N.T. Wright On God’s Righteousness And Propitiation

Deservedly or not, many evangelicals have directed ire and criticism towards NT Wright for his exegesis of Romans and Galatians, not least because of his position on the meaning of “the righteousness of God”. Often commentators on Wright will explain he teaches that this phrase represents God’s “covenant faithfulness”, and this is not false. However, what I don’t see mentioned often is that Wright teaches part of God’s covenant faithfulness is his punishing sin. Below are some excerpts from his Romans commentary that bear this out. (It is also clear, despite the negative comments that Wright made about a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement in the Steve Chalke fracas, that he believes Paul teaches this doctrine in Romans 3.):

We may remind ourselves again that the covenant was put in place precisely to deal with sin. Abraham was called so that through his family God might undo the problem of Adam—the problem (in other words) Paul has set out extensively in 1:18-3:20. This is exactly the sequence of that larger logic in which 3:21-4:25 replies to the preceding section. If, then, God has been faithful to the covenant, it must be clear that sins have indeed been dealt with. This is a matter not simply of lawcourt “justice,” but of covenant theology; the latter includes the former and must not be played off against it. God’s creation of a new Jew-plus-Gentile family was the aim; forgiveness of sins the necessary means.

Hence the double statement about the demonstration of God’s righteousness in 3:25b-26, which we may take first in order to give ourselves maximum purchase on the difficult 3:25a. God has put Jewsus forward (see below) in order to display, to prove, to demonstrate that covenant faihtuflness, that saving justice, which would otherwise be called into question (3:1-8). In particular, God had passed over, that is, left unpunished, acts of sin committed in former times. God, it seems (Paul here takes this for granted), had been forbearing, patient, unwilling to foreclose on the human race in general or Israel in particular. Paul had emphasized this in 2:3-6, where the same word is used, and he now refers back to that point. The first question at issue, then—the aspect of God’s righteousness that might seem to have been called into question and is now demonstrated after all—is God’s proper dealing with sins—i.e., punishment. Whatever Paul is saying in the first half of v. 25, it must be such as to lead to the conclusion that now, at last, God has punished sins as they deserved (472-473)

All this may be of help when it comes to the precise meaning of hilasterion. By itself, as we saw, it meant “mercy-seat,” the focal point of the great ritual of the Day of Atonement; and thence, the place and/or means of dealing both with wrath (or punishment) and with sin. Dealing with wrath or punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation. You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, a crime, or stain on your character. Vehement rejection of the former idea in many quarters has led some to insist that only “expiation” is in view here. But the fact remains that in 1:18-3:20 Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness and that despite God’s forbearance this will finally be meted out; that in 5:8, and in the whole promise of 8:1-30, those who are Christ’s are rescued from wrath; and that the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now revealed that righteousness, that saving justice, that causes people to be declared “righteous” even though they were sinners.

The lexical history for the word hilasterion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts. Paul’s context here demands that the word not only retain its sacrificial overtones (the place and means of atonement), but that it carry the note of propitiation of divine wrath—with, of course, the corollary that sins are expiated. (476)