If God loves the sinner, why does He need to be propitiated?
The question assumes that the need for propitiation proves that God is ill–disposed towards us, but this is not how Scripture presents things: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4: 10). Far from our having to change His heart towards us by a propitiatory sacrifice, God’s heart is the very source of all our blessing. Our sins had made propitiation necessary, but He Himself provided the necessary sacrifice––at an immense personal cost. No wonder the apostle can say “Herein is love”!
Why did our sins make propitiation necessary? Because God is holy and righteous. Because He is holy there can be no sin in His presence. Because He is righteous, he cannot excuse or overlook sin. Too often the Gospel is presented as being all about the needs of man, but there is also the side of the claims of God. Unless we understand the claims of God against sin, it is very possible that we may fail to see man’s most fundamental need. Man is “charged ... with being all under sin” (Rom. 3: 9) and as such “under judgment to God” (v19). A gospel that merely addresses secondary issues such as our personal happiness in this life is not really a gospel at all. It may get ‘results’ (as men see results) but the all–important question is ‘Does it us deliver us from the authority of darkness, and translate us into the kingdom of the Son of His love?’ (see Col. 1: 13).
To understand a bit more about this subject, we need to go back into the OT and look at the Great Day of Atonement. On that day, the High Priest (as a type of Christ––compare Heb. 2: 17) went into the Holy of Holies to make propitiation for the sins of the people. How did he accomplish this? By sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice “upon the mercy–seat” (Lev. 16: 15). The children of Israel had sinned, and a sin–offering must die in their place before God could in righteousness accept the people, however much He loved them. Unless the blood was put on the mercy–seat there was no way in which God could accept the sinner. Indeed the mercy–seat only became effectively a seat of mercy because of the sprinkled blood upon it. Without the blood it would speedily have proved itself to be a seat of judgment instead––God’s righteousness would have demanded it. The blood was presented to God in this way “once a year” (v34), enabling God to pass by the sins of the people (see Rom. 3: 25) until Christ dealt with sin once and for all at the cross (see Heb. 9: 26).
Now what the mercy–seat was in type, so the Lord Jesus is in reality. At the cross God “set forth” His Son as “a mercy–seat, through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3: 25). He has there met all the claims of God against sin, thereby providing God with a righteous basis on which to bless man. Does this mean that all will be blessed? Sadly no, but all could be blessed. Why? Because not only is Christ “the propitiation for our sins” but “also for the whole world” (1 John 2: 2). John 3: 16 begins with those wonderful words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only–begotten Son”. God “desires that all men should be saved” (1 Tim. 2: 4), and He has proved it by establishing a righteous basis on which all could be saved. But John 3: 16 does not end where I finished quoting it! It goes on to say that the blessing is only effective for “whosoever believes”. God has done His side, but I must do my side. That is why all will not be saved. Thus if God “has set forth a mercy–seat” (Rom. 3: 25), then my part is expressed by the words “through faith in his blood”. If “the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3: 22) is “towards all”, then it is only “upon all those who believe”.
The great problem is not the heart of God (as the question before us implies) but the heart of man. While it is the goodness of God that leads man to repentance, it is man’s hard and impenitent heart that “treasurest up to thyself wrath, in [the] day of wrath and revelation of [the] righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2: 5). God has done everything from His side. In the OT type, the mercy seat was the place where God met with man (see Exod. 25: 22), and in the reality, Christ is the One in whom God has put Himself in touch with man as never before (see Heb. 1: 2). He is the “mediator of God and men” (1 Tim. 2: 5), not because God was against us, but because we were against God: “alienated and enemies in mind by wicked works” (Col. 1: 21). Let there be no doubts about the heart of God. As the apostle Paul tells the Roman saints: “God commends his love to us, in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us” (Rom. 5: 8)”