Monday, November 4, 2019

For Him to be Just: A Study on Romans 3:21-26 (Part Two)


God’s righteousness and the passing over of sins

Paul went on to write that the purpose for which God “purposed” Christ as “a Propitiatory shelter” was ”for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God.” Before we consider what Paul was referring to by God’s “righteousness” here (and how Christ’s death displayed or “showed forth” this righteousness), let’s consider why God thought it necessary to “display his righteousness” in the first place. The first reason is provided by Paul in the rest of v. 25: ”…because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God…”

Young’s Literal Translation renders this part of v. 25 as follows: “…because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God…”

The Dabhar translation reads as follows: “…because of the remission of the failures having become before…”

The term that is translated “penalties of sins,” “sins” and “failures” is the Greek noun ἁμαρτημάτων (hamartēmatōn). This term occurs only three more times in the Greek Scriptures (https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_265.htm). But which translation is more accurate? Is it better translated “sins” or “failures” (which are virtually synonymous in meaning), or “penalties of sins?” Despite its attempt at a more literal translation of hamartēmatōn, I’m inclined to think the CLNT may actually be less accurate here. Although it’s true that the elements of the word hamartēmatōn are, literally, “UN-MARK-EFFECT,” it is not, I don’t think, the penalties of sins that are in view here. Rather, what I believe Paul had in mind are the sinful actions to which sin leads, and which are the “effect” of sin (by implication, the term hamartēmatōn could also be understood as referring to the sins in which the actions result).

In support of this view, consider Christ’s words in Mark 3:28-29. The CLNT translates Christ’s words in these verses as follows:

“Verily, I am saying to you that all shall be pardoned the sons of mankind, the penalties of the sins (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, whatsoever they should be blaspheming, yet whoever should be blaspheming against the holy spirit is having no pardon for the eon, but is liable to the eonian penalty for the sin (ἁμαρτήματος).”

The Dabhar, on the other hand, translates these verses as follows:

“Amen, I say to you: All will be remitted to the sons of men, yea, all the failures (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, as it were, as many as they blaspheme, but the one who blasphemes toward the Holy Spirit, as it were, not has he remission till into the eon, but he will be liable of eonian failure (ἁμαρτήματος).”

Understanding the term hamartēmatōn as referring to sins/failures (or perhaps “sinful actions”) seems preferable in light of the fact that the term is coupled with the term translated “blasphemies.” Moreover, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words here (see Matt. 12:31-32), the term hamartia (“sin”) is used instead of hamartēmatōn. Thus, given the fact that hamartēmatōn is used elsewhere in Scripture as if it were equivalent in meaning to the term for “sins,” I believe it would be preferable to understand hamartēmatōn in Romans 3:25 to mean either “sins” or “sinful actions” (rather than “penalties of sins”).

In any case, it’s clear from what we read in Mark 3:28-29 that the term hamartēmatōn denotes something that could be “forgiven” or “remitted” by God (and in the case of those who were guilty of “blasphemy against the holy spirit” – which involved attributing Jesus’ power to that of an “unclean spirit” rather than to the holy spirit of God – they will be having no forgiveness or remission “for the eon”). Thus, we can understand the term hamartēmatōn in Rom. 3:25 as also referring to that which could be forgiven, or remitted, by God (whether it be understood as referring to “sins” or “penalties of sins”).

Let’s now consider the words, because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God” (or, “because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God.”). Concerning the term translated “passing over,” A.T. Robertson remarked as follows: “Late word from pariēmi, to let go, to relax. In Dionysius Hal., Xenophon, papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 266) for remission of punishment, especially for debt, as distinct from aphesis (remission).” Similarly, Albert Barnes commented, “The word used here πάρεσιν paresinoccurs nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in the Septuagint. It means “passing by,” as not noticing, and hence, forgiving.”

Understood as a reference to forgiveness, God’s “passing over” sins refers to his mercifully setting aside the penalty of which those who’d committed the sins had become deserving. I think it’s also significant that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the forgiveness of sins is depicted as a “propitiatory shelter” being made “over” those whose sins were forgiven by God (see, for example, Lev. 4:20, 26 in the CVOT). With this shelter “covering” them, God consequently “passed over” their sins, so that they would not have to suffer the penalty that would’ve otherwise followed. In view of these considerations, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the ”passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God” refers to the fact that, for centuries, God had been doing what we find affirmed by David in Psalm 103:10: ”He does not deal with us according to our sins or requite us according to our iniquities.”

God’s forgiveness of David’s sins is a good example of what I believe Paul had in view in Rom. 3:25. In 2 Samuel 12 we read that David was confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. In 2 Sam. 12:9-10 we read that Nathan rebuked David for having “despised the word of the Lord.” What’s more, it’s evident that God considered David as having despised him by his sin (hence God’s rhetorical question, “Why have you despised me?”). Although it wasn’t his conscious intention to despise God when he sinned, David nevertheless treated God with contempt by sinning. His sin communicated the false idea that God was not deserving of faithful obedience. After acknowledging his sin against God (v. 13), Nathan responded, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” In other words, God “passed over” David’s sins, despite the fact that – according to God – David had “despised” God by his sins, and was deserving of death.

