Sacrifice in Romans 3.21-26

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing about the nature of sacrifice in the Bible, and how it relates to different ideas of sin and salvation. So far we’ve seen that the picture is a lot more complicated than the traditional Western Christian ideas of substitutionary atonement would suggest. The Scriptures of both Testaments use a wide variety of images to describe what sacrifice is and accomplishes, and substitution is by no means among the most significant of them. So it’s worth asking what exactly the New Testament means when it discusses Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms. We saw the other day that Hebrews 10, the most extensive of these texts, makes specific reference to the blood ritual of the Day of Atonement, a ritual that was explicitly about purification. But what about the other primary New Testament sacrificial text, Romans 3.21-26?

This text has long been a battleground of Biblical interpretation. Not only is it a quintessentially Pauline word salad, with awkward grammar and a lot of built-in ambiguity that is rendered even more troublesome when trying to translate it, but also entire theological traditions have grounded their beliefs on it. (Indeed, the text inherently has so many complexities, curiosities, and ambiguities that when I taught Greek, I used it to demonstrate how two completely literal translations of a text can yield very different theologies!) So, in order to make this exercise manageable, I’m going to narrow its scope to look only at how it deploys sacrificial language. But, before I do that, some background is needed to set the context.

The passage starts by restating the letter’s thesis: God’s justice has been revealed for all of the faithful, Jewish and Gentile alike, through Jesus’ faithfulness. (For a deep dive into how Paul uses ‘justice’ and ‘faith/faithfulness’ in Romans, see last Summer’s post “Justice, Faith and Empire“.) This thesis is no small matter, since Jesus’ death seems to show the exact opposite: that he was abandoned by God, either because Jesus was not just (which would have been the argument of the religious authorities) or because God was not just. Paul has set himself up for a difficult argument: Not only to help the Roman Christians overcome the deep religious and cultural divisions among them, but also to demonstrate that this Gospel of Jesus in fact reveals and does not undermine God’s justice.

We now come to the overly sacrificial part of the passage:

They are now justified as a gift of His grace, through the redemption that is Jesus Christ’s, whom God appointed as a hilasterion [see discussion below], through faith, by his blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice because in His forebearance he overlooked sins committed previously; this was to show that God is indeed just and that he justifies one by Jesus’ faithfulness.

The grammar behind this passage is so strange that Biblical scholars generally assume that Paul incorporated pieces of hymns or creeds, sacrificing comprehensibility for familiarity of language. But if we break it down, we can at least see the constellation of ideas Paul was working with, even if not precisely how they fit together.

First, Paul states that we are justified — put in right relationship with God — by God’s grace. This is done by means of Jesus’ redemptive act. Salvation is understood here in terms of a gift of manumission from slavery. In the Ancient Mediterranean world, slaves could purchase their freedom, either by saving up money or by being redeemed by a friend or family member; here freedom is purchased by Jesus. A generous gift indeed!

Now we come to the trickiest part of the passage, which will take up most of the rest of this post. God appointed this Jesus as a hilasterion. Thousands of pages of dense academic writing have been published about how to interpret this word. Here are the major options requiring at least some consideration:

  1. A ‘person or thing that atones’: This interpretation is awkward, but is (rarely) attested in roughly contemporary materials. It is the option seen in translations such as the NRSV: “a sacrifice of atonement”. Note that this translation has to supply the word ‘sacrifice’ to be sensible in English.
  2. An ‘atoner’: This would be a very strange usage that is not attested in any of the Greek lexicons or scholarship. I wouldn’t think it worth even mentioning, except for the fact that it was the most popular interpretation among the Reformers: ‘propitiator’ (Melancthon), ‘reconciler’ (Erasmus), ‘obtainer of mercy’ (Cranmer), ‘helper’ (Wycliffe). (I am indebted to Matthew Black’s commentary on Romans (69) for this insight.) One possible reason why they went this route is that it harmonizes this text with Hebrews 10, where Jesus acts as an ‘atoner’ in his role as high priest.
  3. A ‘place of atonement’, i.e., temple, altar, or monument: This interpretation picks up on the normal meaning of Greek nouns ending in –ion, and this usage is well-attested in literature and inscriptions from the time period. The main drawbacks from it are that it’s more difficult to conceive of what Paul means by calling Jesus a place of atonement than a sacrifice, and that if this meaning is in view, it’s probably intended in a specific rather than generic sense, as per option 4.
  4. The ‘Mercy Seat’, or ‘Atonement Cover’, the golden cover of the Ark of the Covenant: Drawing from the generic meaning in option 3, this is how hilasterion is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was widely used during the Roman Empire.

