Atonement: Propitiation, Part 2

The Suffering Servant

But then again, we’ve hardly answered the original question, which is just how is it that the cross results in our forgiveness. And before we go on to other theories, we have to consider —

(Isa 53:4-8 ESV)  4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

Isaiah’s famous poem about the Suffering Servant is frequently referenced in the New Testament, and certainly speaks in some sense of Jesus paying the price for us. “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Peter agrees —

(1Pe 2:24 ESV) He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

As does Paul —

(Rom 4:23-25 ESV)  23 But the words “[faith] was counted to him” were not written for [Abraham’s] sake alone,  24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,  25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

And the author of Hebrews —

(Heb 9:27-28 ESV)  27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,  28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

It’s unmistakable that, in some sense, Jesus’ died to bear our sins. Our sins were somehow placed upon him in his crucifixion.

God’s justice

Let’s look a little more closely at Paul’s words in Romans 3 —

(Rom 3:24-26 ESV)  24 and [we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 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.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Paul asserts in v. 26 that God put forward Jesus as a propitiation so that he might be “just.” Evidently, Jesus had to die to satisfy some sense of divine justice.

But “just” translates dikaios, meaning righteous. Or just. But the primary meaning is righteous. However, going back to Luther at least, translators have preferred “just” on the theory that Paul is resolving God’s difficulty in being both just and righteous, because he’s being asked to declare the guilty innocent.

But the English hides the problem. You see, Paul has been speaking about righteousness, and so in context, dikaios would most naturally be translated “righteous.”

Indeed, as argued in this post, contrary to many a preacher (and blogger), dikaios is not primarily a legal or forensic word. Rather, it speaks of being good or moral. Hence, the translation “just” would have to be compelled by the context, and the context is the righteousness of God — his goodness as shown by his honoring of his covenant.

Thus, God is not creating what we lawyers call a “legal fiction” whereby he can claim to be just by condemning Jesus for our sins (which is hardly just at all!). Rather, God is acting righteously by honoring his covenant with Abraham. As N. T. Wright explains,

Paul’s answer is that the Messiah, King Jesus, has been the true, faithful Israelite.  Underneath the dense theology of [Romans 3:21-26] stands Paul’s central gospel scene: the death and resurrection of Jesus, seen as the point at which, and the means by which, God’s covenant purposes for Israel, that is, his intention to deal once and for all with the sin of the world, would finally be accomplished.  God has dealt with sin in the cross of Jesus; he has now vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. ‘The faithfulness of Jesus’ (which later, in Romans 5, Paul can also refer to as ‘the obedience of Jesus’) is thus the means whereby the righteousness of God is revealed.  God is himself righteous, as the covenant God who has made promises and kept them.  In terms of the law-court metaphor, he has been true to his word, he has been impartial (note the way in which Paul goes on at once to speak of God’s even-handed dealing with Jew and Gentile alike), and he has dealt with sin.  He has also thereby vindicated the helpless: he is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’  This theme of God’s own righteousness, understood as his covenant faithfulness, and seen in terms of the law-court metaphor, is the key to this vital passage.

Paul stresses, by repetition, the underlying point: the gospel of Jesus reveals God’s righteousness, in that God is himself righteous, and, as part of that, God is the one who declares the believer to be righteous.  Once again we must insist that there is of course a ‘righteous’ standing, a status, which human beings have as a result of God’s gracious verdict in Christ.  Paul is perfectly happy with that…But Paul does not use the phrase ‘God’s righteousness’ to denote it.  God’s righteousness is God’s own righteousness.  In this crucial passage in Romans 3, he shows how God has been righteous in all the senses we outlined earlier.  He has been true to the covenant, which always aimed to deal with the sin of the world; he has kept his promises; he has dealt with sin on the cross; he has done so impartially, making a way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike; and he now, as the righteous judge, helps and saves the helpless who cast themselves on his mercy…Romans 3:21-4:25 as a whole expounds and celebrates God’s own righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness, revealed, unveiled, in the great apocalyptic events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…

God’s justice is his love in action, to right the wrongs of his suffering world by taking their weight upon himself.  God’s love is the driving force of his justice, so that it can never become a blind or arbitrary thing, a cold system which somehow God operates, or which operates God.

N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, pp. 94-111 (emphasis is original except the boldface is mine).

You see, the traditional “forensic” interpretation of Romans presupposes that God must pretend to be just by unjustly killing Jesus for our sins because God is subject to some cosmic law that he must be take an eye for eye. He therefore takes the life of Jesus in lieu of the lives of those with faith.

In reality, though, this would not be just at all. Someone else taking your beating is not justice. But it might be righteous — under certain very special circumstances. But those circumstances aren’t quite demonstrated by the traditional sermon in which Jesus takes the punishment for those with faith. It’s close, but not quite there …

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Atonement: Propitiation, Part 2

  1. guy says:


    i was just discussing the Isaiah 53 passage Tuesday morning. i think Jesus had the iniquity of us all laid on Him in that all peoples–Jews, Gentiles, and even His own disciples–everyone in the game did Christ dirty.

    And “chastisement” seems particularly important. Chastisement is not the same as punishment, but chastise bears more a connotation of training. Here i’m thinking of Paul in Phil 2 saying Jesus was obedient even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus was obedient even under the weight of the sin of everyone around Him even while hung on a tree (as a contrast to Adam/Eve who were disobedient at the Tree of Knowledge despite being in paradise).


