The Heart of the Gospel:
Propitiation and Romans 3:24-26
- Part I
by Ed Vasicek

Many people find Christianity repulsive because of its major tenet: God the Father sent His Son to be punished for our sins.

Jonathan Edwards preached the concept of an angry God (burning with rage and on the verge of releasing His wrath) without shame or reservation. His fiery sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is often used as an example of what some claim to be a distorted view of God.

But, when measured by the Scriptures, Edwards was right. Although most modern theologians prefer to emphasize God's love while denying (or deemphasizing) His rage at the sinner, the Bible demands we embrace both perspectives: The Holy God Who is raging with anger is also the loving and compassionate God Who loves sinners.

This meeting of God's mercy and justice are mentioned repeatedly in the Scriptures (Psalm 85:9-11), but these concepts meld together most clearly in 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)

Bursting with meaning, these three little verses explain the heart of the Gospel like no other. The key focus is upon the concept of propitiation, which we will define in the second article (below).

Today we will limit ourselves to verse 24 and examine two benefits made possible because of Jesus' propitiation: Justification and Redemption. We will then note that they come to us on the basis of grace. Let's look at these three terms.

Justification (in Paul's usage) is the legal act in which God declares us "not guilty" and "holy." This is not based on our behavior; God justifies us when we are ungodly. A chapter away, in Romans 4:4-5, Paul discusses Abraham's justification. We read, "And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."

Because God justifies the ungodly, this justification occurs when we are converted and born-again. The term "ungodly" is never used of a true New Testament believer. Although we still sin (and some of our behavior may be ungodly), the term refers to our unregenerate condition. We are ungodly and a moment later--when we exercise saving faith--we find ourselves justified!

The idea that justification occurs at death when we have lived a godly life is contrary to Paul's usage here. No, we are justified at the point of conversion. God does not justify the godly (the converted), but the ungodly. Once justified, the ungodly become the godly and evidence that justification by our works.

Every major New Testament teaching has its basis in the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore The New Testament can only be fully comprehended against the backdrop of the Old.

Whereas Abraham is an Old Testament example of justification by faith, Zechariah 3 paints the picture of what justification looks like. Justification is receiving a clean status before God with, in this case, the pre-incarnate Christ acting as our defense attorney to maintain that status! It reads:

"Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, 'The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?'"

"Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, 'Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.' And I said, 'Let them put a clean turban on his head.' So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by'" (Zechariah 3:1-7, ESV).

In the New Testament, we discover that this clean garment is the righteousness of Christ (Romans 3:221 Corinthians 1:302 Corinthians 5:21).

On to our second term, redemption. The Old Testament is filled with redemption imagery. The ethic of redeeming family land is a key element in the Book of Ruth. Even Ruth is redeemed from widowhood and childlessness. A number of Torah ordinances involve redemption of property and people. Although the Levites replaced all Israel's firstborn sons when it came to Tabernacle service, those firstborn sons were "redeemed" when the redemption money (ransom) was paid. (Numbers 3:48). Redemption is the payment of a price to obtain another's freedom or to restore what was lost. Jesus' death "bought us back'" from our lost condition and its consequences.

When Jesus died on the cross, the Greek New Testament says He shouted out, "Tetelesthai," which is usually translated, "It is finished," The Greek Perfect Tense indicates something has happened in the past and carries a current result.

Kenneth Wuest translates this phrase as, "It has been finished and stands complete." The word "Tetelesthai" commonly meant "paid in full." The redemption Christ provided (through propitiation) benefits us with a favorable status before God. We can say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31).

Justification and redemption (provided by propitiation) come to us freely by God's grace, our third term. The best way to understand what Paul means by "grace" is to look at how Paul uses the word. In Romans 11:6, he contrasts grace to something we do; we need perform no act to justify or redeem ourselves. Grace and works are opposites.

In Romans 6:23, God freely offers us eternal life as a gift (charisma) by His grace (charis) not as a wage. We cannot earn, deserve, or achieve it. We receive God's grace when we believe (Romans 5:110:9-10). Since faith is an attitude and not a work, and since God even gives us the faith to believe (Ephesians 2:8-9), salvation is truly "by grace." Grace is God's generosity and favor, and exists apart from anything we do.

In our immediate context (Romans 3:27), Paul asks, "Where is boasting? It is excluded."

If we understand grace, Paul's conclusion is obvious! The only thing we contribute toward our salvation is the sin from which God saves us.

Although salvation is free to us, it is not cheap. Another paid our sin bill. As we shall see below, this redemption was made legally possible because Jesus' death propitiated God's justice.

