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John 1:36 King James Version (KJV) 36 And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

No one seems bewildered by this designation. Was it an idiom, a recognized concept in second temple Judaism? I can't find it anywhere else in the Bible.

  • 1
    John the Baptist is introducing the term (Lamb of God) and he is also defining the term (which taketh away the sin of the world). John the Apostle later (in the Apocalypse) further defines the term (The Lamb) and enlarges the concept (The Lamb's wife). – Nigel J May 18 '18 at 11:57
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The Passover Lamb
Conceptually, the Passover Lamb makes sense. It is chosen, without blemish, killed (and eaten) on the Passover, and it's blood is used to make the sign which will cause the house to be passed over. All of these would apply to Jesus. However, textually the Passover Lamb (ἀρήν) is different from the Lamb (ἀμνός) of God:

GNT: καὶ ἐμβλέψας τῷ Ἰησοῦ περιπατοῦντι λέγει ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (John 1:36)

GNT: τῇ ἐπαύριον βλέπει τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτόν καὶ λέγει ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου (John 1:29)

LXX: λάλησον πρὸς πᾶσαν συναγωγὴν υἱῶν Ισραηλ λέγων τῇ δεκάτῃ τοῦ μηνὸς τούτου λαβέτωσαν ἕκαστος πρόβατον κατ᾽ οἴκους πατριῶν ἕκαστος πρόβατον κατ᾽ οἰκίαν
(Exodus 12:3)

LXX: πρόβατον τέλειον ἄρσεν ἐνιαύσιον ἔσται ὑμῖν ἀπὸ τῶν ἀρνῶν καὶ τῶν ἐρίφων λήμψεσθε (Exodus 12:5)

In the Greek translation of Exodus, the animal is first called a sheep (πρόβατον) and then a lamb (ἀρνῶν). Based on the LXX the Lamb (ἀμνὸς) of God as called by John is not the Passover Lamb and it unlikely those hearing John's proclamation would connect Jesus with the Passover Lamb.

This purposeful "disconnect" with the Passover Lamb is maintained by Paul:

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (1 Corinthians 5:7) [NKJV]

Some translations add the ellipsis "Lamb" yet the literal is simply Passover.

The Suffering Servant
If we assume John's use of is grounded in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, then most uses of lamb may be eliminated as they refer to lambs (plural) and in the context of other animals. There are two singular uses to which John could be referring:1

in which he was consecrated to the Lord, all the days of his vow; and he shall bring a lamb of a year old for a trespass-offering; and the former days shall not be reckoned, because the head of his vow was polluted. (Numbers 6:12)

And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: [+] he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

The use in Numbers in the context of the Nazarite, is applicable but oblique. The more obvious choice is the one from Isaiah which comes in the context of the suffering servant.

This is keeping with another New Testament use of "lamb/ἀμνός" which explicitly connects Jesus to the passage in Isaiah:

So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this:

“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.”

So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. (Acts 8:30-35)

Given the sequence of events which follow John's proclamation of Jesus as "The Lamb of God" it would appear there was an understanding (at least by some) that the passage in Isaiah was associated with the Messiah:

And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ). (John 1:36-41)


1. Hosea 4:16 is also singular, but would not be considered to be the Lamb of God: " For Israel was maddened like a mad heifer: now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a wide place." Also the Apostolic Polygot has a singular lamb at Isaiah 16:1: "I will send a male lamb lording over the land; [2not 9rock 8a desolate 1is 3the 4mountain 5of the 6daughter 7of Zion]?" This use does not appear to be consistent with John's Lamb who takes away the sin of the world."

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One possibility is that Jesus is being compared to the Paschal sacrifice, which was a lamb (Exodus 12:3). Significantly for this interpretation, John records Jesus' crucifixion as having happened on the day of preparation for Passover at about noon (John 19:14), which was the same day the Passover was to be sacrificed (Exodus 12:6). John makes a further parallel when he says that Jesus' bones weren't broken in order to fulfill the verse regarding the Passover sacrifice which says that no bone should be broken in it (Exodus 12:46; John 19:36). The comparison between Jesus and the Passover sacrifice is quite clearly a theme in John's gospel. The comparison of Jesus to the Paschal lamb is also made by Paul (I Corinthians 5:7). From Wikipedia's article on Lamb of God, I take this to be the dominant interpretation.

