“Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”
The doctrine of atonement involved in this scriptural principle is one of the most important and in some respects one of the most difficult of all the primary truths connected with the Gospel. Nowhere else is it so easy for men to get out of their depth, and there is no other subject that proves so tempting.
There is certainly danger that vital truths affecting the sacrifice of Christ may be called in question or may be obscured by wrong teaching on this subject. There is far more danger that a destructive strife of words should arise through men getting out of their mental depth in an effort to measure the mind of God. Dr. Thomas once remarked that the elementary truths regarding redemption were few and simple and no reason could be given for them beyond “the fact that God wills them”. If a candidate for baptism revealed a sound knowledge of these simple truths and of this simple explanation of them, we should not dare to “forbid water”. Suppose that having rendered a satisfactory confession of faith on all other first principles the candidate said:
“I believe that God required a perfect sacrifice before He could forgive sin, and that He provided the One capable of rendering that sacrifice. He sent forth His Son, the Lord Jesus, made of a woman, made in all points like his brethren, tempted in all points as we are, but by virtue of his divine parentage so superior to us morally that he was able to render the perfect sacrifice required and thus to secure redemption for himself from sin-stricken human nature and both forgiveness and redemption for those who come to God through him in the way appointed.”
Should we dare to forbid baptism because the candidate was unable to explain why God required a perfect sacrifice, or why He demanded the shedding of blood before sins could be remitted?
If we are quite agreed that an understanding of these simple elements is sufficient for one to enter the Covenant, surely it is a tragedy if brethren become divided simply through the effort to see further. It may be even worse than a tragedy, for it sometimes leads to destructive strife in which extremes act and re-act upon each other, the disputants getting further and further out of their depth, while the vital duties of life are neglected. We would not suggest for a moment that being agreed on the simple and elementary truths we should be content to go no further. Certainly we must push on and gain all the knowledge of divine things that is possible. Discussion of such matters may be very helpful if conducted by brethren who have grasped the more elementary teaching of the Word regarding human conduct. This, however, is certainly a subject in which we do well to be swift to hear and slow to speak; we may venture to suggest, still slower to write. So much sin lies at the door of the man who invented printing.
It may be helpful to take note of the main causes that have led brethren astray when they have tried to probe deeply into the doctrine of atonement. We may then be on our guard at least against these particular dangers.
One cause has been through the tendency to confuse the shadow with the substance. Brethren have reasoned that the types of the law suggested such and such necessities and the sacrifice of Christ had to conform. The truth is, of course, exactly the other way. The work of Christ was the very central feature of the divine purpose and all the shadows of the law had to conform to it. The Apostle in writing to the Hebrews, truly reasons from the types forward to Christ, but he makes it plain that Christ is the substance. We recognize the writings of the Apostles as of precisely the same authority as the Old Testament Scriptures. We do well therefore to take their plainest language as our guide and see that our understanding of types and symbols falls into line.
A second cause of confusion is the tendency to seek an explanation according to a human conception of logic and legality. Many years ago we had to point out that while human laws might often have effects far removed from the intention of the law makers, this could never be the case with the laws of God. We cannot recognize any distinction between the divine law and the divine will. When God makes a law it is the expression of His will for the time to which it applies, and it is made with a full knowledge of all its effects (see Acts 15 : 18).
“that have been known for ages.” (Acts 15:18 NIV)
We can hardly suppose that any brother would ever dispute this proposition; but some have reasoned as if they never thought of such an idea. We do well therefore to remind each other of this simple truth, which forbids us to make any distinction between legal necessities and the divine will.
A third cause of confusion has been through the persistent use of phrases that are sometimes misleading. Some staunch brethren in upholding the truth that Christ bore our sin-stricken nature have used language suggestive of an automatic cleansing by death. We could easily have rival camps in this matter, disputants on each side being totally unconscious of the ambiguity of their own language but too acutely conscious of the worst interpretations that could be put on the language of opponents.
Earnest brethren and sisters, anxious to hold the truth, have sometimes been perplexed and almost distracted in the strife of words, beyond their power to understand. The havoc that such strife may cause is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that one of the most capable men we ever had among us, in his efforts for legal logic ended by teaching justification for sin without faith, and we were all slow to realize the full enormity of the position. I well remember the surprise and even consternation of one of his supporters when he was first shown this feature of the case.
Even now there is the same disposition towards legal reasoning regarding types and shadows with the clear principles of Scripture neglected. Although disputants would deny the charge, it is a fact that some of them persistently lose sight of the fact that all things in God’s dealings with this world centre round Christ. The reason that all things under the law were cleansed by the offering of blood, was that all things in the age to come will be through the sacrifice of Christ. In reasoning with Jews it might be necessary to invert the argument, but we who are privileged to know the substance of God’s great purpose must never lose sight of it.
