The Heart of the Gospel:
Propitiation and Romans 3:24-26 - Part II
by Ed Vasicek
Many church members know that Christ died--that's history--but fewer understand that Christ died for our sins--that's theology. But what did the death of Christ (the atonement) accomplish? Probably more than we can imagine. One basic and significant consequence of Jesus' sacrificial death is the propitiation He made.
In part one of this series, we began dissecting what is arguably one of the Bible's most crucial passages. We defined three of the terms mentioned in this text: justification (the legal act in which God declares us "not guilty"), redemption (the payment of a price to obtain another's freedom or to restore that which was lost), and grace (God's generosity and favor apart from anything we do). This is made possible because of today's potent word, propitiation. But first, let's review the text of Romans 3:24-26:
Justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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. 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. (ESV)
So what do we mean when we say that Christ's blood propitiated God's justice? Because it is unpopular to believe in an angry God, more and more theologians are distancing themselves from the obvious teaching of Scripture that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin. The idea that God is holy and requires a penalty be paid (to settle our sin debt) does not sit well with those who believe God's only significant attribute is love.
Before we look at the term "propitiation" (or "sacrifice of atonement" as per the NIV) we need to rehearse what Paul had just written to the Roman believers. Paul painted a picture of an angry God full of wrath. This wrath is revealed from God's abode, heaven (1:18). God handed corrupt mankind over to horribly sinful lifestyles as an act of judgment (1:24). No unsaved person will escape God's judgment (3:3). Later in Romans 5:9, Paul tells the believer that it is God's wrath from which he is delivered (saved). Although we are sinners (as bad as that is), our greater problem is that God is angry and raging at us. Though the Scriptures repeatedly assure us that God loves us, there is another sense in which He hates us: "you hate all who do wrong" (Psalm 5:5b). We are truly "sinners in the hands of an angry God." Those who reject God's burning rage find it easy to redefine what propitiation means.
The idea of propitiation (Greek, hilasterion) is a satisfaction of God's justice and wrath through the payment of an appropriate penalty. The death of Christ averts God's wrath toward the believer because the sacrifice of Christ (on our behalf) satisfies God's holy justice.
Christ took our sins upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, 1 Peter 2:24). The First Peter imagery is especially picturesque: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree." Our sins were "in his body." 2 Corinthians 5:21 suggests that a transfer occurred at some point: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Many commentators believe that this transfer of our sin upon Christ happened when the earth became dark during the crucifixion. Although this is possible (in my opinion, even likely), we really cannot produce a chapter and verse to advance this theory to fact. It really does not matter if we can pinpoint when it happened; what does matter is that it did happen, and that Jesus bore our sins while He died on the cross. He was suffering to be the ultimate propitiation to satisfy God's just wrath.
In the Torah, when the high priest would practice the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) rituals, He would take two goats and lean his weight upon them. This signified both the creation of a substitute and the transfer of sin.1 One goat would be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat; the other would be released into the wilderness as the Scapegoat.
It is likely that this ritual foreshadowed the work of Christ. He is our substitute and our sins were transferred to Him. His death was represented by the first goat. His blood was offered to the Father as a settlement for the debt of sin. The second goat pictures the burial of Christ: our sins were not only paid for, but their memory dissipated and removed.2 The hymnist captures the thought: "Living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away."
But was the sacrifice of Christ--which propitiated God's wrath--directed toward the Father? The answer is an unequivocal yes for many reasons. The simplest reason is that sacrifice is the ultimate form of worship (Romans 12:1-2), and the Scriptures implore us to worship only God and God alone (Matthew 4:10). For Christ to have offered His blood to anyone other than God the Father would have been blasphemous indeed.
But the Scriptures do not leave us to infer that Jesus offered His blood sacrifice to the Father. Hebrews 9:11-12, 14 make the point obvious:
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption....How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Like a high priest on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Jesus entered as our high priest. But, unlike the Aaronic priest who sprinkled the blood of a goat upon the mercy seat, Christ presented His own blood. He is both the priest and the sacrifice.
We still have some questions to answer. Does the wrath of God mean God is not in control of His emotions? How is the Christian concept of propitiation different from pagan concepts? Why wouldn't God forgive us out of grace without a price being paid?
How can we be sure that the death of Christ was actually and truly the penalty for our sins? Join us next time for part three!
1 See The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube (Hendrickson, 1956), pp.224-246 for a detailed discussion about the two Hebrew words for the "laying on of hands" and their significance.
2 See Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer (Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), Volume 7, p. 64 for an elaboration about the Scapegoat and Christ's burial.
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