Romans - The Gospel of God The Heart of the Gospel - Justification by Faith P2 Chap 3 vs 21-31
The Vindication of the Righteousness of God - vs 25-26 Christ, a Propitiation v 25a - What it Means
Outline 1. The Righteousness of God in the Gospel vs 21-26 a. The Revelation of a Righteousness from God vs 21-24 1. Righteousness apart from Law v 21 2. Righteousness through Faith vs 22-23 3. Righteousness by Grace v 24 b. The Vindication of the Righteousness of God vs 25-26 1. Christ, a Propitiation v 25a – What it Means 2. Christ, a Propitiation vs 25b-26 – What it Proves 2. The Elimination of Boasting through the Gospel vs 27-31 a. The Principle of Faith vs 27-28 – Boasting Excluded b. The Commonality of Faith vs 29-30 – One God, Same Faith c. The Outcome of Faith v 31 – the Law Upheld
1. Christ, a Propitiation v 25a – What it Means
Paul having spoken of ‘the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’, continues:
‘Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith’ – v 25a
The Greek word represented by the translation ‘set forth’ is found two other times in the New Testament; it is translated ‘purposed’ in Ephesians 1 v 9 and ‘planned’ in Romans 1 v 13. It can also mean ‘display publicly’. Most translations have ‘set forth’ while the New American Standard Bible (1995) translates: ‘whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation….’ The English Standard Version has ‘put forward’ while the New International Version ‘presented’. The King James and Revised Versions translate as ‘set forth’, but the King James Version gives the alternative rendering ‘foreordained’ in the margin while the Revised Version gives ‘purposed’. Either meaning, purposed or display publicly, is possible here. Certainly it’s true that Christ and His sacrifice on the Cross is the fulfillment of what God purposed as the ultimate answer to sin. It was through the Law and the Prophets He revealed His purpose that one would come to accomplish a once for all redemption. The types and prophecies ultimately found fulfillment with the coming of the Son of God who was sent by His Father and declared by John the Baptist to be “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – John 1 v 29. So we could read this statement as – ‘whom God purposed a propitiation’ as the Revised Version marginal reading suggests. That said, it is more likely that the intended meaning is as translated by the New American Standard Bible, ‘displayed publicly as a propitiation’ in that the Lord Jesus has been revealed or ‘presented’ to the world as God’s answer for sin. This makes sense when we consider that the word propitiation can be translated ‘mercy seat’, as we shall see presently, and this points us back to the mercy seat in the Tabernacle which was hidden from public view in the most holy place. Only the high priest saw it through a cloud of incense once a year when he entered the sanctuary on Israel’s annual Day of Atonement to sprinkle upon and before the mercy seat the blood of sacrifice. What took place at the mercy seat in the concealed confines of the sanctuary and within the limits of the nation of Israel on that solemn day pointed forward to the Cross which not only happened in public view outside the city wall of Jerusalem, but more specifically is now ‘set forth’ or ‘displayed publicly’ in or by the gospel for all the world to ‘see’ and understand that Christ through His work on the Cross is God’s ‘mercy seat’. It is in Him that sinners can find acceptance with God. As Paul says elsewhere, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ – 1 Corinthians 1 v 23.
The emphasis of Paul by his use of this noun hilastērion (ἱλαστήριον), ‘a propitiation’, is to tell us of what Christ is because of what He has done. The New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version render it as ‘a sacrifice of atonement’ while the New American Standard Bible reads ‘as a propitiation’ in the text and also gives the alternative rendering of ‘apropitiatorysacrifice’. In contrast, Darby’s translation and Young’s Literal Translation render the noun ‘amercy seat’ and the New English Translation and the Christian Standard Bible as ‘the mercy seat’. The reason the word is translated in these two different ways is because it can refer to either the place or the means of atonement or expiation, if you like, the where and how. Take for example how the New International Version translates the latter idea, a means of atonement – ‘God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith’. Some commentators see this as the sum total of what Paul is saying here concerning the work of Christ without any antitypical reference to the mercy seat. But if we follow, for example, the Christian Standard Bible translation – ‘God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith…’ we are directed to think of Christ not only as the means of atonement, but also as the place where or more particularly, the one through whom God extends mercy and forgiveness to sinners. The latter statement is surely what Paul is emphasizing. Therefore, Christ Jesus, ‘set forth as a propitiation’ means divine mercy is extended toward those who have sinned because divine justice has been satisfied by the blood of His sacrifice on the Cross. The hymn writer expressed it well:
O Wondrous grace! That found a plan To rescue guilty fallen man, And ease him of his load; And found a ransom in the Son, To save the sinner lost, undone, And meet the claims of God.