  2. Jerry says:

    Jay, in connection with the theme of this post, have you considered Romans 5:19? In a context of discussion of the two “Adams” – the first man and the first righteous man – Paul wrote:

    For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

    We know that in following Adam, we actually do become sinners. In following Jesus, we actually do become righteous. It is not a “fictional righteousness” that is “imputed” to us any more than it is guilt of Adam’s sin imputed to us by virtue of our birth. We actually became sinners, and through Christ we will actually become righteous.

    In this way, the wrongfulness of sin actually is “made right.” This still does not explain how the cross accomplishes it, but it at least clarifies what the cross does accomplish.

    Yet, our habit is to say “But, we still sin daily.” Perhaps we do – but Paul did write about our being made righteous using a future tense. Maybe we focus too much on the present sin and not enough on our promised future righteousness.

    Add to this 1 John 3:1-3 where John says that we He appears we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is – and that those who have this hope in them purify themselves even as He is pure. No, he’s not speaking of a “works righteousness” – but God’s Spirit in those who have this hope works with their spirit to purify us so that we are more and more like him – and that is righteous.

  3. I think we have to wait for part 3, to see where Jay is taking this line of thought!

  4. rich constant says:

    rich constant says:
    July 2, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    i have a little question .
    and wonder if it has ever been put this way.
    if the LAW makes sin utterly sinful how does the CROSS show that Jesus was with out sin even thou he went to Hades.
    the CROSS proves Jesus WAS on a par with the father… 🙂
    Paul seems to say it is impossible in ROM 7 .
    and i ALSO believe that it was a conspiracy BY THE SCRIBES AND THE Pharisees to get pilot to put him there
    GAL 4:3

    (3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under22 the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him23 by the works of the law,24 for through the law comes25 the knowledge of sin. 3:21 But now26 apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets)27 has been disclosed – 3:22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ28 for all who believe.

    3:1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? 3:2 Actually, there are many advantages

    .1 First of all,2 the Jews3 were entrusted with the oracles of God.4

    3:3 What then? If some did not believe, does their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? 3:4 Absolutely not! Let God be proven true, and every human being5 shown up as a liar,6 just as it is written: “so that you will be justified7 in your words and will prevail when you are judged.”8

    . 10:5 So when he came into the world, he said,

    “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.

    10:6 “Whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you took no delight in.

    10:7 “Then I said, ‘Here I am:5 I have come – it is written of me in the scroll of the book – to do your will, O God.’”6

    10:8 When he says above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you did not desire nor did you take delight in them”7 (which are offered according to the law), 10:9 then he says, “Here I am: I have come to do your will.”8 He does away with9 the first to establish the second. 10:10 By his will10 we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 10:11 And every priest stands day after day11 serving and offering the same sacrifices again and again – sacrifices that can never take away sins. 10:12 But when this priest12 had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right hand13 of God,

    Rom 11:9 And David said, “Let their table become for a snare and a trap, and for a stumbling block,” and a repayment to them;
    Rom 11:10 “let their eyes be darkened, not to see, and their back always bowing.” LXX-68:23, 24; MT-Psa. 69:22, 23

    Jas 2:10 For whoever shall keep all the Law, but stumbles in one, he has become guilty of all.

    Gal 3:11 And that no one is justified by Law before God is clear because, “The just shall live by faith.” Hab. 2:4
    Gal 3:12 But the Law is not of faith, but, “The man doing these things shall live in them.” Lev. 18:5

    Gal 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us; for it has been written,

    “Cursed is everyone having been hung on a tree;”

    Gal 4:4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, having come into being out of a woman, having come under Law,
    Gal 4:5 that
    He might redeem the ones under Law,
    that we might receive the adoption of sons

    1Ti 1:8 And we know that the Law is good, if anyone uses it lawfully,
    1Ti 1:9 knowing this, that Law is not laid down for a righteous one,
    but for lawless and undisciplined ones, for ungodly and sinful ones, for unholy and profane ones, for slayers of fathers and slayers of mothers, for murderers,
    1Ti 1:10 for fornicators, for homosexuals, for slave-traders, for liars, for perjurers, and if any other thing opposes sound doctrine,

    Rom 5:8 but God commends His love to us in this, that we being yet sinners, Christ died for us.

    Rom 5:18 So then, as through one deviation it was toward all men to condemnation, so also
    one righteous act
    toward all men to justification of life.

    3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 3:21
    ” i just love this BUT NOW”

    But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 3:22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,

    3:27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! 3:28 For we consider that a person43 is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. 3:29 Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too! 3:30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 3:31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not! Instead we uphold the law.




    sorry bout the caps. 🙂
    rich constant says:
    July 3, 2012 at 2:36 am

    and so we see why Paul speaks thus…
    3:16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant.33 Scripture34 does not say, “and to the descendants,”35 referring to many, but “and to your descendant,”36 referring to one, who is Christ.

    3:21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!
    For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
    3:22 But the scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin
    so that the promise could be given – because of the
    faithfulness of Jesus Christ – to those who believe.

    salvation by grace through faith.


    cor. 2

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