Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4

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This is a close examination of the place of Romans 3:24-25 in Paul’s argument about the fate of the Jews in chapter 3 as a whole. It is a response to objections made to my post on atonement that when Paul speaks here of a redemption in Christ Jesus, etc., he does not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles, that the atonement referenced by the word hilastērion is directly for all humanity. My view is that this traditional reading of these verses can be sustained only if we remove them from their context in Romans and make use of them as a prooftext for salvation in Christ, which of course we do all the time.

Out of context it looks like Paul is simply saying that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is saved by Jesus’ death as an “expiation” or “propitiation” or whatever we take hilastērion to mean. But I think Paul’s line of thought is more subtle and more complex than that (see also my argument in The Future of the People of God).

I think that Paul is much more conscious of the historical structure of the processes which he describes than we appreciate. We naturally collapse everything into a two dimensional, abstract theology, but Paul was part of the narrative; he was part of a community that remembered the death of Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish event, and the subsequent, surprising inclusion of Gentiles in the “commonwealth of Israel” (cf. Eph. 2:12). We should expect to find—or at least, not be surprised to find—narrative structures in his theology.

The argument against the Jews in chapter three

The argument in Romans 3:24-25 about the redemption in Jesus forms part of a passage in which Paul addresses the question of whether God is justified in inflicting wrath on Israel (3:5). At several points he speaks in the first person plural on behalf of Israel: “our righteous… wrath on us” (3:5); “Are we Jews any better off?” (3:9); “we know that whatever the law says” (3:19); “what becomes of our boasting?” (3:27); “Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh” (4:1). Paul is clearly speaking very consciously as a Jew who is deeply engaged in and intensely troubled by the narrative of his people (cf. Rom. 9:1-2).

As part of a continuing argument against the Jews, Paul insists that God is justified in judging Israel because he cannot otherwise “judge the world” (3:6, 19). (I would suggest that Paul is thinking quite concretely of the pagan world of Greece and Rome, but that does not particularly affect the argument here.) The problem for Israel is that, for all their advantages (3:1; 9:3-5), they have proved themselves to be just as much under the power of sin as the pagan Gentiles. Therefore, the Jews, in Paul’s view, cannot expect to be justified on the day of wrath by “works of the law. The Law has simply highlighted the sinfulness of Israel—this is the force of the string of quotations in Romans 3:10-18, which are directed not against Gentiles or humanity but against Israel. Therefore, God has provided an alternative way of justification apart from the Law, either “through faith in Jesus Christ” or “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (3:21-22).

The fact that God has acted apart from the Law means that the Gentiles come into the field of view; but the argument is about the situation of the Jews and will still be about the situation of the Jews when Paul asks in verse 27 “Then what becomes of our boasting?” The development of the argument up to this point, therefore, gives us good grounds for supposing that when Paul introduces a key term from the Old Testament atonement ritual in verse 25, he is specifically addressing the problem of the impending judgment on Israel.

The atonement of Israel

Both Jews and Gentiles are “justified by his grace as a gift” on the basis of the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, whom God put forward as a hilastērion “by his blood” (3:24-25). The allusion is to the ritual of the Day of Atonement, when Aaron was to sprinkle the blood of “the goat for sin that is for the people” on the covering (hilastērion) above the ark of the covenant in order to “make the holy place ritually acceptable because of the unclean things of the sons of Israel and because of their wrongs—concerning all their sins” (Lev. 16:15-16 NETS). The use of the metaphor in 4 Maccabees 17:22 shows how readily the shed “blood” of a martyr could be interpreted as a hilastērion that would preserve Israel from destruction. But the explanation given in Leviticus only highlights the fact that the place of God’s dwelling in the midst of his people has been polluted—over the last year—by the sins of his people. It’s a sort of spring-cleaning.