What is the literal truth revealed in the New Testament as to the meaning of sacrifice? It is that God forgives sins and offers eternal life on the basis of the perfect sacrifice effected by Christ in his life and death. Whatever figurative or partly figurative language the Bible may use, this is the real meaning. Washed in his blood, our sins laid upon him, a bearing of our sins in his own body, the purchase of his blood, the ransom, his being delivered for our offences, the just for the unjust-all such expressions must be understood in harmony with the literal truth that God forgives. Transgressions of the divine law can only be put away by the forgiveness and forbearance of God. Physical uncleanness of nature can only be put away by the power of God. The sacrifice of Christ is the divinely appointed basis in which God in mercy and forbearance offers forgiveness and redemption to sinners (Rom. 3 : 23-4, 4 : 7; Eph. 1 : 7; Col. 1 : 14; 1 John 1 : 9, 2 : 12).
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV)
“”Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” (Romans 4:7 NIV)
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7 NIV)
“in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14 NIV)
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 NIV)
“I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.” (1 John 2:12 NIV)
If we desire to probe further and ask the question why did God require such a sacrifice as the basis of the forgiveness offered to humanity, we shall never find any answer through the various interpretations of the law or by talk of the penalty due to sin. Divine law is simply an expression of divine will. It was not the will of God that man should sin, but it was the will of God that man should be a free agent and that death should be the wage of sin. It was the will of God that the human race having been defiled by sin should have no access to His holy presence except on the basis of a perfect sacrifice.
And it is the will of God that we should respond to the gracious invitation and be saved on the basis He has provided (1 Thess. 5 : 9). If we ask why God required such a sacrifice, we must seek a moral explanation. It is no answer to quote the law which expresses His will.
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9 NIV)
Guided by Scripture we can find a moral explanation that satisfies every demand that the intelligence can make. The perfect sacrifice was required that the flesh might be effectively repudiated, that sin might be conquered and condemned, that the righteousness and holiness of God might be declared, and that sinful man should be humbled without a particle of ground for boasting being left to him (Rom. 3 : 23-27, 8:3; Eph. 2 : 1-9).
“23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.” (Romans 3:23-27 NIV)
“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. And so he condemned sin in sinful man,” (Romans 8:3 NIV)
“1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no-one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:1-9 NIV)
God made it clear even in ancient times that humanity could not approach to Him at all except with humble faith and on the basis of blood shedding. He gave a law that emphasized the sinfulness and helplessness of His people (Rom. 8 : 15, 5 : 20).
“For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”” (Romans 8:15 NIV)
“through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2 NIV)
He made it clear that when sins were put away by sacrifice they were really forgiven (Lev. 4 : 20, 26, 31, 35).
“and do with this bull just as he did with the bull for the sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:20 NIV)
“He shall burn all the fat on the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin, and he will be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:26 NIV)
“He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the LORD. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:31 NIV)
“He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the lamb of the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the LORD by fire. In this way the priest will make atonement for him for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:35 NIV)
He promised a deliverer who should “make an end of sin”, and “bring in everlasting righteousness” (Dan. 9). When the fullness of time was come He revealed that scheme of love into which even the angels had desired to look. He made selection of a virgin of the house of Israel and produced from her one who should be strong for the great work required. So the flesh was repudiated even in the birth of Christ, sin was conquered and condemned in every act of his life, and finally he freely rendered the last obedience even unto death that he might be raised from the dead to immortality and glory as the captain of our salvation-made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2 : 10).
“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:10 NIV)
To him much was given and of him much was required. The lights and shadows inseparable from the formation of a character needed to be intense in the probation of our great Captain. He worked out his perfection and salvation by the strength God gave him, and thus through him God opened the way of life for us. Here is the sin nature that had produced only helpless sinners, controlled, condemned and finally put away by the strong Son of God in his perfect obedience of life and death. On this basis humanity can approach the holiness of the Creator and men of faith though sinners can be exalted to the divine. On this basis of the sin nature conquered, repudiated and condemned by the one God made strong for Himself, God forgives. That is the real meaning of atonement.
It is hardly possible to imagine anyone who had ever caught even the most fleeting glimpse of this vision turning back to the pitiful speculations of men as to supposed legal necessities. There are those in the world who think that the real body of Christ never rose, but remains eternally dead as the price due to God or the punishment due to sin! It would be difficult to make any comment on such an idea while preserving the language of decorum. The brethren are doubtless proof against such monstrous teaching. Let them keep far from the narrow reasoning that leads in that direction. The New Testament describes the sacrifice of Christ in plain and literal language. Let us interpret all figures and symbols by reference to the plain statements. God-who knows the end from the beginning, who does according to His will, but who “cannot deny Himself” God provided the means for condemning and overcoming sins on the basis of which He with much forbearance forgives those who please Him by their faith.
