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).

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