Paul tells us that when the fullness of time came (Gal 4:4), God showed His Son publicly dying as a means of reconciliation, as an answer to questions, to be grasped by faith. The death of Christ was to demonstrate God’s own righteousness. For in His divine forbearance He had seemingly overlooked men’s former sins. The death of Christ was to show that God Himself is righteous and therefore can set right those who have faith in His Son. What I have just said is based on Romans 3:25-26 although I used some different English words:
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: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (KJV).
Now there is a difficult word in there, “propitiation.” Propitiation in English generally means appeasement, and that is a most regrettable translation. Propitiation is what you husbands may offer your wives when you promised to be home on your anniversary at 6 p.m. to take your wife out to dinner, and now its 11 PM and you’ve just remembered. So on the way home you find an all-night florist shop and you buy some flowers and some chocolates and whatever else you can lay your hands on. As you approach the front door with some trepidation, you open it and hand the flowers and the chocolates in. You are trying to propitiate the righteous wrath of your deeply disappointed wife. That’s propitiation; that’s appeasement.
In Romans 3, the word translated “propitiation” is “hilastêrion.” In the Old Testament, that is generally the Greek word used for the “mercy seat” on the ark of the covenant. Actually, the Bible does not mention the idea of “mercy seat;” Luther made that up. When Luther looked at the Hebrew word used for the cover of the ark, he found that it means a “covering.” So he translated the covering “Mercy Seat” or in the old German, “Gnadstuhl” (now written “Gnadenstuhl”).
Luther first did this in l524. Then in l525 Luther’s friend Tyndale brought that translation over into English and several versions followed him. So that’s where “mercy seat” came from. The cover of the ark was never called the mercy seat until the early Sixteenth Century. But considering some of the options, it was not a bad choice. It’s just a pity that our King James Version uses mercy seat in Exodus (Exod 25:17-22; 26:34, etc.) and also in Hebrews 9:5, but does not use mercy seat in Romans 3:25-26. Instead, it uses propitiation. I think mercy seat would have been much closer to Paul’s intention. For the Greek word hilastêrion means literally “a place or means of reconciliation;” a place where unity and at-one-ment take place. And so I ventured my own translation of this passage.
For God showed him publicly dying as a means of reconciliation to be taken advantage of by faith. This was to demonstrate God’s own righteousness, for in His divine forbearance He had apparently overlooked men’s former sins. It was to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, to show that He Himself is righteous and that He sets right everyone who trusts in Jesus (Rom 3:25-26, Maxwell).
Jesus died to answer the questions about His Father and to prove that God was not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be. So when Paul talks in the above text about God apparently overlooking men’s former sins, it means that people hadn’t died as God had warned in the Garden. So one purpose of the cross is to show that God had not lied about sin leading to death. He sent His Son to answer those kinds of questions.