Who Can Forgive Sins?
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, April 22, 2007
Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
People die each day, many suddenly and unexpectedly. Sudden destruction awaits us all unless our sins are forgiven. We do not even know what awaits us today, but we know it is appointed for man once to die and then comes judgment (Heb. 9:27). Therefore, let us consider this most important issue of how our sins can be forgiven, as found in Hebrews 10:1-18.
Who Can Forgive Our Sins?
According to the Bible, the infinite, personal God created all things. Yet God's crowning creation, man, sinned against his Maker, and now all man's descendants are born sinners who practice sin daily. Because of our sins, we are storing up wrath against ourselves until the day of wrath, when God will judge all men's secrets in righteousness.
How can we get rid of our sins? Can we forgive them ourselves? Can we forgive the sins of our neighbors? The answer is no. David confesses, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done what is evil in thy sight" (Ps. 51:4, KJV). All sin is transgression against God and his moral law. Unless God himself forgives us, we are without hope and doomed to destruction. If we die still in our sins, we will enter eternal death.
Yet the Bible also tells us that God is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love . . . He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Ps. 103:8, 10). Our gracious God has a plan of salvation through the sacrifice of a substitute. God revealed to Moses that through a sin offering the guilt of the community could be taken away: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life" (Lev. 17:11). Yes, Adam sinned, and he must die an eternal death. The soul that sins must die (Eze. 18:20). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). But God ordained the death of a substitute to take away the guilt of our sins.
Thanks be to God for this heavenly doctrine of the substitutionary atonement! This is the gospel we will continue to gladly and boldly preach. It is said that on a church building there once was a sign: "We preach Christ crucified." As time went on, ivy grew up and covered the sign until it read: "We preach Christ." The ivy grew more until the sign read, "We preach." This is true of so many churches today. They begin by preaching the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. Gradually, however, as people become sophisticated and ashamed of the cross, they preach a human Christ. As they become still more sophisticated, they stop preaching even a human Christ and simply preach about the goodness of man.
We must preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, for it is the only way of salvation. Hebrews 10:1-18 speaks of the good news of Christ's atoning death in behalf of sinful man. From this passage, therefore, we want to examine, first, the law; then, the gospel, and, finally, how our sins can be forgiven.
The Mosaic law required that bulls and goats be sacrificed to make atonement for the sins of the people, especially on the Day of Atonement. But this system of animal sacrifice, although divinely instituted, was only a preparatory, interim measure. It was only a sign, not the destination. "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship" (Heb. 10:1). The sacrificial system foreshadowed the "good things" of our eternal salvation.
The author confesses in Hebrews 7:19, "For the law made nothing perfect." It could not cleanse people of their guilt and make them able to freely draw near to God. These repeated sacrifices only served to remind them of their sins. Hebrews 10:4 discloses the truth about the Mosaic system: "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."
Animal sacrifice is powerless to bring about forgiveness of our sins. It was only a teaching device, pointing to a better, human substitute. How can irrational, unwilling animals be fit substitutes for man who was created in the image of God? David understood this and says, "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings" (Ps. 51:16). The prophet Samuel declared, "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). Brute beasts cannot absorb the wrath of God against us.
Paul also understood this: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering" (Rom. 8:3-4). We needed a sinless human substitute for human sinners, one who is both God and man, to atone for the sins of the whole world.
"Therefore, when Christ came into the world" (Heb. 10:5). "Therefore" means in view of the impotence and failure of the Mosaic sacrificial system. God promised long ago to send us a fit substitute; the gospel declares that the Son of God came as that substitute. Psalm 40:6-8, which is quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7, promises a better substitute, a heavenly one. It is speaking about the incarnation of the Son of God.
Jesus Christ came to atone for our sins. What God required was not the blood of millions of animals, but a human who would honor him by fully obeying the law. We needed a second Adam to undo the evil of the first. Christ came into the world from the bosom of the Father. Verses 7 and 9 begin, "Behold-Idou" - that is, "Look! See!" Something wonderful happened in the midpoint of time: the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. The author is saying, in view of the failure of the Mosaic system, look and see God's Son coming, taking human flesh to become the fit substitute for us sinners.
