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This passage, more than any other, has been relied on as teaching the doctrine, that the righteousness or justice of God stood in the way of pardoning the penitent sinner, and would have rendered forgiveness impossible, had not the Son of God consented to endure for mankind the desert of their iniquities. Perhaps, however, the meaning of the passage has been misunderstood, and the words may be found capable of a meaning not less important, and more to the honor of the divine character.
Instead of “propitiation,” Archbishop Newcome translates,“ mercy-seat," and Dr. Macknight "propitiatory." In a note Dr. M. says," In allusion to this ancient worship,"—of the Israelites," the Apostle represents Christ as the propitiatory or mercy-seat, set forth by God for receiving the worship of men, and dispensing favors.” It then seems that the crucified Messiah, by whose blood the new covenant was ratified, is now the mercy-seat.
This portion of Scripture has long appeared to me to represent that in the death of Christ something was done, some manifestation made, that God might be just in extending pardon to mankind. Such I still believe to have been the fact, but in a different form from what has generally been supposed. Having reflected more on this passage than on any other in the Bible, I shall hazard some thoughts which may possibly lead to a correct interpretation of the Apostle's words.
“ The righteousness of God," when considered as an attribute, is not at variance with mercy ; but one which insures that God will always do right in dispensing his favors; or if by righteousness or justice we mean a rule by which God regulates his own conduct; this rule may be said to require of him such displays of benevolence as are adapt
ed to reconcile sinners to himself, and to forbid whatever would be of the nature of approving sin. But in no part of the Bible have I found that the justice of God ever stood in the way of pardoning the penitent. Under the Old Testament, God revealed himself as gracious and merciful, long-suffering and ever ready to pardon all who would forsake sin and turn to him with contrite hearts. Yet I believe that the justice of God ever did and ever will stand in the way of pardoning the impenitent; for this would be of the nature of approving a sinful character. That this
part of the subject may be set in a true light, let the inquiry be made-What is it in the impenitent sinner which renders his character odious in the sight of God, or such as he cannot approve ? It is not this, that he was an impenitent sinner at some former period of his life, but that he is now an impenitent sinner. The fact that he was of this character, is not a ground for present disapprobation, if he is now a true penitent, a new creature, not what he was, but what God requires him to be. The same disposition in God which abhorred what he was, approves what he is, so far as he has become a reformed man; and the same justice which stood in the way of forgiveness while he remained an impenitent sinner, now requires that, as a penitent, he should be forgiven. Hence
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This text clearly teaches that faithfulness and justice, as well as mercy, are displayed in the pardon of sin.
To effect then the reconciliation and cleansing of the sinner, was the one thing needsul to be done, that God might be just in justifying him; and this was the great
for which the Messiah was sent into the world the purpose for which he was 6 set forth
as a mercyseat—the purpose of his ministry and example—his life and his death.
When it shall have been considered how clearly Christ's suffering for us is represented as an expression not merely of his love, but of the love of God to mankind, it must appear remarkable, that it ever became a popular doctrine, that the "wrath of God” was displayed in that event, against his Son as our substitute. Especially so, when it shall also have been considered how very few are the passages of Scripture which even seem to suggest that idea, and what a multitude of passages may be brought which clearly teach a contrary doctrine. But perhaps my own experience may aid in accounting for such a phenomenon. In regard to the passage under consideration, I suspect the incorrect meaning which has long been given to the words atonement or propitiation, has had much influence in misleading the minds of men. I am confident it was so with myself. I was educated in the belief that Christ suffered for us “the wrath of God," and that it was thus that he made atonement or propitiation for our sins. Hence, when I saw either of those words, it suggested the idea of avenging justice, as readily as the word murder suggested the idea of violently taking human life. But nothing, as I now conceive, can be farther from the true meaning of atonement or propitiation, than avenging justice or vicarious punishment. The two words are of similar import. To propitiate is to reconcile or to make overtures of peace. Hence propitiation is a reconciling sacrifice. Propitiatory is something adapted to reconcile or intended for that purpose
something on which, from which, in which, by which, or through which, overtures of peace are made. Hence the Apostle represents Christ as " set forth ” as a propitiatory or mercy-seat, in, from, or through which, God might manifest his righteous and merciful disposition towards men, by doing what love could do to reconcile sinners to himself—and to cleanse them from their sins. If we read the passage under review with such a meaning to the word propitiatory or propitiation, how little is seen in it of avenging justice! Indeed what do we behold in it but unmingled displays of reconciling and forgiving love ?
It will perhaps be said, that the advocates for vicarious punishment admit that propitiation means a reconciling sacrifice. This may be true; but they attach to that meaning the “ wrath of God," endured by Christ as our substitute-which, in my opinion, no more belongs to the word propitiation, than it does to the word mercy, or mercyseat. What has wrath or avenging justice to do with making pacific overtures, or reconciling sacrifices?
The preceding paragraphs of this chapter have been written without calling in question the correctness of the common belief in regard to the meaning of the phrase, “ his righteousness," meaning the righteousness of God, which twice occurs in the controverted passage. My aim has been to show, that, even admitting the phrase to mean the attribute of righteousness in the divine character, the text does not teach that the righteousness of God stood in the way of pardoning the penitent, so as to render vicarious suffering necessary to salvation. The subject will be further discussed in the next chapter, and a further attempt will be made to show, that the meaning of the passage has been greatly misapprehended.
The Propitiatory-and the Righteousness of God-or After
Thoughts on Rom. iii. 24, 25, 26.
The import of the passage-which was the subject of inquiry in the preceding chapter, depends much on the meaning of the word that has been variously translated "propitiation,” “ propitiatory,” and “mercy-seat,” and the meaning of the phrase "the righteousness of God," as used by the Apostle.
As the word variously translated is the same which in the Old Testament is rendered “mercy-seat," there can be no doubt that was the Mosaic mercy-seat to which Paul alluded, in representing Christ as having been "set forth" by God as a propitiatory or mercy-seat. We have then to inquire, what was the use of the ancient mercy-seat? After God had directed Moses how to form the mercy-seat, he proceeded to say :
“ Thou shalt put the mercy-seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee; and there I will meet with thee and commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I shall give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel."
Exod. xxv. 21, 22. This passage represents the mercy-seat as a place of God's special presence—the seat of merciful manifestations—the medium of communication between a holy God and a guilty people from which God gave instructions to Moses for the benefit of the sons of Israel,