The Heart of the Gospel:
Propitiation and Romans 3:24-26 - Part II
by Ed Vasicek

Many church members know that Christ died--that's history--but fewer understand that Christ died for our sins--that's theology. But what did the death of Christ (the atonement) accomplish? Probably more than we can imagine. One basic and significant consequence of Jesus' sacrificial death is the propitiation He made.

In part one of this series, we began dissecting what is arguably one of the Bible's most crucial passages. We defined three of the terms mentioned in this text: justification (the legal act in which God declares us "not guilty"), redemption (the payment of a price to obtain another's freedom or to restore that which was lost), and grace (God's generosity and favor apart from anything we do). This is made possible because of today's potent word, propitiation. But first, let's review the text of 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)

 

So what do we mean when we say that Christ's blood propitiated God's justice? Because it is unpopular to believe in an angry God, more and more theologians are distancing themselves from the obvious teaching of Scripture that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin. The idea that God is holy and requires a penalty be paid (to settle our sin debt) does not sit well with those who believe God's only significant attribute is love.

Before we look at the term "propitiation" (or "sacrifice of atonement" as per the NIV) we need to rehearse what Paul had just written to the Roman believers. Paul painted a picture of an angry God full of wrath. This wrath is revealed from God's abode, heaven (1:18). God handed corrupt mankind over to horribly sinful lifestyles as an act of judgment (1:24). No unsaved person will escape God's judgment (3:3). Later in Romans 5:9, Paul tells the believer that it is God's wrath from which he is delivered (saved). Although we are sinners (as bad as that is), our greater problem is that God is angry and raging at us. Though the Scriptures repeatedly assure us that God loves us, there is another sense in which He hates us: "you hate all who do wrong" (Psalm 5:5b). We are truly "sinners in the hands of an angry God." Those who reject God's burning rage find it easy to redefine what propitiation means.

The idea of propitiation (Greek, hilasterion) is a satisfaction of God's justice and wrath through the payment of an appropriate penalty. The death of Christ averts God's wrath toward the believer because the sacrifice of Christ (on our behalf) satisfies God's holy justice.

Christ took our sins upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, 1 Peter 2:24). The First Peter imagery is especially picturesque: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree." Our sins were "in his body." 2 Corinthians 5:21 suggests that a transfer occurred at some point: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Many commentators believe that this transfer of our sin upon Christ happened when the earth became dark during the crucifixion. Although this is possible (in my opinion, even likely), we really cannot produce a chapter and verse to advance this theory to fact. It really does not matter if we can pinpoint when it happened; what does matter is that it did happen, and that Jesus bore our sins while He died on the cross. He was suffering to be the ultimate propitiation to satisfy God's just wrath.

In the Torah, when the high priest would practice the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) rituals, He would take two goats and lean his weight upon them. This signified both the creation of a substitute and the transfer of sin.1 One goat would be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat; the other would be released into the wilderness as the Scapegoat.

It is likely that this ritual foreshadowed the work of Christ. He is our substitute and our sins were transferred to Him. His death was represented by the first goat. His blood was offered to the Father as a settlement for the debt of sin. The second goat pictures the burial of Christ: our sins were not only paid for, but their memory dissipated and removed.2 The hymnist captures the thought: "Living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away."

But was the sacrifice of Christ--which propitiated God's wrath--directed toward the Father? The answer is an unequivocal yes for many reasons. The simplest reason is that sacrifice is the ultimate form of worship (Romans 12:1-2), and the Scriptures implore us to worship only God and God alone (Matthew 4:10). For Christ to have offered His blood to anyone other than God the Father would have been blasphemous indeed.

But the Scriptures do not leave us to infer that Jesus offered His blood sacrifice to the Father. Hebrews 9:11-12, 14 make the point obvious:

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption....How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

Like the high priest on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Jesus entered as our high priest. But, unlike the Aaronic priest who sprinkled the blood of a goat upon the mercy seat, Christ presented His own blood. He is both the priest and the sacrifice.

We still have some questions to answer. Does the wrath of God mean God is not in control of His emotions? How is the Christian concept of propitiation different from pagan concepts? Why wouldn't God forgive us out of grace without a price being paid?

How can we be sure that the death of Christ was actually and truly the penalty for our sins? See below for part three!

 

1 See The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube (Hendrickson, 1956), pp.224-246 for a detailed discussion about the two Hebrew words for the "laying on of hands" and their significance.

2 See Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer (Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), Volume 7, p. 64 for an elaboration about the Scapegoat and Christ's burial.

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, God's 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 iniquitiesthe 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 Jesus' 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?"

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.