But before going any further, it is helpful to define terms. The noun ‘propitiation’ in our English translation is derived from Latin. It has the basic meaning of ‘appeasement’, to propitiate is to appease an offended party with a view to realizing a favourable disposition in return. ‘Expiation’ is a word found infrequently in only a few English translations in the Old Testament (ASV, Darby, NASB (once), for example), but it is used in theological vocabulary to explain the idea of ‘atonement’. Expiate means to make amends, to atone for sin or pay the penalty for wrong done, but in the Old Testament, predominantly in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, we encounter frequently the Hebrew verbal form, kāpar, ‘make atonement’.
Take Leviticus 4 which deals with unintentional sin. To make atonement for the sin committed a sin offering was to be brought. Then when all that the LORD prescribed was done by and for those who were guilty, forgiveness was assured. We read, for example, the outcome for one of the people – ‘and the priest shall make an atonement for his sin that he hath committed, and it shall be forgiven him’ – Leviticus 4 v 35 (See also vs 20, 26). Therefore when atonement was made for sin committed justice was satisfied, guilt was removed and forgiveness was received.
It should be noted that some interpret and consider ‘atonement’ an Old Testament idea in word and concept being limited in what it did in that to ‘make atonement’ in the Old Testament only means to cover, not put away; it was not until the Cross that sins were in fact put way and it is thought that Paul is confirming this in the second part of v 25, but this matter is a whole other discussion I do not want to pursue here.
The same Greek noun Paul uses here, hilastērion (ἱλαστήριον), translated propitiation also translates the Hebrew kappōret some 21 times in Septuagint translation of the Old Testament with Exodus 25 and Leviticus 16 accounting for 14 of the occurrences. It is commonly rendered ‘the mercy seat’ in English and of course kappōret is from the same root and family of words as the verbal form ‘make atonement’, kāpar, mentioned above. The only other time hilastērion appears in the New Testament is at Hebrews 9 v 5. There the writer when describing the furniture of the Tabernacle mentions the mercy seat in the holiest of all. He writes: ‘the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold… and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat…’ – Hebrews 9 vs 4-5. The latter of course identifies the place where the LORD dwelt in the tent of meeting (Exo 25:22; 39:32; 1 Sam 4:4) and the place where blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:14-15). Indeed, it is that day under the Old Covenant which the writer of Hebrews contrasts in chapter 9 with the once for all sacrifice of Christ who is High Priest of the new and better covenant. In Hebrews 9 v 5 it’s ‘the mercy seat’ whereas here in Romans when referring to Christ it’s ‘a mercy seat’. The mercy seat existed in the Tabernacle then the Temple, but Christ is ‘a mercy seat’ in that He is the fulfillment of all that the mercy seat signified, not least on the Day of Atonement. Paul’s word choice in so identifying the Lord Jesus does point us to an understanding of propitiation from an Old Testament background and particularly, as already mentioned, from Israel’s Day of Atonement as detailed in Leviticus 16. In other words the meaning of propitiation is to be derived from a Biblical understanding as opposed to any from Greek paganism where the gods were appeased in order to earn their favour. The satisfaction of divine and holy justice is of a vastly different order than the appeasement of the anger of false and imaginary gods by the actions and efforts of deluded men.
It is also worth noting too that Paul didn’t use the related noun for propitiation, hilasmos (ἱλασμός), as employed by John in 1 John 2 v 1 & 4 v 10. This noun particularly points to Christ as ‘the means of expiation’ having answered for our sins and satisfied God on their account whereas Paul’s use of hilastērion (ἱλαστήριον) along with ‘by His blood’ point to Christ as ‘the place’ where sinners find mercy and acceptance with God because of the value of His precious blood.
While the writer to the Hebrews contrasts the high priest’s ministry and the sacrifices on Israel’s Day of Atonement with what Christ has accomplished to show the superiority of His once for all sacrifice, it is also the case that we learn from the types and pictures details of what propitiation involved, what it means, and why it was necessary.
