21 But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. 22 God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. 23 All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, 24 but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. 25 Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, 26 during the time of God’s patient tolerance. He also did this to demonstrate that he is righteous in the present time, and to treat the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous.
Jesus is not a “ransom” paid by God to redeem us from slavery to sin, a market place metaphor (v.24), Paul also says he is the “mercy seat” (“the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood”), a cultic metaphor (v.25). Freedom and forgiveness – the two-pronged atoning work of God in Jesus Christ.
Forgiveness we are pretty clear about. Based on Jesus’ death on the cross signaling his life of love and loyalty offered to God, he is or mercy seat. Jesus is the place, like the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the temple, where the sacrifice of atonement is offered for the sins of all the people. There we are cleansed by Jesus’ sacrificial blood. Even sins past, which God “overlooked” in the time of his “Patient tolerance” find their cleansing here (v.26).
Forgiveness takes care of who we have become by repeating without exception our first parents’ choice to live by themselves, for themselves, and by their own strength. Cleansed from that guilt and shame, we are free. But free for what?
Free to be “righteous” according to Paul (v.26). Now that may not seem terribly appealing if being righteous means to us legalistic priggery focused more on sniffing out someone else’s fun and stopping it! But Paul has already defined righteous or righteousness in terms of God’s passion for right relationships, i.e. justice. So the freedom we experience in Christ is not a freedom to do whatever we want. That’s not freedom anyway, just another form of slavery. No, the freedom for which we have been ransomed is the freedom to be like God, passionate for right relations in every sphere of life. This freedom is not merely an inner freedom nor only something we find through involvement in the world but one that envelopes the whole of our lives as we journey through our world.
Paul’s use of the two images of ransom (“freedom”) and “mercy seat” (forgiveness) must be held together. We in the West have too often focused on the latter as the almost exclusive concern of atonement. As a result the freedom we have been gifted with as frequently been
-left vague and undefined,
-often spiritualized and relegated to our inner life, and
-deprioritized by a focus on heaven and life after death.
This imbalance accounts, in my judgment, for much of weakness and ineffectiveness of the church’s witness in our North American setting. A more careful reading of Paul (not to mention Jesus!) can help remedy this failing.