What is a “Sacrifice of Atonement”?

What is a “Sacrifice of Atonement”? April 15, 2019

By Geoff Holsclaw: a professor and pastor, offering a free mini-course on The 3 Forgotten Reasons for Jesus’ Death, to help expand your understanding of Jesus’s death.

Is the “sacrifice of atonement” in Romans 3:25 referring to a propitiation (appeasing God’s wrath), an expiation (cleansing human sin), or the mercy seat (the place of God’s reconciling presence)?

And why does it matter?

Words are Funny

Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Why does “to buckle” mean either to connect or secure AND to collapse or fall down.  Or “to dust” can mean either to ADD or REMOVE small particles. Or my favorite, “to sanction” means to allow an action, OR to prevent or boycott an action.

These words can have totally opposite meanings. And context is key for knowing which meaning is meant in each situation.

This is true when we read the Bible and discuss theology.

And it is especially true when we stumble upon the Greek word hilasterion while reading Romans 3:25:

…whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed…

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Atoning Sacrifice – hilasterion

In the last post we talked about the blood of Jesus, and how it is better thought as a cleansing agent of life rather than a demand for death.

Now I want to talk about not just the blood, but the idea of an atoning sacrifice.

For all the discussions of  different atonement theories, the word for “atoning sacrifice” or “sacrifice of atonement” only shows up in the New Testament couple of times.  Only once in Paul’s writings.

  • “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through the shedding of his blood…” (Rom. 3:25)
  • “Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover [hilasterion].” (Heb. 9:5)
  • “…in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement [hilaskomai] for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17)
  • “He is the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
  • “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Because of this relative lack of use it is difficult to build a clear context for its exact meaning—especially as Paul is using it in Rom. 3:25.

Three Options

Recent translations of Rom. 3:25 stopped trying to make a specific translation of hilasterion as “propitiation” and began opting for the generic “sacrifice of atonement” in order to leave the meaning open for interpretation. There are three options.

Option 1: Propitiation (appeasing God’s wrath)

This the route older translations, and the NASB, go: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith” (the NASB adds a note that it could also be “propitiatory sacrifice”).

This option relies on a couple of variables.

  • The only Greek use of hilasterion seems to always refer to the appeasement of the wrath of some deity through a sacrifice.
  • The context of Romans 1-3 is the revelation of God’s wrath against all unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
  • The wrath of God is thought to be connected to the congruent revelation of the righteousness of God (Rom. 1:17).
  • And the righteousness of God—thought to be provoked to wrath—is equivalent to God’s moral and judicial perfection (righteousness is an attribute of God).
  • These add up to something like, the moral-judicial righteousness of God is provoked to wrath by human sin. This moral-judicial wrath is appeased through sacrifice, and that sacrifice is the death of Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26 could be summarized in this way, substituting all the Greek cognates for righteousness [dikaiosynē] for “moral perfection”:

But now apart from the law the moral perfection of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This moral perfection is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are made morally perfection freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice to appease wraith, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his moral perfection, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his moral perfection at the present time, so as to be morally perfect and the one who makes morally perfect those who have faith in Jesus.

Romans 3: 21-26

Option 2: Expiation (cleansing human sin)

Many, however, criticize the above assumptions and lean toward understanding hilasterion as cleansing or purging of sin—something directed primarily toward humanity, not God.

  • While the pagan usage of hilasterion means the appeasement of the wrath, the Hebrew use of the word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) shifts toward “cleansing”, allowing the underlying Hebrew kipper to transform the meaning of the Greek hilasterion from propitiate to expiate (see the previous post on “blood”).
  • While the context of Rom. 1-3 is a revelation of God’s wrath, this doesn’t mean that salvation requires an “appeasement” of wrath. As J. M. Gundry-Volf says, “In light of the threatening wrath of God, the need of sinners can be said to be not the transformation of God’s attitude toward them but the transformation of their sinful existence before God [emphasis in original] (“Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 282). Just as God poured out judgment on Egypt, and yet protected Israel through the sign of the Passover blood, so too God will protect all those marked/cleansed with the blood of Jesus when God judges the world for sin.
  • While the wrath of God is contrasted with the righteousness of God in Rom. 1-3, it is better to think of God’s righteousness not as an eternal, moral attribute, but as a historical, relational commitment. As scholars in the New Perspective on Paul stream have pointed out, Paul’s understanding of “righteousness” means something like God’s “covenant faithfulness”, God’s historical commitment to Israel (and to humanity through Israel).
  • These views, which argue for expiation, add up to something like this: The covenant faithfulness of God protects all who are in Christ from the coming wrath/judgment on sin by offering the perfect cleansing sacrifice.

This understanding would read Roman 3:21-26 like this:

But now apart from the law the covenant faithfulness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This covenant faithfulness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are made covenantly faithful freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as an expiatory/cleansing sacrifice, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness at the present time, so as to be covenantly faithful and the one who makes covenantly faithful those who have faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26

Also in favor of this reading is that 1 John 1:7-9 & 2:2 uses the cognate of hilasterion in connection to cleansing: “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin…If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness…He is the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:7, 9; 2:2).

Some proponents of “propitiation” will say that the concept of “expiation” should not be opposed to propitiation because they actually can both work together. They claim that God’s wrath can be appeased at the same time as our sins are cleansed. While this is technically true for of the theological concepts, we must not import theological concepts into words. Instead, we need to ask, which concept is mostly likely being used through this word by this author in this text. The evidence leans more toward expiation/cleansing than propitiation/appeasement.

Option 3

The last option is the one that seems the most obvious and often the least appreciated. If Heb. 9:5, which uses the same word (hilasterion)—but by an author who isn’t Paul—, and this word clearly refers to the physical place (the lid) on the ark of the covenant known as the “mercy seat”, then Paul probably means the same thing.

This view would be congruent with aspects of the second option. God “presenting Christ as the mercy seat” would bring to mind the Day of Atonement in which the entire temple was cleansed from sin (through which Israel’s sins were carried away and forgiven) (Lev. 16). And this would mean that Jesus is now the “meeting place” between God and humanity—just as the ark of the covenant was for Israel. AND it would mean that Jesus is the means of cleansing humanity from its sin.

Jesus—in his body and blood (yes, think the Eucharist)—is the union of heaven and earth, the place/person through which we receive mercy. In other words, Jesus is the mercy seat where heaven and earth meet.

Biblical Words and Theological Frameworks

You can probably tell that I am convinced by options #2 and #3. But many aren’t convinced by these arguments because of larger theological frameworks and passed down interpretations that connect God’s wrath, God’s justice, and the need for punishment.

These frameworks have always seemed rather harsh in themselves, and often only squeeze in God’s love at the last moment—to save the day.

But just because a word can means something in one context, does it mean that it does in this context. It is true that hilasterion means “propitiation” in a Greek, pagan context. But it seems best to understand it to mean something else (something closer to “cleanse”) in the Hebrew usage.

Does this mean I don’t believe in the seriousness of sin, or the severity of God’s wrath, or the need for repentance, or the demands of faith. No, of course not.

It just means that I think words—especially biblical words—don’t always fit into our theological frameworks. And that means we need to rework the framework instead of reworking the word.

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  • I think 4 Maccabees is illustrative of both Jewish and early Hellenistic thought on the idea of a martyr dying as an atoning sacrifice. There are several pertinent passages, but here are a couple:

    When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

    4 Maccabees 6:26-29 (NRSV)


    These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.

    4 Maccabees 17:20-22 (NRSV)

    The context is that righteous Israelite sons are suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes because of their obedience to the Law. In certain passages, the author (or the sons themselves) draw the connection that their righteous sacrifices for obedience should change God’s disposition toward Israel who is currently suffering for her transgressions. Their sacrifices are willingly given to, for lack of a better word, motivate God to act on Israel’s behalf.

    I think this gives us some insight into how Paul et al may have viewed the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans and the Temple.

  • Petros

    FYI, for the definitive exhaustive lexicological research on “hilasterion”, see “JESUS AS THE MERCY SEAT: THE SEMANTICS AND THEOLOGY OF PAUL’S USE OF HILASTERION IN ROMANS 3:25”. Published in Tyndale Bulletin, 51 no 1 2000, by Daniel P. Bailey, whose PHD thesis was 100% focused on the very question in this post.

    “…be wary of investing ίλαστήριον with meanings that are otherwise unattested (even though they may make sense in Romans or 4 Maccabees) and of paralleling Romans and 4 Maccabees prematurely. Only concrete, inanimate referents of this term are actually found in the other ancient sources; a ίλαστήριον is always a thing—never an idea or an action or an animal.”

    In short, Bailey’s research supports option #3 in this post.

  • geoffrey holsclaw

    Yes, I’ve heard of Bailey’s work but haven’t read it yet otherwise I would have used it for sure in this post.

  • I was amazed a few months ago to discover the number of explanations for Christ’s death on the cross–some 9 or 10, I believe. I guess I thought appeasement of God’s wrath by a perfect sacrifice was the only valid one for “true” Christians and the idea was that God the Father turned his back on Jesus while on the cross bearing the sin of the world. Yet I have heard that Jesus cry of “My God, my God why have You forsaken me” might have been His going through all the prophetic passages He still had to fulfill before He could say, “It is finished.” It is totally against Scripture to say that God could not look on Jesus and be His strength and comfort on the cross. The passages about “looking on” sin have to do with condoning it. I find the doctrine that God abandoned Jesus to be abhorrent.

  • Patrick

    “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”. That obliterates the “God abandoned Christ” view along with penal substitution, IMO.

    If we take the total scriptural picture, the penalty of sin is death. It appears that death is what happened to Adam post sin, i.e. no longer in God’s immediate presence, no longer with a relationship with God, etc.

    The penalty of sin is not being stripped naked, beat half to death, hung on a cross naked to be dehumanized in front of the world and then dying a wretched, miserable death in total weakness.

    Hilasterion in the LXX is “mercy seat”. Hebrews refers to the mercy seat/hilasterion. Seems logical to me to think Paul meant mercy seat.

  • David Lindsay

    Bailey’s article can be found at: https://legacy.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/Library/TynBull_2000_51_1_09_Bailey_JesusMercySeat.pdf
    The NET bible for Romans 3:25 has an extensive note #32 on ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) at: https://netbible.org/bible/Romans+3

  • geoffrey holsclaw

    Thanks for those links. They are really helpful.