The Death of Jesus–some wonderings

In Rom 3, Paul says that God publicly displayed Jesus as a hilasterion.

Some of our Bibles translate this “sacrifice of atonement,” some “a propitiation.”

The other option is that this word is being used as it was employed in the Greek Old Testament (LXX): a place where sacrifice is made. The point would be here that God’s patience and passing over of earlier sins comes to an end when he publicly displays Jesus as the place where humanity is reconciled with God, the mercy seat.

This reading has the advantage of fitting into the argument Paul has been making for 2.5 chapters and will make for another full chapter afterward: God is not only the God of Jews. God did not make final atonement in a hidden, secret inner room of the Temple. He made it in public, on the cross. Or, as Paul says in Gal 3: “Before your eyes Jesus was publicly placarded as crucified.”


The other wondering I had was tied into questions of law, sin, and atonement. As it is laid out in some of its renditions, the penal substitution idea begins with the twin premises that God is holy and we are unholy–the latter being more clearly articulated as, “we are law-breakers.”

But Paul doesn’t seem to think that the appellation “law breaker” applies to all of us.

Just Jewish people.

In Rom 5, the one place where the notion of sin being “imputed” to someone is spoken of, what we hear is that sin is not imputed where there is no law. The points are that (a) Adam did break a rule from God; (b) death still reigned even over people who had not broken any kind of law; and (c) there is still a sense of all people sinning–despite not having a law to break.

So it seems to me that Penal Substitution, and a number of Christian theologies in general, have some work to do in reframing how it is that all people are guilty. It’s not by breaking some law–that’s what happens to Adam, what happens in Israel, but not to everyone.

It also seems to me, that as much as I want to avoid it, I keep coming around again to N. T. Wright’s claim that the purpose of the law is to exacerbate sin and death within Israel per se, so that God could disarm them where they were strongest. Sin is not reckoned where there is no law, and that is why God gives a law–so that through Israel’s faithlessness God’s faithfulness might abound (3:1ff.), so that within a world that manifests God’s wrath God’s righteousness might be made known (1:16-19).

24 thoughts on “The Death of Jesus–some wonderings”

  1. Great stuff here, Daniel. Thanks.

    I would note too, re: your point at the end of the first large paragraph, that Paul is not just talking about “where humanity is reconciled with God” but also where humanity (Jew and Gentile) is reconciled with one another and its most prominent divisions obliterated, a theme that is reiterated with consistenecy in Eph 2:11-19 and, to a lesser extent, Col 3:11 (since I know how you love those books ;)).

  2. As some here know, the subject of Penal Substitution is one in which I’ve devoted a lot of time to investigating. I’ve recently turned my focus onto Romans 3 again, and it’s important to note that *along* with translating ‘hilasterion’ in Rom 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement” and “a propitiation,” a minority translate it as “Mercy Seat”. This is no accident, since the only other time ‘hilasterion’ appears in the NT is in Hebrews 9:5 which is speaking of the Holy of Holies, particularly the Ark of the Covenant, and mentions the “Mercy Seat”.

    The Mercy Seat was the COVER LID of the Ark – the most sacred spot in all Jewish history, where on the Day of Atonement the priest would sprinkle blood upon to atone for all sins. I don’t consider it an accident at all that the Hebrew word for “atonement” contains within it the idea of COVERING over sins (which is the Hebrew way of saying ‘make amends for sin’).

    As one begins to connect the dots of hilasterion, and it’s ‘brother terms’ in the NT, the notion of Penal Substitution vanishes, especially in light of the fact Paul is hearkening back to the OT sacrifices which had nothing to do with Penal Substitution.

    On top of that (and this fits with your last post on the subject), in Rom 3:25 Paul also frames Christ’s Sacrifice in terms of “Redemption” – which, by definition, means to set a ‘buy out’ price, not transfer a punishment, further undermining a PSub reading.

    Regarding your last half of your paragraph, you should take a look at Hebrews 9:15, which appears to place the Atonement primarily in terms of atoning for violation of the Mosaic Covenant, not all sins in general nor sins prior to that. Romans 3:19 is also interesting here, because it says the law only applies to those “under the law” yet Paul’s conclusion is that “so the whole world may be accountable to God.” I take this as saying the Gentiles are “condemned” in light of not being in the Covenant and thus not being in relationship with God and living by His ways by ‘default’ in the first place. Of course, other details must be considered as well, such as Jesus being called Lamb of God who takes away the sins “of the world” (Jn 1:29) and “not for our sins only, but those of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:1f).

    Also, even Gentiles could not be judged by the standards of the Law, there was still a sort of ‘natural law’ already in existence, which is why in Genesis we see various people (there was no Law yet) fall into various sins.

    1. I think its much to much to say ” Paul is hearkening back to the OT sacrifices which had nothing to do with Penal Substitution.”

      All OT sacrifices hearken back to Passover, in which a judicial penalty (death of firsborn) is being implemented, and the sacrifice substitutes for the one under penalty.

  3. I have a tough time accepting your final point. The main reason God gives the Law is to increase sin & death so that God could look better because of it? Really? I thought the Law was holy, just, & good, something people were to delight in and meditate upon. Those who do this are like trees planted by streams of water, not like the “wicked.” According to you, God gave the Law to make people more wicked, not more holy. The purpose of the Law as described in Deuteronomy 4 seems to be different than what you claim.