How Christ’s death displayed God’s righteousness

That which Paul referred to as “[God’s] righteousness” in Romans 3:25-26 – and which was “displayed” or “shown forth” by Christ’s death – is, I believe, God’s own righteous status or character (which I believe is evident from the expression “for Him to be just” in v. 26). This righteousness of God was referred to earlier, in Rom. 3:3-8:

For what if some disbelieve? Will not their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? May it not be coming to that! Now let God be true, yet every man a liar, even as it is written: “That so Thou shouldst be justified in Thy sayings, And shalt be conquering when Thou art being judged.” Now if our injustice is commending God's righteousness, what shall we declare? Not that God Who is bringing on indignation is unjust! (As a man am I saying it.) May it not be coming to that! Else how shall God be judging the world? Yet if the truth of God superabounds in my lie, for His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner, and why not say, according as we are calumniated and according as some are averring that we are saying, that "We should be doing evil that good may be coming"? -- whose judgment is fair.

The unbelief of “some” Jews (which was actually the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day, and remains so today) cannot make God’s faithfulness of no effect. As Paul went on to argue in greater depth in chapters 9-11 of this letter, God will, in fact, fulfill his promises to the believers among his covenant people. However, God will also bring his threatened indignation upon the unbelievers among them (and it is this second point that Paul is emphasizing in this passage). Paul quotes Psalm 51:4 to support his claim that God is not unfaithful even if some Jews are unbelieving. David himself affirmed the fact that God had the right to judge him because of his sins. David did not, in other words, attempt to take refuge in his status as a member of God’s covenant people (as if his covenant status alone made him exempt from God’s righteous judgment).

Notice how Paul considered God’s righteousness as something inseparably tied to God’s “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” for unbelief and unrighteousness (or “injustice”). It is this divine act of “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” (in response to the world’s unbelief/injustice) which, according to Paul, is “commending God’s righteousness,” and which is “for [God’s] glory.” In other words, God’s righteousness is displayed through his judgment of, and bringing indignation upon, sinners (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). By giving God the opportunity to display his righteousness through the judgment of sinners, the injustice of unbelieving Jews serves to commend, or magnify, God’s righteousness.

In light of this fact, Paul anticipates the following objection from someone opposed to what he’s saying concerning God’s righteous judgment of unbelieving Israelites: If God condemns people for the very thing that commends his righteousness (and thus glorifies him), wouldn’t this make God unrighteous for condemning those who are unrighteous (for God’s being glorified is, of course, a good thing)? But of course, God is not unrighteous for bringing indignation on the unrighteous. For – as those whom Paul is representing as bringing this objection would’ve agreed – God is going to judge the world (i.e., the Gentile inhabitants of the earth). But God couldn’t judge the world if the objection to which Paul was responding had any merit (which, again, is that God couldn’t justly condemn people if their condemnation commended his righteousness, and thus brought him glory). Thus, on the basis of the fact that God is going to be judging the world (and will be righteous in doing so), the objection to which Paul was responding fails.

Now, we know that God is absolutely responsible for everything that occurs in his universe. It is for this reason that Paul described God as “the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The “all” that God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will necessarily includes the committing of sin by his creatures (which necessarily includes the very first sin that ever occurred). Rather than passively allowing his creatures to sin, God himself is actively bringing about the circumstances that necessarily result in people sinning (whether those sinning are human or celestial beings). In light of the fact that God is, absolutely speaking, the reason why sin occurs, some may wonder why God can’t “just forgive sins,” or why God couldn’t have “just saved us” apart from Christ’s having had to die. Why did God need Christ to die for our sins if our sins are a necessary part of God’s “purpose of the eon?”

The fact that sin is necessary to God’s plan (and that it would not exist if God didn’t intend for it to exist) does not mean that God doesn’t take sin seriously, or that God delights in, and is directly pleased by, its occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth. As is evident from God’s rebuke of David, God takes sin very seriously. In fact, God takes sin so seriously (and so utterly disapproves of it) that he considers sinners to be justly deserving of death. This is not only implied by what we read in 2 Sam. 12:8-10 (where it’s implied that David would’ve died had God not chosen to mercifully “pass over” his sin), but it’s explicit affirmed by Paul in Romans 1:32 (where we read of the “just statute of God” that those committing sin are “deserving of death”).

But what makes the “just statute” referred to by Paul a “just statute?” It is evident that God – as the Supreme Being and the uncreated Creator of all that exists – is deserving of faithful obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is, I believe, for this reason that the “foremost precept” is, ”You shall be loving the Lord God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength.” Obedience to this greatest of precepts, then, is what every intelligent being owes God, and is what we fail to give God whenever we sin.

Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of God’s creatures “owing” God anything (even if it’s love). However, in Rom. 13:8-10 we read that Paul considered love to be that which we “owe” our associate (or “neighbor”). If, in accord with the precept, “You shall be loving your associate as yourself,” we can be said to “owe” love to our associate, how much more do we owe love to God? For, according to Christ, the “foremost precept” of the law is, “You shall be loving the Lord your God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength” (Mark 12:30). It is for this reason that I believe Christ understood sin to be a “debt” (or something very much like a debt). In Matthew 6:12 we read that Christ taught his disciples to pray, “And remit to us our debts, as we also remit those of our debtors. In Luke’s account, we read, “And pardon us our sins, for we ourselves also are pardoning everyone who is owing us (Luke 11:4; cf. Matt. 18:21-35).

