So far we have discussed the problem of evil and the nature of divine justice. But whether we realize it or not, we face a terrifying dilemma. For if God is just and we are sinners, it therefore follows that in the Day of Judgment we will inevitably be pronounced guilty and be doomed to eternal punishment. Is there any possible way out?
The answer is "yes," and that is, in fact, what the gospel is all about. The apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans that there is a way to be considered righteous in God's sight that is not based on our own ability to keep the law. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed. . ." (Rom. 3:21; NKJV), ". . . even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe" (v. 22). How can this be? How can there be a righteousness "apart from the law"? Paul goes on to explain: we are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . ." (vv. 24,25).
It is significant that Paul uses two words here to describe the death of Christ: "redemption" and "propitiation." "Redemption" involves the payment of a price to secure the freedom of a slave, captive or prisoner. Here we are seen as captives or slaves, and Christ has secured our freedom by paying a ransom, in this case His own blood. The price having been paid, we are set free.
"Propitiation" is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity Some theologians have questioned the appropriateness of this idea, and have suggested instead that the underlying Greek word be translated "expiation." (RSV; the NRSV renders it "a sacrifice of atonement." God, they say, should not be thought of as an angry Deity who needs placating. But the fact of the matter is that Paul began his discussion of salvation by referring specifically to God's wrath: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . ." (1:18), and then went on to describe the Last Judgment as the "day of wrath" in which "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish" will be meted out to sinners (2:5,8,9). God is not a disinterested bystander in the ongoing catastrophe of human life. The context of atonement is definitely His anger at sin. Thus the most natural way to interpret the word used in 3:25 is "propitiation."
|The Expulsion from Eden
Thus either we have to pay for our own sins, or someone else will have to do it for us, taking our penalty as our substitute and dying in our place. This was vividly brought out in the Old Testament, when sacrifices were offered in the temple in Jerusalem. The climax of the sacrificial system was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when one goat was killed as a sin offering and its blood sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant kept in the Temple's innermost chamber ("The Holy of Holies"), and hands were placed on the head of another goat (the "scapegoat"), the sins of the people were confessed, and the goat was sent away. The point of it all was this: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). In other words, someone must die in order to fulfill the curse. And in order for one person to go free someone else must act as his substitute. The question is, who?