If you were asked (quite unfairly!) to decide whether the Old Testament or the New Testament was the more important part of the Bible, you may well decide in favor of the NT. And if the questions continued:
“Who is the most important author in the NT?” Paul.
“And Paul’s most important letter?” Romans.
“And the most important section of Romans?” Romans 1–8.
“And the most important chapter within Romans 1–8?” Chapter 3.
“And the most important section within chapter 3?” Verses 21–26.
“And the most important verse within 3:21–26?” Verse 25.
“And the most important word within verse 25?” Hilastērion.
In a nutshell, the theme of Romans 3:21–26 is “the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v. 24b) or “a righteousness before God that comes from God apart from the law” (v. 21a). The challenge of verse 25a is how best to translate three expressions.
The first is proetheto. A literal rendering such as “(God) set before himself” or “proposed” makes the action too personal, as if God were simply engaged in an individual drama. The verb depicts a public exhibition, open for all to see, so that the NASB rendering “displayed publicly” is apt. Both here and in Galatians 3:1 (“Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified”), the emphasis rests on the clear and vivid verbal portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion or sacrifice of atonement as being at the heart of the gospel.
The second is hilastērion. In Greek and Roman usage, the term refers to a propitiatory gift or votive offering given to a deity as a way of regaining the deity’s goodwill. The distinctive element in the NT is the fact that God himself takes the initiative in removing the obstacle to reconciliation—human sin.
In the first use of hilastērion in the Greek Bible (Exod 25:17), it describes as “atoning” the lid of pure gold on the ark of the covenant in the most holy place. This cover was the “place of atonement,” where the high priest sprinkled blood to atone for the sins of the people on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur) once a year (Lev 16:13–16). This accounts for translating hilastērion as “mercy seat” in the KJV (following Tyndale, and Luther’s translation Gnadenstuhl) of Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5 (the only two uses of the word in the NT).
From a grammatical point of view, in Romans 3:25 hilastērion could be an adjective (“atoning”) with thyma (“sacrifice”) understood; thus “a sacrifice of atonement” (NIV and NRSV). If, as in Hebrews 9:5, it is a neuter noun, the sense will be “means of expiation” or “place of propitiation” (the renderings in the principal NT Greek lexicon, with the former preferred in Rom 3:25), or “propitiatory sacrifice” (in the principal two-volume commentary on the Greek text of Romans).
In English, “propitiate” means “make gentle in manner,” and “expiate” means “make amends for.” Behind propitiation is the NT concept of the wrath of God. Expiation involves the removal of sin through sacrifice. God is propitiated and sin is expiated; propitiation is through expiation. In other words, God’s wrath against sin was averted when he provided Jesus Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice to remove sin. Is not hilastērion the most important word in the Bible—if we must choose?
The third expression is en tō autou haimati, “in/by his own blood.” This phrase immediately follows “through faith” in the Greek word order. Some translations reverse the order and make both phrases dependent on hilastērion: “a propitiation in His blood through faith” (NASB), “a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (NRSV). It is preferable to retain the Greek word order, “through faith in his blood,” as in the KJV and NIV. It is true that in Paul’s writings the word “faith” (pistis) is normally followed by a person and the genitive case, as in verses 22 and 26, not by a preposition (here “in”). But the difficulty is eased if we recognize Paul’s shorthand in both these phrases: “a propitiatory sacrifice accomplished by the shedding of his (Christ’s) blood and effective through (the believer’s) faith (in Jesus Christ, vv. 22, 26).”
In the second part of verse 25, Paul goes on to observe that the purpose of God’s provision of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice was to demonstrate his justice or righteous character that needed vindication, because in his patience (not his indifference) God had refrained from exacting the full and proper penalty for acts of sin committed in the time before the cross.
This post is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris (Lexham Press, 2020).