Atonement in Paul’s Writings

©David Peterson (2009)


For Paul the cross of Christ was critical for Christian reflection and life, especially as the means by which God has provided for salvation and as the instrument and measure of new life in Christ.[1]

The apostle seems to have drawn to some extent on primitive Christian tradition in ‘handing on’ to his converts what he himself had ‘received’, specifically ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3; Cf. Gal. 1:4 ). Variations of the confession ‘Christ died for us’ are found throughout his letters (e.g. Rom. 5:6, 8; 1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Thess. 5:10).[2]

Another stereotypical expression for the atoning significance of the cross highlights the ‘giving up’ of Jesus for our salvation as God’s action (e.g. Rom. 4:25; 8:32) or as Jesus’ self-giving (e.g. Gal. 2:20).

But how did Paul develop and express this shared tradition? Is penal substitution foundational to Paul’s teaching or simply one among many ways of explaining the cross?

A hermeneutical question

The cross is at the heart of Paul’s teaching in many contexts and he employs many biblical images to explain its significance. Joel Green insists that, like the apostle, we need to contextualize our presentation of Jesus’ death, seeking out metaphors that speak to various contemporary cultures and circumstances.[3] Other writers speak of Paul’s teaching as being like a diamond, with many faces, each of which we must allow to shine into different situations today.

However, the problem with this approach is that important biblical themes can be down-played or ignored because of their seeming incompatibility to the culture and/or circumstances. For example, Ralph Martin proposes that Paul moved from the theme of justification in Romans 1-4 to reconciliation in Romans 5 because he was dissatisfied with ‘the forensic-cultic idiom that limited soteriology to covenant renewal for the Jewish nation’.[4]

Paul is said to prefer the reconciliation imagery as a tool of communication to the Gentile world because it relates to a universal human need for forgiveness and personal relationship and could embrace personal and cosmic dimensions of the work of Christ.

Martin’s approach doubtless appeals to many who are struggling to preach the gospel to a biblically illiterate culture. There are clear advantages in adopting the language of reconciliation to explain God’s achievement in the death of Christ. But Martin has played down the significance of the previous chapters in Romans for Paul’s developing argument.

Reconciliation and atonement

Reconciliation with God through the death of Jesus is the central theme of 2 Corinthians 5:14 – 6:2 and Romans 5:1-11 (cf. Rom. 11:15; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20, 22).[5] A number of important dimensions to the cross are highlighted in both contexts: the cross is an expression of divine love; it is the motivation for godly living, especially the endurance of suffering and perseverance in gospel work; it brings about justification, access to God, and ‘a new creation’. But the notion of Jesus’ bearing the punishment for our sin is foundational to both passages.

The big picture

2 Corinthians 5:14-21 asserts that ‘the God of the cosmos and of history has reconciled rebellious humankind to himself through the “one” (v. 14) whom he “made sin”, on account of whom trespasses are no longer reckoned (vv. 19, 21)’.[6] Paul is talking in this context about a universal (‘all’ – vv. 14, 15; ‘the world’ – v. 19), cosmological (‘new creation’ – v. 17), and eschatological (‘no longer . . . now’ – vv. 15-17) act of God in Christ.

The natural starting-point for such thinking is the early chapters of Genesis, with their account of the rebellion of humanity against God and its dire consequences (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). But there are surely also echoes of Isaiah 53 here. God’s plan of salvation, which focuses canonically for a time on Israel, comes to its climax in Christ as sin-bearer and is potentially for the benefit of ‘the many’.[7]

A relational blessing (‘reconciliation with God’) rests on forensic forgiveness (v. 19 ‘not counting their trespasses against them’ [μὴ λογιζόμενος αὐτοις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν]), and justification (v. 21 ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ [͑ίνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῶ]).

In the parallel passage in Romans, ‘being reconciled to God’ (5:10) similarly depends on ‘being justified by faith’ (5:1, 9). The logic of the argument in both contexts is the same and we do Paul a great disservice if we ignore it! Reconciliation with God is only possible because of Christ’s sin-bearing. Forensic forgiveness or justification is based on the fact that God made his Son ‘to be sin who knew no sin’ (τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν). Structurally and theologically, 2 Corinthians 5:21 is the key to everything that precedes it.

The wrath of God

The efficacy of Christ’s death arises from the sinlessness of his life. Paradoxically, in his death, God made this sinless one ‘sin for us’. Paul means that Christ ‘came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath’.[8] It is therefore special pleading for Stephen Travis to write:

But God’s wrath is not mentioned in the context, and the focus is in fact on Christ’s death absorbing or neutralizing the effects of sin. And that does not involve notions of retribution. [9]

This is an extraordinary conclusion to reach after Paul has just indicated that all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive recompense for what has been done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10). God’s wrath certainly features in the parallel passage about reconciliation in Romans 5:1-11. Furthermore, God’s wrath in Romans is more than the intrinsic consequence of our refusal to live in a relationship with him, as Travis proposes.

What human beings experience in the present, as a result of God’s abandoning them to the consequences of their sin (1:24, 26, 28), is an anticipation of ‘God’s righteous judgment’ on ‘the day of wrath’, when he will personally ‘repay according to each one’s deeds’ (2:3-10).

A properly formulated view of penal substitution will speak of retribution being experienced by Christ because that is our due. Moreover, the penalty inflicted by God’s justice and holiness is also a penalty inflicted by God’s love and mercy, for salvation and new life. God’s loving provision through the sacrifice of Christ enables us to be ‘saved through him from the wrath of God’ (Rom. 5:8-10).

Justification in Christ

The purpose of the divine act of substitution was ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21). ‘Righteousness’ or ‘justification’ is the opposite of ‘condemnation’ in Paul’s teaching (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9). We can only ‘become the righteousness of God’ if God no longer counts our trespasses against us (cf. Rom. 4:6-8).[10] The logic of 2 Corinthians 5 is that God condemns our sin in the death of his sinless Son so that we might be justified and reconciled to him (cf. Rom. 8:1-4, 10). This ‘great exchange’ is a reality for all who are ‘in him’, that is, united to Christ by faith.[11]

Paul’s reference in 2 Corinthians 5:21 to the sinlessness of Christ and the justification that proceeds from his death recalls the portrait of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:9-11. Isaiah’s statement about the Servant making himself ‘an offering for sin’ (περὶ ἁμαρτίας), is more explicitly echoed in Romans 8:3. Isaiah 53 is also alluded to in Romans 4:25; 8:32.

The expression ‘made him to be sin’ in 2 Corinthians 5:21 more obviously refers to punishment for sin rather than to a ‘sacrifice for sin’.[12] The image is forensic rather than cultic. Christ’s death can be understood as atoning in the more general sense of a deliverance from the judgment of God by the payment of a ransom or price. But the cultic dimension will shortly be explored in connection with Romans 3:24-5.

In Romans 5:8, 10 it is clear that God has dealt with the trespasses that alienated us from him by ‘removing from his side the obstacle to peace with him, his settled displeasure (“wrath”) aroused by human sin’.[13] In other words, the process of reconciliation did not simply involve changing our attitude towards him. Reconciliation was accomplished for us through the death of Jesus, even though God himself was the aggrieved party. But it must still be proclaimed and received by us for its benefits to be enjoyed (Rom. 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:19-20).

There is an objective, historical dimension to God’s reconciling work on the cross and a subjective, personal dimension to the process whereby he enables us to respond to the ‘message of reconciliation’ with repentance and faith. Through his ambassadors, God himself invites us to ‘be reconciled’. The particular appeal to the readers in 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2 is ‘to continue in what they have begun to be, a people forgiven by God, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death for them’.[14]

Justification, redemption and atonement

Romans begins with a statement about the universal relevance and power of the gospel, in which ‘the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith’ (Rom. 1:16-17). In 1:18 – 3:20, Paul deals with the problem of God’s wrath and depicts God’s impartiality in judging all people, both Jews and Gentiles. In 3:21 – 4:25 he proclaims God’s impartiality in bestowing righteousness on all who believe in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles. The paragraph 3:21-6 repeats and expands some of the key ideas first announced in 1:16-17, highlighting the central thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 1-4 and preparing for the next main section of the letter (Romans 5-8).[15]

From the beginning of Romans 3, Paul considers ‘the righteousness of God’ in his dealings with Israel and, by implication, with the world. The righteousness of God appears to be a way of speaking about his covenant faithfulness.[16] However, this is not to deny that there is a judicial aspect to the righteousness of God or to his justifying activity.

Romans 3:21-6 announces ‘a dramatic shift in salvation history’.[17] It explains how God can be righteous in dealing with sin and, at the same time, faithful to his promises to save those who have faith in him. His righteousness is pre-eminently expressed in his justifying activity. This has been made possible because of the self-offering of Jesus in death as an atoning sacrifice, for the redemption of Jews and Gentiles alike.

The origin of this justification is the grace of God (δωρεάν is used adverbially, meaning ‘freely’, ‘as a gift’). The historical basis of this gift is ‘the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’. Redemption is the event that makes justification possible. The Greek term ἀπολύτρωσις means emancipation or deliverance at a price. It is the language of the slave market, with a particular application in Jewish thinking to the great saving event of the exodus. Sin not only makes us guilty before God but it also enslaves us. A price must be paid for deliverance from its penalty and its power to rule our lives.

Leon Morris argued that ‘the LXX usage is such as to leave us in no doubt that λύτρον and its cognates are properly applied to redemption by payment of a price’.[18] Although his approach has been challenged by some, more recent assessments have confirmed that the note of ‘ransom’ and ‘price’ may rightly be discerned when such terminology is used in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Mark 10:45; Acts 20:28).[19]

In the flow of Romans 3:24-5, the price in view will be Jesus’ death, freeing us from death as sin’s penalty (cf. 5:12; 6:23). With his redemptive act in Christ, God has acted to free us from the penalty he himself imposed.

God is clearly the origin of the redemption accomplished by Christ. The means of that redemption is Jesus Christ crucified, ‘whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith’ (3:25 NRSV).[20] The claim that Christ is ‘our paschal lamb’ in 1 Corinthians 5:7 suggests an act of salvation or redemption by means of his sacrifice, fulfilling the pattern of the exodus and Passover for Israel.

The expression ‘by his blood’ is best connected with ἱλαστήριον (rather than with ‘through faith’) indicating that it was by the shedding of his blood that his death was an atoning sacrifice. This term enhances the cultic dimension to Paul’s thinking at this point. Its meaning and significance is discussed below.

The rest of Romans 3:25-6 then describes the purpose of God (εἰς͗ένδειξιν) in ordaining that Christ should be such a sacrifice: it was with a view to showing God’s righteousness. This was necessary ‘because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previous committed’.

However, the ultimate purpose of God (εἰς τὸ ε͗ῖναι) in providing Christ as an atoning sacrifice was so that he could justify sinners rightly and still be just. Any view of God’s righteousness which puts an emphasis on faithfulness to his covenant promises must reckon with the fact that, at the heart of Paul’s exposition of this theme, the notion of Christ’s death being a satisfaction of God’s justice is prominent in the context.[21]

Expiation and propitiation

Much debate has focussed on whether Christ’s death is viewed in Romans 3:25 and elsewhere as an expiation for sin, or more specifically as a means of propitiating God’s wrath. The issues are well reviewed by Moo. A good case can be made for finding some allusion to the notion of propitiation when the root kpr is used in the OT in connection with the cult. It is the connotation of ‘propitiate’ that led the translators of the LXX to use words from the ἱλασκ root to translate the Hebrew.

This is not, however, to deny the connotation ‘expiation’; the OT cult serves both to ‘wipe away’ the guilt of sin at the same time as – and indeed, because – the wrath of God is being stayed.[22]

The term ἱλαστήριον has been taken to refer to the ‘place of atonement’ or ‘mercy-seat’ in the Holy Of Holies.[23] However, even if Christ is portrayed as the New Covenant ‘place of sprinkling’ by this language, the theological significance of the metaphor must surely be conveyed in translation.

Given the widespread use of this term in Greek literature to refer to ‘a propitiatory gift’, many prefer to see ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3 as ‘a general reference to the removal of the wrath of God, rather than a specific reference either to the mercy-seat, or to the Day of Atonement ceremonies’.[24] In other words, Jesus is described by this term as ‘a propitiatory sacrifice’ (the victim and not ‘the place of sprinkling’) or as ‘a sacrifice of atonement’.[25]

Dunn translates ἱλαστήριον as ‘means of expiation’ or ‘medium of atonement’. Nevertheless, he argues that ‘the logic of Paul’s exposition is that the wrath of God (1:18 – 3:20) is somehow averted by Jesus’ death (cf. 2 Macc. 7:38)’.[26] Against the notion of propitiation, he insists that the passage portrays God as ‘offerer of the sacrifice rather than its object’. But why cannot God be both offerer and object of the atonement?

Averting God’s wrath

The idea of averting God’s wrath in any personal sense demands that God be object (e.g. Nu. 25:1-13). If we are not thinking of ‘making God gracious’, what is wrong with implying that God is both subject and object and that we have here a view of propitiation that differs from the pagan notions of the ancient world. There are many places in the Bible where pagan terminology is adapted in the light of God’s self-revelation and distinctive way of dealing with us.

While ‘propitiate’ in ordinary usage may suggest a change from complete hostility to love, this need not be so. For example, loving parents may be angry with their children for a time and need to be ‘appeased’, but do not stop loving them in the process. From the earliest pages of Scripture it is clear that God can be both loving and wrathful towards his people (e.g. Ex. 34:6-7). The question is always one of securing release from the consequences of sin, which include the expression of his wrath against sin (e.g. Exodus 32; Leviticus 16; Daniel 9:16-19).

Of course the cross proceeds from God’s grace and does not ‘make God gracious’. But it is simplistic to argue that if God’s attitude is one of unchanging love then it does not need to be changed, and if it is not changed then there is no need for propitiation. If God is wrathful against sinners, then his wrath somehow needs to be appeased and averted. If God in his love provides the way by which his own wrath is both expressed and satisfied, that is propitiation. As with the OT provisions for atonement, God is both originator and recipient of the sacrifice that reconciles to him.

The transformation of sinners

Judith Gundry-Wolf views ‘the transformation of sinners’ as the key to Christ’s death and plays down any personal effect on God. She concedes that Paul probably thought of Christ’s death as the anticipation of eschatological judgment and the outpouring of divine wrath. Thus, the apostle probably also thought that those who are in Christ will be saved from God’s wrath because Christ suffered it for them (Rom. 5:9). But this still does not mean that Christ’s death propitiated God. Gundry-Volf interprets God’s wrath in impersonal terms, as the judgment ‘which destroys all unholiness and sin’.[27] Thus, she concludes:

In the 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 through its destruction and new creation. This transformation of sinners is precisely the significance Paul sees in the death and resurrection of Christ. And the notion of divine wrath as a judgment consisting in destruction fits well with such a view of the cross.

However, to separate God’s wrath from his righteousness, as if one aspect of his dealing with us is impersonal and the other personal, is totally illegitimate. For example, in Romans 3:4-6, God’s righteousness and his judging the world are viewed together, as inter-connected expressions of his relationship with Israel. Citing Psalm 51:4 in this context, Paul makes it clear that he holds a very personal view of the wrath of God.

Restricting Christ’s work to the transformation of our ‘sinful existence before God’, makes his atonement a mechanical operation that is far removed from the personal dynamic implied by the link between reconciliation and the wrath of God in Romans 5:1-11. There is also a subtle, but alarming shift in Gundry-Volf’s argument, from the transformation of our ‘sinful existence before God’ to the ‘transformation of sinners’. Transformation of sinners flows from Christ’s reconciling work of the cross (cf. Romans 6; 2 Cor. 5:14-21), but it is not simply to be identified with God’s action in making Christ ‘sin for us’ or putting him forth as ‘a propitiatory sacrifice’ through his blood.

Bearing the curse of God

Romans 8:1 proclaims that there is ‘now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. This is so because God has sent his Son to be ‘a sin-offering’ (v. 3, περὶ ἁμαρτίας) and thereby ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ .

Apart from this passage and those examined above, the clearest statement in Paul’s writings that Christ bore the penalty for sin that was due to us is found in Galatians 3:13 (‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”’). Although it is true that Paul has left out the words ‘by God’ in his quote from Deuteronomy 21:23, it is odd to suggest that this was to avoid the implication that Christ in his death was cursed by God.[28] What is ‘the curse of the law’ if not the curse of God?

Wright has argued that in this passage Paul is echoing a widespread belief among his fellow Jews that Israel was still under the curse of Deuteronomy 29, the curse of exile.[29] Against this background, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law’ means that Jews who were under the curse of the law and alienated from God because of their sin have been redeemed from that curse by Christ. The removal of the curse which hung over Israel makes it possible for the blessing promised to Abraham to come to the Gentiles ‘in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:14). Travis follows this line and concludes that,

Paul’s argument is not a statement about atonement in general or about the salvation of individuals. His concern is not so much to explain how the death of Christ makes atonement for individual sinners as to show how it makes possible the coming of God’s blessing to Gentiles. [30]

However, this line of interpretation can be challenged in several ways. Τhe evidence for Paul or his contemporaries viewing the exile as continuing is disputed.[31] Moreover, Paul’s warning in Galatians 3:10 is that ‘all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse’. In the course of the argument, this must surely include Gentiles who were tempted to pursue a relationship with God characterized and determined by ‘works of the law’.

More generally, Paul assumes in Romans 2:12-16, that even Gentiles who do not possess the law will be condemned if they do not do what the law requires. Finally, the claim that ‘we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’ (Gal. 3:14) must include Jews and Gentiles together:

The curse which shut Gentiles out also prevented the Jews who lived ‘from works of the law’ from entering the full blessing of Abraham. The curse-bearing death of Jesus thus broke open that too restricted view of covenant righteousness for both Jew and Gentile to share in its eschatological fullness. [32]


What finally is the pastoral significance of the teaching about Christ being the bearer of our sin and its consequences? What is lost if this aspect of Paul’s teaching is played down or ignored? Paul Barnett’s assessment is simple but profound:

The great doctrinal truth that ‘Christ died in my place’ joins the repentant sinner to his Saviour spiritually and emotionally. When through the gospel the lost soul ‘sees’ the Lord on the cross in his place for his sins he is overpowered with emotion and spiritual gratitude. Christ crucified is ‘the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world’ and for the individual, and the drink that sustains the Christian throughout his earthly pilgrimage serving the Lord and sharing the gospel with others. Furthermore, how can one continue in sin in the face of such dying love? [33]

[1] J. B. Green, ‘Death of Christ’, in G. F. Hawthorne, R.P. Martin, D .G. Reid (ed.), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (Downers Grove/Leicester: IVP, 1993), 201. Cf. M. Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 34-9.

[2] This article is a development and expansion of some of the material in ‘Atonement in the New Testament’, in D. Peterson (ed.), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet’: Proclaiming the Atonement Today. Papers from the Fourth Oak Hill College Annual School of Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001).

[3] Green, ‘Death of Christ’, 204. Green, however, is quick to point out that contemporary interpreters need to be guided by the apostle in this task.

[4] R. P. Martin, ‘Reconciliation: Romans 5:1-11’, in S. K. Soderlund & N. T. Wright (ed.), Romans and the People of God Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999), 47.

[5] Cf. P. T. O’Brien, ‘Col. 1:20 and the Reconciliation of all Things’, Reformed Theological Review 33 (1974), 45-53.

[6] P. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (NICNT; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997), 300.

[7] G. K. Beale, ‘The OT Background of Reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5-7 and its Bearing on the Literary Problem of 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1’, New Testament Studies 35 (1989), 550-81, sees the theme of Israel’s restoration to the land in terms of creation in Isaiah 40-55 as the primary source of Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 5:17-21. But the precise vocabulary of reconciliation is not found in Isaiah and it is relatively undeveloped within Judaism by Paul’s time. Cf. F. Büchsel, TDNT 1:251-9.

[8] C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (BNTC; London: Black, 1973), 180.

[9] S. H. Travis, ‘Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgment’, in J. Goldingay (ed.), Atonement Today: A Symposium at St. John’s College Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), 27.

[10] R. P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 40 2 Corinthians (Dallas: Word, 1986), 158, combines what he terms the cosmic and the personal meaning of ‘righteousness’ in Paul’s writings, arguing that it means ‘to be given the salvific status as men and women rightly related to God’ here.’

[11] D. A. Carson, ‘Atonement in Romans 3:21-26’, in C. E. Hill & F. A. James (ed.), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004), 134 note 53, argues that ‘if one remains in the domain of narrow exegesis, one can say that Paul does not explicitly teach “imputation”’, but ‘if one extends the discussion into the domain of constructive theology, and observes that the Pauline texts themselves (despite the critics’ contentions) teach penal substitution, then “imputation” is merely another way of saying much the same thing.’ However, against this, see G. P. Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 172-3.

[12] Cf. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 156-7.

[13] Barnett, Second Corinthians, 303. Cf. I. H. Marshall, ‘The Meaning of Reconciliation’, in R. A. Guelich (ed.), Unity and Diversity in New Testament Theology: Essays in Honor of George E. Ladd (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 123 (‘in dying Christ exhausted the effects of divine wrath against sin’).

[14] Barnett, Second Corinthians, 12.

[15] Against R.N. Longenecker, ‘The Focus of Romans: The Central Role of 5:1 – 8:39 in the Argument of the Letter’, in Soderland & Wright, Romans and the People of God, 49-61, Romans 1-4 cannot simply be written off as material that Paul believed he had in common with his addressees and wrote merely as a preparation for Romans 5-8. The polemical nature of the argument in these early chapters and the consistent development of the theme of God’s righteousness speak otherwise.

[16] Cf. S.K. Williams, ‘The “Righteousness of God” in Romans’, JBL 99 (1980), 265-80.

[17] D. A. Carson, ‘Atonement ’, 123.

[18] Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 27.

[19] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 38A Romans 1-8 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 169, 179-80; D. Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary Romans 1-8 (Chicago:Moody, 1991), 229-30; W. Mundle, C. Brown, NIDNTT 3:189-200.

[20] It is possible to read ͑ὸν προέθετο as ‘whom God purposed to be’. Cf. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1975), 208-10. (NEB, ‘God designed him to be’). This is consistent with the emphasis of the three purpose clauses that follow in vv. 25b-26.

[21] Cf. Carson, ‘Atonement’, 119-39.

[22] Moo, Romans 1-8, 236. Cf. C. Brown, NIDNTT 3:151-160.

[23] So Carson, ‘Atonement’, 129-30; D. P. Bailey, ‘Jesus as the Mercy Seat: the Semantics and Theology of Paul’s use of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25’, Tyndale Bulletin 51.1, 155-8; J. M. Gundry-Volf, ‘Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat’, in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 282-3. ἱλαστήριον is used of the ‘mercy seat’ in 21/27 contexts in the LXX and in Heb. 8:5.

[24] Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 198. Cf. Cranfield, Romans 1-8, 214-8; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 170-1; Brown, NIDNTT 3:163-5.

[25] Moo, Romans 1-8, 232-8, notes the work of Deissmann, who shows that ἱλαστήριον in ordinary Greek means ‘means of propitiation’, and argues that the Roman Christians would have been more familiar with this usage than the ritual of the Jewish Day of Atonement.

[26] Dunn, Romans 1-8, 171. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (BNTC; London: Black, 1957), 78 (‘expiation has, as it were, the effect of propitiation’).

[27] Gundry-Volf, ‘Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat’, 282. Green, ‘Death of Christ’, 206, similarly writes that, ‘for Paul divine wrath is not a divine property, or essential attribute, but the active presence of God’s judgment toward “all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18)’. In this connection, he acknowledges his debt to Travis and also to A. J. Tambasco, A Theology of Atonement and Paul’s Vision of Christianity (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1991).

[28] Cf. R. Y. K Fung., The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 148.

[29] N. T. Wright., The Climax of the Covenant. Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: Clark, 1991), 141-42.

[30] Travis, ‘Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgment’, 24.

[31] J. D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians (BNTC; London: Black, 1993), 171-72.

[32] Dunn, Galatians, 179. Cf. Fung, Galatians, 148-50.

[33] This was part of a defence of the biblical doctrine of penal substitution in answer to challenges by Dr. Peter Carnley, Archbishop of Perth and Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, as found on


One thought on “Atonement in Paul’s Writings

  1. John Dennis

    I do not have time at the moment to comment on everything I would like to so I will limit myself to the following:

    (1) Rom 3:25: there is much more to be said about the debate about the meaning of hilasterion here. You recognize that the term “has been taken to refer to the ‘place of atonement’ or ‘mercy-seat’ in the Holy Of Holies..” Then you say: “However, even if Christ is portrayed as the New Covenant ‘place of sprinkling’ by this language, the theological significance of the metaphor must surely be conveyed in translation.” This is a very risky view of the purpose of translation. Once someone aims to express “the theological significance” of a term in translation, one can easily move into eisegesis. If Paul meant to say that God put forth Jesus as the “mercy seat” (this is what hilasterion ALWAYS and ONLY means in the OT and the NT), then that is what the translation should be. See the NET translation here. The NET by the way follows the most important work on Rom 8:3 in 20 years: Kenneth Bailey’s Cambridge dissertation, “Jesus as the Mercy Seat” 1999.

    (2) You say: “A good case can be made for finding some allusion to the notion of propitiation when the root kpr is used in the OT in connection with the cult. It is the connotation of ‘propitiate’ that led the translators of the LXX to use words from the ἱλασκ- root to translate the Hebrew. This is not, however, to deny the connotation ‘expiation’; the OT cult serves both to ‘wipe away’ the guilt of sin at the same time as – and indeed, because – the wrath of God is being stayed.”

    BUT, the debate about kpr has moved way beyond the works of Morris and Dodd. Bailey has shown definitively that scholars mistakenly focus on the verbal form of hilask. and NOT on the noun form (the form in Rom 3:25). Plus, as I assume you know, kipper is translated by exhilaskomai and I cannot think of an OT scholar who would say that the main idea here is propitiation clearly in view in terms of the semantic field of these verbs. The contexts make it very clear (e.g. Lev 4-5 and especially 16) that expiation is the main issue: note that the blood functions to wash away the sins that have stuck to various parts of the tabernacle. There is simply no clear statement that the function here was to avert wrath. However, I would say that when reading the entirety of Exod, Lev and Num, the issue of wrath is “between the lines” and thus Paul’s use of wrath and Jesus’ blood in Rom 5:9.

    On kipper and the function of the sin-offering in Lev, see my article published in 2002. I would be more than happy to send a PDF to you.

    Well, I have much more to say but I have to go for now.

    God Bless


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