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.
In 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?