The book of Romans, and “passing over” sin

On what basis do we claim that, in divine forbearance, God made an omission that he now has to put right?

Must God punish all sin? Was he, in effect, storing it up under the Old Covenant until the day that Jesus would be punished for every last sin ever committed?

Let us examine closely the usual ‘go to’ passage presented in support of this argument.

Here is the ‘go to’ passage (in a Literal translation from the Greek):

Rom 3:21-26 And now apart from law hath the righteousness of God been manifested, testified to by the law and the prophets, and the righteousness of God is through the faith of Jesus Christ to all, and upon all those believing, for there is no difference, for all did sin, and are come short of the glory of God being declared righteous freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God did set forth a mercy seat*, through the faith in his blood, for the shewing forth of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God for the shewing forth of His righteousness in the present time, for His being righteous, and declaring him righteous who is of the faith of Jesus. (Youngs Literal Translation)

[* The Mercy Seat, the cover of the Ark, is where God meets man, and from where God speaks his commands (Exodus 25:22, Lev 16:2, Num 7:89). In the Hebrew scriptures the word for “covering” (kapporeth) always relates to this particular part of the ark of the covenant. This was translated in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) as ‘hilasterion’, the same word as is used here in Romans]

It might help to look at the latter part of the passage in this easier version, the New English Translation:

Rom 3:25-26a God publicly displayed him (Christ) at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time…

or, remembering there was no punctuation in the Greek,

Rom 3:25-26a God publicly displayed him (Christ) at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness. Because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed this was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time…

Question 1: “Is there any notion whatsoever of anything lacking or negative about what God has done?”

If we read carefully, we should note that the passage states (positively) that it was in God’s forbearance (patient kindness) that He passed over bygone sins. The question might be clarified:

Is “passing over bygone sins in His forbearance”…

  1.  a deliberate act that God took or
  2.  an omission on God’s part, which God now needs to fix?

Again, when reading carefully, there is no basis for claiming that, in divine forbearance, God failed to do something.

Question 2: Compare with Exodus 12:27. is ‘passing over’ here to be understood as temporary, something to which God would need to return?

Question 3: Compare with 2 Samuel 12:13-14. Is there a sense of incompleteness, that a re-visiting will be needed?

We would propose not.

Righteous then, righteous now:

Often overlooked in this text is the sense that whatever God did in the past it was a demonstration of his righteousness, because he has given us Christ as a mercy seat to also (i.e. in addition) demonstrate his righteousness now.

Rom 3:25-26a “God publicly displayed him (Christ) at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness. Because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed this was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time…

Is not a possible (indeed the most literal) reading that God has opened up a new and permanent way to meet with him (via Christ who is now our ‘Mercy seat’). And that, having passed over bygone sins in his forbearance (a good thing, surely!) God has (in demonstration of the same righteous faithfulness) now repeated that same merciful act once-for-all in Christ, our passover lamb?

In other words, what God did piece-meal under the Old Covenant (in passing over/forgiving particular sins, such as King David’s) he has now done wholeheartedly in Christ. This is, to us, the simplest reading of the underlying Greek.  And even the most obstinate reader  must surely admit that the above is, at the very least, a possible meaning. Agreed?

Selective Interpretation?

Given that our reading above is possible from the original Greek, let us look at the rather particular way verses 25-26 have been ‘translated’ (i.e. interpreted) in the following common versions:

“whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness…”(KJV)

“whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time..” (ESV)

… whom God displayed publicly [before the eyes of the world] as a [life-giving] sacrifice of atonement and reconciliation (propitiation) by His blood [to be received] through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness [which demands punishment for sin], because in His forbearance [His deliberate restraint] He passed over the sins previously committed [before Jesus’ crucifixion]. It was to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time… (Amplified Bible)

Observe how these “translations” all replace the literally accurate ‘mercy seat’ (hilasterion), the place where God communes with his chosen, with ‘propitiation’, a term which assumes there is a hostility on God’s part to be overcome.

[Propitiation is defined as the action of appeasing a god, spirit, or person to obtain or regain favour. It is an inherently pagan concept, and frequently involved human sacrifice among ancient peoples (Aztec, Mayan, Egyptian, Mespotamia etc), not forgetting worship of Molech in the Old Testament]

The NIV fares slightly better here, preferring ‘sacrifice of atonement’ in place of ‘mercy seat’, but then creatively re-interprets God’s purposeful action …

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time…” (NIV)

In declaring former sins ‘unpunished’ the NIV goes further in overstepping the Greek than the KJV’s  declaration that these former sins still need to be ‘remitted’.

Summary

Across all versions, we can see the general change in meaning from, and total overriding of, the simplest literal reading we observed earlier.

We can also observe how they seek to contrast God’s behaviour beforehand versus now. Any underlying continuity in God’s righteousness (faithfulness) in forgiving sins is gone; God must no longer “pass over” sins but must punish them. And God must be propitiated.

We would argue that these ideas cannot be directly supported by the underlying Greek text – that is, they are pure interpretation.

We are not denying that these concepts may not rightfully appear elsewhere, but let us make every effort to allow the original inspired word to speak at face value, rather than enhancing it with our ‘perceived wisdom’ (especially when, ironically, that is then used to promote the very doctrine which biased the interpretation of the text in the first place).

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