, which actually begins in chapter 63, verse 15. Isaiah is praying for the nation of Israel in his day, which had gone into great wickedness.

Notice in the “filthy rags” verse that Isaiah mentions “we have all”, and “all our” and “we all” and “our iniquities” and “take us”. This would be no different than what a righteous man today would be saying when praying for his nation. He is a member of that nation, and so he includes himself. In verse 9 Isaiah even specifies, “…we are all your people.” So, it is within this context that Isaiah is saying that they are so far from God that even what they as a nation are hypocritically claiming as “righteousness” is still “as filthy rags.” It is a condition that describes this group of people, the nation of Israel at that time.

Does this “filthy rags” apply to all individuals? No. Notice what Isaiah says in the same chapter, verse 5, immediately before this popular “filthy rags” verse: You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” So, there were individuals who worked righteousness within the nation of Israel, and God rejoiced in them and met with them! Is Isaiah going to change his mind in the very next verse and say that the righteous works of these righteous individuals are filthy rags? No. Verse 5 shows that God recognizes the individuals within the group, and acknowledges them. The group as a whole is filthy, but when examined within the group, there are a few exceptions. (God is not an idiot! He can discern between the few righteous and the many wicked.)

While much of the time this “filthy rags” verse is used wrongly in ignorance, those who are teachers have the burden of verifying that they are being truthful. “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” To further add to the error, this “filthy rags” idea is often used to claim that even when we strive to do right we are being filthy, as if sacrificing to do right is being self-righteous, and as if sinning is a source of humility! If that is so, why bother attempting to do right? Many people have resigned in despair, or seek to please God through their intellect instead of living righteously. But God seeks for and blesses those who are living righteous. Consider the following passages, and then be sure your theology is popular with God, no matter what men may say:

Righteous Individuals*Righteous as PeopleRighteous as People
Abel: Hebrews 11:4, 1 Jn. 3:12
Noah: Gen. 7:1, Ez. 14:14
Lot 2 Peter 2:7
Abraham Gen. 17:1, Is 51:1-2
Job: Ez. 14:14
David: 1Kings 3:6, 9:4
Daniel: Ez. 14:14
John Baptist’s parents: Lk 1:6
Joseph: Mat. 1:19
Simeon: Luke 2:25 
Joseph of Arimathea: Lk 23:50
Cornelius: Acts 10:1-2, 22
Ez. 18:5-28  the righteousness of the righteous
Ex. 23:7 do not kill the innocent and righteous
Deut. 25:1 they shall justify the righteous
1Kings 8:32 justifying the righteous
Ps. 1:6 Lord knows the way of the righteous
Ps. 5:12 Lord will bless the righteous
Ps. 34:15-16 the righteous vs. evil
Ps. 37:16-17 a little that a righteous man hath
Ps. 92:12 The righteous shall flourish like
Prov. 14:34 Righteousness exalts a nation
Prov. 15:29 he hears the prayer of the righteous
Is. 1:21 Righteousness once lodged in her
Hosea 14:9 the righteous will walk
Amos 2:6 they sold the righteous for silver
Mal. 3:18 between the righteous and the wicked
Mat. 13:7 righteous men have desired to see
Acts 10:35 worketh righteousness, is accepted
1Pt 3:12 eyes of the Lord are over the righteous
1 Peter 4:18 if the righteous scarcely be saved
1 Jn. 3:7 he that doeth righteousness is righteous
Rev. 19:8 fine linen…righteous acts of the saints
There are dozens of other examples.

*Note: God’s definition of “righteous” is a reference to uprightness, integrity, and good deeds, not absolute, infinite sinless perfection.

Some theological lines of thought claim that until Jesus died there was no ability to resist sin, that it is only through him that we have the power to resist. However, we read in Genesis 4:7 that God told Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires you, but you must master it.” Cain had the ability to purge his sinful thoughts and behavior, some 4,000 years before Jesus!

Consider this popular verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Not only did they have the ability to stop sinning, God promised forgiveness if they would stop. The coming of Jesus did not occur for about another 1,000 years after this was written!

