Monday, November 4, 2019

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.

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. (

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 (where it refers to the future altar of the millennial temple) and Amos (where it refers to the past 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 direct 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 the place where, through the blood of a sin-offering, the elimination of sins was understood as being procured.

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 (as we read in Heb. 9:7).

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). 

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