Home > The Article of Justification > Hilasterion and “being free indeed”

Hilasterion and “being free indeed”

This following post won’t make sense to you if you don’t know a little greek.  At least the first part won’t.  I’m writing it in hopes that someone who knows me and also understands greek well can explain it to me.  But they probably won’t.  The second part is about John 8:35-36.  Both of these questions are about the readings for Reformation day, and probably both have been questions I’ve thought about before.  Unfortunately even if someone does answer I won’t be able to use it because my sermon has to be finished in a little under an hour.

    HILASTERION.  My lexicon says that this word is hardly ever used in profane greek and that in the LXX it always refers to the mercy seat.  If that is so, then what is Paul saying?  Is it: God set Jesus forth as a mercy seat–a place where He meets us graciously instead of in wrath–“when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins”?  Or does it have another sense?  When I hear “mercy seat” I simply think of the covering; but without the blood poured on it sin is not atoned for.  But if seems like Paul is saying that Jesus is a mercy seat with the blood poured out and is received by those who have faith in His shed blood.  But to be honest Paul’s wording of this was always kind of confusing to me.


Secondly, I’ve always been confused by what Jesus is saying in the last verses of the Gospel for Sunday. 

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the wson remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  John 8:35-36

Okay, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Understood (although, perhaps shocking to the people to whom Jesus spoke.)  The slave does not remain in the house forever….okay, why?  Slaves go sleep in slave quarters at night?  But of course, sons leave the house too, occasionally.  Slaves aren’t really a part of the household?  That’s probably more like it–they can be sold.  If the master dies they don’t inherit (although in Rome I think masters often gave slaves their freedom when the masters died.)  Or slaves could be freed.  Then they were no longer members of the household–they were free to go start their own life. 

That’s what doesn’t make sense about this.  Usually when Jesus starts talking about the Son and the house you figure He’s talking about Himself and the Father’s house.  But if you’re a slave in the Father’s house, it would follow that when the Son makes you free, you take off. 

On the other hand, Jesus says that those who sin are slaves to sin.  Perhaps that is the point, but if it is, I’ve never heard it explained.  I’ve heard the “slaves to sin” part, that’s obvious.  But if I am a slave to sin, and not a son in the house of sin, that means I wouldn’t abide in the house of sin forever.  And then it would need to be “the son” in that house–the house of sin–that sets me free.  But Jesus is not that son; so what does that mean?  The devil lets me go? 

Or perhaps its this.  Earlier Jesus said: If you continue in my teaching, you are truly my disciples.  And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Clearly the Son in verses 35-36 has to be Jesus, who is also the truth.  Then the verses would seem to say: If you don’t abide in my word, you are not truly my disciples ( or my elect), because those who are truly my elect persevere in my word and faith until the end.  Everyone who does sin is a slave to sin [could it be that by saying “does sin”–the greek–Jesus is referring to sins against conscience, mortal sin?  Christians, though the flesh works to enslave them–Rom. 7–are not under sin as their master–Rom. 6–because they are not under law but under grace.  I think this is right.  1 John says repeatedly that those who are in Christ do not sin.  The meaning seems to be that sin dwells in us–as Paul says–and it fights to bring us into captivity.  But sin does not rule us.  Christians do not sin willingly and against conscience.]

So everyone who is under the law sins; Christians are not under law, but under grace, and they do not sin consciously and are thus not slaves of sin. (In the flesh we are,but the sin that lives in the flesh is not imputed to us who live by faith in Christ.)  Jesus says: If you abide in my word, you will be free indeed–you will be free of sin and death and abide in the house of the Father forever.  However, slaves of sin may abide outwardly in the church for awhile.  Their bodies are there, but they are not sons, but slaves.  But they will not abide into eternal life. 

That’s what I think it says after thinking it out while writing.  But I’d appreciate commentary.  This just goes to show that we Lutheran pastors don’t read the Bible or the Confessions or Lutheran theologians nearly enough.  The only reason those verses from 1 John (and here) about “those who are born of God don’t sin” make sense to me and don’t terrify me [at least they don’t always terrify me] is because of reading Chemnitz’ Loci Theologici in seminary on “mortal and venial sin”.  He explains those passages there. 

Thanks be to God, too, that when the sinful flesh succeeds in dragging us into sins against our conscience–willful sins against the ten commandments–we do not have to despair.  “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  He is the propitiation/mercy seat (hilasterion) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  1 John 2:1-2

It’s interesting that that verse from 1 John is the only other place in the New Testament besides Romans 3 where the word hilasterion–“propitiation” or “mercy seat”–appears.

  1. October 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Hi Karl,

    Too late, I’m sure, but… You’re right, the Greek of Romans 3:21-26 is quite challenging, and Luther’s German isn’t a piece of cake, either.

    However, Hilasterion is indeed the “Mercy Seat,” or I like better, “Throne of Grace.” It is the seat – the place where God is propitiated, where his wrath is satisfied (because of the blood – which represents the whole obedient life and death of Christ). Apart from faith in the Throne of Grace, all men are still under the Law. I think Chemnitz describes Paul’s message in Romans 3 very well here: http://www.intrepidlutherans.com/2011/10/chemnitz-and-two-tribunals-fitting.html

    I don’t have my Greek in front of me, but are you sure it’s “hilasterion” in 1 John 2:2? I thought it was just “hilasmos,” which is slightly different. But I’d have to check. Hilasmos would be “propitiation” itself – that which satisfies God’s rigtheous wrath.

  2. October 30, 2011 at 6:33 am

    See, a simple visit to a greek dictionary would probably have been faster than writing that post. Thanks for the response, Paul. I think you’re correct on 1 Jn. 2:2 also.

    But still I’m wondering what the sense of “a throne of grace through faith in His blood”. Surely faith in the blood does not make Jesus a throne of grace.

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