The Heart of the Gospel:
Propitiation and Romans 3:24-26 - Part IV
by Ed Vasicek
We sing, "Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe," or "You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay." Yet millions simply do not get it: Jesus died to offer Himself as a penalty payment for our sins to the Father. Propitiation is the heart of the Gospel.
In previous articles, we saw that God's wrath is turned away from us because of the death of Jesus Christ; His death satisfied God's righteous justice and wrath. He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Just as God's wrath was averted toward Israel when the priest sprinkled the blood on the Mercy Seat (on Yom Kippur), so God freely expresses His mercy to us once the blood of the Lamb was let as a sin payment. The text we have been dissecting is 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)
In this 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?"
First, how would the statement, "Christ died for our sins" have been understood in the first century? The Jewish people would have understood the sufferings of Christ--along with the sufferings of devout Jews--to have been a penalty to atone for sin. According to David Flusser in his book, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity:
Since the age of the Hasmoneans, Jews had believed that the saints who died to sanctify the name of God atoned for the sins of Israel. The story of the mother and her seven sons in the Second Book of Maccabees acquires a greater significance in the Fourth Book of Maccabees, where their death is seen as an atoning sacrifice. In another Jewish source, Midrash Sifre, the idea is expressed that the killing of the Children of Israel by the Gentiles atones for the former's sins.
It is reasonable to assume that during the Roman period this idea was applied not only to Jesus, but also to all those who were executed by the authorities. Even Jews who did not accept Christianity evidently believed that Jesus, like the other martyrs of the Roman authorities, had atoned for the sins of Israel (p. 59).
Although the Jewish people would have understood the death of Christ atoned for sin, they failed to factor in the concept revealed in Psalm 49:7-8: "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him--the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough."
Jesus Christ could actually atone for the sins of mankind and make a payment that is "enough" because (1) He was in a representative position as the Second Adam; (2) He was sinless; and, most significantly, (3) He was the God-man. Since the lost are cast into the Lake of Fire for eternity, the penalty Christ paid was likely an infinite one. If so, this penalty would be the same had He died for one person or all persons, for any number multiplied by infinity is infinity.
The human nature of Christ is forever joined to His divine nature (two natures united in one Person). Hence we read in Acts 20:28, "shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." Since God is the nearest antecedent to "His," it seems as though Paul is talking about "God's blood." Although the human blood of Jesus was shed on the cross, His atoning work is not that of a mere sinless man; instead, it is amplified to infinity because of Jesus' union to His divine nature.
In what sense did the propitiation "show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins?" The answer is fascinating: for centuries, Satan and his myriads could accuse God of being unjust for forgiving the sins of those who repented and turned to Him in faith. God was seemingly forgiving people without regard to righteousness or justice. But God "put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood.... This was to show God's righteousness." At Calvary, God not only provided for the redemption of future generations, but Calvary also vindicated God's character as a just and righteous God before a watching universe.
Along with Paul, we can celebrate: "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" Romans 8:33-34.
Through the agency of faith, we appropriate the benefits of Christ's gracious propitiation. But why did God make faith the key? Because faith is our personal vindication of God's character. Faith is all about God's character. To doubt God is to insult His veracity, His trustworthiness, and His competence. To trust Him is to embrace His character as trustworthy and dependable. When we believe, we acknowledge that He is just, holy, loving, good, and Sovereign.
We find ourselves asking that great question: What is the purpose of God's creation? What are we about? If you answered, "we exist to glorify Him," you are on target. The centerpiece of the glory of God is "the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8). All history was structured around Jesus' propitiation on Mount Calvary--and His glorious resurrection--nearly 2,000 years ago. Let us fully and confidently embrace the fact that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins.
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