Piling It On
When I was a kid, we played a game called “pile on.” Someone tackled somebody else and yelled “Pile on!” Everyone else then ran and jumped on top of the pile until the poor kid at the bottom of the stack cried “Uncle!” Lots of fun. Most of the time.
As adults, I notice many people playing a different version of the “pile on” game. In this rendition, good impressions are attempted through the insincere piling on of loads of compliments or niceties. At other times, we shame someone by piling on the contempt, the ridicule, the list of their mistakes and problems. Not so much fun. Ever.
And then there is the version used in debate or in the courtroom. Here, a victory is sought by making a case that is airtight, usually through a process of piling on the arguments – point after point, sub-point after sub-point, until the case seems irrefutable.
The Apostle Paul knows something of this rhetorical tactic. He often will pile on the analogies or the scripture references, or he will chronicle the history, until the reader is too overwhelmed to think through a counter-argument. Even when counter-arguments might be made, Paul always seems to anticipate them, and he then lays out a defense in advance.
But as for piling on to make the case, consider the example from chapter three of Paul's letter to the Roman church (Romans 3:21-26 in particular). Paul is asserting that sinners can be declared righteous before God not because of any works of theirs that earn them merit, but because of their faith in what God has given for us in Christ Jesus. To show the sufficiency of Christ, Paul uses three terms – 'justified', 'redemption', and 'propitiation' (as translated in the ESV) – that provide three vivid corresponding analogies from the law court, from the slave market, and from the sacrificial rites of the temple. These are powerful words, so Paul is piling it on thick here.
Justified. This is a legal term for being declared righteous in the eyes of the court. It is to be acquitted before the bar of judgment. “But we're guilty, of course, so how does that work,” someone might ask. Existentially, objectively, we are guilty as sinners. But when a sinner casts himself or herself upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, it as if the perfect righteousness that belongs to Christ is wrapped around us. As Paul would put it, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Or even more directly, we have put on Christ. God sees us in His beloved Son. And as for the penalties due us for our breaches of God's law, those were taken on by our Lord Jesus on the Cross of his passion. God considers all penalties and fines, all debts and dues to have been paid in full – again, by Jesus. As far as divine justice is concerned, those who have appropriated the work of Christ by faith are justified. They have a right standing with God.
Redemption. This term and its corresponding image is drawn from the slave market. It is to be sought out in our miserable condition, bought, and set free from our bondage. The best biblical picture of this is found in the Old Testament book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea had a strange calling to fulfill. God told him to take a wife of harlotry so that she would eventually play the prostitute while married to Hosea and their relationship would be a prophetic picture of Israel's unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. Gomer was her name, and her follies eventually landed her as a slave. Hosea was called again to do the unthinkable. God told him to buy her back, to redeem her, to rescue her from her bondage, and to heal her with his love. Another picture of God's purposes for sinful mankind in His Son. Redemption.
Propitiation. Now there's a big, fancy word for you. Hard to translate. At a simple level it could be understood as satisfaction – to consider a matter settled, whatever wrongs done to have been taken care of. But a better translation would be to say that God has put forward Jesus as our mercy seat. The mercy seat was the top of the ark of the covenant, located behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) in the tabernacle and (later) the temple. Once a year (and only on one day of the year) on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest (and only the High Priest) would enter behind the curtain (and not without blood) to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat for the atonement of the sins of the people. And God was satisfied. But Jesus, as our Great High Priest, has entered into the true temple of God's presence (the earthly tabernacle and temple were shadowy copies of the heavenly reality), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with His own blood. This was a one-time once-for-all event and Christ has now sat down at the right hand of God (the earthly priests continually stood to offer sacrifice again and again). And God is satisfied. Propitiation.
There you have it. Forgiveness and pardon, deliverance and freedom, atonement. All this is given freely by God's grace in Jesus Christ. Paul has piled on the metaphors, but God in true fact has piled on grace upon grace. Because He loves us.
Dare any of us turn away from so great a salvation?