Jesus Christ: Our Propitiation Displaying the Righteousness of God (Romans 3:25–26)

By | April 18, 2024

Romans 3:21–26 bursts with soteriological fireworks after the dreary darkness of man’s sin and unrighteousness in Rom 1:18–3:20. Though man is unrighteous, guilty of sin, and will therefore face the righteous wrath of God (Rom 1:18–3:20), God declares us righteous through our faith in Jesus Christ who suffered the wrath of God for us (Rom 3:21–26).

Not only are these saving truths enough to light up our sky in and of themselves, but their brilliance stands out all the more when seen against the backdrop of the Old Testament. I’ll focus on just three words in Romans 3:25–26 and try to highlight their glories in light of their background or connection to the Old Testament.

Romans 3:25–26: 25whom 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. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (ESV)


Paul identifies Christ as the One “whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood” (Rom 3:25). “Propitiation” (hilastērion) is used only one other time in the New Testament, translated “mercy seat” in Heb 9:5, the primary word used in the Septuagint to refer to the mercy seat as well (e.g.,Exod 25:17; Lev 16:2). From Exod 25:17–22, 37:1–9, Lev 16:11–15, and Heb 9:5, we learn that this “seat” was a gold-covered slab that sat upon the ark of the covenant behind a veil in the Holy of Holies. The high priest sprinkled blood on it as atonement for himself and Israel once a year. Because this blood appeased the wrath of God (temporarily, while looking ahead to the full satisfaction of God’s wrath in Christ), the notion of “mercy” is in view. Because the Lord is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Ps 80:2; cf. 1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 99:1), two of which were made to sit above the ark (Exod 25:18), some see the notion of this slab being a royal “seat” as well. However, though the Lord would appear over the mercy seat (Lev 16:2; Exod 30:6), its primary purpose involved propitiation, satisfying the wrath of God. The Lord would appear here when the high priest sprinkled it with blood as he offered a sacrifice for himself and the people (Lev 16:1–16).

Now, however, Jesus Christ is our propitiation, the One who has suffered the wrath of God for us. He is not hidden behind a veil for a high priest to access once a year, but rather He is the One whose flesh as a curtain was torn for us, giving us confidence to enter the holy places by His blood (Heb 10:19–20). He Himself is the sacrifice, High Priest, and propitiating mercy seat, all in one!

Put Forward 

Paul’s use of “put forward” (protithēmi) was likely a clever use of an Old Testament word as well. The Septuagint uses this verb and a related noun to describe what the priests would do with the shewbread and the lamp in the tabernacle (Exod 40:4, prothesis; Lev 24:8, protithēmi). These items were to be “put forward” before the Lord in the tabernacle, a place that the priests would regularly see (cf. Lev 24:9).

Speaking of Christ for us, Paul states that He was the One “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom 3:25). Whereas the mercy seat was previously hidden in the Holy of Holies, other objects in the tabernacle were “put forward” for some to see. But now Christ, our “mercy seat” and propitiation, has been put forward by God so that His righteousness is seen by all!

Passing Over

For all the formality that went into the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Old Testament never appeased the wrath of God like Christ did when He shed His blood on the cross. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). During the time before Christ, then, God had not fully dealt with sin. His justice had not yet been on full display by pouring out His wrath upon Christ on the cross. As Paul describes it, the time before the cross was when God “passed over former sins,” thanks to His “divine forbearance” (Rom 3:25).

God lost nothing of His righteousness by not dealing fully with sin in the times before the cross. Rather, He was patient, knowing His wrath would be satisfied in Christ. Now, in “the present time,” God’s righteousness is obvious to all—He gave full justice to sin when Christ died for us and is therefore just in justifying all who believe (Rom 3:26). Our penalty for sin is met in Christ, and our righteousness comes from Him. What a righteous God we serve, and what a loving Savior we have who came to die for us!

Wrapping Up

We have seen that God passed over sins for a time until He put forward a propitiation for us in Jesus Christ. He was patient in previous ages until He would punish sin fully in Jesus Christ. But remember—this is “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:25). Let us make our justification sure, believing in Christ and knowing that God’s wrath against us was satisfied in His Son on the cross.

Photo credit: The Mercy Seat, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible