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By Graham Grove, May 2008 (prepared as a practice theology exam answer asking about the atonement according to Romans)
The concept of atonement or God's solution to human sin and death is an important theme in the letter to the Romans. The word "atonement" as translated from the Greek hilasterion only occurs once in the letter, but its idea, which is closely related to justification before God and reconciliation with God, is found throughout.
The need for atonement
Romans presents the basic need for atonement by examining death and sin and God's wrath. God's wrath being poured out on the ungoldy is described in Romans 1:18. The fact that this wrath brings death is made clear in Romans 6:23 which states that death is the wage of sin. This problem of death and sin is universal to all humans and Paul explains Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. On this basis it is inferred that a solution is needed and this solution is presented as the deth of Jesus for the atoning forgivenes of sins for those who have faith.
The Nature of Atonement
Paul presents atonement as having the nature of a sacrifice. Using the word hilasterion (which is translated as "mercy seat" in the LXX in the passage on sacrifice in Leviticus 16) Paul highlights the sacrificial nature of the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
The nature of this atonement is shown in Romans to be vicarious, that is, the crucifixion was not simply a historical event independent of us but was on behalf of sinners. This is described in Romans 5:8 which describes how Christ died for us.
Furthermore, in the atonement, Jesus can be seen not simply as our representative but also as our substitute. In this sense our sins were laid or imputed onto Jesus and he was our substitute. Romans 4:25 alludes to this when it states that Christ died for our sins.
The atonement can also be seen in expiatory terms where ours sins have been covered over or removed. There is however also the propitiatory sense where God's wrath was actually poured out on Jesus and he was punished for our sins. Romans 1:18 discusses God's wrath and it can be inferred that this wrath plays a role in the substitutionary atonement.
Paul teaches in Romans that the over-riding motivation for the atonement is love. He describes how much God loves us in Romans 5:8 by stating that God demonstrates his love for us in that he sent Christ to die for sinners. Likewise in Romans 8:35 he links the love of Jesus with his offering and death. For Paul this is seen to be the prime motivating factor for the atonement.
Closely linked with atonement is justification. Where Christ was the atonement for our sins, the believer is justified because of it. Paul clearly demonstrates that this justification, or being put right with God is by faith and not related to works of the law in passages such as Romans 3:27-28. Paul, in chapter 4, uses Abraham as an example to prove this point, arguing that he was justified or credited as righteous because he believed God and not because os his works and that this was prior to his circumcision. There is some controversy however about what these works actually are. Traditionally Protestants have understood them as obedience to the Mosaic law or, more generally, simply good deeds. In recent decades however some have argued such as N.T. Wright that "works" is synonymous with relying on ethnic badges or boundary markers that outwardly define one as a Jew. Although there is value in trying to understand Paul's discussion in its first century context rather than Reformation context, there remains strong internal evidence that Paul is discussing good deeds and obedience to the law given that Paul has discussed sin and evil deeds and so works naturally reads as obedience to God and good deeds.
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