Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Bible scholar F. F. Bruce shares with us his understanding of the doctrine of atonement: “The form hilastērion is related to the verb hilaskomai, which in pagan Greek means ‘placate’ or ‘make gracious’, but in the Septuagint it takes on the meaning of Hebrew kipper (‘make atonement’) and related words, among which is included kappōret (‘mercy-seat’). An exception has been taken to the use of the verb ‘propitiate’ and the noun ‘propitiation,’ to render these words in the older English versions of the New Testament, on the ground that the English terms smack of placating or appeasing. We may compare the avoidance of these terms here in the Revised Standard Version and New English Bible (‘God designed Him to be the means of expiating sin by His sacrificial death, effective through faith’) and the Good News Bible (‘God offered Him, so that by His death He should become the means by which people’s sins are forgiven through their faith in Him’)”

Bruce then says: “But if hilaskomai, hilastērion and their cognates acquired a new meaning from their biblical setting, it might be expected that by means of long usage the English terms ‘propitiate’ and ‘propitiation’ should have acquired a biblical meaning in the same way. In any case, misunderstanding is excluded by Paul’s insistence that it is God, and not the sinner, who has provided this hilastērion. The Old Testament similarly ascribes the initiative in this matter to God’s grace: ‘The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of its life.’1 It is an Old Testament text like this, moreover, that explains Paul’s use of the expression ‘by his blood’ in the present context and justifies the New English Bible’s interpretation of it as ‘by His sacrificial death.’2

But the act of sacrifice by itself is not sufficient under the new agreement with God as it was under the old agreement. Having faith in the validity of that sacrifice and the cleansing power of the Lamb of God’s blood must also be exercised by the recipient for the promise of everlasting life to receive God’s stamp of approval. This is clearly expressed by the Apostle John when he wrote: “Yes, God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, o that everyone who believes in Him would not be lost but have eternal life.3 That gave Paul the courage to write the Colossians: “Through Him, God was happy to reconcile all things to Himself – things on earth and things in heaven. God made peace by using the blood sacrifice of His Son on the cross.4

I’m sure it was with joy that the author of Hebrews described this new way to God when he wrote: “And so, brothers and sisters, we are completely free to enter the Holy of Holies. We can do this without fear because of the blood sacrifice of Jesus. We enter through a new way that Jesus opened for us. It is a living way that leads through the curtain—Christ’s body.5 It is no wonder then that at the end of what is considered a Messianic Psalm the writer was thrilled to say: “Our descendants will serve Him. Those who are not yet born will be told about Him. Each generation will tell their children about the good things the Lord has done.6 So why couldn’t doubting Jews see the truth about Jesus that was made so clear in their own Bible?

Paul also wanted to make sure that they understood that no one could have taken Christ’s place. Jesus of Nazareth was the one redeemer God sent for this reason because He alone qualified to do the work that was necessary. This was in Paul’s message he preached in Antioch: “Brothers, understand what we are telling you. You can have forgiveness of your sins through this Jesus. The Law of Moses could not free you from your sins. But you can be made right with God if you believe in Jesus.”7 This harmonizes with what the writer of Hebrews also had to say: “So, it is Christ who brings a new agreement from God to His people. He brings this agreement so that those who are chosen by God can have the blessings God promised, blessings that last forever. This can happen only because Christ died to free people from sins committed against the commands of the first agreement.8

But Paul wanted the congregation in Rome to realize that God did not do this just for His pleasure, but for the good of those He created for the purpose of honoring and glorifying Him as their Creator. When Moses got ready to turn everything over to Joshua, and wrote a scroll that contained all his teachings for Joshua to follow, he gathered the people together to teach them a song. And in that song we read the second stanza: “The Lord is The Rock, and His work is perfect! Yes, His way of doing things is always right! God is true and faithful. He is good and honest.9 In other words, no matter what changes were made in the world around them, the one thing their lives depended on was that God would never change. Unfortunately, God could not rely on the same thing from them.