Another interpretation (which I have seen mentioned only in passing in Raymond Brown's book on the Johannine community) is that the name "Lamb of God" is a reference to Isaiah 53:7:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (NRSV)

The entire passage in Isaiah was interpreted Christologically from an early time, including by John (Acts 8:32; Romans 10:16, 15:21; Matthew 8:17; John 12:38). Comparing Jesus to Isaiah's "lamb led to slaughter" is thus consistent with this tradition of interpretation.

One point I could make in favor of the second interpretation: John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God for the first time when he says: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). If the reference were to a Paschal sacrifice, the connection to taking away the sin of the world is puzzling. The sacrifices in the Pentateuch refer consistently to bulls, goats, and other animals for atonement (e.g. Leviticus 4), but never lambs. The symbolism of a sin-offering is lost with a lamb. On the other hand, if the reference is to the servant who is led to slaughter in Isaiah, the reference to taking away the sin of the world is understood, since Isaiah himself makes the connection to a sin-offering in 53:10 (the word אָשָׁם can mean either "sin" or a type of sin-offering).

Whatever the case, while the image of a lamb being led to slaughter certainly existed in Jewish literature (the above verse in Isaiah as well as Psalms 44:23), "Lamb of God" was certainly not a common idiom, and in fact it seems to have been coined by the author of John's gospel.

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I think the differences between various arguments are more apparent than real. It is true that Jesus was the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) but He was much more. It is also true that we are saved entirely by Jesus' faithfulness (Rom 3:22, 26, Gal 2:16, 3:22, Rev 14:12; note the genitive, "pistis Iesou"). But there is much more. There have traditionally been numerous theories about what the atonement actually means and how to understand it, including, “Moral Influence Theory”, “Ransom Theory”, “Christus Victor”, “Satisfaction/Substitution Theory”, “Penal Substitution”, “Governmental Theory”, “Scapegoat Theory”, etc . Most of these are helpful (and contain truth) in some ways but all have two serious problems:

  • Each focusses on (or emphasises) only one or two aspects of the atonement to the neglect of the others. That is, each one simplifies the more comprehensive divine plan of atonement.
  • Each amounts to a form of Platonism which is foreign to the Bible – they create a “back-story” to explain Bible material that is unnecessary.

It is much better to accept that the Bible provides a very rich set of metaphors for the atonement to suit different understandings and situations. There is no single Biblical word or idea that encompasses all that is involved in atonement; however, several analogues (or metaphors) are employed to show God’s intent because none conveys the full meaning of God’s atonement. All illustrate another aspect of the operation of free grace and how a perfectly just and holy God deals with the abhorrence of sin and its consequences. These include:

  • Christ’s robe of righteousness provided a covering to hide the sinner’s wretched state. Job 29:14, Ps 132:9, Isa 11:5, 59:17, 61:10, 64:6, Zech 3:4, 5, Matt 22:1-14 (wedding garment parable), Rev 3:4, 6:11, 7:9, 19:8. This robe is a counterpoint to the “filthy rags” of Isa 64:6 and Zech 3:4, and immediately and completely hides them.
  • The Greek verb “aphiemi”, to forgive or give remission, means (literally) to send forth or send away. It is used of sins in Matt 9:2, 5, 6, 12:31, 32, 26:28, Mark 14:24, Acts 8:22, Rom 4:7, James 5:12, 1 John 1:9, 2:12, etc. That is, our sins are sent away or banished. See also Mark 3:29, Acts 5:31, 13:38, 26:18, Eph 1:7, Col 1:14. Again, Jesus accomplished this great work on the cross.
  • Propitiation or expiation (Greek: “hilasterion”) denotes the act of appeasing a deity by sacrifice to incur divine favour (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). Thus, Jesus’ sacrifice is described as propitiation in Rom 3:25 and 1 John 2:2. These are direct references to the same word used in the Septuagint in Ex 25:17-22 (and repeated in Heb 9:5) where the “atonement cover” or “mercy seat” of the Ark of the Covenant is described. That is, the covering of the Ark provided both atonement and mercy at the same time! See also 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Pet 3:18. Thus, Jesus is correctly described as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29).
  • Justify and Justification (Greek cognate root: “dike”) means to pronounce righteous or acquit and is obviously a legal term. Paul, in Romans, tells us that God has freely justified all sinners (Rom 3:23-27) and that this occurred while we were still sinners (Rom 5:5, 8, 9) by His death on the cross. This “declaring right” is clearly what God does and is His initiative and something that cannot be earned (Rom 3:20). In Gal 2:16 we are emphatically told that we are justified by trusting God and not by works of the law. See “Election” for more information. It is often used inter-changeably with “Credit”, see below.
  • The Bible also uses the idea of Jesus’ death being a kind of penal substitutionary execution to satisfy the requirements of “the law”; thus, His death was an essential part of our salvation. Isa 53:5, 6, 11, 12, Matt 20:28, Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 1:4, 3:13, Heb 9:15. Again, the extent to which this is literally true is highly debated – is it only a metaphor to demonstrate God’s great love and grace? Or did Jesus’ death actually change something about God’s attitude to us (recall that Jesus is also God!) Obviously Jesus’ death did not change God’s mind because God gave His Son and God did not give something in order to change His own mind! Jesus death was to demonstrate His justice (Rom 3:22-28).
  • In Rev 12:7-10 the process that leads to atonement is depicted as a war which Jesus wins. His victory obtains atonement for mankind (Col 2:15, 1 Peter 3:22). In this warfare, sinners are God’s enemies that He must capture in the war (Rom 5:10). This metaphor is extended for the Christian life (Eph 6:10-17, 1 Thess 5:8) with “the armour of God”.
  • “Credit”, “account”, “imputed”, or “reckoned” (Greek: logizomai) is a financial or accounting term used in the market place but was employed by Paul to denote the act of God in crediting Abraham (and sinners generally) as righteous when they trusted in God, apart from the works of the law, as a free gift. The idea is based upon the assumption that sin creates a debt to God which must be repaid (Col 2:13-15, Matt 6:12). Again, it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech and so is not literally true. (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24, 2 Cor 5:19, Gal 3:6, James 2:23. (See also Gen 15:6.) That is, the righteousness of God is “imputed” to the underserving sinner, freely. Thus, God “cancels the debt” (Matt 18:21-35).
  • “Gift” is used to convey the idea that atonement is absolutely free and the initiative of God. Rom 4:4, 5:15-17, 6:23, 2 Cor 9:14, 15, Eph 2:8, 3:7, Heb 6:4.
  • Redemption, Ransom, or most correctly, Manumission: Two Greek words are translated “redeem” (“exagerazo” and “lutroo”) with almost exactly equivalent meanings. Both speak of Christ redeeming sinners as slaves (Luke 1:68, 24:21) by paying a ransom (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45, 1 Tim 2:6, Heb 9:15), but, Scripture is silent about to whom the manumission fee was paid (it is only an analogue, metaphor or figure of speech!). 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23, Gal 3:13, 4:5, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 1:18, Rev 5:9. This manumission idea emphasises God’s free gift of salvation because both Greek verbs were commonly used to buy freedom for a slave or hostage, without any contribution of the slave. Perhaps the most touching example of redemption is contained in the enacted parable of Hosea and Gomer – see Hosea 3:1-3. The New Testament also presents several things from which the sinner needs freedom: (a) Freedom from the devil, Heb 2:14, 15, (b) Freedom from death, 1 Cor 15:56, 57, (c) Freedom from the power of sin that enslaves, Rom 6:22 (d) Freedom from the condemnation of the law, Rom 3:19-24, Gal 3:13, 4:5
  • Reconciliation describes the process of reuniting an estranged family member. It is predicated on two Biblical assumptions that (a) Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11-13, Ps 22:22, Isa 8:17, 18, Matt 12:48, 49, John 20:17, Rom 8:29), and (b) sin separates us from Jesus our brother (Isa 59:2, Gal 5:4, Eph 2:12, Ps 22:1, Eze 14:5, Jer 6:8). Reconciliation is found in only a few places but they, again, emphasise that atonement is God’s initiative without any input from us. In 2 Cor 5:18, 19 we find that Christ reconciled the world to Himself by “not counting our sins against us”. Rom 5:10, 11 teaches that sinners were reconciled to God by Christ’s death. Further, a comparison with v9 shows that justification and reconciliation are used in parallel.
  • Rescue (save): The Greek verb, “sozo” means literally to rescue or deliver from danger (Matt 8:25, Mark 13:20, Luke 23:35, John 12:27, 1 Tim 2:15, 2 Tim 4:18). Thus, when the New Testament discusses salvation, it is using the figure of someone in immanent mortal danger being rescued by a “rescuer” (Acts 2:47, 16:31, Rom 8:24, Eph 2:5, 8, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Tim 19, Titus 3:5, etc). This a perfect figure of our relationship with Jesus who delivers us from the danger of sin (Phil 2:12) and eternal loss (Rom 13:11, 1 Thess 5:8, 9 2 Thess 2:13, Heb 1:14, 9:28, 1 Peter 1:5, 2 Peter 3:15, etc). See also Eph 6:17 where salvation is described as a helmet to protect from spiritual danger. This figure also emphasises that salvation must come from outside the person.
  • The absolving of sin is sometimes represented as a “washing away” of sin, or “cleansing”. Lev 16:30, Num 19:9, Ps 51:2, 7, 10, Isa 4:4, Eze 36:25, Zech 13:1, 1 Cor 6:10, Eph 5:26, 1 John 1:7, 9. The practice of Baptism is built on this vivid metaphor and thus depicted as washing away of sin (Acts 22:16) as well as death to the old life and resurrection to a new life in Christ.
  • Adoption can also be a figure of atonement. In this case the metaphor serves both as a figure of the change of life and of the privileges of being adopted into a “royal” family of God.