We can therefore make sense of how Christ is the place and His sacrifice the means whereby God shows mercy to sinners when we consider the detail of what foreshadowed the greatness of His propitiatory sacrifice and mediation. So we may rightly ask, ‘on what basis does God show mercy?’
The translation ‘mercy seat’ here and in the Old Testament indicates what God is all about with regards to sinful man. Indeed this word propitiation, hilastērion, comes from a root, ileos (ιλεως), meaning to be gracious, merciful. This is why the tax collector prayed at the temple: “God be merciful to me a sinner” – Luke 18 v 13 or “God be propitious to me – the sinner!” (Young’s Literal Translation).
On the Day of Atonement the two goats taken from the congregation are referred to as ‘a sin offering’ – Leviticus 16 v 5. One then was offered ‘a sin offering’ and the other, the scapegoat, was ‘presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement upon it’ – Leviticus 16 vs 9-10. Together they foreshadow two aspects of propitiation which have been accomplished in the one and once for all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. First the blood of the goat ‘on which the LORD’s lot fell’ was shed at the door of the Tabernacle to pay the sacrificial priceof atonement and then it was sprinkled as atoning blood upon and before the mercy seat in the presence of Jehovah to satisfy Him against the sins of the people as did also the blood of the bull for the priesthood (Lev 16:11-19, 30-33). Then there was the symbolic bearing away of the people’s ‘iniquities… and all their transgressions in all their sins’ confessed by the people’s moral and spiritual representative before the LORD, the high priest. He laid both his hands on the ‘scapegoat’ and made the confession ‘putting them upon the head of the goat’ – Leviticus 16 v 21 which bore them away into the uninhabited wilderness led by the hand of an unnamed man suitable for the task (Lev 16:20-22).
As has been suggested by others, the imagery of that day is reflected in Romans. Paul in these early chapters confesses, so to speak, humanity’s collective guilt concluding that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. He then presents the answer to humanity’s plight which is Christ Jesus ‘a mercy seat’. He is such because of the value of His sacrifice before God and because He has in reality done what the ‘scapegoat’ did symbolically. He has borne the burden of our sins on the Cross and taken them away before God by sustaining the punishment of divine judgment deserved by us because of them. What this meant for Him on the Cross, is beyond our finite grasp (Is 53:5-6; Jn 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24). And so, as the LORD accepted the blood of the goat sprinkled before Him as a sacrificial ransom on that most solemn day in Israel’s calendar to make atonement for to cleanse away the defilement of their sins (Lev 16:16-19, 30), He also appointed the scapegoat as a means of atonement to take away their sins. Jehovah, in these two aspects of one sin offering, demonstrated the dispensing of His mercy toward a sinful people rather than His wrath.
To be clear then, at the heart of what Paul is communicating is the truth that God has been forever satisfied by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the Cross by the shedding of His blood – ‘whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood…’ He has answered for sin and met the righteous demands of God’s holy justice which in the language of Ezekiel 18 v 4 decrees, ‘the soul that sinneth, it shall die’, and having so done has enabled God to extend mercy to us through Him even though the wrath and righteous judgment of God is what we deserve.
It is ‘through faith’ in Him that we enter into the good and blessing of divine mercy because of Calvary – ‘whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith’. Wrote a hymn writer:
The sinner who believes is free, Can say the Saviour died for me, Can point to His atoning blood And say this made my peace with God.
This is the unchanging truth of the gospel. What God required righteously He Himself provided graciously. Out of love, not anger, He gave His Son who would and alone could satisfy His justice. The glory of the gospel is – ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’. That God has ever loved the world and desired man to experience His blessing is the consistent message of scripture (Gen 1:28; 9:1; 12:2-3) while the work of Christ, is its ultimate revelation. He is the one through whom God meets with sinners and extends mercy toward them. This is but a brief treatment of this essential doctrine, but surely we are caused to worship as we consider something of the meaning of Christ ‘a mercy seat’. As the LORD came to dwell among Israel above the mercy seat in the sanctuary of the tent of meeting so the eternal Word came to dwell among men (Jn 1:14) to meet humanity at the point of their need and writes Paul elsewhere:
‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ – 2 Corinthians 5 vs 19-21.