A popular belief among Protestant and “evangelical” Christians is that the “debt” that sinners owe God is punishment. However, since sin involves a failure to give to God the obedience he deserves, it would be more accurate to understand the debt we owe God as being the obedience that we fail to give him whenever we sin. The penalty for sin (i.e., death) is simply the just consequence of our debt; it is not itself the debt. And the obedience that we owe God is a debt that we cannot pay. No subsequent obedience that we give to God can make up for the obedience that we failed to give him. This “debt” of obedience can only be forgiven. Thus, when God forgives sins and justifies sinners, it necessarily involves his mercifully forgiving the “debt” we owe him, and thus setting aside the just penalty that he himself considers all sinners to be justly deserving of (in accord with his “just statute”). But the very fact that this statute is “just” raises the following question: How can it be just (or righteous) of God to forgive sins and justify sinners when this necessarily involves the setting aside of a penalty that is in accord with what God considers to be a “just statute?”

If it’s righteous of God to condemn sinners (and it is) – and sinners justly deserve to die (and they do) – how can God’s decision to extend mercy to sinners and bestow grace upon them (by forgiving their sins and justifying them) be consistent with his righteousness? It is this problem – the apparent unrighteousness of God’s decision to forgive sins and justify sinners (rather than dealing with them in accord with his “just statute”) – that required a “showing forth” or “display” of God’s righteousness through the death of Christ. Concerning this important point, Martin Zender remarked as follows in his commentary on Romans 3:24-26:

“We rarely think about God’s righteousness or His reputation. It’s usually all about us. We want to make sure that we are justified, that God loves us, and that we will be with Him forever. There comes a time, however, when a spiritually mature person will ask: “What is in this for God? What does the cross of Christ do for His reputation? Does He come out smelling like lilies of the field? What are people going to think of Him after all this?”

In the current era, not too many people think highly of God. They either hate Him and don’t believe in Him (worldly people), or they so miscalculate His purpose and character (speaking now of religious people) that they perform moralistic feats (such as going to church or refusing to smoke cigars), hoping to avoid hell.

In Romans 3:26, Paul tells us that the deliverance from sin and death won by Jesus Christ on the cross was a display of God’s righteousness in the current era. This is one of the secrets of the cross of Christ, that the cross was a display of God’s righteousness. Hardly anyone sees it as that.”


Again, the deserved death of sinners is in accord with (and a reflection of) the fact that God is deserving of obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is because sin results in God’s failing to receive what he, as God, deserves that sinners are justly deserving of death. Moreover, we know that God can’t lie and is necessarily committed to the truth. Thus, we can understand God’s need for Christ’s death for our sins as simply reflecting his uncompromising commitment to the unchanging truth of his infinite worth (which is what makes him worthy of perfect, faithful obedience - as well as continuous praise - from his creatures). If God were to forgive sins and justify sinners apart from, and without regard for, Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, then God would be acting contrary to the truth of who and what he is. God would, in other words, be acting contrary to the truth of his own infinite worth as God. And God can no more act contrary to what is true than he can act contrary to his own nature. However, because of Christ’s death, God is able to be merciful and gracious toward sinners without compromising his righteousness. But how can this be? How did Christ’s death justify God’s decision to extend mercy and grace to sinners (by forgiving their sins and justifying them), and thus reconcile God’s mercy and grace with his righteousness? How is it that, in the words of A.E. Knoch, Christ’s blood “settles for sins, past present and future,” and “vindicates God’s justice and makes it possible for Him to be the Justifier of all who are of the faith of Jesus”?

Among the views that can actually be said to be attempts to explain how Christ’s death justifies God’s decision to be merciful toward sinners, one of the most common among Protestant Christians involves the idea that, when Christ died, he was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, in the booklet “The Outcome of Infinite Grace,” Loyal Hurley (who, I must add, was a believer) affirmed this view when he wrote, “Jesus is the Savior because He bore the just penalty for sin…Paul insists that God dealt fully and righteously with human sin in all its aspects. Accordingly, whatever debt, or price, or judgment or penalty should have been met (call it by any word you choose), He exacted in full from His own Beloved Son” (p. 12). Similarly, we read the following from Joseph E. Kirk on page 63 of the same booklet: “In the death of Christ on the cross, we see God dealing righteously with sin. What a dreadful thing sin is to call forth such a severe penalty! What great sinners we are that we should justly deserve all that Jesus Christ endured!” Kirk went on to write, “Whatever the penalty of sin is, Jesus Christ endured it to the full in order to become our Saviour.”

In contrast with the view expressed by these two fellow members of the body of Christ, I don’t believe Christ’s death involved his suffering the penalty of sin. But if Christ didn’t “pay the penalty” for sin when he died, then what, exactly, occurred when he died that made it possible for God to be merciful to sinners while remaining righteous? As these believers would’ve whole-heartedly agreed (Kirk even makes this very point in the context from which I quoted him), Christ committed no sin whatsoever during his life on earth, and was completely innocent when he died. Not only did Christ not deserve to die, but his death was an act of self-sacrifice to God. Rather than being a passive victim, Christ’s death was a voluntary act of perfect obedience to God. In John 10:17-18, Christ declared,

Therefore the Father is loving Me, seeing that I am laying down My soul that I may be getting it again. No one is taking it away from Me, but I am laying it down of Myself. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to get it again. This precept I got from My Father.

Everything that occurred to Christ during this time (as well as prior to it) involved his obedience to God’s will. This included the time from his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane to the moment he committed his spirit to God and breathed his last on the cross. Everything that Christ allowed to happen to him during this dark time fulfilled prophecy and was done in humble obedience to God. Christ had to die in the exact way and in the exact circumstances he did in order to remain obedient to God, as well as to fulfill all that was written concerning him. Consider Christ’s tearful and heartfelt yielding to God’s will while praying in Gethsemane (which cannot be understood as anything other than a voluntary act of obedience to God, apart from which the prophecies concerning him would not have been fulfilled):

Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, “Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there.” And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed. Then He is saying to them, “Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me…” And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!” Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!” And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for their eyes were heavy. And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word (Matthew 26:36-44).

In Luke’s account Christ explicitly acknowledged that what he was about to do would fulfill prophecy (Luke 22:37), which means that Christ was very much aware of the fact that his actions were completely necessary for the fulfilling of prophecy (and apart from which prophecy wouldn’t have been fulfilled). We’re also told in this same account that, while praying to God to let the “cup” pass by from him, our Lord came “to be in a struggle,” and that “His sweat became as if clots of blood descending on the earth” (:44). Evidently, Christ’s struggle involved the decision to exercise his God-given right to “lay down His soul” and thus be “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), rather than avoiding the cross (which, in Matt. 26:52-54, Christ acknowledged he had the authority to do).

Keeping in mind the fact that Christ’s death was an act of perfect, faithful obedience to God, how did his death vindicate God’s justice and make it possible for God to justly show mercy and grace to sinners? Simply put, when Christ died on the cross in faithful obedience to God, he gave to God a gift of obedience that is of greater worth and value than the obedience that every sinner owes God (the fact that God considered Christ’s obedience unto death to be of greater value than the obedience of any other created being - including the ongoing, perpetual obedience of holy celestial beings such as Gabriel or Michael - is evident from the fact that, following his death, Christ was exalted by God far above all terrestrial and celestial beings). Understood in this way, it wasn’t a debt of punishment that Christ “paid” to God when he died. Rather, it was a “debt of obedience” that Christ “paid” to God when he was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And because Christ, by his sacrificial death, gave to God a gift of obedience that is far greater in value than the obedience that we fail to give God when we sin, God is able to justly set aside the penalty of which our sins make us deserving.

This understanding of how Christ’s death made it possible for God to forgive sins and justify sinners finds support from Israel’s divinely-instituted sacrificial system. According to this system, Israelites had to offer sacrifices to God – via a representative priesthood – in order to receive the forgiveness of certain sins. It was in response to their offering to God something that was of (relatively) great value – i.e., an unblemished animal (the blood of which was considered precious to God, the Creator of the animal) – that God mercifully forgave the sins of those for whom the animal was offered. The people of Israel were, essentially, giving something valuable/precious to God in order to eliminate the “debt” they’d incurred by their sins (and it should be noted that the idea of giving to God something of value was present even when the sacrifices were made as an expression of thanksgiving to God, rather than as compensation for sins/guilt).

In addition to referring to Christ’s death using words and imagery derived from the sin offering (Rom. 3:24-25; 8:3; Eph. 5:1-2), Paul explicitly stated that Christ was made a sin offering for our sakes. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read, “For the One not knowing sin, [God] makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God’s righteousness in Him.” Instead of “sin offering,” many translations have, “sin.” However, even if the Greek word hamartia is translated “sin” here, Paul cannot be understood to mean that Christ literally became sin for our sakes. There is simply no meaningful sense in which this could literally be true. Nor can these words be understood to mean that Christ became a sinner (or sinful) for our sakes. As already noted, Christ never sinned during his lifetime, and remained sinless when he died on the cross (which was itself an act of ultimate obedience to God). On the other hand, translating “sin” as “sin offering” in this verse not only makes good sense, but it is consistent with the usage of the word sin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (where it is frequently used to mean “sin offering”), as well as with what is said elsewhere in the Greek Scriptures concerning the nature of Christ’s sacrifice (e.g., Heb. 7:27; 10:12).[1] And insofar as a sin offering is a sacrifice offered to God that has, as its intended purpose, the elimination of the sins for which the sacrifice is offered (i.e., it results in God’s ceasing to reckon the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered against them), it follows that the sins of everyone for whose sake Christ died as a sin offering shall be eliminated, and all sinners shall ultimately be reconciled to God.



[1] Concerning his preference for the translation “sin-offering” (rather than “sin”) in this verse, Adam Clarke remarked as following in his commentary: “[The Greek word translated ‘sin’ in the KJV] answers to the chattaah and chattath of the Hebrew text; which signifies both sin and sin-offering in a great variety of places in the Pentateuch. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word by ἁμαρτια in ninety-four places in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where a sin-offering is meant; and where our version translates the word not sin, but an offering for sin.” Clarke went on to reference more than one hundred verses from the Septuagint in which the Greek word for “sin” (hamartia) is used to denote a sin-offering.

For Him to be Just: A Study on Romans 3:21-26 (Part One)

Introduction: What Christ procured through his death

According to what we read in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations consists of the following two facts: (1) “that Christ died for our sins” and (2) “that He has been roused the third day.” As I’ve argued in more depth elsewhere, to believe that Christ “died for our sins” is to believe that Christ died so that our sins would no longer be “reckoned” to us by God. Thus, for a person to believe that Christ “died for our sins” (in accord with Paul’s evangel) is simply to believe that Christ died so that they would be saved from their sins (i.e., from the condemnation of which our sins make us deserving). But for whose sins did Christ die? In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote the following:

“I am entreating, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, pleadings, thanksgiving be made for all mankind, for kings and all those being in a superior station, that we may be leading a mild and quiet life in all devoutness and gravity, for this is ideal and welcome in the sight of our Saviour, God, Who wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator of God and mankind, a Man, Christ Jesus, Who is giving Himself a correspondent Ransom for all (the testimony in its own eras), for which I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the nations in knowledge and truth.” (1Timothy 2:1-7)

Since nothing can prevent God from accomplishing what he wills (Job 42:2; Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10; 55:11; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:15-20; Eph. 1:11), it logically follows that God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind (which, in the above passage, is what we’re explicitly told “God wills”). The fact that most people die as unbelievers is no obstacle to their being saved, for their dying in unbelief is no less a part of the “all things” that we’re told God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11) than is their future salvation. If dying in unbelief was somehow incompatible with God’s will that all mankind be saved, then God would ensure that no one died in unbelief (for God – being God – could easily prevent anyone from dying in unbelief if it was necessary to their being finally saved).

In accord with God’s will to save all mankind, we read in 1 Tim. 1:15 that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Will Christ accomplish what he came into the world to do? Yes, for we’re told that Christ came to do the will of God (John 6:38; Heb. 10:7), and that God’s will “shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10). In 1 Tim. 2:6, we read of what Christ has already done to ensure that God’s will concerning mankind’s salvation is accomplished: he gave himself “a correspondent Ransom for all.” The expression translated as “a correspondent Ransom for all” are the words “antilutron huper pantōn.” The first word (antilutron) is a combination of the Greek prefix “anti” and the noun “lutron.” The prefix “anti” means, “instead of,” “corresponding to,” or “serving as the equivalent of,” while the noun “lutron” is the same word translated as “ransom” elsewhere (e.g., in Matthew 20:28).

In his entry on the word “ransom” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Archibald M'Caig remarks as follows concerning Christ’s words in Matthew 20:28:

The word He uses bears a well-established meaning, and is accurately rendered by our word “ransom,” a price paid to secure the freedom of a slave or to set free from liabilities and charges, and generally the deliverance from calamity by paying the forfeit. The familiar verb luo, “to loose,” “to set free,” is the root, then lutron, that which secures the freedom, the payment or forfeit; thence come the cognate verb lutroo, “to set free upon payment of a ransom,” “to redeem”; lutrosis, “the actual setting free,” “the redemption,” and lutrotes, “the redeemer.” The favorite New Testament word for “redemption” is the compound form, apolutrosis. http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/R/ransom.html

After providing some general cases of the usage of the word “ransom” in the Old Testament, M’Caig continues as follows:

But perhaps the most important passage is the law concerning the half-shekel to be paid by every Israelite from 20 years old and upward when a census was taken. It was to be the same for rich and poor, and it was called “atonement money,” “to make atonement for their souls.” In the opening words of the law, as given in Ex 30:12 (the King James Version), we read “Then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord”--the Hebrew kopher; the Septuagint rendering is lutra tes psuches autou, “a ransom price for his soul.” All the people were thus considered as doomed and needing atonement, and it is significant that this atonement money paid at the first census furnished the silver for the sockets of the tabernacle boards, intimating that the typical tabernacle was built upon atonement.

The same thought, that the people’s lives were forfeited, comes out in the provision for the consecration of the Levites, recorded in full in Nu 3:40-51. The firstborn represented the people. God claimed all the firstborn as forfeited to Himself, teaching that Israel deserved the same punishment as the Egyptians, and was only spared by the grace of Yahweh, and in virtue of the sprinkled blood. Now He takes to Himself for His services the Levites as the equivalent of the firstborn, and when it was found that the number of the firstborn exceeded the number of the Levites, equivalence was maintained by ransoming at a certain price the surplus of the firstborn males. In the Septuagint account, lutra occurs 4 times, twice for the phrase “those to be redeemed,” and twice for “redemption money.” Thus the idea of ransom for the forfeited life became familiar to the people as educated by the typical system, and redemption expressed the sum total of their hopes for the future, however faulty might be their conception of the nature of that redemption.

Based on the above scriptural data (see the full entry by M’Caig for more examples), we can conclude that the word translated as “ransom” (lutron) literally refers to a payment that releases someone from some kind of bondage (such as that of slavery or debt), or from some sort of penalty to which they’ve become exposed. It can also be reasonably concluded that those for whom Christ gave himself a “correspondent Ransom” will, in fact, be released from whatever it is they are in bondage to, and that Paul would not have used the word “ransom” if this weren’t the case. And since anyone for whom Christ gave himself a ransom will be ransomed as a result, it follows that those ransomed as a result of Christ’s death will be saved. But for whom did Christ give himself a “correspondent Ransom?”

The expression, “there is one mediator of God and mankind” helps us to determine who is included in the “all” for whom Christ gave himself as a ransom: it is all persons who fall into the category of “mankind” (anthrōpos), and who are in need of a Savior. Contextually, then, Paul’s clearly talking about all mankind. Commenting on the meaning of the words “correspondent ransom,” A.B. Screws remarked as follows:

“Christ's death is the exact equivalent of the need of the human family. And that need is more than to simply be restored to the Adamic “purity.” We need the grace that superabounds - not grace that puts us back in Adam’s condition. Everything that is needed to affect the salvation of all mankind (I Tim. 2:4) is supplied in Christ.  It is in this sense that He is ‘the One giving Himself a correspondent Ransom for all.’ Nor would it be amiss to consider the meaning of ransom.  It will secure the release of the person for whom it is paid, unless the one accepting the ransom intends to deceive the one paying it.  If Christ gives Himself a correspondent Ransom for all, and any part of the human family is not subsequently released, then God has deceived His Son.  In other words, since Christ gives Himself a correspondent ransom for all, all must be saved, or else God stands eternally discredited as dishonest. (http://www.theheraldofgodsgrace.org/Screws/17_07_38_02.htm)

In support of the position in defense of which Screws wrote, consider the following logical argument:

1. Anyone for whom Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom” will be ransomed as a result.
2. Anyone ransomed as a result of Christ’s death will be saved.
3. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6 will be saved.
4. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom includes all mankind (1 Tim. 2:4-5).
5. All mankind will be saved.