God forgave (past tense) people before Jesus too: “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” Ps. 85:2

Sin and the Sinner

A common thought pattern within PSA proponents is that a person who has sinned is forever a sinner. But this is like saying that someone who swam once is forever a swimmer. This line of logic leads to thinking that a person will always be sinning, and to say otherwise is to claim sinless perfection. Numerous Bible passages clearly indicate that a person can stop sinning, and there are no passages which state that we will continue sinning as long as we are living this life. There are no, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” statements in the Bible, or “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” as some today like to say. To the contrary, we are told to stop sinning as if we can actually do so. However, this is not the same as claiming impeccability, which is an inability to sin.

A Christian should be an ex-sinner, not an active sinner, and an ex-sinner should not be called a sinner. Labelling an ex-sinner as a sinner diminishes the biblical expectation that Christians should stop sinning. It presumes failure and makes sinning an expected practice, rendering it less evil. The Bible calls believers “saints”, not because they have achieved a status of impeccability, but because sin is no longer a normal activity of their lives.

We should consider that sin from a Hebraic perspective may be different than strict black-versus-white categorical choices. Right and wrong, sin and righteousness, are often thought of as paths that we choose to walk. For example we read: 

He guides me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.” Psalm 23:3

Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me” Psalm 5:8 

Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths…He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” Psalm 25:4, 9 

“Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way” Psalm 85:13 ESV.

Hebraic thought is more concerned with the path that we have chosen to travel. The path has priority over the occasional failures along the way. Indeed, we read that “the righteous man falls seven times and rises again” Proverbs 24:16. This is not to say that sin is excusable, rather what also matters is what happens after the sin, whether it will be confessed and forsaken and the path of righteousness will be chosen again, or whether the person will turn and deliberately choose to travel the path of the wicked. Consider your life – are you seeking to travel a path of righteous living, even though you may occasionally stray, or have you abandoned this path and chosen the path of the wicked? A person who is deliberately travelling the path of righteousness is not a practicing sinner, though he may occasionally stumble and sin. The sinner is the one who has chosen the path of sin, the path of the wicked who lives in rebellion against God and the order He intended for our lives.

Sin and Transgression may not be the Same

Romans 4:15 “Because the law brings punishment – [for] where no law is, neither [is there] transgression [parabasis].” “Parabasis” means “going aside, or going over, like crossing a line, an infraction”; also used in Hebrews 2:2 “For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward”. Parabasis is the transgressing or violation of an instruction. Without there being an actual law, there cannot be a violation of that law. Gentiles, who are not under Mosaic law, cannot be transgressors of that law.

Sin, “harmatia” is missing the mark, an error. It could be a minor error or a very egregious error. In the case of sin it is erring to abide by the expectation that God had for us, not living according to His divine order. Both Jews and Gentile can commit “harmatia”, sin.

“Where no law is” in Romans 4 verse 15 is indicative of there being places or circumstances where there is no law, specifically outside of Israel and Mosaic Law jurisdiction. But when and where there is a violation of that written law, there is wrath, judgment according to that law “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward” Hebrews 2:2.

There is also such a thing as committing a transgression “parabasis” against another person. Jesus mentions this in Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” ESV. In this instance, the word “trespasses” or “paraptōmata” is indicative of doing something out of proper order, a customary social order or basic normal behavioral norm. Jesus is not necessarily speaking of the codified, written Mosaic Law.

Paul describes 2 categories of sin in Colossians 3. The first category should be sins that are never to be again committed and there is no process of gradual transforming sanctification. The second category is a continual process of sanctification.

Category 1: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: 7 In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.

Category 2:8 But now ye ALSO put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. 9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” KJV

Righteousness – Where Do We Get It?

In Matthew 5:6 Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” According to Jesus, God will bless those who deliberately seek righteousness. He also said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). See also Luke 5:7 and Matthew 5:20. Other Bible passages state the same, “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness”, “Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor” Proverbs 15:9, 21:21 ESV.

Righteousness is a virtue, just as are love, patience, and humility. We must choose to pursue, sometimes even grope, for these things. Virtues cannot be transferred! A virtue is not a status, not a position or a state of being.