No doubt, it was this failure on their part that disappointed God the most. So Korah’s family composed a song of praise that expressed God’s desire for His children in a beautiful way: “His saving grace is near for those who revere Him, so we can live with honor in our land. That way, grace and truth will have embraced each other; equality and peace will have kissed each other.10 That’s why when Israel refused to listen to God’s voice, He sent this message to them through the prophet Isaiah: “My people see what they should do, but they do not obey me. They can hear with their ears, but they refuse to listen to me.11 So then, Isaiah laments: “The Lord wants them to do what is right. He wants them to honor His wonderful teachings.12 Not only was that valid in Isaiah’s day, and Paul’s day, but it is equally valid today. That’s why Paul tells the Roman believers that God worked all this out so that He can justify His decision to make things right with those who repent and confess their faith in Jesus as the one true Messiah and Savior. If the Law of Moses could not save people back then, then the Law of the Church cannot save people today. It is Christ, and Christ alone!

Reformist John Calvin gives a clear example of how God went about demonstrating the justice in His justification. He writes: “This is a definition of that righteousness which Paul has declared was revealed when Christ was given, and which, as he taught us in the first chapter, is disclosed in the Gospel. Paul affirms that it consists of two parts — The first is, that God is just, not simply as one among many, but as [the only one who possesses within Himself all the fullness of righteousness. But the complete and full praise due Him is not given when He alone acquires the reputation and the honor of being just, while the whole human race is condemned for injustice. Then the second part refers to the dispensing of righteousness. God by no means keeps His riches laid up for Himself, but pours them out upon mankind. Thus the righteousness of God shines in us, whenever He justifies us by faith in Christ. It would have been in vain if Christ was given for our righteousness unless there was the realization of who He is by faith. It follows then, that all sinners were unjust and lost until a remedy from heaven was offered to them.13

Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke offers his explanation: “To manifest now, by the dispensation of the Gospel, His righteousness, His infinite mercy; and to manifest it in such a way, that He might still appear to be the just God, and yet the justifier, the pardoner, of him who believes in Jesus. Here we learn that God designed to give the most evident displays both of His justice and mercy. Of His justice, in requiring a sacrifice, and absolutely refusing to give salvation to a lost world in any other way; and of His mercy, in providing the sacrifice which His justice required. Thus, because Jesus was an atonement, a ransom price, for the sin of the world, therefore God can, consistently with His justice, pardon every soul that believes in Jesus. This is the full discovery of God‘s righteousness, of His wonderful method of magnifying His law and making it honorable; of showing the infinite purity of His justice, and of saving a lost world.14 What a wonderful thought: God required a sacrifice that mankind could not offer, so God provided it for us!

Robert Haldane gives a clear rendition of what Paul is driving at here: “God has at this time also set forth His Son as a propitiatory sacrifice, in order to make manifest His righteousness, on account of which now, under the Gospel dispensation, He remits the sins of His people. He was always just in forgiving sin, but now the ground on which He forgives it is manifested, which vindicates His justice in doing so. The word here rendered just, is variously translated by those who do not understand God’s plan of salvation. Some make it to signify benevolent, kind, merciful, etc.; but it has here its own proper meaning, which it never deserts. God is just: He acts according to strict justice, as becomes His character, while He justifies, accounts, and treats as perfectly righteous all who believe in Jesus, who are thus one with Him, and consequently have His righteousness imputed to them.15

Says British scholar Charles Hodge: “A judge is unjust when he allows a criminal to be pronounced righteous, and treated accordingly. On the other hand he acts justly when he pronounces the offender guilty, and secures the infliction of the penalty which the law denounces. What the apostle means to say is, that there is no such disregard to the claims of justice in the justification of the sinner who believes in Christ. This is seen and acknowledged, when it is known that he is justified neither on account of his own acts or character, nor by a mere sovereign dispensing [through rites and rituals] to meet the demands of the law, but on the ground of a complete satisfaction rendered by His substitute, i.e. on the ground of the obedience and death of Christ.16

But the great expositor Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “Every sinner knows that sin must be punished. He may trifle with that knowledge, but he cannot destroy it; and he never can get any peace of mind, when his conscience is really awakened, till he learns this great truth — God punished Christ instead of you. Christ has so honored the law of God that, without God being unjust, or being thought to be so, He can forgive you.17

1 Leviticus 17:11

2 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 110–111

3 John 3:16

4 Colossians 1:20

5 Hebrews 10:19-20

6 Psalm 22:30-31

7 Acts of the Apostles 13:38-39

8 Hebrews 9:15

9 Deuteronomy 32:4

10 Psalm 85:9-10

11 Isaiah 42:20

12 Ibid. 42:21

13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

15 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 150-151

16 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

17 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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