maandag 22 juli 2013

The Glory of the Cross 3

The Atonement in the Letters of Paul
Paul uses the word hilastèrion in Romans 3:25 to unfold the mystery of the cross. God the Father put the So forward as hilastèrion by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. The word hilastèrion has been translated both as ‘propitiation’ and ‘expiation’. Pure lin-guistically both translations are possible. But in the light of the context we must choose without any reservation for ‘propitiation’. The background of the hilastèrion accomplished by the work of Christ on the cross is the revelation of the wrath of God against human sin (Romans 1:18). Expiation means the washing away of sin and propitiation means the taking away of the wrath of God. Expiation does not include propitiation but propitiation includes expiation.
When considering the significance of Christ’s death on the cross and the atonement connected with it, the important question that needs to be answered is whether atonement consists merely in the blotting out of sin or also in the quenching of God’s wrath. C. H. Dodd emphatically defended the first proposition as being true. However, the only way he could sustain this argument was by insisting that God’s wrath was not related to His Person. In the letters of Paul, however, the wrath of God is a reality that is most intimately connected with God Himself. Being reconciled with God is not less, but rather more than the blotting out of sin. Divorced from the wrath of God toward sin, Christ’s death on the cross becomes incomprehensible. By way of His death on the cross, Christ delivered from the wrath to come those who believe in Him. The fact that the death of Christ was necessary in connection with God’s wrath toward sin does not diminish the demonstration of the Father’s love in giving His Son.
What sort of atonement does Paul have in mind when he writes in Romans 3:25 that God has set forth Christ “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood”? Does this refer to the means whereby the atonement is secured or to the mercy seat? The first option ought to be our choice here, even though the second is a possibility. It is, however, beyond doubt that Israel’s worship in the Old Testament constitutes the backdrop for Paul speaking of the atonement by way of Christ’s blood. In order to define the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, an occasional reference is made to the atoning significance of the death of martyrs—such as, for example, in the fourth of the apocryphal books, the Book of the Maccabees. The atoning value being ascribed to the death of a martyr can, however, only be understood in light of the cultic system. In the New Testament, there is a close relationship between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of those who belong to Him; however, only the suffering and death of Christ makes atonement for sin. Herein lies the difference between the suffering of Christ and that of His people.
When Paul uses the word hilastèrion to refer to the quenching of God’s wrath. I defended that this word must be translated as ‘propitiation’. The Greek verb related to this noun is hilaskomai. We don not find it in the Pauline letters. We find it in Hebrews 2:17. We can trans-late both as ‘atone’ or make ‘propitiation’’. To explain the significance of the cross of Christ Paul also uses the verb (apo)katalassoo (Romans 5:10, 2 Cor 5:18-20; Ephesians 2:16; Col 1:20, 22). The background of this verb is the estrangement in relations. (Apo)kattalassoo is used by Paul to point to the fact that the estrangement between God and man is take away by the cross and blood of Christ. Instead of being of wrath a man being reconciled with God has peace with God. Instead of God’s anger God’s peace rests upon him. Reconcile does not only refer to a difference in attitude on the side of God, but also on the side of man. By the blood of Christ the enmity of man against God is taken away.
Atonement or propitiation always point to the accomplishment of salvation. Reconcile can besides that also refer to the application of salvation. When the blood of Christ is applied to man actual reconciliation takes place. Paul speaks about the preaching of the gospel as a means used by God and His Spirit to apply the salvation accomplished by Christ. Christ Himself comes to us when the gospel is preached to us. In 2 Cor. 5:18-20 we read: ‘All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

The reality of the atonement is related to the seriousness of sin. The Bible speaks of the atonement for sin in various ways. Christ brought the sacrifice of His very own life; He redeemed His own by taking their place in God’s tribunal. The vocabulary and metaphors related to this are derived from the ceremonial law, the slave trade, and the courtroom. When using the word metaphor, we need to clarify its meaning, for one might get the impression that we are not dealing with an objective reality when discussing the atonement. This is not the case. Guilt and sin are two very real and objective matters which truly separate us from God and make us objects of His wrath. Being reconciled with God is also a reality whereby man becomes an object of God’s favor rather than of His wrath. If Christ, by His suffering and death, did not truly bring about reconciliation, there would be no salvation. The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury said that whoever is blind to this has not yet been sufficiently convinced of the weightiness of sin. Only against the background of the weightiness of sin will we understand the wonder of the atonement, of reconciliation and of grace.