Expiation

Expiation is essentially purification. PSA interprets expiation as God cleansing our sin in the sense of cleansing a heavenly ledger which has our sins recorded. Or, at times PSA views expiation as God washing us in some way so He no longer sees our sin. PSA teachers do not typically view expiation as the sinner being purified of actual sin, at least not in relation to atonement. Stopping sinful acts are considered to be sanctification, a good thing to do, but optional and sometimes even dangerous because it could be thought of as works, and our works of righteousness are a terror to their claims of strict faith alone.

The languages of the Bible do not have any word which is translated as “expiation” in English. (In Spanish, however, this word is used for the word “atonement”.) The concept of expiation is there, in the correct sense of a sinner cleansing, expiating, sin from his life, turning from darkness to light, from wrong to right. There are a few places where it could have been used in translation, for example instead of using “propitiation”, though in those places there are other word choices which would have been more accurate than either of those two. The fact that the translators rejected the word “expiation” and used “propitiation” instead, and they also chose to not use more accurate terms like “mercy seat” or “place of mercy”, exposes their underlying PSA presupposition.

Propitiation

Propitiation is the idea of doing, something, a sacrifice for example, to pacify an angry deity. If someone is angry at you and you do something to assuage that anger, you are being propitiatory as the action, and what you do is the propitiation. This is biblical in one sense, in that if we obey God by turning from doing sin and seek reconciliation with Him, then we are being propitiatory. However, this is not something that someone else can do for you, you must turn from sin in your own life.

PSA attempts to make the death of Jesus on the cross a propitiation for our sin, as if God has an anger problem and Jesus dies to enable God to overcome this anger, often referred to as “wrath.” This may sound biblical, but it is a distortion of what the Bible actually says. Yes, most translations have the word “propitiation” in Romans 3:25, but that is the translators injecting their atonement theology into the translation.

Romans 3:22-26 “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” KJV

In verse 25 the word “propitiation” is “hilastērion” in Greek, which is literally “mercy seat” (as used in Hebrews 9:5). It indicates a place of mercy, and has nothing to do with a payment or appeasement. The English word “propitiation” may be well intended by the translators, but actually distorts the idea of a “mercy seat”, or “place of mercy.” A better term would simply have been “reconciliation”, or perhaps “propitiator”. The problem with the term “propitiation” is that it is a theological term which gets loaded with whatever additional meaning a theologian wants to add to its core meaning, which is almost always some form of payment idea to God as an angry deity.

Furthermore, the passage makes less sense if Jesus is being said to be propitiating an angry God because the passage directly links the mercy seat/propitiation as a declaration, a demonstration, of God’s righteousness due to its effect on us by our releasing (the remission) of past sins. Remission is the Greek word “paresin” in verse 25. It means to let go. When a sinner releases, lets go of, his former sinful life due to his new faith, this demonstrates that God is a righteous God, and also a God who showed forbearance, patient endurance, while we sinned. It is not God releasing us from past sin, it is us who, seeing God’s mercy and by embracing the blood covenant, we chose to abandon sin and live according to God’s righteousness, thus declaring with our lives that our God is a righteous God who has demonstrated forbearance, or patient endurance.

In contrast, if God is bought or bribed or appeased to overlook or pardon our sin, then this would be a display of God’s unrighteousness, just as we would consider it to be an offense if a President or a Governor were bribed to issue a pardon to a criminal. God will not pardon the wicked who refuse to repent (Ezekiel 18:20-32).

What we find in the Bible is that God is angry with those who, after being repeatedly warned and admonished, remain stubborn and belligerent in their sin. A favorite passage often quoted by those who want to obsess on God’s wrath is Psalm 7:11, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” But this verse must be quickly followed with the very next verse which is often not quoted, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword…” (ESV) The passage viewed in full context makes clear that God has indignation because of the sin, but is allowing space and time for a person to turn from their sin before He acts upon His judgment. Space, time, and patience come first, because God is merciful, like a good parent. How long He waits before acting in wrath is His prerogative, but snap judgments are not His normative mode of action. God never asks or demands appeasement, propitiation. God wants repentance and restoration of a relationship – reconciliation. Any attempt to propitiate without there being genuine repentance and reconciliation is nothing but bribery.

“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Psalm 32:5 ESV

“Their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant. But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh.” Psalm 78:37-39 ESV

“You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” Psalm 85:2 ESV

“LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.” Psalm 99:8 NIV

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” Micah 7:18