September 10, 2012 by jmar198013
The proper translation of hilasterion in Rom 3.25 is a sticky matter. Especially because the passage serves as theological ballast for the so-called penal-substitutionary view of the atonement (i.e., the death of Jesus serves as a turning away of the wrath of a holy God from sinful humanity; in short, the Son of God becomes the Father’s whipping boy, substituting for humanity). I do not pretend to be able to propose a solution to the debate here, but I do wish to provide some thoughtful fodder for my evangelical friends who subscribe to the penal-substitionary view.
First, it is instructive to survey how various translations tackle this verse. Thus:
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God (KJV).
whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God (ASV 1901).
God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. This showed that God always does what is right and fair, as in the past when he was patient and did not punish people for their sins (NCV).
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 (ESV).
These translations render hilasterion as “propitiation,” that is, a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath.
Other translations opt for the idea of expiation. That is the notion of God himself removing or covering over sin. This is how the word and its cognates are used in relation to the Day of Atonement in Lev. 25. In the LXX, hilasterion renders “Mercy seat”–the place of atonement. So the following translations:
whom God put forward as an expiation 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 (RSV)
Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before (CEB).
God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public—to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it’s now—this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness (MSG).
Other translations don’t take an obvious side in the debate. For instance:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished (NIV).
whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).
God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God. And God did this to show that in the past he was right to be patient and forgive sinners. This also shows that God is right when he accepts people who have faith in Jesus (CEV).
For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past (NLT).
These translations choose not to preference propitiation or expiation. Rather, they merely render the word as “sacrifice” or “sacrifice of atonement,” without any comment on how that sacrifice is animated and rendered efficacious.
It seems to me that given the history of hilasterion in the LXX surrounding the Day of Atonement, it might be instructive to look at the footnote on p. 311 of John Howard Yoder’s Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002):
It may be legitimately argued that the point of sacrifice was not to identify one’s sins with the lamb by laying one’s hands on it and killing it to get rid of the sin–that was done with the scapegoat but then it was not killed. The point is rather to identify oneself with the lamb’s purity and then offering that pure self to God as a “sweet fragrance,” which makes much better sense.
That does make much better sense. Otherwise the role of the scapegoat becomes superfluous. Jesus becomes both the lamb and the scapegoat. The Day of Atonement is embodied in his Cross. Again, Yoder, 311:
The imagery of sacrifice is particularly relevant here. For the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of self, is precisely giving oneself to communion-obedience with God. This is what Jesus did in letting God express agape through his “obedience unto death, the death of the cross” … The sinlessness of Christ is thus not … a purely legal formality or, as some understand the Old Testament sacrifices, a matter merely of ritual cleanness. Christ’s sinlessness is rather the whole point of his life and his obedience-offering. His sinlessness, his obedience, is what he offered to God, and that sinlessness, utter faithfulness to love, cost his life in a world of sinners.
It may be that how we read Rom. 3.25 reflects our understanding of the character of God. Propitiation makes God the object of the atonement. Expiation makes our sin the object. Recall that in 2 Cor. 5.16-21 and Col. 1.15-20, the point is not that a wrathful God must be reconciled to us. For Paul it was that we wrathful humans must be reconciled to God. And Jesus is our peace.