The First Indispensable: Atonement

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Hebrews 10:1-4

What would be on your list of things you absolutely could not do without? Four times in the Letter to the Hebrews the word without is attached to a noun in a statement about salvation. David Bast explores these salvation pre-requisites in a series of messages entitled: Four Indispensables. The first thing Hebrews tells us is indispensable to our salvation is an item most people would not put at the top of their wish list.

A common-sense principle in medicine says that prescription depends upon diagnosis. Two hundred years ago, it was usual for doctors to treat an illness by bleeding the patient, which was thought to restore the body’s proper balance of “humours,” or fluids. Such treatment seems incredible to us today, but it didn’t then. Given medicine’s understanding of the nature of disease, it was actually quite rational, even though it often ended up killing the patient. The problem, you see, was not in the prescription but the diagnosis.

This same principle holds true in spiritual matters: Prescription depends upon diagnosis. One of the foundational truths of biblical religion is set forth in Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” A sacrifice of atonement for sin is the first indispensable for salvation. Without it there can be no forgiveness.

I wonder, is this the prescription you would have written for the problem of human sin? But it is the prescription God has written because he has diagnosed the problem of sin as something that runs far deeper than just a few mistakes we make here and there or an adjustment that is needed in our attitude. That’s why we accept the fact that the first indispensable, the thing everyone needs to be saved, isn’t love, or kindness or even faith in God, but rather this grim-sounding act of the shedding of blood. Before we need any of those other things, what we need in order to be saved is to have atonement made through a sacrificial death in payment for sin.

The Problem of Sin

The Bible is really a book about sin and its consequences. Theologian James Packer has said that after the first two chapters the real subject of every other chapter in the Bible is what God does about sin. Genesis 1 and 2 serve as a sort of general introduction to God’s creation of the world, but from the moment sin first appears in Genesis 3, the rest of the book is devoted to a description of the devastation sin has wreaked on human nature, human relationships, the human environment, and to the account of the dramatic things God had to do in order to reverse sin’s damage and put things right again.

Just as the Bible is a book about salvation, so Christianity is a faith about salvation. Its main subject is how to be saved: our need for salvation, where to find it, and what we should do once we have found it. Somebody once asked G. K. Chesterton why he had become a Christian. His answer was short and to the point: “To get rid of my sins!” That’s the only correct response to that question, the only reason really for becoming a Christian, because sin is the problem for which the gospel was designed to be the answer.

What Can Pay?

What we are told here in Hebrews is that the solution to the problem of sin requires a payment. Sin has to be dealt with in a specific way. It can’t be ignored until it goes away because it won’t. It can’t be excused or covered up or dismissed as unimportant because it isn’t. God is holy, and a holy God reacts to sin the way a flame reacts to gasoline: the two simply cannot be brought into contact. So God cannot live in the presence of sin, nor can sin remain in his presence. Therefore sinners can’t be forgiven and accepted by God unless all their sins have been removed from them.

This is the truth that lies behind the prescription of Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The word here translated “forgiveness” literally means “putting away.” Sin can only be put away after it has been punished.

You know as well as I do that if you have a debt the only thing that can really satisfy it is payment. For example, if you’re late with an installment on your car or your house, you don’t really need a friendly reminder in the mail or a phone call from your loan officer. You don’t need advice on how you should feel or what you should do. What you need is money! It’s the same with sin. What we need is not to be told how to feel or what to do about sin. We need someone or something to pay for it. The writer to the Hebrews also tells us here that the only payment which is acceptable for sin is death; “the shedding of blood” means putting someone (or something) to death.

This fact lay behind the whole Old Testament system of religion. When God instituted the elaborate series of animal sacrifices which were the basis of Israel’s worship, he was teaching his people that death is demanded in order for sin to be forgiven. From the very beginning the religion of Israel was a religion based on blood. Every morning and evening, first at the tabernacle and later at Solomon’s temple, the people approached God by offering up animals in sacrifice.

That temple in Jerusalem was more like a bloody slaughterhouse than a quiet cathedral. Its very stones ran red with the blood of sacrificial animals. And throughout the centuries every last one of those offerings, every ritual sprinkling, every application of blood to the altar and to the great Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies – every single sacrificial victim, in fact, shouted out this one truth: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Who Can Pay?

But Hebrews also points us to the only sacrifice that is truly adequate for sin. Whose blood was it that ultimately had to be shed? Certainly not ours. It’s true that for us to die would satisfy the righteous demands of the law, for the wages of sin is death, but that would also mean our destruction. But the wonder of the gospel is its revelation that despite our sin, God still loves us. And because of this he has provided a substitute, someone to die in our place.

And that brings us to the other great lesson of Old Testament worship. The payment for sin must be death, but God has provided a substitute to die that death. For centuries the substitute was an animal, a sheep or a goat or a bull, always clean, perfect and unblemished. But these sacrifices were really only object lessons, substitutes for the real Substitute, for no mere animal’s life could ever have merit to atone for human wrong-doing.

For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? . . . . But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . .

Hebrews 10:1-4, niv

In the sacrifices of the Old Testament, God was pointing to a better way, a more adequate sacrifice, offered finally by Jesus Christ, the perfect substitute, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. All of that ritual, and even the temple itself, was only a sort of shadow or copy of the heavenly realities where the actual drama of redemption took place when Jesus offered his own body on the cross, once for all, for the sin of the world. All those Old Testament offerings were bloody transactions charging sins to Christ’s account, to be paid for in full at Golgotha on Good Friday afternoon.

So, adds the writer to the Hebrews, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:10-14, niv).

What Then?

What can we say in response to this? Let me suggest two reasonable conclusions that occur to me. If it is true that, as Hebrews says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” and if Christ has already shed his blood for those very sins and therefore offered a perfect payment for them, how foolish it is, and how futile, to try to find forgiveness for your sins in any other way! It can’t be done.

Why would you pin your hope for forgiveness on something else – on your own morality, on your own religion, on your own good works, on your own whatever – instead of trusting in Christ’s righteousness and applying his shed blood to your soul? The way to forgiveness of sins and peace with God has been opened for us by the sacrifice which Jesus offered once for all on the cross. And we can find forgiveness nowhere else. The work of salvation is finished! It’s all been done for us, and done perfectly. Why in the world would anybody want to add anything to Christ’s perfect work, other than simple trust and heartfelt gratitude?

But also, how important it is to do exactly that, to add trust and gratitude to our acceptance of Christ’s death! We must respond to the offering he made for sin by believing in him, by trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins, and by offering up our lives as a sort of living sacrifice in gratitude to him.

In accordance with the command of God, on Passover night each family in Israel slaughtered a yearling lamb and brushed its blood on the door frames of their houses so that they would not die in the approaching judgment. Like everything else in the Old Testament this too was a signpost pointing to Jesus Christ. The blood of the Lamb must be applied, individually, to each house, each family, each life.

Have you done that for yourself? Have you personally appropriated the death of Jesus Christ by faith? Have you confessed to God that you are a sinner? Have you cast yourself on God’s mercy in Christ, trusting only in his one sacrifice on the cross for your forgiveness?

If you haven’t, I really have only one question for you: How do you expect to find forgiveness for your sins? For this is indispensable: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”