“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” asked the prophet Micah (6:6–7). “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
David ponders the same question in his psalm of repentance; “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 53:16–17).
This might at first seem strange, given that these men were Hebrews living under the Old Covenant. This was a covenant expressed in sacrifice, in rules. God required sacrifice from his people; burnt offerings, thank offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings. The Day of Atonement was marked by finely regulated sacrificial ritual, which if performed wrongly would have terrible consequences (Lev 16:10–14). At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon offered thousands of sheep and cattle (1 Kgs 8:5, 63). Sacrifices made inappropriately resulted in God’s displeasure and sometimes in the death of the offerers (Gen 4:3–5; Lev 10:1–3; Amos 5:21–22).
Sacrifices were based on the principle that sin is so awful in its effects on the relationship between God and humankind, that it brings spiritual and ultimately physical death; separation from the God who gives life. In order for there to be reconciliation, life had to be given; blood had to be shed.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Lev 17:11) and “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22).
But this was no meaningless ritual, the appeasement of a fickle, wrathful deity. There was no automaticity to forgiveness, as if it were a mere transaction with no personal investment, like paying taxes or parking fines. Such an attitude of “this will do, this will keep God quiet,” is appalling to the Creator God who is holy and cannot look upon sin (Mal 1:7–14). Sacrifice is not about repaying expenses, but about restoring relationship, as David recognised when he prayed, “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.” There was no magic associated with the sacrifice to bring about forgiveness, in fact at its very basis, animal sacrifice did not of itself provide the ultimate cure for sin. Hebrews 10:4 states that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.
So where does that leave us, and what on earth was the purpose of all those sacrifices back then? This is huge subject, but briefly, the earthly sanctuary was a copy of the heavenly, so “ it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites” (Heb 9:23). The sacrifices were a continual reminder to the people of their sin (Heb 10:3) and that God is a holy God who requires repentance and sacrifice to breach the barrier which our sins had created between us and him (Isa 59:2). But foremost, the sacrifices of the patriarchs and under the Law pointed forward to Christ (Gen 22:7–8) and the justification which would come by faith in him.
“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our paidagogos until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a paidagogos” (Gal 3:22–25).
The Greek word paidagogos or pedagogue (variously translated guardian/tutor/schoolmaster) means a slave who was entrusted with the delivery of the owner’s sons to and from school and supervise their conduct generally. He was not a teacher but rather a guardian, and when the boy came of age, the pedagogue was no longer needed. Likewise, the Law served the purpose of drawing us to Christ, because it demonstrated clearly our sinfulness and our need for redemption. It was not itself the means of our redemption, but a continual reminder of sins and a shadow of the good things to come (Heb 10:1–4). Salvation has NEVER been a matter of works. It has always been a matter of faith in the one who would provide ultimate redemption (Rom 4:1–16).
Paul takes the Romans step by step through this in chapter 3. Jews, having the law are no better off than Gentiles, because all are equally under sin (3:9–18) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (v23). But the Law speaks to those under the law to hold them accountable, to bring knowledge of sin (v19–20). Without the Law, our knowledge of what specifically displeased God would have been imperfect, but the Law, as it were, rubs our noses in it (Rom 1:20; 5:13, 20; 7:7–11).
Paul then goes on to explain that the righteousness of God (or from God; it originates with him) is apart from the Law, even though the Law and prophets bore witness to it in their role as pedagoges (v 21) “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v22–24).
Christ’s sacrifice was not merely the biggest and best in a system that was working to produce salvation. The system of animal sacrifices could never produce salvation because it had no power over sin. Those sacrifices merely pointed forward to and emphasised our need for THE one great sacrifice. They drew us to Christ. Christ has now offered himself once for all. God has provided the Lamb and has put away sin — destroyed it, killed it, absolutely defeated it (Heb 9:24–28; 10:10, 12, 14).
God himself took the initiative; “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s love is the cause, not the result of the atonement, and this was so from eternity. In the words of John Stott,
“It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.” ( Stott, The Cross of Christ, Nottingham: IVP, 1989; 175.)
Only the sinless Son of God was qualified to bear our sins in our place and impart to us the gift of righteous standing before God. It wasn’t that God needed a reason to love us, he always loved us (John 3:16, 1 John 4:10, Rom 5:6) but he needed a means of reconciliation, and God himself provided it. (2 Cor 5:18–19; Col 1:19–20, 22).
