People generally don’t want to be told they are wrong. This is not just a modern thing; it is embedded in our natures as sinful human beings. It is a part of the human desire for self-sovereignty which refuses to be told what is right and what is wrong. Our present culture especially doesn’t like to be told what is right and wrong from any religious authority, and most especially from the Bible. In fact, we are often told that religious authority belonged to a previous generation and is inherently oppressive and the sooner we get rid of it the better.
One of the inevitable results of this outlook is that modern men and women often will do all they can to suppress or ignore feelings of guilt. Now I do recognize that we can sometimes have feelings of guilt that are misplaced. It is a fact that we can feel guilty for some things that we aren’t necessarily responsible for, and I’m not arguing that we should hold on to that. But if we live in a moral universe where the rules are determined by God and not by us, and if we break God’s rules – his laws, his commandments – we are not going to be able to get off scot-free. One of the things we will inevitably end up with is a guiltyconscience. But still we don’t want to acknowledge that we have done anything wrong and so we try to silence our conscience. Sometimes people are actually pretty successful in this endeavor, and the apostle talks about those whose consciences are seared as it were by a hot iron (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2). In fact, there are a number of ways that we try to silence our consciences.
We do it by denying that the guilt points to anything real. If this is the path we take, then we are claiming it is a figment of our imagination, or a phantasm put upon us by moralistic people who just want to make us feel bad. But this seems to me a bad approach. For one thing, guilt is not something which always or even primarily comes from without. Guilt is registered in our own consciences which is a part of who we are as human beings. I don’t see how a denial of guilt is really any different from saying that illness is imagined and that the best way to deal with an illness is to imagine it away. (There are people who say just that, by the way.) Rather, the wiser thing to do is to ask what it is that is causing the guilt-feelings to be there in the first place, and to reckon with the possibility that we have in fact done something wrong and bad.
We do it by blame-shifting and finger-pointing. On the other hand, we may not be one of those people who deny that we live in a moral universe, but when push comes to shove, we tend to want to deny that we’re the problem. In contrast to Chesterton, who upon reading in the newspaper a question posed by a writer, “What is the problem with the world?” answered with a one-sentence reply: “I am. Respectfully yours, G. K. Chesterton.”
If we’re honest, we all fall in this category, at least to some extent. We tend to want to blame our sins and failures on others: our parents, our spouses, our children, the sins of others. Or we want to blame the environment we are in, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We want to play the victim card. “I couldn’t help it; it wasn’t my fault; the devil made me do it.” This goes back all the way to the first sin in the Garden of Eden. When God confronted Adam, he blamed Eve. Then when God confronted Eve, she blamed the serpent. But did that relieve them from their guilt? No, and the fact that we are embedded in a family with a problematic history and an environment which is often unsympathetic and unhelpful does not relieve us of ours either.
We do it by comparing ourselves with others. When my wife was in college, she shared an apartment with three other girls. One of them told her that she enjoyed watching reality TV shows because it made her feel better about herself! We can all be guilty of that very mentality. We are too often like the Pharisee praying in the Temple, who prayed and said, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican” (Lk. 18:11). But note the end of the parable. It was not the Pharisee who went down to his house justified, it was the publican (14). By the way, the Pharisee no doubt felt justified in his own mind, but that is not what counts – what counts is whether or not we are justified in the sight of God.
The apostle Paul put it this way: “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12). Again, the point is that our fellow human beings are not the standard. God’s law is the standard and God’s law is that by which we will inevitably be judged, not our fellow man. It doesn’t matter if I feel that I am “better than most.” The reality is that I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), which is the standard we have all miserably failed to meet. As one preacher put it, you may stand at the top of an Alp, and another man at the bottom of a mine, but you are as unable to reach the stars as they.
We do it by doubling down on making ourselves a better person. Whether by religious work, charitable work, or by becoming a social justice warrior, we think we can atone for our sins, past, present, and future. But this doesn’t even work in the realm of secular justice. It’s not enough to become a better person, but the debt we owe to society on account of our sins must be paid. Sin, however, is not primarily against society; it is primarily against God (cf. Ps. 51:4). Our debt to God must be paid, and that cannot be done by just becoming a better person. But how does one pay one’s debts to God? How do we take sin which is infinitely heinous (as it is against a Being of infinite majesty and authority) and pay it? The nagging guilt is really a reminder that we cannot, not that we haven’t done a good enough job yet.
So how can we forget our sins? How can we be released from our guilt and therefore from our guilt- feelings? That is the question of the hour. And that is the thing our text deals with. It starts with “in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again of sins every year” (Heb. 10:3), and ends on the note, “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (17). How do we go from having our sins brought up again and again and again to having the memory of them blotted out, never to be brought up again? And how does our text address that? To these questions we now turn.
In our text, we see the two main avenues that people often take to deal with their guilt (when they aren’t trying to avoid it or ignore it or pretend it isn’t there): merit-making performances and mediating priests. What the author says in the first four verses strikes a blow at folks who seek to deal with their sins through religious works (or, if they’re not religious, by being good according to some standard). Then, in verses 5- 10, he contrasts the failure inherent in such works with the finality and sufficiency of the person and work of Christ. In verse 11, on the other hand, the target is not so much the inadequacy of religious performance as it is the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood. By extension, we are pointed to the inadequacy of all those authorities through whom we seek to approach God apart from Christ. Finally, in verses 12-18, we are again pointed to Jesus who is a successful and triumphant priest and mediator between God and man.
We can summarize the point of these verses in the following way: you will never be able to truly be rid of your sins and the remembrance of them and the guilt to which they testify if you seek to rid yourself of them apart from Christ. But in Jesus Christ, we find a perfect, final, complete, sufficient atonement for our sins. Those who come to him will find their sins purged and forgotten by God himself. Let’s see how this is worked out in the text of Hebrews 10:1-18.
The inadequacy of merit-making performances (1-4)
The theme of these four verses can be summarized in the fourth verse: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” You can’t get more inadequate than “not possible.” Now when I call these sacrifices “merit-making performances,” I’m not claiming that God intended them to function that way. He intended them to point people to his mercy through a Messiah. But remember to whom the author of Hebrews is writing. At least some of these folks were wanting to rest in a Christless Law. They would then be seeking their relationship with God to be actually mended with these sacrifices; they were seeking to get rid of the guilt and the remembrance of their sins this way. And in that case, these sacrifices do become – in their estimation at least – merit-making performances. And the author of Hebrews is trying to warn them off of this path, that these works they are seeking to rest in, these blood sacrifices and so on, are simply inadequate to take away their sins. Let’s see how the argument works out.
The proof for the inadequacy of the sacrificial system in the Mosaic Law is based on the principle that if you have to keep repeating something, it is inherently imperfect. That is the main idea. These are “sacrifices which they offered year by year continually” (1), in which “there is a remembrance again of sins every year” (3). On the other hand, if they actually did take away sin, then there is no reason why they “would . . . not have ceased to be offered” (2).
Now if there is anything that would have the potential to be a merit-making performance, it would have been these sacrifices, for God himself ordained them for his people and as part of the worship of Israel. These were not sacrifices, blood offerings for sins, which were made up by men but which had the imprimatur of God upon them. And yet though they could effect ceremonial cleansing, nevertheless as the text points out, they could not actually achieve the forgiveness of sins. How do we know this? Because they had to keep repeating them. And again this is because the Isrealites were not meant to find their consolation in the sacrifices themselves, but in the grace and mercy of God and in his Messiah to whom the sacrifices pointed.
At this point an objection could be lodged against the argument of our author. Someone might say, “Yes, but the reason they had to be repeated is not because they didn’t actually take away sins, but because they could only take away the sins that had actually been committed up to that point.” In other words, the counterargument is that the sacrifices only dealt with past sins, and that is the explanation for their repetition, not because they didn’t actually take away sins.
What can we say to that? Well, first, this objection doesn’t adequately explain why you had the sin sacrifices on the Day of Atonement which was meant to cover all the sins of all Israel for the whole year, when you also had many other sin offerings. In other words, in the Law you have sacrifices stacked on each other, as it were. Just because there was this great offering on the Day of Atonement did not take away the need for all these other sin offerings. That points to the fact that the yearly sin offering on the Day of Atonement (which is what is spoken of here in Hebrews) did not really take away sin.
But perhaps a better question to ask is, why would a sacrifice only work backward? Why wouldn’t it work forward as well? If a sacrifice works for a particular sin for which it is offered, why not for another sin?
Why couldn’t the offeror simply appeal to the previous offering? What is it in a sacrifice that doesn’t allow it to cover multiple sins, past, present, and future? It really does seem to indicate an insufficiency in the sacrifice itself. This seems to be the point in verse 4 – however humble and sincere the repentant sinner is who offers his sacrifice, he is offering something which does not and cannot correspond to the moral debt owed: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” The blood of animals simply doesn’t correspond to the debt owed by creatures made in the image of God.
Before we go to the next point, I think it is worth dwelling on the fact that the point here is that you cannot obtain forgiveness from God or enter into his fellowship even through keeping the Law of God. I know there are a lot of people who will say that it’s not important what kind of religion you follow (or don’t follow), as long as you are sincere and try to be a good person. But hear what is being said in this text: you can be as sincere as the day is long with respect to the keeping of God’s law – even the law that God himself commanded and had written down and desired to be kept. But if hope is in your performance of the law, you’re sunk. We are not justified by law-keeping. We are not justified by being sincere. We are not justified by merit-making performances.
The inadequacy of mediating priests (11)
It’s not just that we seek to relate to God through good works and sacrifices in order to be done with the remembrance of sins. Sometimes we try to relate to God through mediating priests. And whereas these folks were tempted to rely on the Levitical priesthood that was ordained by God, in our day the temptation is to substitute other authorities, with far less warrant to be trusted than Aaron and his sons!
It seems to me that perhaps one of the biggest mistakes people have made in our day has been to elevate scientists to the level of priest. Now I’m not saying that all religious authorities are good: they aren’t. But this does not mean we are better off with guys and gals in lab coats as the ultimate authorities either. I think the reason why we are so apt to make this mistake is because science has been so successful in making our lives easier and in creating all these cool and clever gadgets. And so we make the mistake of thinking that science can deliver truth on the matter of our souls and ultimate things as well. But this is a problem as well as a leap of faith. The reality is that science cannot provide a basis for the most important things in our lives, like meaning and love and moral value and human dignity. Science is not the final or only arbiter of truth. And as Oxford mathematician John Lennox has pointed out, statements by scientists are not always statements of science. When a scientist tells you, for example, that Darwinism proves God doesn’t exist, he is not giving you a statement of science. And he is not telling you the truth.
Scientific materialism is an acid for religion. But the religion of Christ is an acid for scientific materialism. They cannot coexist. Which one should you choose? Well, the great and deceptive marketing scheme that the materialists use in order to convince you to choose theirs is that theirs is the position of logic and science and reason, whereas the position of religious folks is one of myth and fairy tales and blind faith. That is a total caricature. Here’s the truth: both scientific materialism and the Christian religion make claims that you cannot prove by science and logic and reason. They both proceed on certain axioms that no one can prove. Here’s an example: when someone claims that everything that is “real” is, at the bottom, made up of atoms and material stuff, that is a claim for which there is absolutely no scientific support. (Think about it: how would you prove such a statement scientifically?) It is a philosophical claim, a faith commitment. The reality is that the folks of science who decry faith are themselves committed to faith.
A better approach is not to ask which position is one of faith and then to reject that, for if you go that direction you will have to end up a radical skeptic doubting everything. The better question to ask is which worldview fits the data best? And here’s the relevance of all this to what we are talking about in our text. The high priests of our day tell us that there is no God to whom we are accountable, no judgment, no heaven, and no hell. But this means that our sense of moral accountability and our guilt feelings are not grounded in anything real. They are psychological states and nothing more. According to our modern priests, the guilt feelings may be real enough, but there is no transcendent reality (God’s law, for example) that grounds our guilt and makes it meaningful.
These modern priests cannot therefore take away guilt because they think it is ultimately an illusion. They will at best prescribe a therapy to help you feel better about yourself, but they will never get rid of the guilt because they will not talk about God and his law and sin. There is a parallel here to the priests under the Mosaic Law: “And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (11). The Levitical priests could never stop working, they could never stop offering sacrifices, because those sacrifices could never take away sins. And the fact of the matter is that if you go through our modern priests and try to unload your guilt apart from Jesus Christ, you are in for a never-ending task for the simple reason that Jesus is the only one who can take care of your sin and purge it completely.
It’s interesting that the writer here begins by describing the sacrifices of the law as being “a shadow of good things to come” (1). The modern methods are a shadow as well, but they don’t even have the pretense to be a shadow of good things to come – they are just shadows, and nothing more.
How then are we justified? Or rather, in terms of our text, how can we make the remembrance of our sins go away? In these verses, we are pointed in a Trinitarian direction: to the will of the Father in the plan of redemption (5-10), to the victory of Christ and the proof of redemption (12-14), to the witness of the Holy Spirit and the prophesy of redemption (15-18). The will of the Father and the victory of Christ and the witness of the Spirit all say the same thing: those who are in Christ are forgiven. Their sins have been forgotten, the memory of them gone.
God the Father and the plan of redemption (5-10)
In these verses we learn that it was never God’s intention for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. It was always God’s intention for the first covenant to be replaced by a new covenant (9). This this the point of the quotation from Psalm 40. In this psalm, we are reminded that God does not place ultimate value in sacrifices and offerings: “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God” (5-7, quoting Psalm 40:6-8).
Now King David, the author of this psalm, was reminding himself of the inadequacy of sacrifices and of the importance of obedience. He is expressing his desire to not rest in outward religious performances but to do God’s will. Perhaps he remembers King Saul who was rejected, not because he didn’t’ sacrifice, but because he disobeyed God.
But David is a type of Christ, especially because of the covenant that God made with him in which he promised to establish his kingdom forever. Christ is the one who brings the fulfillment of that promise to fruition. And so the author of Hebrews has no problem in taking David’s words to God and applying them to Christ. Understood in this way, we are eavesdropping, so to speak, on a conversation between the Son of God and his Father as the Son embarks upon his saving mission. As he comes into the world to accomplish the Father’s will to save his elect, Jesus says, “I come to do thy will, O God” (8-9).
In these verses, we are made aware that Jesus did not come down in an ad hoc fashion. He came to earth to do the Father’s will. He came to accomplish the work of redemption which the Father gave him to do. What was God’s will for Christ? It is that in giving his body up to death (5, 10), he would be an offering that would sanctify God’s people “once for all.” Unlike the sacrifices under the Mosaic Law (or any sacrifices, for that matter), our Lord’s sacrifice works for all time. It doesn’t have to be repeated. And whereas the Levitical sacrifices could not take away the consciousness of sins (2), Jesus’ atoning death actually sanctifies God’s people.
By sanctify here, we shouldn’t understand “making holy” in the sense of Jesus bringing about the repentance of sins and creating people who pursue holiness in the fear of God. In other words, progressive sanctification is not under consideration here, for what is under consideration here is a one-time event. Now progressive sanctification is a necessary effect of this sanctification by the death of Christ. But here we should understand this in the more basic sense of “set apart for God,” by being cleansed from the guilt of sins. By his death, Jesus purged our sins. Note the contrast between verses 4 and 10. Whereas the sacrifices under the law could not “take away sins,” that is, their guilt, yet by the offering of Jesus Christ “we are sanctified . . . once for all.” In other words, being sanctified is the solution to the problem left by sacrifices that could not take away sins. You also see this contrast in verses 11 and 14. We see that priests offer sacrifices “which can never take away sins: but this man [Jesus] . . . by one offering . . . hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” To be sanctified, then, means to have your sins taken away. It means to be cleansed from the guilt of sins. And in this the work of Christ is absolutely decisive.
So how can we know that our sins can be forgiven in Christ? Because it is the will of God the Father, and “he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3).
God the Son and the proof of redemption (12-14)
Christ our Lord, God’s Son, came to accomplish redemption, and he did so. We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time (10).
But how do we know that? What is the proof? How can we know that Christ’s work is finished? How do we know that “by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (14)? The answer is the resurrection, isn’t it? This is the evidence pointed to in verses 12-13: “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.” Of course, in verse 12, he goes from the passion of Christ to thesession of Christ, but to get from one to the other, you have to have a resurrection. Jesus Christ is seated triumphantly at the Father’s right hand because he triumphed over death. And that means that his death was accepted by God the Father as an adequate and full and complete and final atonement for sins.
In contrast to the Levitical priests who stand daily at their work offering sacrifices that can’t take away sins, Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand having finished his work. But note that the extent of our Lord’s saving and redemptive work doesn’t just stop at the forgiveness of sins for his people. That’s the starting point but it’s not the ending point. The ending point is this: “From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool” (13). This is a reference to the complete and final victory of Jesus Christ over all his enemies, including death. Listen to the way the apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians: “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:24-26). There is coming a day when the saints will inhabit a new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13), and for that hope we look for and long.
We can know that our hope is not vain in the Second Coming of Christ because he has already come and proven his word by rising from the dead and by being seated victoriously at the Father’s right hand. We can know that our sins have been forgiven if we are in Christ because he didn’t stay dead. He was raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25).
God the Spirit and the prophesy of redemption (15-18)
But there is one more witness to this and it is the witness of the Holy Spirit in Old Covenant prophesy of a New Covenant. In verses 16-17, we are reminded of the prophesy and promise of a new heart and the forgiveness of sins. Again, note how this is framed: “Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us” (15). Let us never forget that when the prophets speak, the Holy Spirit speaks, God speaks. What are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments? They are God’s inspired word, breathed out by him (2 Tim. 3:16). They are infallibly true. They are inerrant and trustworthy.
And at no time can we appreciate this fact more than now. Think about all the misinformation out there. You’ve probably heard that the government is establishing a Disinformation Board, which I doubt anyone really believes is going to be objective and help us get to the truth. We are awash in information and misinformation, and it is virtually impossible to always discern one from the other. But thank God, we have his word. Whatever else may be true, we know the Bible is true.
So how can we know that we can have the forgiveness of sins? Because he has said so. God has promised it to us in his word. We have it in the New Covenant, which means we have it in Jesus Christ who is the mediator of the New Covenant. If you trust in him, all your sins will be forgiven. That is not my promise, that is God’s promise. And he always keeps his word. You can bank on it. And so we come to verse 18: “Now where remission of these [sins] is, there is no more offering for sin.” Praise God!
If you don’t think you need Jesus or you don’t even think you’re a sinner who deserves eternal punishment, then you might think this is so much bunk because you aren’t bothered by your sins to begin with. But it doesn’t matter in the end what you think of your sins; what matters is what God thinks of them. One day you will die and stand before your Maker and the blinders will come off and your mouth will be silenced, and you will stand guilty before God with absolutely no hope. Oh my friend, do not stay in a denial of your sinfulness, but flee to Christ!
But if you are united to Christ, then your sins are forgotten insofar as they are obstacles to your relationship with God and entrance into his favor. Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to deal with our sins and ask for their forgiveness and to repent of them. When the text says that our sins are remembered no more (17), this is a reference to God, not to us. But if you are a Christian, even the way we remember our sins changes, for now we remember them as we remember Christ. Should we remember our sins? Yes, but we should also remember Christ and to continue to come to him for cleansing from the guilt and pollution of sin in our lives (cf. 1 Jn. 1:7, 9). This is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper, isn’t it? “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). “This do in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). Don’t look at your sins without looking to Christ.
Let me therefore end with a quotation from that holy man Robert Murray M’Cheyne, which I think is a fitting conclusion to all that we have said here:
“Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and for all sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms. . .”i