This conclusion is in accord with 1 Tim. 4:10, where we’re told that God “is the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” This verse presupposes that those among “all mankind” who die in unbelief will eventually be saved. If God was unable or unwilling to save those who died in unbelief, then he would not be “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” He would instead be the Savior of believers exclusively. But this, of course, would contradict the first part of this verse. Since God is “the Savior of all mankind” (and not of believers only), it follows that all mankind – including all who die in unbelief – will, in fact, be saved from the condemnation to which sin leads, and “shall be constituted just” (Rom. 5:18-19). This means that one does not have to be a believer in this lifetime in order to benefit from what Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf.

But does this mean that it doesn’t matter whether one is a believer in this lifetime or not? Not at all. In fact, the salvation with which Scripture is primarily concerned (and concerning which it has the most to say) is that which will be enjoyed by believers long before the rest of mankind is saved (hence God is said to be the Savior “especially of believers”). In contrast with the majority of mankind, those to whom God is giving faith in this lifetime to believe Paul’s evangel are justified (Rom. 5:1) and thus no longer under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). And by virtue of the believer’s justified status, he or she will enjoy a special salvation during the future eons of Christ’s reign (i.e., “eonian life”). For the rest of mankind, the salvation that Paul had in view in 1 Tim. 4:10 will take place at what Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 15:24 as “the consummation” (which, in the context, refers to the end of Christ’s eonian reign). It is at this time that death, the “last enemy,” shall be abolished, and all will be vivified in Christ. And with death abolished and all subjected to Christ, Christ will then deliver the kingdom to his God and Father (thereby subjecting himself to God) so that “God may be All in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Now, the fact that Christ “died for our sins” implies that Christ’s death was in some sense necessary to our salvation. Had Christ not died for our sins, no one could be (or would be) saved. Not only would it not be true that all mankind will be saved at the consummation, but even believers would still be under condemnation (for God would still be reckoning our sins and offenses to us). In other words, apart from Christ’s death for our sins, we who are in the body of Christ would not be justified. But – thank God! – Christ did die for our sins, and he was roused from among the dead on the third day. So both the salvation of believers and the salvation of the rest of mankind is a certainty, and cannot fail to occur. But why did Christ have to “die for our sins” in order for us to be saved? How, exactly, did Christ, through his death, ransom sinners and procure our salvation from condemnation?

Before I begin to try and answer these important questions, I want to emphasize the fact that our faith in Paul’s evangel in no way depends on whether or not we can answer them. We don’t have to understand how Christ, through his death, procured our salvation from condemnation and our reconciliation to God in order to believe the simple truth that he did, in fact, accomplish this for us. In regard to our being justified through faith in Paul’s evangel and becoming members of the body of Christ, simply believing that Christ died for our sins and was roused from among the dead is sufficient. When God calls a person through Paul’s evangel (which involves their being given the faith to believe it), they’re automatically sealed with the holy spirit, and given an expectation of eonian life that will be “in the heavens” and “among the celestials.”

A key passage: Romans 3:21-26

Of all the passages that I believe inform our understanding of why Christ had to die, Romans 3:21-26 is, arguably, one of the most insightful in regard to providing us with the “theocentric” reason for Christ’s death, and the problem that it resolved from God’s perspective. Any understanding of why Christ had to die for our sins must take these verses into account, and must harmonize with what Paul wrote here.

In these verses (which I’ll be quoting from the Concordant Literal New Testament), we read the following:

21 Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest (being attested by the law and the prophets),
22 yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction,
23 for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God.
24 Being justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus
25 (Whom God purposed for a Propitiatory shelter, through faith in His blood, for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God),
26 toward the display of His righteousness in the current era, for Him to be just and a Justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.

I believe it is in verses 25 and 26, primarily, that Paul provides us with the main reason for Christ’s death, and thus answers the all-important question, “Why did Christ have to die for our sins?” In his Concordant Commentary on the New Testament, A.E. Knoch remarked on verses 25-26 as follows (emphasis his):

The important point in this passage, however, is not our justification, but God's, for it is His righteousness which we receive. In Israel He had made provision for atonement, or a shelter from sins. This was not strictly just, for the penalty of these sins was still due. The answer to this, as well as the answer to His present work is found in the blood of Christ. That settles for sins, past, present and future. That vindicates God's justice and makes it possible for Him to be the Justifier of all who are of the faith of Jesus.”

I agree with Knoch that Christ’s blood (i.e., his death) “settles for sins, past present and future,” and that it “vindicates God’s justice and makes it possible for Him to be the Justifier of all who are of the faith of Jesus.” As I understand Paul’s line of reasoning in these verses (which, admittedly, is not the easiest to follow), Christ’s death shows that God was righteous for having forgiven sins prior to Christ’s death, and that he is righteous for justifying sinners in the “current era.” This view implies that, apart from Christ’s sacrificial death having taken place, God would’ve been unrighteous (or unjust) for having forgiven sins in the past, and would be unrighteous (or unjust) for justifying sinners at the present time. Thus, Christ’s death can be understood as having vindicated God by demonstrating how God’s decision to be merciful and gracious toward sinners is consistent with his righteousness.

