An Atoning Sacrifice (Romans 3:25)

Paul uses a wide variety of metaphors for salvation in the book of Romans, but the idea of redemption and sacrifice would have been most clear to both Jews and Gentiles. It is God who provides salvation through the faithful act of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus did not offer himself independently, the Cross is God’s way of providing redemption from sin (3:24). The Cross was part of Paul’s gospel proclamation from the beginning, so the Cross and the Gospel cannot be separated.

Mercy SeatIn Romans 3:25 Paul describes the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. The key metaphor used in Romans 3:25 is an atoning sacrifice (ἱλαστήριον). Some translations use the term propitiation in 3:25 (ESV) and others use “atoning sacrifice” (NIV). This reflects a problem understanding the word ἱλαστήριον. It can refer to the means by which God forgives sin, specifically the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. A Gentile might thing of sacrifices offered in order to placate angry gods. But the word also can refer to the mercy seat in the LXX, the lid on the ark of the covenant (כַּפֹּרֶת), the very place where sin is cover on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:15). The high priest entered the present of God in the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of a sacrifice to illustrate God’s continuing covering of Israel’s sin.

Does this word refer to the means of turning aside wrath or the place of propitiation? Did the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross “turn aside the wrath” of the angry God who is justly condemning all of humanity (Rom 1:18-3:20)?  James Dunn, for example, argued propitiation in the Hebrew Bible did not mean God was mollified by the Day of Atonement, as if he were a pagan god who was pleased with the sacrifices of his worshipers. In fact, it is God himself who has made the sacrifice which covers sin.

For Dunn, the atonement is a covering of sin rather than a turning away of wrath, although once the sin is covered, God’s wrath is appeased.  He suggests the background for Paul’s use of the word may be the growing Martyr Cult in Judaism (4 Maccabees, for example), in which people are willing to die for the traditions of their ancestors. But it could also be drawn from the regular practice of sacrifice at the Temple. Dunn points out this makes little difference since the martyr theology is an application of sacrificial language of Hebrew Bible anyway.

In Judaism, the sacrifice was for sin. The death of the sinful person is the only way to atone for sin unless a substitute as offered in the place of the sinner. For Paul, Jesus somehow embodied “sinful flesh” in order to deal with sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3). Jesus was “made sin” on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21).

What is remarkable about Paul’s theology in Romans 3:25 is that the atoning sacrifice was made entirely by God. He initiated the sacrifice and he was the sacrifice. Humans are in rebellion and completely estranged from God. Not only can humans not atone for their own sins, they refuse to believe that their sins separate them from God. Therefore God himself provides the means for humans to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus.

What are the implications of God’s gracious act in offering an atoning sacrifice and creating the possibility for humans to have sins covered?  There are some heavy theological implications, but if this is an accurate view of what God has done, how ought humans respond, both ethically and doxologically?

13 thoughts on “An Atoning Sacrifice (Romans 3:25)

  1. The entire history of the Hebrews, including those who preceded the Hebrews, is a living representation of the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, etc. Jesus is the new king, high priest, and Rabbi.
    Every New Testament author has attempted to picture Jesus, but all have fallen short. For us, it is like putting together a 10,000 piece picture puzzle with many pieces missing.
    Yet, we have what we need if we don’t force the pieces together and damage the whole.
    Jesus was human in the same sense that Adam was human. The only difference between Jesus and me was that Jesus remained in the state of complete connection with God that Adam enjoyed in the beginning. Granted, that is a huge difference, but it does not mean that Jesus was God.
    John describes Jesus as the Word of God. Jesus always rejected the title of Son of God, sticking to the Son of Man, but allowing that he was the promised Messiah.
    So, God or man? I agree that God, with his Grace, has taken care of our problem of sin and that he did it with Jesus. I, as a Trinitarian, accept that Jesus is now a part of what we call God, but I am coming to suspect that that his form was less dramatic than God before his conception on earth.