Psalm 40 speaks of the incarnation of the eternal Son: "a body you have prepared for me" (v. 6, Septuagint). The Father's eternal plan, accomplished by the incarnate Son, is the salvation of all his elect sinners. God's will was that his Son perfectly obey God's law in our place and die on the cross. The apex of Christ's obedience was seen as he hangs on the cross for the sin of the world. He absorbed the wrath of God due us.
The Father prepared for Christ a perfect human body. Gabriel told Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). The Son of God became perfect man. "Such a high priest meets our need-one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens" (Heb. 7:26). John tells us, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Paul says, "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law [to redeem those under law] that we might receive the full rights of sons" (Gal. 4:14).
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He knew this was his purpose because it had been written of him in the Old Testament. The Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Writings all spoke of Christ. The Old Testament promised a fit substitute to die in our place to make atonement for our sins. So Jesus explained, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47).
Forgiveness of Sins
In this body prepared by the Father, Jesus came to do his Father's will, and to do so without fail. Isaiah 50:5-8 speaks of the Son's obedience: "The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I have offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near." Jesus himself declared, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work . . . For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me" (John 4:34; 6:38).
God's will was to save us by Christ's perfect obedience in our place. Jesus said, "The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him" (John 8:29). He later declared, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me" (John 10:11; 14:31). At Gethsemane, as he bore the sin of the world, he prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). That will was to accomplish salvation for his people by his substitutionary atonement.
The ultimate cause of our salvation was the Father's will, which the Son fulfilled by the sacrifice of himself on the cross. Freely and willingly, unlike brute animals, he loved the church and gave himself for her. The sinless Son of God, our great high priest, offered himself as the perfect offering as our substitute. We shall not experience even an infinitesimally small part of God's wrath; he suffered it all in our place.
Christ's sacrifice put an end to the Mosaic sacrificial system that could not atone anyone. "Christ is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Rom. 10:4). The Father accepted his sacrifice as an atoning sacrifice for our sins; now forgiveness for our sins flows from the cross. By the sacrifice of Christ, he abolished the first covenant to establish the new covenant of grace. As Jesus declared at the Last Supper, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins."
Hebrews 9:22 tells us, "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22). Then we are told in Hebrews 10:4 that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away our sins. Blood must be shed, but whose? It must be the blood of Jesus Christ. Because Christ shed his blood, there is forgiveness for all who come to him in faith. "And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10).
Jesus died, rose from the dead, and is seated with the Father: "But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God" (Heb. 10:12). The writer tells us in verse 11 that the Aaronic priests always stood because their work was never finished. But Christ by his death finished the work of atonement and is now seated at the most honored place at God's right hand. From the utter shame of the cross, he ascended to sit in the seat of greatest heavenly glory. Jesus himself spoke of this to the Sanhedrin: "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64).
Many sacrifices offered by many priests for many centuries failed to atone for our sins. Now one priest by one perfect sacrifice offered on the cross once for all atoned for all the sins of all God's people. Jesus announced from the cross, "It is finished." He accomplished his mission.
The Good Things of Salvation
Hebrews 10:1 said, "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming." What are the "good things" of salvation? First, Christ destroyed our death by his death. He said, "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. . . I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:10, 28). Even if people try to destroy us, they are only assisting us in going to the very presence of God. The death of Christ has freed us from our fear of death.
Forgiveness of sins is another blessing that flows from this one perfect sacrifice of Christ. In Hebrews 5:8-9 we read, "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation." In speaking of his first coming, Hebrews 9:26 says, "But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin." He came to blot out sins. (PGM) In the fourth century Athanasius said, "He put on a body so that in the body he might find death and blot it out." Christ destroyed death by his death. John Bunyan declared with great confidence, "Sinner, you think that because of your sins and infirmities, I cannot save your soul? But, behold, my Son is by me and upon him I look, and not on you, and deal with you according as I am pleased with him."