Having summarized my understanding of the position Paul is affirming in these verses concerning why Christ had to die, I’ll begin my exposition of this passage with a consideration of the first four verses:

21 Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest (being attested by the law and the prophets),
22 yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction,
23 for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God.
24 Being justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus.

This passage begins with the words, “Yet now, apart from law.” It must be emphasized that there’s nothing wrong with the law of God itself; according to Paul, “the law, indeed, is holy, and the precept holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). It is also said to be “spiritual” (v. 14). The good and spiritual nature of the law becomes most evident when we consider the two precepts of the law that Christ revealed to be the greatest. In Mark 12:28-31 we read the following:

And, approaching, one of the scribes, hearing them discussing, having perceived that He answered them ideally, inquires of Him, “What is the foremost precept of all?” Jesus answered him that “The foremost precept of all is: Hear, Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord. And, You shall be loving the Lord God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength. This is the foremost precept. And the second is like it: ‘You shall be loving your associate as yourself.’ Now greater than these is no other precept.”

In Matthew’s account the following remark by Christ is included: “On these two precepts is hanging the whole law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). One who has never failed to keep these two “foremost” precepts (which, for an Israelite, would necessarily involve keeping the “Ten Commandments”) would be righteous. Of course, the righteousness of one who has never failed to keep these precepts is a righteousness that no human being – except Jesus Christ himself – can honestly claim to have by virtue of their own faithful, obedient conduct (Psalm 143:2; Rom. 3:9-12). In the words of Paul in v. 23, “all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God.” The “glory of God” of which Paul wrote in this verse may be a reference to the glory belonging to, and being displayed by, a human who is perfectly representing God, as his image-bearer (1 Cor. 11:7; Heb. 2:6-8). At present, the only human who has never been “wanting of” this glory is Christ, the “last Adam” and “second Man” (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 4:3-6). Regardless of what Paul had in mind by “the glory of God” here, what cannot be disputed is that the “righteousness of God” that is now “manifest” is that which is “reckoned” or “counted” by God to those who believe in Christ in accord with the truth that constitutes Paul’s evangel. It is, in other words, the righteousness that is received by believers when they’re justified.

The most commonly accepted definition of “justify” is simply, “to declare or pronounce just (or righteous).” In support of this definition, consider Luke 7:29 (where we’re told that the “entire people, even the tribute collectors, justify God), and compare this verse with Paul’s quotation of Psalm 51:4 in Rom 3:4. When God is understood as the one doing the justifying (i.e., God’s declaring or pronouncing a person “just” or “righteous”), the word denotes God’s judicial decision to exonerate a sinner and no longer “reckon” their sins to them. It doesn’t mean that God no longer believes that those who are justified have sinned, or that they continue to sin. Rather, when God justifies someone, it simply means he sets aside the negative consequence (or penalty) of their sins, and treats them as if they hadn’t sinned (which is what it means for God to cease “reckoning” a person’s sins and offenses to them).

Concerning the justification of those in the body of Christ, we read the following in Galatians 2:15-16:

“We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having perceived that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus, we also believe in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of law, seeing that by works of law shall no flesh at all be justified.” 

In these verses we find that it is by believing in Christ Jesus (i.e., in accord with the truth of the “evangel of the Uncircumcision” that was entrusted to Paul) that we are justified. In verses 20-21, Paul went on to write,

“With Christ have I been crucified, yet I am living; no longer I, but living in me is Christ. Now that which I am now living in flesh, I am living in faith that is of the Son of God, Who loves me, and gives Himself up for me. I am not repudiating the grace of God, for if righteousness is through law, consequently Christ died gratuitously.”

According to what we read in v. 21, Christ would not have had to die if righteousness was “through law.” His death would’ve been “gratuitous” had justification through law been possible for sinners. It is because the law could never be the basis for our justification (since, as sinners, we’ve all failed to keep it) that Christ had to die. Rather than the law, Christ’s death is the basis for our justification. It is for this reason that our justification is said to be “in [Christ’s] blood” (Rom. 5:9).

Paul’s reference to the “deliverance” (or “redemption”) that is in Christ (v. 24) refers to the forgiveness of our sins that believers receive by virtue of Christ’s death. The closest parallels to Paul’s use of the term translated “redemption” or “deliverance” in v. 24 are Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14:

“…in Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, the forgiveness of offenses in accord with the riches of His grace…”

 “…in Whom we are having the deliverance, the pardon of sins…”

In both of these texts the deliverance of which Paul wrote is the forgiveness (or “pardon”) of our offenses/sins. And just as our justification is said to be “in Christ’s blood,” so the forgiveness of our sins and offenses (which I believe to be inseparably related to our justification)[1] is specifically said to be “through [Christ’s] blood.” Thus, the deliverance referred to in Romans 3:24 should best be understood as our deliverance from the condemnation of which our sins make us deserving, and which Christ effected by his sacrificial death on our behalf (“through his blood”).

Christ our “Propitiatory shelter”

25 (Whom God purposed for a Propitiatory shelter, through faith in His blood, for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God),
26 toward the display of His righteousness in the current era, for Him to be just and a Justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.