To make a very long and nerdy story short, if we assume Paul and his audience would have understood hilasterion primarily through the lens of Greco-Roman culture, the first interpretation — that Paul is talking about Jesus as an atoning sacrifice — is most likely. But, if we assume the language of their own Bibles was more relevant for them, then the fourth interpretation — Jesus as the ‘Mercy Seat’ — is almost certainly the best. The problem is, in the absence of anything in the immediate context to help us decide, we simply have no way of knowing. Even more importantly for the purposes of this study, if we’re assuming the Greco-Roman usage of the sacrifice option, then we likely need to bring in Gentile conceptions of sacrifice, in which the image of propitiation — turning away divine anger — played a much larger role than it did in Old Testament sacrifice. But if we take the Mercy Seat option, then we are back in the purification imagery of the Day of Atonement, and any ideas of propitiating God’s anger are cultural rather than original to the image. I find myself squarely in the second group: As someone familiar with the Septuagint, when I see hilasterion, I immediately think of the cover of the Ark in the Holy of Holies. And if Paul wanted to talk about a sacrifice, there were far, far better words he could have used to do so. But, the other option does have its advantages too, and I am uncomfortable ruling it out. So now I’d like to follow both options to understand what they would imply. I’ll start with the option that is more common in our English language Bibles.

1. Jesus as Atoning Sacrifice

This interpretation has two main benefits. First, it’s easy to understand. Jesus’ death is parallel to the death of an animal sacrifice and accomplishes what it does, but better because of it being a divine self-sacrifice. Second, it picks up nicely on the theme of divine anger, which, while not a major theme in the New Testament or in the sacrificial passages of the Hebrew Bible, is a very present theme here in Romans. In 1.18, Paul writes, in what is essentially the thesis of 1.18-3.20, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And, in 2.8, he promises “wrath and fury” for those who “do not obey the truth.

The idea of divine anger, or ‘wrath’, is certainly unpopular these days, and not without reason. For a long time, Christian culture was dominated by images of a violently angry God, eager to torture humanity for our sins. There is no doubt that such images must be tossed aside as both counterproductive, and, more importantly, plainly false: This is simply not how God is revealed to be in the Scriptures. But, we also need to be careful with our assumptions here. In and of itself, anger is not a bad thing. Anger tells us when something is wrong, where there is injustice. A God who cares for the orphan and widow and outcast, a God who is Love — this is to say, the God revealed in the Scriptures and especially in Jesus of Nazareth — must care about justice and therefore must experience anger where there is injustice in the world. The important question is not whether God is angry, but what God does about it.

This interpretation of hilasterion lends itself well to the idea of propitiation, that Jesus’ death turns away God’s anger: God’s justice demanded that humanity die for marring creation through our sins; but since God is loving, God sent Jesus as a sacrifice of God’s own self to pay that penalty on our behalf, thereby satisfying God’s anger and restoring justice. It’s a tidy argument: Paul has introduced the problem of divine anger and resolves it through Jesus’ atoning death. And this has been the take of traditional Protestant theology. (See the works of Black, Dunn, Kruse, and Mounce below for academic commentaries that follow this interpretation.)

But, tidy as it may be, if we press the analogy too much, we run into some significant logical and theological problems. It imagines God as being governed by anger, as lacking the emotional resources to manage anger maturely, without lashing out or punishing. The New Testament commands us to forgive without payment or propitiation, and not to let the sun go down on our anger. How can God ask of us what God is apparently unable to do? Moreover, if we lean into the unity between Jesus and God, this image suggests that God essentially self-harms to restore justice. But, if we instead lean into the distinction between Jesus as God’s Son and God the Father, then it’s hard not to read this as a form of divine child abuse, with the Father taking out His anger on His Son. Neither of these are good options. At the end of the day, only a petty, immature god needs his anger propitiated.

The answer to this could simply be to take the analogy lightly and not to go too deeply into the details, while being aware that the metaphor carries with it some unhelpful baggage. (This would be yet another example of being willing to unsay everything we say about God. The language is analogical, not scientific.)

Another option, should we want to preserve the interpretation of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, is to recognize how the application of this terminology in Paul acts to subvert the logic of propitiatory sacrifice. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out:

Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God. In the normal order of sacrifice, humans give and the god receives; here the god gives and humans receive. The usual explanation of this passage is that human sin deserved divine punishment, but in mercy God substituted a propitiatory offering to bear the divine wrath instead of humanity. We must insist on the fact that the recipients are human, otherwise we fall into the absurdity of God’s giving a propitiatory gift to God. The second point to note is that not only the order of giver and receiver is reversed but also the spatial order. Normally the offerer goes from profane to sacred space to make the offering; here the offerer comes out of sacred space into profane, publicly to set forth (proetheto) the propitiation (hilasterion) there. These inversions of the normal order of sacrifice mean that it is not God who needs to be propitiated, but humanity, and not in the recesses of the Sacred, but in the full light of day. (Sacred Violence, 244)