It will be readily observed that these metaphors often overlap, and, more than one is used in some passages. Thus, it often appears that Bible writers struggled to express an abstract idea in more concrete terms using multiple metaphors.

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In what sense is Jesus a "lamb" and how is that associated with "taking away the sin of the world"?

John 1:29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

The common interpretation of this passage is to understand John to be describing Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, who, by vicariously suffering God's wrath, removes the sins of believers (or, in the case of Calvinists, of the "elect").

This is way off target.

First of all, the sin of the world was not removed when Jesus died. The death of Jesus was associated with the new covenant, which was made with the houses of Israel and Judah and did involved forgiveness of sins. But it was the covenant that provided for the forgiveness of sins while the death was the ratification of the covenant. So the concept of "God's lamb" would not be associated with sacrifice for sins in the minds of John or his contemporaries:

KJV Heb 10:5  Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:  Heb 10:6  In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.  Heb 10:7  Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.  Heb 10:8  Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;  Heb 10:9  Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.  Heb 10:10  By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  Heb 10:11  And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:  Heb 10:12  But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;  Heb 10:13  From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.  Heb 10:14  For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.  Heb 10:15  Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before,  Heb 10:16  This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;  Heb 10:17  And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.  Heb 10:18  Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.

Secondly, a "lamb" is not a significant animal in the sacrificial system. Adult goats, yes, though the animal that bears away the sin of the Jews on Yom Kippur is the scape goat - the goat that lives and carries the sins off into the wilderness:

In this way he is prefigured as a goat that carries away the sins of the People. But note, it is an adult goat, not a lamb:

KJV Lev 16:21  And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

Some suggest that a lamb is the figure of the Passover. The animal of the passover was most likely a goat. But even if it were a lamb, it would not be a sacrifice for sin. Sin offerings were not eaten. Their bodies were burned outside of the camp:

Heb 13:11 For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp.