As with the expression, “the deliverance that is in Christ Jesus,” what we read in v. 25 concerning the “purposing” of Christ by God as a “Propitiatory shelter” should also be understood as a reference to the death of Christ. This is evident from the inclusion of the words, “through faith in His blood” (which express the idea that it is through faith in Christ’s death for our sins that we presently benefit from what he did on our behalf). That Christ’s death was in accord with God’s sovereign (and prophesied) purpose is clear from Acts 2:23, where Peter declared that Christ was “given up in the specific counsel and foreknowledge of God.” (cf. Acts 4:27-28; 13:27-28). Similarly, in Romans 8:32, Paul wrote that Christ was “given up” by God, his Father (cf. Rom. 4:25). But what idea was Paul expressing when he figuratively referred to Christ as a “Propitiator shelter” that God “purposed” (or “set forth”)?

The term that is translated “Propitiatory shelter” in the CLNT (hilasterion) appears only one other time in Scripture (Hebrews 9:5). In this verse, the term denotes the literal plate of pure gold that formed the lid of Israel’s “Ark of the Covenant” (i.e., the “mercy seat,” as it’s usually translated). In addition to its use in Hebrews 9:5, the term hilasterion occurs sixteen times in the Septuagint or “LXX” (Ex. 25:17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22; 31:7; 35:12; 37:6, 8, 9; Lev. 16:2, 13, 14, 15, Nu 7:89; Ezek. 43:14, 17, 20; Am. 9:1). With the exception of its occurrences in Ezekiel and Amos (where it refers to a sacrificial altar), it refers to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. In the Hebrew the term is kapporeth, and was probably derived from the Hebrew word “kaphar.” The fundamental idea being expressed through this term – at least, when the context involves a sin offering – is that of the sins of those for whom the sacrifice was offered being “covered” over (and thus no longer being reckoned against the sinner by God). The Greek term hilasterion lacks the reference to sins being “covered,” and puts the emphasis on God’s merciful treatment of sinners (i.e., when he ceases to reckon their sins to them). In light of this fact, the term hilasterion could be understood as denoting that by means of which "propitiation" is made.

In order to better understand the imagery involved in Paul’s figuratively referring to Christ as the hilasterion or “Propitiatory shelter,” it would help to have a basic understanding of what took place on Israel’s annual “Day of Atonement” (Lev.23:26-28). Although daily sin offerings were made all year long in Israel, it was only on this special day that the high priest took the blood of the sin offering (the goat on which Yahweh’s lot fell) into the most holy place of the tabernacle or temple (Lev. 16:1-34). After entering the holy of holies, the chief priest would sprinkle the blood of the sin offering “on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat” (Lev. l6:15). The sprinkling of the blood of the sin offering on and before the “mercy seat” (the “kapporeth” or “hilasterion”) represented a cleansing of the earthly holy place from the sins of God’s people, so that God’s presence would abide there (and thus remain in the midst of his people) until the next Day of Atonement. Thus, when the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on and before the “mercy seat,” the sins of the people were “covered,” and thus forgiven by God.

Now, based on what we read in the letter to the Hebrews, it was this unique, annual offering made on the day of atonement (and which involved the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice on the “mercy seat”) that represented the sacrificial death of Christ (Heb. 9:7, 11,12-14, 23-28). But what makes the lid of the Ark of the Covenant a fitting symbol for Christ? It must be remembered that within the Ark of the Covenant were the stone tablets on which the law of God was inscribed. The “mercy seat” thus formed a symbolic barrier between God’s law and Israel’s failure to keep it, and the sprinkling of the blood of an unblemished goat on this barrier is what resulted in God’s forgiving the sins of the people (which was necessary in order for God’s presence to remain in their midst).

In light of these considerations, we can understand the fulfillment of this symbolism in Christ’s sacrificial work as follows: The pure-gold “mercy seat” represented Christ in his sinless perfection, and the blood sprinkled on it on the Day of Atonement represented Christ’s faithful “obedience unto death, even the death of the cross” (which, of course, involved the shedding of his blood). Just as the “mercy seat” formed a symbolic barrier between God’s law (with its just requirements) and Israel’s failure to keep it – and the sprinkling of the blood on this barrier resulted in God’s dealing graciously with his sinful people by forgiving their sins – so Christ died so that our sins would cease to be reckoned to us by God (in spite of God’s just statute that sinners are deserving of death).

It must, at this point, be emphasized that Christ’s death did not procure God’s love or make him mercifully disposed toward sinners. The very fact that God is the one who “purposed” Christ for a Propitiatory shelter implies that God already had a merciful disposition toward sinners, and was already inclined to bless and be gracious toward them. Rather, to understand Christ as the hilasterion or “Propitiatory shelter” is to understand him as the one by whom God is able to be merciful toward sinners without ceasing to be righteous. By purposing Christ “for a Propitiatory shelter,” God simply did that which rendered it consistent for him to exercise his mercy towards sinners (which he was already willing to do) while remaining righteous.





[1] Although some understand the term translated “forgiveness” or “pardon” in these verses (i.e., aphesis) in such a way that makes it incompatible with the tern translated “justified” (and vice-versa), I do not believe that these terms are at all mutually exclusive in meaning (the mistake of those who believe otherwise is, I believe, analogous to someone erroneously claiming that the expression “kingdom of God” cannot pertain to the eonian allotment of those in the body of Christ, since – when Israel’s expectation is in view – it refers to an earthly kingdom). The blessing of having our sins forgiven is, I believe, just as applicable to those in the body of Christ as the blessing of justification (for a more in-depth defense of this view concerning the applicability of the term aphesisclick here).