In this way of thinking, Jesus ends the whole idea of propitiation and sacrifice by completely upending its logic. This flipping of the ‘atonement sacrifice’ reading also resolves one of the problems with the traditional models of substitutionary atonement. As I noted last week, those models shift the barrier to our salvation from being in us to being in God. Yet the Scriptures don’t suggest that God is ever a barrier; instead God proactively acts to save us (see Romans 5.6-8, for example). By flipping the script on propitiation, Hamerton-Kelly’s interpretation keeps the sacrificial imagery intact while rightly insisting that that the barrier to our salvation is about something in us and not God.

2. Jesus as the ‘Mercy Seat’

The second interpretive option understands Jesus as the ‘Mercy Seat,’ the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. It avoids the troubling connotations of the atoning sacrifice interpretation, but it’s also less intuitive. As we saw in the study on Hebrews 10, the Mercy Seat featured prominently in the blood ritual of the Day of Atonement. The high priest would enter the Most Holy Place and sprinkle sacrificial blood on the Mercy Seat in order to cleanse it from ritual defilement that had accrued over the previous year. Since the Mercy Seat was understood to be the place where God’s presence dwelt and from which God spoke, this purification allowed the high priest to enter into the very presence of God. Hebrews 10 envisioned Jesus as the high priest in this schema, accessing the presence of God the Father by offering his own blood as a cleansing sacrifice. But, here, Paul sees Jesus not as the priest, or the sacrifice, but as the Mercy Seat itself.

This is a conceptually strange idea, but has some powerful implications. The eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth wrote about this:

By the express counsel of God, Jesus has been appointed from eternity as the place of [atonement] above which God dwells and from which He speaks; now, however, He occupies a position in time, in history, and in the presence of men. … God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. v. 19). At this place the Kingdom of God is come nigh: so near is it, that here His coming and His redeeming power are recognized; so near, that here God dwells with men and His communing is unmistakable; so near, that here the pressure of faith is a commanding necessity. (The Epistle to the Romans, 104f)

In this view, the cross and the incarnation end up saying essentially the same thing: Jesus is now the place where God is present with the faithful, in death as in life. As N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus himself is now the place where, and also the means by which, the God of Israel has met with his people and forgiven their sins” (Romans, Part 1). And Robert Jewett adds that for Paul, Jesus becomes “the new place of atonement, epiphany, and divine presence” (Romans: A Commentary, 287).

Like the old Mercy Seat, the new one is made accessible through blood — both the self-sacrificial blood shed on the cross and the blood of the covenant as symbolized in the Eucharistic wine. The focus in this interpretation, then, is less on Jesus as fulfilling the Old Covenant, than on renewing it under completely new terms. (It is, as v.21 reminds us, ‘apart from the Law’.) As Robert Jewett notes, this aligned with a common hope in many segments of Judaism of the period (including, for example, 4 Maccabees, the Qumran community and the book of Jubilees) that God would act to renew the Temple (285). But the renewal that Paul has in mind is quite a bit more radical: the dominant theme is no longer atonement, but reconciliation, both with God and with one another in the new community of faith.

If, as I mentioned above, a healthy and mature personality is able to manage anger not by demanding retribution but by doing justice, this interpretation of hilasterion works well in addressing Paul’s concern with divine anger. Here, instead of God taking the punishment God demands for human sin, God restores justice by implementing a renewed covenant, which expands the covenant community beyond Israel’s national boundaries, and promotes true reconciliation instead of ritual atonement as its method.

So what are we to make of all this? I’m left with a similar conclusion to the last two posts: Paul uses a variety of metaphors to understand salvation and how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish this. He readily mixes these images in ways that are meant to stimulate the imagination and prevent a narrowing in on any one of them in dogmatic ways. This passage is no different. Whether we choose to interpret Jesus as the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices, or as a new Mercy Seat, the place where we encounter the divine presence in a renewed covenant, it remains important to take these conceptions with a light hand, and — like Paul — mix them freely with all sorts of other images, for the big, beautiful, all-encompassing salvation of our God.


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Green, Joel. “Atonement Images in Romans,” in Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. Jerry L. Sumney. SBL Resources for Biblical Study no 73. Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 2012.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert. Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Hardin, Michael. The Jesus Driven Life, 2nd ed. Lancaster, Penn: JDL Press, 2013.

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Wright, N.T. Romans, Part One: Chapters 1-8. Paul for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2004.

Zeper, Eleonora. “Blood Sacrifice and Bloodless Sacrifice in Porphyry and Iamblichus.” In Syzetesis– Rivista di Filosofia. Vol. 2 (new Series), 2015.

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