25 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The first word is *apolytrosis*, that is, *redemption*. It is a commercial term borrowed from the market place, as ‘justification’ is a legal term borrowed from the lawcourt. In the Old Testament it was used of slaves, who were purchased in order to be set free; they were said to be ‘redeemed’ (E.g. (Lv.25:47ff.). It was also used metaphorically of the people of Israel who were ‘redeemed’ from captivity first in Egypt (Ex.15:13), then in Babylon (Is. 43:1), and restored to their own land. Just so, we were slaves or captives, in bondage to our sin and guilt, and utterly unable to liberate ourselves. But Jesus Christ ‘redeemed’ us, bought us out of captivity, shedding his blood as the ransom price. He himself had spoken of his coming ‘to give his life a ransom for many’. (Mk. 10:45). In consequence of this purchase or ‘ransom-rescue’, we now belong to him.
The second word is *hilasterion*, which AV renders ‘propitiation’. Many Christian people are embarrassed and even shocked by this word, however, because to ‘propitiate’ somebody means to placate his or her anger, and it seems to them an unworthy concept of God (more heathen than Christian) to suppose that he gets angry and needs to be appeased. Two other possible ways of understanding *hilasterion* are therefore proposed. The first is to translate it ‘mercy-seat’ referring to the golden lid of the ark within the temple’s inner sanctuary. This is what the word nearly always means in LXX and also what it means in its only other occurrence in the New Testament (Heb. 9:5). Since sacrificial blood was sprinkled on the mercy-seat on the Day of Atonement, it is suggested that Jesus is himself now the mercy-seat where God and sinners are reconciled (cf. Ex. 25:22). Those who hold this view tend to render the verb *protithemi* (presented)* as to ‘set forth’ (AV) or ‘display publicly’ (BAGD), in order to indicate that, although the mercy-seat was hidden from human eyes by the veil, ‘God has publicly set forth the Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of the intelligent universe…’ as the way of salvation. Luther and Calvin both believed that ‘mercy-seat’ was the right translation, and others have followed them.
But the contrary arguments seem conclusive. First, if Paul meant ‘mercy-seat’ by *hilasterion*, he would inevitably have added the definite article. Secondly, the concept is incongruous in Romans which, unlike Hebrews, does not move ‘in the sphere of Levitical symbolism’. Thirdly, the metaphor would be confusing and even contradictory, since it would represent Jesus as being simultaneously the victim whose blood was shed and sprinkled and the place where the sprinkling took place. Fourthly, Paul’s sense of personal indebtedness to Christ crucified was so profound that he could hardly have likened him to ‘an inanimate piece of temple furniture’.
A second possible translation of *hilasterion* is ‘an expiation by his blood’ (RSV). The argument for this is that, whereas in secular Greek the verb *hilaskomai* means to ‘placate’ (whether a God or a human being) its object in LXX is not God but sin. It is therefore said to mean not to ‘propitiate’ God but to ‘expiate’ sin, that is, to annul guilt or remove defilement. C.H.Dodd, with whom this viewpoint is particularly associated, and who as Director of the NEB evidently influenced its translators in this direction, wrote that expiatory acts ‘were felt to have the value, so to speak, of a disinfectant’. Thus NEB translates: ‘God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death’.
The main reason these options are not satisfactory, and a reference to propitiation seems necessary, is the context. In these verses Paul is describing God’s solution to the human predicament, which is not only sin but God’s wrath upon sin (1:18; 2:5; 3:5). And where there is divine wrath, there is a need to avert it. We should not be shy of using the word ‘propitiation’ in relation to the cross, any more than we should drop the word ‘wrath’ in relation to God. Instead we should struggle to reclaim and reinstate this language by showing that the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan or animistic superstitions. The need, the author and the nature of Christian propitiation are all different.