Christ’s sacrifice is all-sufficient. There is nothing we can add to it. To attempt to do so is to downgrade it, to suggest that it was not good enough to save us. We are justified by faith apart from works of the Law (Heb 9:27–28). Because the work of salvation is wholly of God, with no contribution from us, it is absolutely dependable, and therein lies the Christian’s assurance, not in whether we are “good enough.” Because we are not good enough! Our righteousness is filthy rags and our natural state is dead in sins. Dead!
It is never a matter of cleaning up our act, getting it all together, making ourselves acceptable before we turn to Christ. That’s works, not faith. That makes us the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men, in contrast to the tax collector who simply cried out to God for mercy in his unworthiness and went home justified (the word means made righteous; Luke 18:10-14).
Rather, we have absolutely nothing to bring before God. Faith is the holding out of empty hands, an empty cup. The filling of that cup is a free gift, by grace, undeserved favour, nothing that we can earn. The only thing we can earn is death, the wages of sin. Forgiveness and eternal life are gifts (Rom 6:23). We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24).
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved” (Eph 1:4–5).
This gift has absolutely nothing to do with our works, our efforts, or any diligence or sacrifice on our part. Until we turn to Christ we are filthy, we are estranged, we are dead in sin. We have enmity with God and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it, of ourselves.
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom 11:)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2: 8–10; notice that once in Christ Jesus we are enabled to do good works, but they are the response to salvation, never the means of it).
There is no work, no intrinsic righteousness, no ransom that we can offer God; we deserve nothing but judgment and condemnation. Coming to him in faith, with contrite heart and penitence is an acknowledgement of our emptiness and a plea to be filled. And God promises he will respond!
“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom 10:9–13).
Faith is not to be redefined as a prescribed set of beliefs to which one’s thinking must conform, nor the effort of the sinner in believing a set of doctrines and his or her subsequent conforming obedience. Baptism is not a work by which forgiveness of sins and adoption into the body of Christ are obtained, but a sign of the covenant already established, the outward sign of grace already received. It is not the means of salvation, but a response of the redeemed, “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet 3:21).
There is a dreadful and insidious danger inherent in misunderstanding the nature of faith and grace; falling back on works. We can give lip service to “salvation by grace not works,” but then add our own laws to Christ’s all-sufficient work on the cross. Conformity to a particular tradition of church attendance and duties, involvement in certain activities, giving time and money, evangelising, adopting certain behaviour and appearance, participating “religiously” in certain traditions of worship and programmatic Bible reading, reverence toward certain authors or preachers, eschewing certain “worldly” pleasures, conforming to particular patterns of speech and action. All these can be mistaken for holy living, or “Christ-likeness” and we can be deceived into thinking they are in some way necessary for salvation.
Some of these things may be some of the “good works” which God has prepared for us to do, even commanded us to do, and we know that our faith without works is dead, but even the “best” works do not save us. Some of these things may be very profitable for nurturing our spiritual growth and avoiding temptation. They may be helpful to others. Or they may be a stumbling block, encouraging a works-based approach to salvation, engendering guilt and lack of assurance, denial of God’s grace and reliance on human willpower and outward appearance:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:20–23).
We can add absolutely nothing to what Christ has done. There are no brownie points. We cannot make ourselves “worthy,” only Christ does that. To assume that we must “prove ourselves worthy,” despite all that Christ has done, in fact speaks of arrogance, not humility, and is the antithesis of the gospel.
“Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim any thing as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God . . . for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:5–6).
This confidence in our salvation does not abrogate the need for repentance, nor our responsibility to live as Christ would have us live. A godly life is our response to the grace bestowed, enabled by the indwelling of God’s Spirit and subject to the merciful provision of ongoing forgiveness when we fail (1 John 2:1–2). It is not arrogance, it is not permissiveness, it is a simple faith in God’s ability to grant what he has promised. Such assurance of salvation belongs rightfully with its Author. Humans cannot achieve righteousness by their own efforts, so God provided a righteousness that comes from him, apart from law. It comes through faith in Jesus to all who believe; free justification by his grace. No works, no boasting, and conversely, every reason to be confident on the day of judgment because it’s all about what Christ has done, not what we have done. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:20–22).
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1–2).
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:22–23).