Much controversy has been caused by the question as to whether Christ offered for his own cleansing. It has been largely a war of words, due on the one hand to a fear of saying or subscribing to anything derogatory to Christ and on the other hand perhaps a tendency to relapse into the old exaggeration of “original sin”. There ought not to be a minute’s difficulty in dealing with the question and securing agreement.
When we speak of “sin” in the flesh we use the phrase just as the Apostle used it in Romans 7. Obviously it is a derived or secondary sense of the word, for the primary meaning of sin is transgression of divine law. It is a similar extension of meaning to that of the word “death” for poison when they said, “there is death in the pot”. The Apostle speaks of a law in his members which wars against the laws of God and leads to transgression. He calls this physical weakness “sin” in the flesh or “sin” that dwelleth in me. It is the diabolos in human nature, the natural desires of the flesh which, if they are allowed to “conceive”, “bring forth sin”. We need not argue as to whether there is such a law. We all know it only too well. We are born with it and if we give way to any sin we correspondingly strengthen the evil desire in that direction and thus make “sin” in the flesh more active. To suppose that an extraordinarily pure and righteous man would feel this weakness less than others is a huge mistake. The truth is the other way. It is the thoroughly fleshly man who is unconscious of the sinful law in his members and who probably would not understand what the Apostle meant. The man with the highest ideals and the most spiritual mind will feel the struggle most. To suggest that Christ was tempted in all points as we are and yet without this law of sin in his members is to proclaim a complete contradiction. It is like saying, “Except that he was not tempted at all!” Suggestions from without are no temptation to us if they do not appeal to something within. Christ bore just this same denied nature that we bear or he could not have been tempted as we are and therefore could not have condemned and conquered sin. Christ bore this quality in the flesh, but he never allowed it to conceive even to the point of sinful thought. Therein was the most terrific struggle and the most portentous victory of all human experience. It is easy to understand that with his ideals, and his standards of rectitude, the weakness of the flesh would be so distressing that even the most startling language of the Psalms is comprehensible.
Now whether we take the plain language of the Apostles (Heb. 9 : 12; 10 : 20) or the prophecies and types of the law, the teaching is that all things were to be cleansed by the perfect sacrifice and that no one of Adam’s race should have access to the Most Holy place except on the basis of that sacrifice (Lev. 16 : 2-14 note seven times of sprinkling). Some have caused confusion by arguing whether Christ’s offering for himself was “only a matter of obedience to God” or whether it was something more. What do they mean? Obedience to God is carrying out the will of God. What can be required beyond this? Surely we are all agreed that Christ, “the beloved son“, “the servant in whom God delighted”, and the one who “always did his Father’s will“, needed no forgiveness. Surely we are also agreed that he needed cleansing from the sin-stricken nature in which he wrestled with and’ conquered the diabolos. There could be no forgiveness for personal sinners except on the basis of the perfect sacrifice, for this was the will of God. There could be no cleansing and immortalizing, no entry into the Most Holy by any of Adam’s race except on the basis of the same perfect sacrifice, for that also was the will of God. Christ came to do God’s will, he was obedient in all things even unto death, and so with his own blood-in other words, on the basis of his perfect offering-he entered the Most Holy “having obtained eternal redemption.”
The truth is that when brethren who are agreed as to these fundamentals still argue and suspect each other of being “unsound”, they are really in their minds raising that old question of many years ago,
“Supposing Christ had been the only one to be saved, would he still have had to die a sacrificial death?”
Everyone ought to have learned long ago that this question is not legitimate. It is asking,
“If the will of God had been totally different in one direction, would it have remained the same in another closely related matter?”
There is only one proper answer to such a question. No one knows what the will of God would have been if His purpose had been other than it is, and only a presumptuous man would claim to know.
We have to do with the purpose of God as it is and as it is revealed to us. These truths are so simple and withal so beautiful that unless brethren insist on a misleading form of words making for strife, there should be no difficulty in agreeing.
The will of God determines everything. It was the will of God that none of our sin-stricken race should enter His holy presence except on the basis of the most complete repudiation of the flesh involved in a perfect obedience even unto death. He provided the strength necessary for this great work and it was for this purpose that Christ was born. Thus through the blood of the everlasting Covenant he was brought again from the dead. With his own blood he entered the Most Holy place, having obtained eternal redemption, and we, if we are faithful, can stand at last “washed from our sins in his blood” and covered with his righteousness. All these figures meaning that God accepts, forgives and cleanses His people on the basis of the perfect life and death of His Anointed Son.
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