One of the pivotal verses for penal substitution is Romans 3:25 "Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood" (Ro 3:25a KJV). Proponents of penal substitution take this to mean that God's wrath is turned aside because Jesus is punished in our place. I've posted earlier on the word translated here as propitiation in the King James. In this post we'll take a look at the passage in the context of Paul's line of argument in Romans, drawing a good deal on Martin Luther's thoughts as well. Let's back up to verse 21 (I'll switch over here to NIV just because it is more readable, feel free to follow along in any version you like):
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” (Ro 3:21 NIV)
As I outlined in a previous blog on Luther's Theology of the Cross, Alister McGrath talks about Luther's "turmerlebnis" where he rediscovered the Gospel of grace in Paul. Luther's discovery revolved around a revelation about the meaning of the term "righteousness of God" here. Luther had been taught to understand the righteousness of God in the punitive sense of a quid pro quo retributive justice which pays us what we deserve. This is the same assumption of penal substitution. Luther's breakthrough was when he discovered that the righteousness of God Paul speaks of here is not about retributive justice that metes out what we deserve judicially, but on that is “apart from law” where God justifies sinners. In other words, it is not a matter of God meting out punishment or reward, but God “making right”.
Let's return to our key verse Romans 3:25. The Greek word hilasterion here can be translated as either “expiate” (which implies cleansing sin) or “propitiate” (which implies appeasing wrath). C.H. Dodd famously argued that in pagan Greek literature the word hilasterion referred to placating an offended person, but that in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the writers of the New Testament used) hilasterion was used in the sense of purifying, canceling, cleansing, and forgiving sin. In other words, the focus was not on the sacrifice changing God's attitude through mollification, but on changing us by removing or cleansing our sin. As a result of Dodd's research, the Revised Standard Version translates Romans 3:25 as "whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood".
Leon Morris challenged Dodd's linguistic argument saying that the main thrust of Paul's argument up to that point in Romans had been focused on the problem of wrath, and so the solution outlined in Romans 3:25 had to present a solution to the problem of wrath. Morris is right of course that this is the thrust of Paul's argument, but this does not undo Dodd's observations about the meaning of the Hebrew sacrifices. So how can we put this all together? Let's read on in Romans 3:25, the verse continues,
“...He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Ro 3:25b-26 NIV)
God had held back punishing of sin in order to demonstrate his justice. Throughout the Psalms and Prophets we hear people crying out to God things like “how long will you look upon evil? Help us in our oppression and save!”. God punishing evildoers was in that context seen as a good thing because it meant God defending you and punishing them. But Paul argues in Romans that this way of thinking is a death trap because we "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Ro 3:23), meaning here that sin is not a matter of us and them, we good people and those sinners over there, but that we all have been a part of the hurt. God held back that judgment we had cried out for because he wanted to reveal instead a righteousness that was apart from the law of reaping and sewing. Instead he wanted to break us out of the whole cycle of an eye for an eye. But how?
Following both Morris and Dodd's insights we can say that Paul is arguing that we all have played a part in hurt and injustice. But God held back the world of hurt that we had coming to us, and instead offered himself in Christ as a sacrifice that would cleanse us of the cancer of sin in us (Dodd's expiation). With the problem of sin removed from us through Christ, the just reason for wrath is also removed. God is not appeased in the sense of someone covering his eye's or gratifying his anger (as if God's anger was a fleshly rage), rather by solving the problem of sin in us, God has removed the cause of wrath and brought us into right relationship with him, as Paul says, "so that God is just and the one who justifies sinners" (sets them aright).
The NIV has the most accurate reading putting together first of all the sense of hilasterion being the translation of the Hebrew "kipper" referring to the mercy seat of the Arc, so that verse 25 reads "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement", but in a footnote the NIV combines both the idea of expiation and propitiation together, blending both Morris and Dodd's insights into the idea of the Temple sacrifice, "as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin". With that in mind let's look at the whole passage. I'll use the NIV and substitute in the alternative reading in the footnote above. My comments are in parenthesis:
"But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify (a way to set us right different from the way of payback). This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (sin is not just in "them over there" but in all of us) , and are justified (set right) freely by his grace through the redemption (liberation out of slavery) that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin (note the pattern of removal of sin leading to wrath being turned) through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (In this we get the justice and help we have cried out for, not in a violent wrath on our enemies, but in all of us near and far being set right through God's sacrifice in Christ).
We can see this sense expressed very clearly in The Message. The above passage there reads:
"What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we've compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. 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."
Labels: Bible, Luther, Penal Substitution