  2. God’s gracious act of giving an atoning sacrifice happened because ultimately God wants all of his children to follow him and have a relationship with him. He has ‘chosen them by grace”. The people of Israel were struggling with keeping the old covenant of following the law; there had to be another way (TTP 187). He did not want them to have to rely on their covenant works in order to have acceptance with God. Not just the people of Israel were falling short of being in acceptance with God, but everyone. The two verses before Romans 3:25 talk about how everyone has fallen short or the glory of God and the only way to be made right with him is through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24). Ethically humans should think about how they ought to live then since we are made free just by accepting the grace that God has given to us. Many times the people that Paul was speaking to would say, ‘I can do whatever I want because i am saved by grace.’ However, that is not how grace works. Our sins died with Christ and we are to live a righteous and holy life, exemplified by him (Romans 6). Put aside our sins and live the way that Jesus calls us, apart from sin.

    • I think that following this train of thought one could think of grace as a gift and not a “free ticket.” The different here is that the first is a precious item to be guarded and cared for carefully while the latter is merely a handout. When you “correctly” understand grace as a way of receiving free salvation you distinctly APPRECIATE it more, as opposed to relying heavily on it’s freedom to gratify your own desires. Romans seems to be a book that dives into this relationship thoroughly. “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
      (Romans 7:21-25)

  3. The fact that God set up everything for humans to have forgiveness from sins makes us completely indebted to him. There is nothing we can do to make him love us any more or any less. But another important implication of that is found in Romans 5:6-8. We wanted nothing to do with God before he decided die and cover every sin we would ever commit. And that has always seemed odd to me. That just because I was born 2000 years after the fact, that automatically means that I wanted nothing to do with God before Jesus died for me. But I have been able to take something of a new perspective on this. If I grew up and somehow heard nothing of God and then was just told about him, I wouldn’t immediately just jump on the Jesus train and give up all my life and the sins I love to commit. Jesus literally died for me before I even knew that I needed him to. And that is what makes me completely indebted to God. Out of that love from the self-giving God, I have hope AND my love can overflow to be a light to the other people around me (TTP 182).

  4. With God gracious gift, and the atoning sacrifice he gave us it was something he gave to his children because he loved all his children. He wanted a relationship with all of his children. We all have times of struggle when it comes to sin, just like the people in Israel, there had to be a different way for the acceptance. This is why we were given Christ, for our sins. Because of this people think that they are free to do as they please because they asked for salvation. Just because of this does not mean we are free to live a life that we want, we should live a life through God. We should live a holy life that shows our love and faith in Christ. Romans 3:23 says that we all have sinned and falle n short of the glory of God, but that does not mean we have to live out lifes that way.

  5. God’s graciousness in pardoning our sin and providing a way of salvation of us should be responded to with incredible joy and thanksgiving. We should feel indebted, so grateful that we want to do whatever we can to show Him how thankful we are and how much we love Him because of His love for us. Paul describes in Romans 12 that our response should be to be living sacrifices. We are to present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death into life and be instruments for righteousness (Romans 5:13). In my view, righteousness refers to right living. As God has laid out for us the right way to live through the Bible and through Jesus’ example, that means following His instructions. This leads them to “transformed living that runs contrary to the quest for honor that marked out the ancient world” (TTP 188). In sum, this means our response to God’s grace in His provision of salvation is both ethical in how the way we live, and doxological in that it is a way of praising and glorifying Him.

  6. Paul talks about how everyone sins, no matter who you are. Romans 3:9 “What then, are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks are under sin.” “Paul means a lot more then just that everyone is a sinner here “Sin is conceived as a cosmic power, a superhuman force with intentionally seeks to work its way within God’s world by enslaving persons for its own purposes, reducing them t mere manipulated puppets operated by its overpowering control thereby incapable of serving God” (TTP .179)Sin sometimes makes it harder to worship, and a lot of people think that because of their sins, they are not good enough to worship. Everyone is good enough to worship and that is what everyone should do! Everyone should respond to this gift of forgiveness will thanksgiving and praise. Humans also have have a promise that they will have eternal life.

  7. The act of God giving Himself to be the atoning sacrifice for OUR sins is something that we can never even begin to think to repay. We are fully indebted to God because he gave Himself as the sacrifice to cleanse us of the sins that separated us from Him. For one who believes this, it calls for a life that is fully committed to Him because he gave everything so that we can be with Him in eternity. He gave us His grace so that we may be saved. Longenecker says that “Sin” is a suprahuman force that makes us incapable of serving God (TTP.178) and because God sent Jesus, we can be cleansed of our Sin so that we can serve Him with every aspect of our lives.