In 2 Corinthians 5 we find a glorious Holy Spirit-inspired declaration of our salvation: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (v. 17). God wants to see the new in us, not the same old rebellion and stubbornness. "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ not counting men's sins against them" (v. 19). Our sins must be counted against someone, and they were counted against his own Son. That is the explanation of the death of Christ on the cross. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (v. 21). This is what the theologians call the double transaction-our sins are put on him as his righteousness is put on us. We are as righteous today as Jesus himself. God considers us as though we never sinned.
Paul says that Jesus has become our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). He has saved us, he is saving us, and he will save us. We are new creations in Christ.
"The law is only a shadow of the good things" (Heb. 10:1). We are not in shadow; good things have come in Jesus Christ. We taste them, we eat them, and we enjoy them. "How beautiful . . . are the feet of those who bring good news" (Is. 52:7). Good news proclaims good things for us in Jesus Christ, the one who is good.
Let us look at some of these blessings:
1) God made us perfect
(cf. Heb. 10:1,14). It is in the perfect tense. Not only did Christ make us perfect, but we are perfect now, and we shall be perfect in the future. This is speaking about justification.
"By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever us who are being made holy" (Heb. 10:14). But you may say, "I still have sin in me." Take heart: Christ's death on the cross is the cause both of our justification and our sanctification. He who justifies us will necessarily also sanctify us. In fact, he is right now transforming us. Not only does God declare us righteous, but he transforms us by writing his law in our hearts that we will love it and do it by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
What about the future? Hebrews 9:28 says, "So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." We shall be glorified. Jesus Christ will give us a body like unto his own glorious body. Even the very presence of sin will be gone, and we shall all be like Christ himself on the basis of his death on the cross for us.
2) We no longer have a guilty conscience
(Heb. 10:2). Satan may accuse us, but we can resist him because the blood of Jesus Christ has cleansed us from all our sins. Having forgiven our sins, God remembers them no more.
3) The Holy Spirit testifies to us
(Heb. 10:15). The Holy Spirit ministers to us both from the Scripture and by testifying to our spirits that we are children of God. As we read the word of God, we eat it, we grow by it, and we delight in it. A person cannot be a Christian without reading the Bible on a daily basis, for it is the food for God's people. "Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3).
4) Our sins are forgiven and, therefore, forgotten
(Heb. 10:18). Only God in Jesus Christ can forgive our sins; there is no other religion by which we can be saved. Having our evil consciences taken care of by the blood of Jesus Christ, we can now come to God. So the author says, "Come, pray to him. Worship him. Draw near to God, that you may find mercy and grace for time of need."
5) He defeats our enemies
(Heb. 10:13). "Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool." If we fail to repent and trust in Jesus alone, we remain at enmity with him. But he shall defeat all his enemies. The Father told the Son, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" (Ps. 110:1). Either we will be seated with him or we will feel the pressure of his feet on our head. We must think very seriously: Are we his enemy, or are we surrendered subjects of Jesus?
We find an illustration of defeated enemies in Joshua 10:24-26: "When they had brought these kings to Joshua, he summoned all the men of Israel and said to the army commanders who had come with him, 'Come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings.' So they came forward and placed their feet on their necks. Joshua said to them, 'Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous. This is what the Lord will do to all the enemies you are going to fight.' Then Joshua struck and killed the kings and hung them on five trees, and they were left hanging on the trees until evening."
Partial surrender is no surrender. God only accepts complete and total surrender. In this conflict, the enemies of Christ always lose: "He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed" (2 Thess. 1:8-10). Jesus Christ has received all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the victor.
In light of these things, may God help us to rejoice in this forgiveness of sins, this great salvation, and this free access to God. May we worship him in spirit and truth, and rejoice in his presence, experiencing his justification and sanctification even while we await our glorification. May we rejoice that the Holy Spirit is even now ministering to us from the Scripture, revealing that there is forgiveness of sins, and may we be saved through Christ's death for our sins.
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Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
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