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Romans 3:25 is often used to justify substitutionary atonement theory. To understand this passage, it is helpful to consider Romans 3:21-26, which reads as follows:
21. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it,
22. the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction;
23. since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24. they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ,
25. whom God put forward as an expiation by this blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins;
26. it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
Let us first consider the notion of “expiation” of sin. Through the lens of substitutionary atonement theology, one might regard punishment of the sinner or a substitute victim as the only way to balance the scales of justice, expiate sin, and restore justification with God. (See Bartlett, Anthony W. 2001. Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press.) Does substitutionary atonement theology, which developed over many centuries after Jesus’ death, accurately reflect what Paul tried to communicate in his letter to the Romans? Another view, which I think reflects better the life and ministry of Jesus, is that expiation of sin involves removing sinfulness from one’s own soul and from one’s community. In support of this notion of expiation, recall that Romans 3:22 and 3:26 can very reasonably be translated as “faith of Christ” (see Chapter 6). Romans 3:21-22 indicates that having the faith of Christ, rather than abiding by the law and its sacrificial practices, is the way to manifest the righteousness of God. Everyone, including believers, continue to sin (Romans 5:23), and nobody merits justification by virtue of works. Justification is a gift, and Jesus Christ was the vehicle for delivering that gift (Romans 5:24).
If we regard Jesus’ death as a self-sacrifice (see Chapter 3), Romans 5:25 takes on a very different meaning from that suggested by substitutionary atonement theology. God called Jesus to show people how to build communities grounded on love rather than on scapegoating and victimization. Jesus chose to accept this destiny, even to the point of death. For Jesus to be faithful to his divine mission, he had to give his blood – which the ancients regarded as the source of life. For Christians, those who have the faith of Christ strive to reflect Jesus’ faithfulness and service to God.
How could Jesus’ death expiate sin? Paul related, “In his [God’s] divine forbearance he has passed over former sins,” indicating that God offers forgiveness for sins without requiring sacrifices. Proponents of substitutionary atonement theology tend to argue that the reason that sacrifices are now unnecessary is that the sacrifice of Jesus ended the need for sacrifices to expiate sin. However, Jesus forgave sins on behalf of God (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20; John 8:11) without sacrificing or harming anyone.
Jesus taught followers how to resist the human tendency to participate in the sins of scapegoating and victimization, and he struggled against the injustices of his day. Likewise, Christians are called to defend those who are vulnerable or victims of injustice, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Sin is not just an individual problem; it is a communal problem. Human sinfulness often reflects our experiences, particularly in childhood, that strongly influence whether or not we will make kind, compassionate choices. Further, we tend to fall into sin when we become gripped by acquisitive mimetic desires, which require other people and occur in the context of community. Finally, we contribute to others’ sinfulness when we are insensitive, callous, or rapacious. While we cannot free ourselves or our communities from sin, Christians can expiate their own past, present and future sins, as well as relieve the sins of their communities, by striving to reflect the faith of Christ. Romans 3:26 concludes that God is righteous and God justifies those who have the faith of Christ – a view that works against the scapegoating process.
This analysis of Romans 3:25 similarly applies to “expiation” of sin in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. Though it is impractical to attempt to address all biblical verses highlighted by proponents of substitutionary atonement theory, I have discussed elsewhere in this book many of the passages often cited by defenders of this theory, such as Genesis 22:13, Isaiah 53:4-5, Romans 6:23, and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Another frequently cited verse is Romans 4:25, which reads, “[Jesus] was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” A Girardian reading that does not involve substitutionary atonement sees Jesus’ death as a consequence of our trespasses – notably our tendency to participate in the scapegoating process. “Raised for our justification” refers to how the Resurrection was a crucial event for Christians becoming right with God (see Chapter 3 of Guided by the Faith of Christ).
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