Romans 3.25: Propitiation or expiation?

11

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.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Romans 3.25: Propitiation or expiation?

  1. somepcguy says:

    I like your take on this. I think there is something to the penal-substitutionary view of the Crucifixion, but I think that the view you elucidate here is as much or more what it was about. It is we who react to our sin by turning away from God, not God who reacts to our sin by turning away from us. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden, it was they who hid from God, not God who hid from them.

    • jmar198013 says:

      “It is we who react to our sin by turning away from God, not God who reacts to our sin by turning away from us. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden, it was they who hid from God, not God who hid from them.” Bingo. That’s determinative.

  2. Jack Hairston says:

    Jeremy, the headache you gave me is beginning to fade. Every spadeful dug out of this verse revealed another paradox.

    …through faith in his blood…
    Q: Whose faith was it?
    • The Father’s?
    • The Son’s?
    • Ours?

    …did this to demonstrate His justice…
    δικαιοσύνης [di-kai-o-SU-nē] righteousness, justice
    “Righteousness” and “justice” are not exact synonyms. Meaning is always lost in translation.
    God is perfectly righteous, and therefore could not have anything to do with the awfulness of sin. God is also perfectly just, and therefore could not just wish away the awfulness of sin. Our crimes must be paid for. So what did God do?
    • Did God pay the price for us, to buy us back from Satan, after each of us had sold ourselves into slavery? (propitiation)
    • Or did God reestablish our relationship to Him by the sacrifice of a sinless victim? (expiation)
    (See Adam Clarke’s notes at Hebrews 9:16. Is it about a will, or a victim?)

    Q: And so what is the price to us, to take advantage of God’s gracious offer?

    …justifies those who have faith in Jesus…
    Here are two explanations of what happened:
    At-one-ment with God again
    Just-if-I’d never sinned

    Tell me if I over-simplified it.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Jack:

      Look sometime at my discussion of the use of dikaiosyne is Matthew that’s in my thesis. It may help. It’s on pp. 32-40. In the LXX dikaiosyne often translates the Hebrew tzedekah (close enough for rock and roll), which has a broad range of meaning: loyalty to your people or community, faithfulness to your covenant, acts of liberation, almsgiving (so Matt. 6.1), and even legal entitlements (“I want justice!”). But behind all these is a character of faithfulness, loyalty, trustworthiness, and a real generosity of character.

      In Rom. 3.21-22, Paul says that God’s righteousness/justice is made plain through Jesus’ faithfulness (I do not prefer the translation faith IN Christ there, but faith OF Christ). He’ll rephrase that later on in Rom. 5.8 when he says that God demonstrates his LOVE for us through Christ’s cross. What both these passages are getting at is that God is demonstrating his fundamental stance toward humans through the cross. That, sir, is deep deep theology.

      All who sin but trust in Christ’s faithfulness (demonstrated through hid blood) are now made right (dikaioumenoi) through Christ’s faithfulness–the Cross. In short, the problem of human unfaithfulness is dealt with through Christ’s faithfulness. God’s justice/righteousness is upheld by Jesus’ faithfulness to him, and to us.

      Paul is probably thinking along the lines of the author of 4 Maccabees, who wrote an account of how the deaths of some Jewish martyrs saved Israel. That author wrote:

      “For Moses says, ‘All who are consecrated are under your hands.’ These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honoured, not only with this honour, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice [hilasterion], divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.”

  3. Jack Hairston says:

    OK, a night’s rest and more research yields the following (simpler) reaction to Romans 3:25:
    God set Jesus forth as a cover for the mercy seat through his faith in his blood. (Translation by RCHLenski)
    1. Jesus acts as the hilasterion where the high priest sprinkled blood for the forgiveness of God’s people.
    This word picture also points back to the parallel Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.
    My first clue was SomePcGuy’s observation that we hide from God, not the other way around.

    2. The cross is both propitiation and expiation.
    Jesus took the role of the “covering that covers” (Luther’s “Gnadenstuhle”) *and* the high priest offering the blood for atonement of believers.

    3. Whose faith was it?
    a. The Father’s?
    b. The Son’s?
    c. Ours?
    Yes. The son trusted his Father enough to offer his own blood. We who trust both Father and Son gain the blessing of this sacrifice. God is the actor throughout.

    …left the sins committed beforehand *unpunished*…
    παρεσιν [PA-re-sin] letting go, passing over
    Q: Whose sins were unpunished?
    A: Only the sins of believers, who trusted God’s word and obeyed by painting blood around the door (Exodus 12:22-23).

    …did this to demonstrate His justice…
    δικαιοσύνης [di-kai-o-SU-nē] righteousness, justice
    “Righteousness” and “justice” are not exact synonyms. Meaning is always lost in translation.
    God is perfectly righteous, and therefore could not have anything to do with the awfulness of sin. God is also perfectly just, and therefore could not just wish away the awfulness of sin. Our crimes must be paid for. So what did God do?
    • Did God pay the price for us, to buy us back from Satan, after each of us had sold ourselves into slavery? (propitiation)
    • Or did God reestablish our relationship to Him by the sacrifice of a sinless victim? (expiation)
    (See Adam Clarke’s notes at Hebrews 9:16. Is it about a will, or a victim?)
    • Some of each.

    Q: When you offer your plastic card to buy something, do you own it?
    You do, sort of, because they do not arrest you when you carry it out of the store. But you do not really own it until the bill is paid.
    Before the cross, God passed over the sins of believers. At the cross, the blood of Jesus not only paid the bill, but left a huge “credit balance” to cover future sins. (If this “credit balance” idea is mistaken, then Jesus has to continually suffer every time I sin. Ewwww.)

    Q: And so what is the price to us, to take advantage of God’s gracious offer for forgiveness?
    • Believe God’s offer is true.
    • Surrender to His will, and obey as well as our weakness allows.

    …justifies those who have faith in Jesus…
    Here are two explanations of what happened:
    At-one-ment with God again
    Just-if-I’d never sinned

    • jmar198013 says:

      Actually, I think the sins unpunished reference might be to Gentile sins. God had been punished Israel’s sins many times, but as Rom. 1 says, God “gave the Gentiles up” to their delusions.

  4. jmar198013 says:

    My main concern is that satisfaction and penal substitutionary atonement theories make God the object of atonement. And yet everywhere in Paul it is ever WE who need to be reconciled to God, not the other way round.

  5. […] Romans 3.25: Propitiation or expiation? (Sept. 10, 2012) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

sketch

chronicles

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 147 other followers

%d bloggers like this: