You’re in a tough graduate school class – the subject matter is really advanced and the professor has high expectations. There are numerous quizzes but the major portion of the final grade is determined by the three exams. You must make at least a ‘C’ in this class to earn your degree. It is a required course. Going along, you do alright on the quizzes, making 9 out of 10 most of the time. But you’re nervous on the day of the first exam and with good reason. It is comprehensive. Everything that was covered in the course to that point is on this exam. The professor is tough, remember?
You fail it badly! Now what? You have to have this class. Your score was so low, mathematically it will just about take a miracle for you to pass. Even if you ace the next couple of exams – and oh by the way the material is getting more and more difficult –you’re still not sure it will pull your grade up to a passing grade. And you cannot see how you will possibly ace the exams. Your performance to this point has made that prospect pretty doubtful. The failing grade sticks to you. It clings and won’t release you. The ‘F’ in the class, or ‘D’ if you’re lucky, affects your overall GPA. And you will have to retake the class and pass it to graduate. Even though you admitted your failure, admission is no help. You have to make up for it.
This exact scenario happened to one of my best friends in seminary. We were required to pass one semester of Biblical Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. The story is exactly as I laid it out. My friend made something like a 37 out of 100 on the first Hebrew exam. He and I had an emotional talk about him dropping out of seminary and giving up the dream of being a pastor. He knew he couldn’t pull that grade up. The professor knew it too, and he called my friend into his office.
My buddy was shaking in his shoes as he approached that meeting. He was a wreck. Surprisingly, this hard core academic professor was kind. He was pastoral. He said to my friend, “You’re averaging between 85 and 90 on your quizzes and you never miss class. If we get past the anxiety, I think you can get at least a ‘C’ on the next two exams. If you promise never to try to go into ancient languages as a specialty, we will not count the first exam against your final grade.”
My friend had no hope. But then, because of the professor’s grace, he passed. The failing on the first exam was washed away and not counted against him.
From Hebrews 10:10, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.”
Sanctified means made holy as God is holy. Sin is what makes it impossible for a human being to be holy. Made in God’s image, declared very good at the creation, we have marred what God has made by worshiping that which is not God, by going our own way instead of God’s way, and by doing harm to one another and to ourselves in large and small ways. We all sin. Most of us make mistakes and in some form or fashion disobey God every day. We cannot ever, ever be holy. We have no place in God’s new heaven and new earth. We will be banished from that place, sent to outer darkness, because our sin sticks to us. But, like my seminary friend who had the professor, a notoriously strict prof, mercifully forgive an awful exam, through what Jesus did on the cross, ours are forgiven and forgotten. As verse 2 implies, when we are in Christ, we no longer have any consciousness of sin.
I realize that saved persons still sin. We all do. Even though Hebrews says we are made perfect, we know that beleivers aren’t perfect. Churchgoers are not better than other people. But we are free from sin’s clutches and consequences. With the Spirit in us, we have help, so we can commit fewer sins and do more good things, acts that show we are God’s service as he works at establishing His kingdom. Because of His grace and mercy, we get to be part of what God is doing.
At the risk of declaring the obvious, one of the reasons we are acceptable to God is Jesus takes care of our sins by taking the punishment on himself. Now in the post-crucifixion/post-resurrection world, the sins of all who trust in Jesus are erased. Yes, we sin, but those sins don’t count against us in God’s eyes, and it is because of Jesus.
Looking at Hebrews 10, especially the first five verses, and several other passages, the great reformer John Calvin in his monumental work Institutesdescribes an important distinction he sees in the passage. “In the Jewish ceremonies,” referred to in verses 1-6, “there was confession of sin rather than atonement for them.” Yes, the sins of individuals and the community were acknowledged. But as he reads Hebrews 10, Calvin says that in confession which happened in the old sacrificial system, “there was no release” from sin.
The sin was named and passed on to an animal that was then butchered. But that act did nothing for future sins and did nothing to change the status of the person. He or she was still a sinner, completely unable to be seen as holy in God’s presence.
Imagine the scene. You and I and all of us here are seated along with all others we have ever known. The room is large, but one by one we are called before God to be judged for all we have done in our lives. How many times have we spoken rudely? Or shouted “God,”only not in prayer but as an expression of anger or surprise? That would qualify as taking the Lord’s name in vain. How many times have we despised another human being or looked down on someone? Do these seem like nickel and dime sins? Maybe we could throw in pre-marital sex or cheating on an exam or gossip or gluttony. We might be tempted to be appalled that God would condemn someone for such fluff. But is it fluff, as it piles up over the course of a lifetime, year after year? Greed, selfishness, drunkenness, lust, sloth – without going into $20 and $50 sins like theft, rape, and murder, we can see we are indeed sinful and over the years we build up a sin record.
So, then our name is called and it is that sin record we carry in before God. It is on that record we stand when it is time for final judgment – a judgment that is repeatedly forecast in the Old Testament and the New. What do we say? O Lord, I went on 10 mission trips! But God, I gave not 10% to the church and other ministries, but 12% and some years even 15%. Our good deeds don’t outweigh our sins and even if someone did more good than bad, the bad is still there. The mistakes and times of disobedience and moments when we decided our way was better than God’s way or we just weren’t into the ‘god-thing’ right then – it all continues to soil the good creation God has made. In the renewed earth and new heaven, there will be no soiling, no spoiling, no polluting, no profaning – no sin. With our sin caked on us, we must go away. We cannot enter the kingdom. God won’t have us. We are banished to an outer, lonely, dark, miserable place.
A religion dependent on our ritual observance does nothing for us on that day. We’re only as cleaned as our most recent act of worship and even the admission of guilt does nothing to remove the guilt. Calvin juxtaposes the confession of sin that accompanied the worship rituals we read about in the Old Testament with the atonement Jesus achieves in his death on the cross. As Calvin holds side by side a sacrificial worship system and the sacrifice of Jesus, it becomes clear that Jesus’ death was a permanent solution whereas the sacrifice in the tabernacle or temple is only good until the person sins again.
Calvin says the people of faith from the Old Testament era were “partakers of grace” just as we are, but not because of their diligent worship practices but because of God’s love. God did not suddenly become loving and merciful. He has always been so. But the coming of Christ changed everything for everyone. Calvin’s point is not that Christians have a superior spirituality over Old Testament believers. His point is the sacrifice of one man one time – Jesus erases all sins for all time for those whom Calvin refers to as the elect. I believe – and I am sure I diverge from Calvin on this – any and all who turn to Jesus in faith are among the elect. God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all people. His grace is for all and all are intended to be elected by God. There is no limited atonement, at least not a pre-planned one. There is no irresistable grace. We choose to live in the election granted us when we bow before Jesus; we opt to increase our sin when we reject Jesus and thus reject God’s grace. God created us and sent Jesus to redeem us so we could be free from the sins we can’t shake even when we try. God chose us out of deep, deep love for us. When we choose to receive what God gives and live in faith, his Spirit fills us, we are born again, and we are free. We are free from guilt and free to live for God.
That means we are free to bask in God’s joy when we go on mission trips; we aren’t going to earn salvation. We’re going because Jesus earned our salvation and we know how good it is to be saved.
We are free to give our money and some among us experience God’s joy in a uniquely wonderful way when they give; all of us are freed and invited into the joy of sharing. We don’t give 10 or 12 or 20% of our incomes to earn salvation. We give because we have been saved and we want our financial gifts to empower the church and empower international ministries to carry the gospel of salvation to the world.
By God’s will, we have been sanctified – made right, made holy. Hebrews 10 takes us from the frustration of having to repeat worship rituals over and over to the declaration that we are made to be holy. Just as Jesus said before his death on the cross so we now repeat, “it is finished.”
The last day then is different than we previously imagined. Go there with me to the final scene, the very end. We’ve died, and in death, we’ve waited. In sort of sleep, or in a place called Paradise, we have waited for God’s final consummation, and it arrives – the final judgment when God sets all things right in the world. Along with all others that we know, we wait in a large room. Individual names are called, and one-by-one, we enter. Carrying the burden of a lifetime of sins, we know this isn’t going to go well.
Entering in fear, we are surprised to see Jesus himself, and even more surprised to see his smile as he welcomes us. Suddenly we remember a theological term – justification. In means the court rules in your favor, sees you to be in the right. Here, at your final judgment and mine, Jesus looks at us and rules in our favor. He sees us to be in the right. But what about God’s demand for holiness? What about our sins, our mistakes, and our failures? Jesus has it covered for us – all of us. Because he took on himself the penalty for all our sins and we put our trust in Him, we are sanctified and he declares us innocent.
It means we are free to enter His kingdom, inhabiting our resurrected bodies as we live in glorious relationship with God.
If we have confessed our sins and received Jesus into our hearts and acknowledged him as Lord, we know that’s how it will go. Obviously I don’t the specifics down, no one does. But at the judgment, because of what Jesus did for us, the verdict will go in our favor.
That future hope and future freedom frees us to live as Kingdom people, resurrection people, today. We are free from sin’s hold and death’s shadow. In the here and now, sin still hurts, but it doesn’t stick to us at all. We’re forgiven and made new. We are free to go on mission trips, give our money to God’s work, to invest our lives in loving people and sharing the gospel. We’re free to be completely sold-out for Jesus in every phase of life.
His verdict? Innocent of sin, holy before Lord. Knowing that, we are free to follow the Lord and do His work in the world right now.