This morning’s Good Friday sermon focused on four aspects of the atoning function of the cross: propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. The sermon had a strong evangelistic slant, and it’s not at all surprising that Jesus’ death was presented as having this four-fold atoning significance for the individual sinner. The wrath of God against the individual sinner is propitiated; he or she is redeemed, justified, and reconciled, and then becomes part of the covenant community. I think this traditional approach, for all its evangelistic effectiveness, turns the New Testament argument inside out.
The word Paul uses in Romans 3:25 is hilastērion. It is translated in the ESV with “propitiation”. In the Greek Old Testament the word denotes the gold cover over the ark of the covenant, on which the blood of a goat was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement for the sins of the people (Ex. 25:17; Lev. 16:15 LXX). It is an event of national, corporate significance, reflected in the fact that not only the Jews but all aliens in the land are instructed to do no work on this day. It shall be an “atonement for the priests and for all the people… because of their sins” (Lev. 16:29-34).
The corporate dimension is underlined in a passage in 4 Maccabees which speaks of the atoning effect of the deaths of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes:
through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted (4 Macc. 17:22)
The death of the martyrs is a “propitiation” because it led to the preservation of Israel—the nation was not ruined by the aggressively anti-Jewish pagan king. So there appear to be two important aspects to the idea of “propitiation”: first, it has in view an act of sacrifice specifically for the sins of Israel; secondly, it has in view a sacrifice for the sins not of individuals but of the people as a whole.
This pattern carries over into the New Testament, as is especially clear in Hebrews 2:17, where the cognate verb hilaskomai is found:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Dana Ames suggests that this passage has in view all humanity, but I don’t think that is the case. Through his suffering and death Jesus helped “the offspring of Abraham” (2:16), he made atonement not for the sins of all humanity but “for the sins of the people” (tas hamartias tou laou). So whereas Moses was faithful in God’s household as a servant, Jesus was “faithful over God’s house as a son” (2:5-6). It’s the same house. The “confession” is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel and has therefore been given the authority and status of a son in the household. But it is only those Jews who do not harden their hearts, who remain faithful, who persevere in the face of hostility, who will escape the destruction of the wrath of God against his people (Heb. 3:7-18).
Paul’s argument in Romans 3 is that if God is to judge the world of the Greek, he must first hold his own people accountable. Since the Jews have proved themselves to be as much subject to sin as the Gentiles, they must expect to face the wrath of God—in effect, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in AD 70. But God has put forward an alternative means by which Israel may be justified—Jesus’ death as an act of atonement for the sins of Israel, to be received by faith.
It is only in John’s parallel universe that the idea of propitiation is explicitly extended to the whole world: “He is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). We should presumably also take account here of the saying that is attributed to John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29).
This must presumably legitimize the sort of application of the motif that was preached here, and no doubt across the world, this morning. But it should not be taken as a licence to read the whole argument about salvation in the New Testament through a lens of universal, individualized propitiation. The dominant story is the corporate one: Israel is faced from utter destruction by the atoning death of Jesus, who is made God’s Son and will come to rule over the nations.