“People thought Tolkien was joking when he later said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to bring into being a world that might contain [his] Elvish greeting …. The remark is witty – but also deadly serious.”
– Phillip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship, 26.
J. R. R. Tolkien loved words. More than that, he loved the study of words and delighted in philology or “the zone where history, linguistics, and literature meet.” Therefore, when he had invented several languages he found he needed a world to house them. The result–the entirety of the fictional environs we know as Middle Earth and its inhabitants found their genesis in their creator’s love of words.
Words are something our Creator loves as well. He spoke the world into existence with words, sent his Son as the Word, and the Spirit breathed perfectly all the words we have in the Bible as Scripture. Thus, the Christian life is a life clothed and shaped by words even as some of those words require hard work to gain their full meaning.
When I went to seminary (in the latter part of the 20th century) I had only been a Christian for 4 years. I knew what it meant to be saved but was still working out what all that meant. For example, I had come to learn and love the hymn:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
But it was not yet clear to me how exactly did Jesus wash me white as snow? I knew that Jesus died for my sins, but I don’t think I could have told you what happened when he did or how he did it. That is when I discovered I had a philology problem–a problem with words.
As I often tell students, when I arrived at seminary I was like a crumpled up piece of paper—all I needed to know for life and godliness was there on the page—I just needed some instruction and further discipleship to help iron out my many theological wrinkles.
Thus, through a combination of class instruction, mentorship from my pastor, and the discovery of a few important books, I came to study the doctrine of the atonement. As I studied, I discovered that at the core of the atonement is a red-hot blazing term the Bible calls propitiation, a word I did not know, but one I came to treasure. As the ESV Study Bible simply and helpfully defines it, propitiation is “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor.”
As I studied, I discovered that while the word propitiation is used only four times in the New Testament, its impact is tsunamic—the wave like implications and effects of this aspect of the doctrine of the atonement reach every corner of the Bible. As J. I. Packer says,
“Not only does the truth of propitiation lead us to the heart of the NT gospel, it also leads us to a vantage point from which we can see the heart of many other things as well.”
From this new vantage point grew further understanding and—don’t miss the connection between study and practice—a deeper burden for the lost both at home and especially among those in the world who have never heard the gospel.
For an understanding that on the cross, Jesus took the wrath of God I deserved (Rom 5:9) and averted it for me (Rom 3:25) so I could have his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21) led to an understanding that he also has averted it for every human being on the planet (1 John 2:2), and that righteousness is available for all who repent and believe (Phil 3:9).
In short, the theological freight packed into that one word—propitiation–would become the most important doctrine I would learn in seminary. The result of my philology problem, it became for me and remains a doctrine to know and a doctrine to share.
Yesterday, I preached an expanded version of this message looking at Hebrews 2:17 in our chapel service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Links to audio or video will be posted here when available.
 Zaleski & Zaleski, The Fellowship, 24.
 Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
 J. I. Packer, “The Heart of the Gospel,” in Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2008), 42.