  8. As Long stated in the blog, the gentiles may think of Christ as a sacrifice, just as they sacrifice to their idols, and just as the Jews sacrifice and follow the law to atone for their own sins. Yet Romans 3:21 states “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”. It is no longer through the law that we are free from our sins, and thus, Jesus is not a sacrifice in the sense of payment for breaking the law. Verse 28 continue this; “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” and verses 29 and 30 supports this, stating that God is not the God of the Jews only, nor is He the God of the Gentiles only–He is the God of both. Although the Jews and the Gentiles may look at Jesus as a sacrifice in the terms as a sacrifice to an idol or as atoning for breaking a law–He is neither. As Long stated above, God made the sacrifice that would cover the sins, not man.

  9. At the end of Long’s blog post, he asked about what the implications could be of God sacrificing His son and creating the possibility to have our sins covered. I think that amazing and merciful cannot even begin to describe what it means that God would be so gracious and loving as to offer up His own son to cover up our sins. It was the only way if everyone was going to have a chance. However, and unfortunately, there is a number of people who do take advantage of the gift of Grace, and who like to live however they want, which is not okay. I think what I already said was the biggest implication, after all God does have the right to allow whoever He plans come to know Him do so, and He loves us all and wanted that to happen.
    In the past there was a Day of Atonement for the Jews, “the high priest sprinkled blood over it, which resulted of the cleansing of the people,” (TTP, 190) was a parallel relating to how only a perfect human being’s blood could cleanse us, and that perfect being is Jesus. Paul showed us in Romans 3:25, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…because in his divine forebear acne he had passed over former sins…” That verse clearly showed why God did what He did.

  10. I think the argument for wrath-bearing comes from a number of fronts which put together are compelling.

    1. Sin has penal consequences. Death is the penalty for sin.
    2. God is a righteous judge but unlike our judges he is not disinterested or detached. For him sin inevitably arouses wrath it is the morally appropriate response of his character to any offence against his majesty.
    3. The biblical history and imagery of sacrifice strongly supports poured out wrath. a) the first post-flood sacrifices averted wrath. So in some way the sacrifices assuaged wrath and prompted blessing. The association between wrath and sacrifice is hard to miss b) The Passover lamb again averted penal wrath and substituted for the firstborn c) in the law where the requirement for sacrifice explodes blood sacrifice not only cleansed, it provided a ransom for guilt. Sin was both a pollutant and an offence. Ransom (involving reparation and debt paying) brings some form of equivalence into the sacrifice. The sacrifice took the place of the offerer and bore the offerer guilt. The violent death and the consuming fire are enactments associated with penal wrath bearing and of course substitution.
    4. Closely connected to the type is of course the fulfilment. In Isaiah the servant (Jesus) is a substitute. He is thought because of his great suffering to be under judgement (smitten by God and afflicted) which he was but not for his own sins but the sins of others. Again the physical suffering and death point to penal wrath-bearing.
    5. The parallel with Israel demands penal-wrath-bearing. Jesus (the true Israel) recapitulates Israel’s history. Israel’s exile was penal wrath-bearing. The cross is the exile visited on Messiah. It too must be penal wrath-bearing. Closely connected is the metaphor of ‘the cup that my father gave me to drink’. This seems clearly to be a reference to the cup of wrath Israel was given to drink. Sacrifice seems to avert wrath by absorbing wrath.
    The language of propitiation. The mercy seat (or divine throne) was only able to be a throne of mercy because of blood splashed on it. If not for the blood a holy God could not live among an unholy people without consuming them. Blood cleansed and propitiated. Christ is a bloody mercy seat. It is impossible to miss the significance of blood in the atonement…. it is the blood that makes atonement.

    I feel the thrust of Scripture is compelling. Sacrifice deals with sin and wrath. Wrath is averted by being absorbed by the sacrifice… he was wounded…bruised….punished… and by his stripes we are healed. God requires a sacrifice and becomes the sacrifice…. this is love.

Leave a Reply