      1. I was alluding to both Paul & the OT, not just the OT. Paul appears to be a mixed bag on this if he’s saying what you claim. The doers of the law will be justified (how is that possible if its purpose was to increase sin & death?), Paul upholds the law (3:31), the Law is not sin but reveals it (7:7), it was intended to bring life (7:10), the law is holy, just, & good, while sin is the problem (7:12), the Law is spiritual (7:14), and is something Paul delights in (7:22). The problem is not with the Law. The problem is with sin. It appears to me that Romans 7 goes contrary to what you claim above, so either you’re misreading Romans 5 or I’m misreading Romans 7.

        Romans 5:20 can be taken as purpose or result and makes most sense as a result clause in light of Romans 7. You don’t find this theologically problematic, Daniel? The God revealed in Jesus Christ gives an ethical system to his followers for the purpose of it leading to their destruction? This isn’t problematic? And he does this to show off? It sounds a bit narcissistic & ego-centric to me, not to mention sadistic.

    1. Worse, its God gave the law to make JEWS more wicked. As the prophets attest: israel doesn’t even know how to be a whore: she pays her johns instead of them paying her.

      They don’t even keep the laws of the nations round about. Ezekiel 5:7

  4. Wright on Law:

    “‘Works of the law’ in Paul are not, as is often supposed, wrong in themselves; Paul has no objection to people obeying the law. The problem is, notoriously, that one cannot be justified by such works (Romans 3.20; Galatians 2.16). What then does he mean? J. D. G. Dunn has pioneered the view that the ‘works of the law’ to which Paul was opposed were those which distinguished Jews from Gentiles – that is, sabbath, food laws, and circumcision.”

    This doesn’t seem to add up with your claim that the law, according to Wright, was to increase sin and death so that God could show out in righteousness. What it seems to point is, the interpretation of law (i.e. jurisprudence) is where things may very well go wrong with Jews under the law, not the law itself. I might qualify that, the law was given in the wilderness after exile, where an institutionalized and enfeebled people desperately needed a code of law in order to stem the shock of suddenly being exposed to a radically uncomfortable and daunting new way of life, in being utterly sustained by God. In other words, the law had a contextual worth which met the needs of a specific people at a specific time/place — it gave life, not death.

  5. I have to catch up on the atonement discussions these days… seems like they are the buzz again.

    Just wanted to mention that I came across your blog and absolutely think you have the best ‘blog’ title. Storied Theology is brilliant.


  6. I find curious Wright’s idea of sin being piled up in one place so that it could be dealt with. If he has some kind of point to make around the issue, he could do to spell out that point and not make such curious statements.

  7. All: thanks for keeping this conversation going yesterday. I’ll be back around this afternoon to jump in in more depth.

    Quickly: Rom 5 says that the law came in so that the transgression might increase, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. The locus of most sin in the place (Israel) where God’s saving grace came in Christ.

    How does this hold together with Rom 7? Rom 7 says that there are all these great things about the law, but given that it comes into a world where sin and death holds sway, it gets coopted by them and participates with them in the reign that results in sin and death rather than the reign that results in grace and life (in Christ).

    1. Where exactly does Paul say the ORIGINAL INTENT of Law is to increase the inflammation of sin and death?

      I think that point theologizes the text, and thus does a violence to the original context in which the text arose, which fulfilled a VERY REAL, TANGIBLE need of order amid chaos for a institutionalized people now suddenly freed from bondage. Metaphors and theologies aside, the Law brought life, Daniel — in a very real, contextual sense.

      …And you didn’t respond to the point by Wright, which contradicts your point. >>So if you could please respond<< I think Wright, btw, concedes the point by Dunn, which is a very interesting point.

      What do ya think? ;)

  8. Most sin in the world was in Israel. Well, no. The most serious sin in the world was in Israel (maybe because it was against explicit law?). Well, no.

      1. Not true — not even close. See the Jeremiah OAN pericope:

        Flee from the midst of Babylon,
        save your lives, each of you!
        Do not perish because of her guilt,
        for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance;
        he is repaying her what is due…

        …for her judgement has reached up to heaven
        and has been lifted up even to the skies.
        10 The Lord has brought forth our vindication;
        come, let us declare in Zion
        the work of the Lord our God.

        Jeremiah 51:6;10.

        And this day of judgement for the lawbreaker or transgressor Babylon is warranted by the fact that God himself stirred the foe from the north to pronounce judgment on Judah, thus God calls King Neb “his servant” (Jer. 27).

        1. That may be a clue to why Daniel is right.

          At that point, Israel is inside Babylon. Book of Daniel indicates that Babylon is now a place where God has set his name at least for the time being.

          So since israel is at the heart of empire, the empire can be transgressors too, though “the jew first, and also the greek’ is the pattern.

  9. Thanks for the conversation, guys. I’m going to be taking up the question of the Law in a couple of main posts starting today with “Law, Contradictions, and Irrelevancies.”

    I didn’t have time this weekend to stay on top of things, so hopefully this will help move the conversation along.

    Mike, I haven’t forgotten about you. In the mean time, you could always read everything NTW has ever written and find out for yourself. :)

  10. Daniel — I glanced through the comments above and didn’t see mention of this, so I thought I’d drop it in the mix. It seems to me that Matthew 13:10-17 (considered in the context which the Isaiah passage quoted there addressed) supports the idea stated in your last paragraph.

  11. Grace abounds in the Senior Testament – but it needs to be read closely and not with eyes far away in time. Yes Jesus is anointed and demonstrates such grace fully focussed. But this anointing in the Spirit is not distant in the Senior Testament. It is everywhere in it. Romans is a jewel of course but not if Law is over-emphasized over the meaning of Torah as teaching. Nomos may be emphasized but there is a false reading of law-free and law-vs-grace in the NT interpreters. God forbid we should be Teaching-free – i.e. let loose from God’s Torah! God forbid that God’s teaching – all over the Senior Testament – is understood as devoid of grace!

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