N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
(Rom. 3:24-25 NET) 24 But they are justified [declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom?].
Wright on “mercy seat”
Obviously, the translations that prefer “propitiation” to “mercy seat” have their reasons. And in terms of atonement theory — that is, how Jesus’ death brings about our salvation — the difference is huge. “Propitiation” means to offer something to a divinity to avoid his anger: “If you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you this goat.” Among the pagans, even repentance was not required. Just payment. The Greco-Roman concept was that the gods require and are sustained by sacrifice, and so a sacrifice effectively buys goodwill. The Greco-Roman gods were not moral beings and cared nothing about having a personal relationship with their worshipers. But they demanded sacrifice and loyalty because they needed these things. Think of the gods as the Godfather — I’ll do you this favor, but you’ll owe me big time. But the God of Israel acts unilaterally, out of love, for the good of the person loved. There is no comparison.
Now, if you were raised in a church that teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus satisfies God’s demand for blood as a condition to forgiveness, “propitiation” seems a perfectly obvious and natural translation. But in the other 29 uses of the word in the LXX and NT, it’s always translated “mercy seat” — which should be enough to put us on notice that just maybe we’ve missed something important.
Therefore, understandably, Wright wishes to avoid a Romans Road understanding of the One True God.
[T]he usual reading assumes that the problem Paul is facing [in Romans] is divine wrath and that in 3: 24– 26, and in particular with the key term hilastērion, he is explaining how this wrath is somehow dealt with. This is lexically possible, but there are four problems with it.
First, … the word in context is far more likely to refer to the “mercy seat,” the place in the tabernacle or Temple where God promises, as the focus of his covenant, to meet with his people and to that end provides cleansing for both the people and the sanctuary so that the meeting can take place.
Second, it is simply a mistake to assume, as the “usual” reading has done, that a reference to the Bible’s sacrificial system indicates that a sacrificial animal is being killed in the place of the worshipper. [See our earlier discussion of the Levitical sacrificial system.]
Third, when Paul sums up the effect of the present passage in 5:9, he says that if we have been “justified by his blood,” we shall be saved from the future wrath. He cannot therefore intend the phrase “justified by his blood”— the summary of 3: 24– 26— to mean “being saved from wrath,” or 5: 9 would be a tautology (“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”).
Fourth, at the heart of this passage Paul says that God has passed over former sins in his forbearance. This is the very opposite of “punishment.” It could be of course (and many have suggested this) that God had previously “passed over” sins in order to save up the punishment until it could be vented on Jesus. But there is no indication that this is what Paul has in mind. [Hence, Wright rejects the “rolling forward” of sins theory that is so commonly taught. There is no such text in Hebrews or the rest of the Bible.]
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4850-4861). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.” This joins up with the clear implication of 2: 17– 20: God called Israel to be the light of the world, the answer to the problem of human idolatry and sin.
The usual [Romans Road] reading of Romans 3: 21– 26 is therefore outflanked. It is a shallow reduction of what Paul is actually saying. Sin and God’s dealing with sin in the death of Jesus are undoubtedly central, but these are set within the larger questions of both idolatry (and therefore of true worship) and God’s commitment to rescue the world through Abraham’s family, Israel. Neither Romans 1: 18– 3: 20 nor Romans 4 is simply concerned with “sin” and “justification,” as in the normal reading. They are indeed concerned with both, but they frame both within the question of cult [Temple ritual] and the question of covenant. If there are signs that Romans 3: 21– 26 is also about cult and covenant, we should assume that this is what Paul thinks he is talking about.
We can come even closer. Romans 3: 27– 31, the bridge between our key passage and chapter 4, is all about the coming together of Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, on the basis of pistis, “faith”— which looks like an additional fulfillment of the hints Paul dropped in 2: 25– 29. And the heart of Romans 3: 27– 31 is the firm declaration that the God in whom both Jew and Gentile must believe is the One God of Israel: Jewish-style monotheism is at the heart of the justification by which Gentile and Jew alike are declared to be within the sin-forgiven family. The whole passage, from 2: 17 to 4: 25, is all about God’s covenant with Israel and through Israel for the world and about the true worship at the heart of this covenant, the worship of the one true God, which replaces the idolatry of 1: 18– 23 and thus undoes the sin of 1: 24– 32.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5044-5060). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (Italics in original).
Likewise, when we note that the central statement of the passage, that God “put forth Jesus as the place of mercy,” uses the word hilastērion, which in the scriptures refers to the covering of the “ark of the covenant,” the place where God cleanses Israel from sins so that he and his people can meet, we ought to assume that he is speaking of the way in which true worship is being restored in place of idolatry. Paul is not simply invoking a “cultic metaphor” [mercy seat] alongside a “law court” metaphor [“justified”], on the one hand, and a “slave market” metaphor [“redemption”], on the other. He is thinking of the restoration of true cult, true worship: the one God cleansing people from defilement so that the true meeting, the heart of the covenant, may take place at last.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5070-5075). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[JFG] In the ancient world, blood cleansed people so that they could approach the presence of God. Just so, there is the thought that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross cleansed those with faith in/faithfulness to/trust in Jesus to allow them to approach God — and to allow God to come dwell within them through the Spirit.
[JFG] Jesus said in John 7:37-39 that the Spirit had not yet been sent because Jesus had not yet been glorified. If the crucifixion served to remove the separation between believers and God, then this makes just all kinds of sense — at least to the minds of Second Temple period Jews.
(Jn. 7:37-39 NET) 37 On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and 38 let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, ‘From within him will flow rivers of living water.'” 39 (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.)
[JFG] Or to look at it another way, the sins of Israel had stained not only the literal Holy of Holies, but God himself. After all, God had covenanted to fulfill Abraham’s side of the covenant in the blood oath ritual. And God no longer dwelled in the Holy of Holies — since the time of Exile began. Rather, God lived in heaven and not where heaven and earth meet in the Temple — not any more. And so the sins of Israel stained heaven — the location of the true Temple, the New Jerusalem, and the actual throne of God.
[JFG] To cleanse the stain of Israel’s Sin required blood, and so God the Son provided the price (the ransom, meaning “price”) for restoring right relationship and allowing Exile to end, forgiveness of sins to be once again provided, and to end the curses of the Law.
[JFG] But as Paul finally gets to in Rom 8, it’s not just the covenant curses that are ended. Jesus’ death ends all barriers between God and man, even the original curse on Creation going back to Gen 3. And this opens the covenant to Gentiles, who are freed from all curses and stains that separate them from God just as are the Jews. They now also have the opportunity to repent and gain forgiveness of sins in the Kingdom.
(Acts 17:30-31 ESV) 30 “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness [according to his covenants] by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
[JFG] That my theory, any way. And it reconciles Paul with Hebrews, in which Jesus is pictured as bringing his blood into heaven at the heavenly Temple that exists in the New Jerusalem.