With Dale Ratzlaff
We continue our study in Romans 3:21-26 again. As noted in our last study, these verses are some of the most important verses in the Bible to help us understand the theology and application of the gospel.
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).
In the verses quoted above we see again that justification is not an isolated event. It must be shown that God is just when he counts sinners to be righteous based solely on His declaration. We have looked at one of the foundational pillars of justification, and that is redemption. God can be just in the way He saves sinners because He paid the ransom price for their redemption. There is, however, a second supporting pillar upon which justification rests, and that is propitiation.
Most of us are unfamiliar with the term “propitiation”. Justification is a metaphor from the court system, and redemption derives its meaning from the world of slavery. Propitiation is founded in the concept of sacrifice. Paul introduces this term here for good reason because there are two additional theological problems that must be addressed in his teaching on justification by faith.
First, God passed over the sins previously committed.
Anyone who reads the Old Testament stories, or studies history for that matter, recognizes that sometimes the guilty seem to go free or at least just get a slap on the hand. For example, in 1 Kings 11:3-12, we read that Solomon had some 700 wives, and when he was old they turned his heart away from the Lord to serve other gods. Here is what God said to Solomon. See if you think this is justice:
Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant. Nevertheless I will not do it in your days for the sake of your father David, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son.
What kind of justice is this? Paul recognized that many times God in his forbearance passed over sins without giving them their full due. Justice demands that all these “passed over sins” must meet their full penalty; this delivery of justice for passed-over sins is the function of propitiation.
Second, the problem with justification is that it appears to contradict Old Testament teaching.
This section of Romans is not asking how a just God can allow sinners to go to hell. Rather, the issue here is, how a just God can allow sinners to go to heaven? It is as if we are seeing the gospel from God’s perspective. In fact, there are a number of texts in the Old Testament that sometimes appear to us to contradict Paul’s gospel of justification by faith. Consider the following:
You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty (Ex. 23:7).
Really? Does not Paul tell us that God justifies helpless, ungodly sinners who are enemies of God? Wouldn’t those characteristics qualify one as being guilty?
If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence (Deut. 25:1-2).
However, in our passage in Romans, Paul is stating that God justifies the wicked! Yet in the Old Testament we read differently.
The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty (Num. 14: 18).
But clearing the guilty is exactly what justification by faith does!
Woe to those …Who justify the wicked for a bribe” (Isa. 5:23).
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD (Prov. 17:15).
Do you see the deep issues involved? The heart of the new covenant gospel is justification by faith. Justification means that God declares that we are not guilty when we are, and also that we are counted to have the very righteousness of God when we don’t. Yet, that sort of disregard for sin is exactly what God says in the Old Testament is an abomination! How do we reconcile all of this?
The answer is found in the correct understanding of propitiation. What does this word mean? The Greek word group, ἱλαστήριον, has been translated as propitiation, mercy seat, sacrifice of atonement, and expiation.
All of them give slightly different shades of meaning; all of them help us understand more clearly the simple yet profound death of Christ. In the Old Testament sanctuary the mercy seat was where the high priest made atonement for the sins of Israel. Likewise, it was on the cross where Christ made atonement once for all by His sacrificial death. Truly, His death was a sacrifice of atonement. The translation of ἱλαστήριον as expiation (the cancelation of sin) in my opinion fails to grasp the intrinsic value of what happened at the cross. It says nothing about how God could cancel sin. I believe propitiation includes two ideas not clearly brought out in some of the other translations of the word ἱλαστήριον. Namely, there is something done in propitiation to change the relationship between man and God, and the appeasement of God’s wrath is central to that change.
Some theologians do not like the concept of God’s wrath or anger; neither do they think God needs to be appeased. However, note how the Greek word for propitiation was used in the Greek world.
What is propitiation?
In Classical Greek…When ἱλαστήριον (propitiation) is applied to the Deity, it is a means of appeasing God or averting his anger and not a single instance to the contrary occurs in the whole Greek literature.
