The Heart of the Gospel:
Propitiation and Romans 3:24-26 - Part III
by Ed Vasicek
Some pastors have neglected teaching theology because they felt the fundamentals of the faith were safely assumed within evangelical circles. This is no longer the case; every belief--no matter how clear the Scriptures are--is being "revisited." This "mix and match" mentality means we can no longer assume people believe a series of doctrines that used to accompany one another. For example, "young earth creationists" might reject propitiation (as typically defined); firm Trinitarians might reject the sinlessness of Jesus Christ. They use our words, but redefine them.
Some "evangelical" scholars claim that traditional Reformation understanding of the atonement and justification by faith were reactionary (incorrect) interpretations espoused by the Reformers to distance themselves from Rome. In these articles, we are examining Romans 3:24-26, a central text in the debate.
We have looked at the nature of justification, redemption, and grace. Today we will dig more deeply into the concept of propitiation. First let's review our key passage, 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)
Today's article will answer these questions: Doesn't the "Penal Theory of the Atonement" create an unflattering picture of God? Why doesn't God simply forgive us without demanding a payment for sin? How is the Christian concept of propitiation different from pagan concepts? Do the Scriptures really teach that the death of Christ was actually a payment made for our sins, or is such a view forced into the text?
Let's answer our first question: Doesn't the "Penal Theory of the Atonement" create an unflattering picture of God? No, God does not need an anger-management class. God's wrath is provoked logically because His justice (holiness) has been violated; His anger (which involves emotion) is a consequence of mankind's rejection of Him. His anger is truly a "righteous indignation," exemplified by Jesus when He turned over the tables in the Temple courts.
Secondly, why doesn't God simply forgive us without demanding a payment for sin? Romans 3:26 explains that God is," just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." God justifies and saves the sinner in a way that is "just." God does not randomly justify us simply because He loves us, for then His justice would not be satisfied. No, He justifies us on the basis of Christ's work on the cross. He justifies us in a just way.
Although God is omnipotent (has all power), this is not identical with saying "God can do anything." In Genesis 18:25 we hear the rhetorical question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" God either will not or cannot act unjustly. According to Titus 1:2, "God...cannot lie."
If we agree that God cannot lie, act unjustly, or sin, this leads us to conclude that God cannot violate His own nature. Since God is holy and just by nature, these attributes limit what He can (or will) do; it seems likely that God can only forgive sinners in a way that is consistent with Who He is.
The Father did not answer the Son's Gethsemane prayer when He prayed, "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39). We could only be saved through propitiation via the cross.
Thirdly, how is the Christian concept of propitiation different from pagan concepts? The Christian view of propitiation bears only superficial resemblance to pagan concepts. John Stott (in his Romans commentary) makes the contrast:
In the pagan perspective, human beings try to placate their bad-tempered deities with their own paltry offerings. According to Christian revelation, Godís own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself.
Fourthly, do the Scriptures really teach that the death of Christ was actually a payment made for our sins, or is such a view forced into the text?
Although Anselm elaborated the Penal Theory in the eleventh century, its basis goes back to the Torah. Leviticus 5:6 is but one example: "when he realizes his guilt...and confesses the sin...he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock...the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin." ESV
The death of Christ is clearly a "compensation for...sin."
Isaiah 53 is the supreme chapter when it comes to explaining the nature of Jesus' death.
Note the phrases I have highlighted with bold font.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (4-6).
Also note some important phrases from verses 8 and 10:
For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken...Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
It was the Father Who transformed Jesusí death into a sin offering; the LORD (Yahweh) laid our sins upon Christ. The death He suffered was a punishment that brought us peace. This is the heart of what propitiation means: Christ was punished by the Father to satisfy the justice of the Father on our behalf. The Scriptures are clear.
In our fourth and final segment, we will answer: How would the statement, "Christ died for our sins" have been understood in the first century? Why was it necessary for the Messiah to be "God in the flesh" to atone for our sins? And in what sense did the propitiation "...show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins?"
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA