Romans 3:23-25, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”
The Passage Explained
In verse 23, Paul issues a divinely inspired verdict over the entirety of the human race: all have sinned and all fall short of God’s glory. In other words every human soul that has ever existed has lived rebelliously out of step with the purposes, character, and beauty of God’s nature. Every excuse falls silent and the whole world stands accountable before their Maker and under His righteous wrath.
“The Wrath of God”
Wrath As An Expression Of Love
The wrath of God is a key concept in these first chapters of Romans, and—though it doesn’t appear by name—it plays a central role in the text quoted above. So, before we move on, we need to briefly consider the “wrath of God.” However, we cannot understand the wrath of God without first understanding the love of God, since His wrath is—as with anything true about Him—an expression of His love. So, If we are going to understand God’s wrath, we must first understand God’s love.
What, Then, Is Love?
And what is God’s love? In general we might say that love is giving up one’s self in order to give the best to another. Key to that definition is the concept of the “best,” and the true “best” is, of course, God Himself—known and enjoyed as supremely valuable. Therefore, God’s love is the act by which He gives Himself up in order to give Himself as the supreme treasure to His beloved one.
Now, ultimately, God’s “beloved one” is God Himself within the Trinity (the Father gives Himself in love to the Son, the Son gives Himself in love to the Father, the Spirit rejoices as the bond of and context of their love). This means that the love of God is most primarily God’s knowledge of and supreme valuation of Himself within Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit (this is not narcissism for at least two reasons. First, for God to treasure anything above Himself would make that thing “God” and thus the true God would become an idolater. Second, since God is Triune, His love for Himself exists as interpersonal love within the fully divine persons of the Trinity). So, we might say that God’s love is His eternal disposition to pour Himself out in order that He might be known and enjoyed. This would be expressed within the Trinity in something like this: The eternal Lover is the Father (forever pouring Himself out to the Son) the eternal Beloved is the Son (knowing and enjoying the Father’s gift of Himself), and the eternal Love is the Spirit (who is the self-giving of Father to Son and reciprocal self-giving of Son to Father).
If this is God’s love within the Trinity, what is His love toward humanity (what we usually think of when we talk about God’s love)? Scripture seems to teach that God’s love for humanity is, ultimately, to unite them—by faith, through the indwelling Spirit—to the Son so that they too—in Christ—might know and enjoy God as the Good of goods, Truth of truths, and Beauty of beauties (John 3:16 + 17:5,23; Ephesians 2:4-7; 1 Peter 3:18, etc.).
Wrath As Love At War For The Beloved
How, then, is God’s wrath an expression of His love? Well, consider the human love of a husband for his wife. If an assailant attacks his wife, the husband will retaliate. Now, what moves him to do this? Is it love for his wife or wrath against the attacker? We might say that it is both, but more accurate would be to say that his wrath against the attacker flows from the spring of his love for his wife. The man’s wife receives her husband’s love for her as protection, the attacker receives the husband’s love for his wife as wrath. Because the attacker has made himself an enemy of the husband’s beloved, he has place himself under the husband’s wrath. Wrath is love experienced against the grain;wrath is love at war for the beloved.
In like manner, God’s wrath is directed toward those who have set themselves as enemies against His beloved, which is—remember—ultimately Himself within the fellowship of the Trinity. Thus, When we refuse to recognize and rejoice in the Triune God as supreme in and over all things, we are opposing His beloved and so—like the attacker in my previous example—placing ourselves under His wrath. But we can view this in another light as well. Since the purpose of all things is the exaltation of God in Christ (Romans 11:36, Colossians 1:16), when we oppose the supremacy of God in all things, we are opposing the goal and the good of all creation. And so God’s love for Himself, and His love for all that He has made, moves Him—in love—to wage war against those who oppose Him.
This, Paul tells us, is the state of every human soul. We have all opposed the purposes of God, we have all treasured other things more than our Creator, we have all refused to harmonize our desires to the beauty of His Name (Romans 1:18-32), and because of this, we are all under His wrath (Romans 1:18, John 3:36).
Justified by Grace Through Redemption
So, in verse 23, Paul places all people under the wrath of God because of their sins against Him—that is—their opposition to His supremacy in all of life, and if verse 23 were the end, there would be no hope. However, praise God there is a verse 24! There we read that not only have all sinned and all fallen short (and therefore all are justly under God’s wrath), but that all—
“…are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”
By there own efforts, no one can be brought into a right relationship with God (3:20). As Paul tells us in Romans 3:9-18, the ability to cease enmity with God and to instead seek after and treasure Him does not lie in the natural human heart. If the “War of Love” against human sin is going to end, it will be God alone who ends it. And this is what Paul is pointing to in these verses.
In an act of supreme and sovereign grace, God sent the eternally beloved one—His own Son—as a sacrifice for our sin. In His death, Jesus redeems His people from the power and eternal effects of their sin by dying in their place as their propitiation. Now the word “propitiation” deserves another focused section all to itself, so let’s briefly consider the history and import of this concept.
“Propitiation / Mercy Seat”
The word translated as “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 is the same Greek word used in the Greek Old Testament for the “mercy seat,” which was the covering over the Ark of the Covenant. There are two significant things to note about the mercy seat that will fill out our understanding of Paul’s use of the word here in Romans 3:25.
The Mercy Seat and Theophany
Primarily, the mercy seat—resting on the Ark in the heart of the Holy of Holies—seemed to function like the throne of YHWH on earth. This golden covering of the Ark was crowned with two cherubim whose faces were turned downward, and it would be here, above and between the two cherubim that the glory of YHWH would appear (Exodus:22; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 7:89). The concept of the mercy seat as the throne of God is strengthened by the canonical account of visions of YHWH’s heavenly throne room which reveal a similar scene, with His throne surrounded by angelic attendants (Isaiah 6:1-4; Ezekiel 1:22,26; Revelation 4:6). First and foremost, then, the mercy seat is the place where YHWH meets with the representative of His people, where the glory of His presence is revealed. It is the throne of God on earth.
The Mercy Seat and Atonement
However, there is a second aspect of the mercy seat that we must consider, namely its central place in the “Day of Atonement.” This solemn observance—which we read about in Leviticus 16—was the day on which purification was made for the accumulated sins of the people (Leviticus 16:30). It would seem that, even though the people were offering sacrifices for their sins throughout the year, the sins thus forgiven were not fully dealt with (think of sweeping dust from one part of the room to another). As Hebrews 10:4 makes plain, the blood of bulls and goats never truly took away anyone’s sins. Yes, YHWH’s covenant mercy had received sacrificed animals in place of the penitent sinners. However, because the blood of animals was merely a shadow of what was to come, by pardoning sinners in this way, God was essentially “passing over” sins (this element of the Day of Atonement seems to be further alluded to in Romans 3:25-26).
Apparently, YHWH’s granting of forgiveness by the blood of sacrificed animals resulted in the sins of the people somehow infiltrating even the holiest place of the temple such that it too had to be “purified”. For this reason the high priest needed to enter into the inner sanctum of the tabernacle and there sprinkle sacrificial blood on the mercy seat, on the throne of God Himself in order to “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.” (Leviticus 16:16). [ Note: Whatever the situation presented here, at the very least it seems to be an anticipation of the day that God the Son truly would take the sins of His people into the deepest parts of Himself in order to give them His own righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).]
Merciful Justice and Just Mercy
If the Holy God is going to unite sinful humanity to Himself for their joy and His glory, sin must be dealt with. One way is for the consuming fire of the Lord to destroy the offending parties (as we see in Lev. 10:2). However, another way is for YHWH (who is gracious and merciful, Ex.34:6-7) to forgive the sins of His people. Yet, for sins to be forgiven, life must be poured out—blood must be spilled. And if God will not let it be the blood of His people, and if the blood of bulls and goats does not suffice (again, Hebrews 10:4), then how will God be both just and the justifier of a sinful people (Romans 3:26)? How will His exercise of justice be mercy and His mercy justice? The Day of Atonement anticipates an answer that is almost too awe-full to imagine: if the Holy One is to bring His people to Himself, sacrificial blood must be poured out on the throne of God Himself.
Paul’s Use of “Propitiation / Mercy Seat”
It seems that Paul has both elements of the mercy seat in mind when he calls Jesus the one put forward as a “mercy seat” or “place of atonement” or “propitiation.”
The Crucified Christ as Wrath-Absorbing Sacrifice
Addressing the second element first, Jesus is the final, true, and—indeed—only sacrifice. On Him were placed all the sins of all His people from all times and places (all the sins placed on all the “scapegoats” in the OT, all the sins for which bulls and goats were slain, all the sins God has ever or will ever forgive), and with His death the consuming fire of God’s wrath—the fire that devoured Nadab and Abihu, the fire of Love’s holy war against enemies of the beloved—was swallowed to the dregs. How can the Holy God bring sinful humanity to Himself for their joy and His glory? The answer comes with Jesus Christ, by whose outpoured blood ALL the sins of ALL God’s people are forever consumed in the fires of God’s holy wrath. And—as the Day of Atonement foreshadowed—that wrath-absorbing blood would be sprinkled on the throne of God Himself, a throne where cross bars of wood replaced hammered gold and Roman soldiers stood in the place of angels.
The Crucified Christ as The Revelation of God
And this leads to our final point. I believe that Paul refers to the crucified Christ as the “mercy seat” not only because it is in and by Him that sins are finally atoned so that God is shown to be just in His mercy, but it is also because this bloodied and marred human form hanging on the cross is—beyond all human wisdom—the place where YHWH appears in His glory. By calling Jesus the “mercy seat” Paul points both to the redemptive and the revelatoryrealities of the crucified Lord.
Jesus is the one by whom we are ransomed from our slavery to sin and destiny of destruction, but He is also—precisely in that work of redemption—the one in whom the glory, the presence, the identity of the living God is most perfectly revealed (John 1:18, 13:31-32, 17:1-5, 26). As YHWH said to Moses in Exodus 33:20, no one can see His face and live, and as Nadab and Abihu discovered, to approach the Shekinah glory of YHWH unbidden is to embrace death. But at the cross, YHWH clothes His glory in the revelatory robes of human flesh and blood, so that all peoples and nations might see the salvation and know the beautiful Name of the One True God. The glory that blazed on Sinai, the glory that illumined the Holy of Holies, the glory that will one day fill the earth as water covers the sea, this is the glory that appears with definitive clarity in the crucified Son who bears our sins and drinks our hell, loving God and neighbor to the uttermost.
The Picture Explained
I made the concept of Christ as “propitiation / mercy seat” the central theme for this image and tried to picture both the redemptive and revelatory elements of that term. Christ is shown as the fulfillment of the blood sacrifice in that He is bearing the outpoured wrath of God in the place of His people. His blood pours out under the punishment that we deserve and falls to the ground in an echo of the atoning blood that was sprinkled on the mercy seat during the Day of Atonement. The two cherubim with downturned faces at the foot of the cross emphasize the imagery of Christ as the mercy seat.
However, by placing the cherubim at the foot of the cross and the crucified Christ above them, I am also alluding to the fact—which I believe is present in Paul’s use of the term—that the mercy seat was not only the place where atoning blood would be sprinkled, but was also—and primarily—the place where YHWH appeared in His glory. Calvary was the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant, the cross was the true “throne of God” on earth. This was the place where the covenant God of Israel would appear before His people (Exodus:22; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 7:89); the Holy One in their midst who forgives their sins but does not ignore their guilt (Exodus 34:6-7), bearing the full penalty of their rebellion in His own flesh (Romans 8:3). And this was the true and final Day of Atonement, the day when atoning blood would be poured out even on the throne of God Himself—but who could have imagined that the blood sprinkled on the true “mercy seat” would be the blood of the Lord Himself?
Finally, within the crucified Christ I pictured a man who has been redeemed from sin and death and punishment. His chains—alluding to the typological chains of Israel in Egypt—have been broken through the propitiatory work of the Son and he stands on the foothills of the New Heavens and New Earth, ushered in to the true Promised Land through the great work of YHWH’s revelatory redemption at the cross.