Nor would John have any reason to associate the passover with "taking away sin" as that association was never made in the original passover or the seder.

So in what sense would John and his audience have understood Jesus as "God's lamb"?

The term "God's lamb" is similar to our expression, "God's kid," only without the flippancy. And it is not applied to any in Judaism but only to the Messiah. Furthermore, the figure is one of a violent purger of sin from the earth, not a sacrificial victim as is seen in the apocryphal "Testament of Joseph" (one of the "Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs"):

Testament of Joseph at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-08/anf08-15.htm 19. Hear ye also, my children, the visions which I saw. There were twelve deer feeding, and the nine were divided and scattered in the land, likewise also the three. And I saw that from Judah was born a virgin wearing a linen garment, and from her went forth a Lamb, without spot, and on His left hand there was as it were a lion; and all the beasts rushed against Him, and the lamb overcame them, and destroyed them, and trod them under foot. And because of Him the angels rejoiced, and men, and all the earth. And these things shall take place in their season, in the last days. Do ye therefore, my children, observe the commandments of the Lord, and honour Judah and Levi; for from them shall arise unto you the Lamb of God, by grace saving all the Gentiles and Israel. For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, which shall not be shaken; but my kingdom among yogi shall come to an end as a watcher's hammock, which after the summer will not appear.

See also http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14344-testaments-of-the-twelve-patriarchs

So, taking away the sin of the world is an act of judgment. Think of Sylvester Stallone in "Lamb-O"!

Re 6:16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

Re 14:10 The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

Re 17:14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.

Note that John expected this purging:

Mt 3:10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Lu 3:9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

When Jesus didn't get with that program, John the baptizer doubted him:

Mt 11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

Lu 7:19 And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?

Lu 7:20 When the men were come unto him, they said, John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?

So John did not harbor any expectation of Jesus being a sacrificial animal or of his death providing forensic justification. Instead he was expecting Jesus, as messiah, to overthrow Rome and bringing violent judgment on the wicked of every nation, including and in particular the Jews.

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They knew of the passover lamb (Exo. 12:5-6). Lambs were also used for offerings. Christ is the reality of the passover lamb and the offerings. (In other words, the passover lamb and the offerings signify Christ as the lamb of God. They are types of Christ and have their fulfillment in Christ.)

What does it mean for Christ to be the reality of things?

Col. 2:17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (NIV)

In the Old Testament, we see the shadow of things. In the New Testament, we see the reality of those things. For example, Christ is the reality of the bronze serpent (John 3:14). God did that in the Old Testament so that we could understand it in the New Testament. Another example is that Christ is the reality of the manna (John 6).

Similarly, the blood of the lamb signifies the blood of Christ that saves us from condemnation.

Those who put the blood of the passover lamb on the door post were not better than their neighbors but the blood of the lamb saved them. This is the same principle in the offerings, the animal dies but the people are saved. God could only pass over but the animals could not take away the sins. The blood of Jesus is eternally efficacious (Heb. 9:12-14) and takes away our sins (1 John 1:7,9).

Furthermore, Christ is not only the Passover lamb but also every aspect of the passover. Here is a blog post related to it.

  • What do you take "the reality of the passover lamb" to mean? And how is the "Lamb of God" related to the passover lamb? – Lesley May 20 '18 at 13:00
  • Can you please post a verse to support the idea that the blood of Jesus is "eternally efficacious and takes away our sins"? Thanks. – Ruminator May 27 '18 at 13:08
  • Hebrews 9:12-14 is about Jesus' preparation as a priest. His own blood allowed him access to the holiest place. But it was the living goat that carried away the sins of the people. 1 John 1:7-9 promises a holy life through the blood but says that guilt is removed by God's faithful forgiveness. But more importantly, if it was an efficacious "propitiation" for the whole world why are people still sinners? – Ruminator May 27 '18 at 13:42
  • Rom 3:25 "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood..." – user25930 Jul 15 '18 at 23:22

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