The reason this justification comes “as a gift” or “freely” is that God has side-stepped the Law: it has become a matter only of “faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, not of works of the Law. So the essential argument in 3:21-25 is as follows: Jesus died for Israel’s sins, therefore the Law has been circumvented, therefore justification may be given as a gift, not only to Jews but to Gentiles also. Paul keeps one eye on the Gentiles because it is his overarching thesis in Romans that Israel’s God will soon judge the nations—therefore, he must show himself to be “the God of Gentiles also” (3:29). But the immediate rhetorical focus is on the dispute with the Jews: Israel cannot be saved from destruction by “works of the law” but only by faith in Jesus’ death as an act of atonement for the sins of the people.

The faith of Abraham

We then have the passage about Abraham—”our forefather according to the flesh”—which I think actually reinforces my point. What Abraham believed was that God would give him descendants, that he would be the father of many nations, that he would be heir of the world. Paul’s point here is that both Jews and Gentiles are “reckoned to be in the right” for believing that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead demonstrates that God has guaranteed the future of his people even though national Israel is facing military-political catastrophe. So the belief of the Gentiles, as Paul constructs the argument here, is not that Jesus died directly for their sin but that the death of Jesus for the sake of the people God has ensured the survival—and, of course, transformation—of the descendants of Abraham.

Our trespasses, our justification

By the time we reach the end of the argument in chapter four it is clear that the offspring of Abraham now includes Gentiles who have the same belief or trust in the God who gives life to Israel as the Jewish Christians. So probably the first person plural now includes Gentiles:

It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses (paraptōmata) and raised for our justification. (4:24-25)

But the thought has shifted considerably by this point. The language of “delivered up (paredothē) for our trespasses” is not the language of the atonement ritual: Paul is not saying the same thing here as he says in Romans 3:24-25. I won’t develop it here, but I would suggest that the thought now is of the participation of Gentiles in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is the death and resurrection of Israel. This is basically the argument of Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2:9:15: the Gentiles were dead in their trespasses (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13) and sins, subject to the coming wrath, but by grace, as a gift, they have been included in the story of Israel’s restoration in Christ. This reading of these closing verses would also neatly anticipate the argument about participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection in Romans 5-8.

As I said in the atonement post, in these passages Paul notably does not have recourse to Jewish metaphors of atonement to explain the significance of Jesus’ death for the Gentiles. The reason is perhaps quite straightforward. Old Testament atonement ideas have relevance for the existing people of God, whose relation to YHWH within the covenant is repeatedly jeopardized by sin. Paul naturally does not use that language—and does not need to use that language—in order to account for the inclusion of Gentiles, as a gift of grace, in the forgiven people of God.

You said: "Paul’s point here is that both Jews and Gentiles are 'reckoned to be in the right' for believing that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead demonstrates that God has guaranteed the future of his people even though national Israel is facing military-political catastrophe."

And it seems to me this requirement of faith as the criteria for salvation is not an innovation of the apostle Paul or the other early Christians.  I'm reading through Josephus' Antiquities right now and I can remember several instances where he highlights the importance of having faith in God in the face of overwhelming military force.  Israel's early kings were often rewarded with military victory and subsequent prosperity (at least according to Josephus) for simply believing that they could defeat their enemies despite odds against them.  Salvation by faith or destruction by lack thereof (particularly the faith of the kings) seems to have been a tenet of the historic Jewish faith.

There has always been a contention between the Israelites and the other nations. That contention is the middle wall of separation, or the written law. The only reason the written law came about was because Israel couldn’t not — would not, obey God’s commands, illustrated by their consistent lack of faith. Meanwhile, we have Gentile examples in the OT where they had more faith in God than Israel did, apart from the covenant of the law. So who “deserves” the right to be saved, or to have God’s favor: those with his law, and covenant promises, or those who didn’t have them? This is the fleshly argument Paul seems to be settling in most of his epistles, and it’s still an issue! Does God love the Jews or Gentiles “more”? A silly argument based on fleshly jealousies. Enough already!

“For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER believeth in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.” I’m in this world, and I’m a whosoever, therefore not only are Jews in the flesh qualified for Jesus’ salvation, I too am qualified under Jesus’ broad criteria, and am eligible for his salvation. Amen!