The thesis I am exploring in these articles on the forgiveness of sins is that Jesus is primarily understood to have died for the redemption of Israel, as part of a corporate and political—rather than a personal and existential—narrative. The diagrams in this post illustrate the distinction. Jews and Gentiles, as individuals, receive forgiveness of sins, apart from the requirements of the Law, when they come to believe in this narrative about the unfolding kingdom of God and abandon their godless ways of life.
Paul does not speak of the forgiveness of sins as such in Romans, but his argument about justification and faith in chapters 3-5 obviously needs to be considered. I have set out previously my reasons for thinking that when he says in Romans 3:25 that God put Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood”, he means as a propitiation for the sins of Israel. I want to develop the case further here, though of necessity only in outline.
1. Paul is speaking as a Jew to Jews in this section (Rom. 3:1, 9; 4:1), and there is no reason to think that this rhetorical frame does not extend all the way through to the end of chapter 5. I agree with Käsemann and Barrett that much of the content of the opening chapters of Romans reflects the countless heated dialogues with the Jews that Paul would have had in the course of his apostolic ministry.1
2. The premise is that the Jews, despite all their advantages, have proved themselves to be no less sinful than the Gentiles; they are, therefore, also liable to the wrath of God (Rom. 3:5; cf. 9:22). If God is to judge the Greek-Roman world, he must first hold his own people accountable.
3. The Jews are not in the same position as the Gentiles: they are under the Law. The Law accuses them of sinfulness (Rom. 3:10-20). “The Law brings wrath; but where there is no Law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15; cf. 5:14).
4. God will not go down with the sinking ship of first century Israel. He has been shown to be righteous apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus (Rom. 3:21-22).2
5. Because this “righteousness of God” has been manifested apart from the Law, those who believe in the fact, whether Jews or Gentiles, may be justified by the grace of God, as a gift, freely, without works of the Law (Rom. 3:24, 28). This is effectively the argument that we find in Ephesians 2:11-16.
6. This justification of Jews and Gentiles alike by the grace of God is “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25). Here is the crux of the matter.
7. The argument needs to be followed through. Why did God put Jesus forward as a propitiation? Because up until that point he had overlooked previously committed sins, which had brought into question his integrity, his “rightness”. The reputation of Israel’s God in the ancient world had been seriously compromised, in the first place, by the spiritual and moral corruption of Israel (cf. Rom. 2:24), but, secondly, by the fact that he had done nothing to deal with this backlog of sin His people had gone unpunished for too long. It is important to keep this historical and eschatological dimension in view.
8. The word for “propitiation”, hilastērion, evokes the annual Day of Atonement ritual, when atonement was made for the priests and all the people of the assembly (Rom. 3:25; cf. Lev. 16:15-16 LXX). There is no basis in scripture, as far as I am aware, for extending the effect of the sacrifice beyond Israel.
9. A passage such as Psalm 78:8-10 LXX (= Ps. 79:8-10 in English translations; cf. 64:4; 77:38 LXX) also makes instructive background reading:
Do not remember our lawless deeds of long ago; let your compassion speedily preoccupy us, because we became very poor. Help us, O God our savior; for the sake of the glory of your name, O Lord, rescue us, and atone for our sins, for the sake of your name, so that the nations may not say, “Where is their God?”—and let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your slaves be known among the nations before our eyes.
Because of historic sins Israel has been overrun and humiliated by the nations (79:1-4). The Psalmist prays that God will atone (hilasetai) for the sins of the people—just as God put forward Jesus as an atonement—for the sake of his glory and reputation among the nations. This is exactly the sort of argument that Paul is making in Romans 3-5.
10. In other words, in the context of Paul’s argument here Jesus’ death is a propitiation for the former sins of Israel, for the redemption (apolutrōseōs) of Israel, so that YHWH would be seen to be righteous. Those who believe in this fact are justified—and more importantly, will be justified on the day of wrath.
11. Therefore, the Jews have no further reason to boast in the Law. They will be justified by believing that God has acted apart from the Law to deal with the problem of his people’s sin and shown himself to be righteous.
12. Gentiles who believe the same thing, who believe in the demonstrated rightness of Israel’s God, who repent of their sins, will be justified in exactly the same way. They will be found to be in the right on the day of God’s judgment on the Greek-Roman world. Gentiles are in the same position as Abraham: they have not sinned under the Law; they are not subject to the condemnation of the Law; they are justified simply by believing that God will keep his promise and give them the inheritance (cf. Rom. 4:13-17).
This lines up almost exactly with the argument in Hebrews 9:15: Jesus’ death, which is analogous to the sacrifice performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, redeems (eis apolutrōsin) Jews from transgressions (parabaseōn) committed under the first covenant so that those called might receive the promise of an age-enduring inheritance. The difference is that Paul takes into account the fact that Gentiles have also come to believe in what YHWH is doing for the sake of his people and for the sake of his own glory. But the atonement part has to do with Israel and the Law.
I would suggest that two further passages in this section of Romans presuppose the same argument, though taken out of context they might well read differently. First, if the clause “who was delivered up for our trespasses” (Rom. 4:25) is an allusion to “the Lord delivered him up to our sins” Isaiah 53:6, the point is further underlined that this was a death for wayward Israel. Secondly, speaking still as a Jew to Jews, in effect, Paul says in Romans 5:6-9: while we Jews were still weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies Christ died for us. Dunn finds here an echo of the accounts of the Maccabean martyrs, who died “for the laws and the fatherland” (2 Macc. 8:21; cf. 7:9), whose deaths, moreover, were a ransom (antipsuchon) and propitiation (hilastēriou) for the sin of the nation (4 Macc. 17:21-22).3 Such allusions again reinforce the national narrative.
So my view is that Paul is not simply teaching a doctrine of personal justification or salvation or forgiveness on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. He is telling a story about how YHWH is acting to justify himself, to show himself to be in the right, in the eyes of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Central to this “self-justification” on the part of God is the death of Jesus: what Jesus has done has shown God to be righteous. Those Jews and Gentiles who believe in this story, who trust that Jesus’ death really does have this significance, are justified—and will be shown also to be in the right on the day of God’s wrath, which is not far off (Rom. 13:11-14).