So the people to whom Romans was written would understand propitiation, not only in the Jewish idea of sacrifice of atonement from the Old Testament Scriptures, but also as appeasing God to avert His wrath. Paul, in Romans 1:18-3:20, has in no uncertain terms shown that all men: gentiles, moralists, and Jews are under the wrath of God. Neither justification nor redemption deal with God’s wrath, that is why Paul brings propitiation in at this point. It, like redemption, is a supporting pillar of justification. It must be shown that God has justly punished sin in that His wrath has been expended. God’s wrath is clearly taught in Scripture. There are over a dozen Hebrew words for God’s wrath and anger. It is mentioned over 500 times in the Old Testament and about 36 times throughout the New Testament.
The wrath of God, however, is not God losing his temper. Rather, it is his hatred of sin. Can you imagine the sorrow, yes anger, even burning anger, that the Creator has when He sees the sin, the wars, the carnage, that are taking place in our world? We think of what went on at the Twin Towers, the murders in Libya, and what is now going on in Syria and Iraq, the videotaping of the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and dozens of Christians being crucified, burned, or buried alive by ISIS. Think of the many terrorist attacks killing innocent people in cold blood in the name of Allah, or the many abductions of beautiful young girls and women who end up murdered with mutilated bodies. God’s anger against sin is real. However, God’s wrath can only be properly appreciated when we see it framed in His holiness.
In the pagan world, it was man that propitiated, or appeased the gods. However, with our God, man has nothing to do with propitiation. Let’s read our text again noting the highlighted words.
Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25, 6).
When we speak of propitiation in his blood, theologically we are gazing into the holy of holies. We remember what Isaiah said when he saw the glory of God.
Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts (Isa. 6:5).
Could it be that the holiness of God demanded complete justice? Could it be that the love of God for us poor, helpless, ungodly sinners determined that we were not going to suffer the wrath of God that we deserved; but instead He would take that wrath upon Himself, and we would receive the verdict of acquittal and justification? On that Friday afternoon of supernatural darkness when the life blood was dripping from our Lord’s hands, feet, and head, the wrath of God against sin was propitiated. Our Kinsman Redeemer who was our brother in the flesh, who was free from the bondage of sin, who could pay the price for our redemption, chose to do it. We sense the terrible, unspeakable agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me”? Could it be that Christ actually became an abomination for us suffering the wrath of God so that God could justify us poor sinners in a way that fully met His infinite justice?
We have been delivered from the slavery of sin and wrath. Our Redeemer is strong and good. He has purchased us for Himself and has given us a lasting inheritance. He took the wrath in our place.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17).
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2).
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10).
As we contemplate sin, justification, redemption, and propitiation we get a sense of God’s infinite holiness, justice, and love. Not only that, but considering the price paid for our redemption and the wrath of God poured out on our Substitute in propitiation we get an expanded appreciation of our own value in the sight of God. Paul will develop this idea later in his letter to Romans.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rom. 5:8-11).
As we contemplate the fuller meanings of justification, redemption, and propitiation we get a life-changing, blinding glimpse into the glory of the most holy place of God’s being. Let’s read Romans 3:25, 26 again.
Whom God displayed publicly as propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25-26).
The gospel is the story of a finished atonement. It tells us how a just God can legally accept sinners into his family and ultimately change them into His likeness. Wow! What a God!
Our job is to proclaim that finished work of Calvary to a hostile and dying world. And when we do, we have the promise that our Redeemer will come to take us to the glorious home being prepared for us! Romans 3:21-26 deserves to be memorized, contemplated, and accepted. When we understand this section thoroughly we may agree with Leon Morris who said this passage “is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”
Father, the more I learn about the gospel, the more I am in awe of what you did for us undeserving sinners. To understand that Christ not only had to pay the price for our redemption, but also had to suffer the wrath of God against sin is life-changing. I see in a new and profound way how justice and mercy met at the cross. Thank you for sending your Son to save those who believe this good news.
In Jesus name.