As a truly Reformed sort of fellow who follows the regulative principle of worship, I believe that if God does not COMMAND something in worship, then it is FORBIDDEN in worship. Yet it is sometimes difficult to work out the regulative principle in the church. Sure, we don't need no stinking drama in our church; but what do you do with traditional Christian holidays that have no specific Biblical warrant? God did not command them. Is it lawful to recognize them? My solution is to get rid of Christmas Eve and Good Friday services (the Lord's Day is the only required meeting day of the saints). But is that enough? Some people do not think so. They think I am compromising with the "Roman Whore" (their EXACT words) if I preach on the incarnation in December!
Several years ago I published an article in the Report justifying why I thought it appropriate to celebrate Christmas as a civic and family holiday (but NOT as a religious holiday). I said it was lawful for people (if they wanted) to have a Christmas tree, give presents, and sing Christmas carols. (Why can I lawfully celebrate my wife's birthday but not my Lord's?)
As a result of that article, I received numerous blasts from other "truly Reformed" types. One indignant brother sent me a copy of his church bulletin to show me what a truly Reformed order of worship looked like. The church bulletin was from October and prominently featured an advertisement for their annual Reformation Day Sunday celebration with special guest speaker, potluck dinner, and children's costume party. I asked my esteemed brother where in Scripture he received permission to celebrate the Reformation as a special day? He answereth not. It seems that it is perfectly fine to preach a message on patriotism on Memorial Day, a special sermon on Proverbs 31 on Mother's Day, and haul out all the stops for Reformation Day, but we mustn't preach about the crucifixion around Easter!
I weary of such pharisaical nit-picking and am sometimes sorely tempted to buy a few crosses and candles as decorations for my church just to see how loudly I can make some people squeal! But I won't. I'll be big about it. I'll not intentionally offend a brother (unnecessarily!). Instead, as Easter approaches, I'll preach a series of messages on the atonement. Something along the lines of the below. . .
The Need for the Atonement
Our God is a holy God, pure and blameless. He cannot abide sin. "Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and thou cans't not look on wickedness with favor" (Hab. 1:13). Sin is a horrible stain on his creation. He must remove both sin and sinful men from his presence. Hence, "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Is. 59:2).
Furthermore, sin not only separates us from God, but from one another. Because of sin, men are "alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds" (Col. 1:21). Consequently, there awaits the unrepentant sinner only a "certain, terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries of God" (Heb. 10:27).
Because of sin, the entire earth is cursed (Gen. 3:17), subjected to futility, and longs to be set free from its slavery to corruption (Rom. 8:20-22). Not only are all of man's works affected by his sin, but also the very ground he stands on. Sin is a horrible stain on the perfect creation of God. What had been created "very good" has now become filled with corruption.
We are utterly unable to deal with our sin. We cannot hide from it, "your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23). We cannot cleanse ourselves from it: "Who can say I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?" (Pr. 20:9). We cannot make up for it with good works for "by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Rom. 3:20).
Since there is no one who is without sin (1 Kin. 8:46; Ps. 14:3; Ec. 7:20; Mk. 10:18; Rom. 3:23; etc.), the entire human race is condemned before a holy and righteous God. Unless God chooses to do something, we are lost. He is holy; he cannot abide sin. He is immutable; he cannot change. But our God is also a God of compassion and lovingkindness. He himself redeems his people AND his creation by making atonement for their sins.
The Basis of Atonement: Sacrifice
The basic term for atonement is kippur, or covering. The basic concept is substitution; i.e., God allows someone or something to receive the punishment due for our sin. The basic content of a sacrifice is blood, "for the life is in the blood." God instituted the ritual of sacrifice in the Garden of Eden. His promise to Adam and Eve was that the day they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would die. His word had to be kept. After they sinned, he killed an animal and dressed them in its skin (Gen. 3:21). This act exemplified both covering and substitution: covering, because God covered their bodies, hiding their nakedness/vulnerability; and substitution, because God substituted the life of the animal for their lives.
The second sacrifices in the Bible were Cain and Abel's: one acceptable to God, the other rejected by him (Gen. 4:4-5). It can be argued that Abel's sacrifice was accepted because it was an animal sacrifice; blood was shed. Cain's was rejected because as an offering of fruit and vegetables it was not a blood sacrifice.
The third sacrifice occurred when Noah offered burnt offerings to God for his salvation from the flood (Gen. 8:20). Here God instituted the practice of eating the flesh of animals (Gen. 9:3), including the flesh of the sacrifice. Thus the sacrifice literally becomes a part of man.
The next significant sacrifice occurred when God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1ff.). This illustrates both the price that had to be paid (Abraham's promised son) and the fact that a substitution could be made (the animal that God provided).
During the deliverance of his people from bondage in Egypt (itself a picture of man's slavery to sin), God instituted two main sacrifices for Israel. The first was Passover, wherein an animal was sacrificed to redeem the first-born. Before the Exodus, a lamb was slain and its blood was painted on the door-posts of the house. God passed over the first-born in the house as he visited his wrath on Egypt. The second main sacrifice was Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement. Each year an animal was sacrificed for the entire nation of Israel. On that day, the high priest put aside his priestly garments and wore a simple white garment. He first offered a bullock as a sin offering for the priesthood. After filling his censor with live coals, from the altar, he entered the Holy of Holies holding the bowl of blood from the bullock. He placed incense on the coals, sending a cloud of fragrant smoke over the mercy seat. He took blood from the bullock and sprinkled it over the mercy seat, making atonement for the priesthood. Then a goat was sacrificed as a sin offering for the people. The goat's blood was then sprinkled on the altar. The high priest laid his hands on a second goat that was driven into the desert where it symbolically carried away the sins of the people. Thus were the people's sins covered and a substitution made for them.
Atonement and the New Testament
The Old Testament sacrifice is a picture, a shadow, and an earthly copy of concrete realities, just as the New Testament sacraments are. Christ is the archetypical High Priest (Heb. 7:26-27) and therefore makes atonement for his people. "For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God" (Heb. 9:24).
The blood of animals could never be a real substitute for sin: "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). But it did provide a picture and a promise of the coming Messiah. Hence, it is crucial to understand that in his death, Christ fulfilled all that the old sacrifices foreshadowed (Mt. 26:28). "He was delivered up because of our transgressions" (Rom. 4:25). His blood was shed for the "behalf of many for forgiveness of sins" (Eph. 1:17; Col. 1:14). He made "purification for sins" (Heb. 1:3). "He is the propitiation (i.e., sacrifice which turns away God's wrath) for our sins" (1 Jn. 2:2). His blood is "the blood of the new covenant" (1 Cor. 11:25). Christ "gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma" (Eph. 5:2). "Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7). We were redeemed not with perishable things such as silver or gold "but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:19). "Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world" (Jn. 1:29).
The death of Christ was representative for us: "One died for all, therefore all died" (2 Cor. 5:14). The death of Christ was a ransom, a price paid to buy a slave out of slavery: "For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for man" (Mk. 10:45). God "made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:5-6).
The death of Christ reveals God's love for men: "God demonstrates His own love for us in this, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son" (Jn. 3:16).
The atonement ought to drive us to our knees in both humility and appreciation. If our great God hates sin so much, how dare we flirt with temptation? Even worse, how dare we deny our sin, or blame it on someone else or, even worse, try to atone for it through our own efforts? Sin is wicked, evil and repugnant; and we ought to hate it and forsake it even as our God does.
Second, since there is NO solution for sin apart from Christ's sacrifice, we must rest and trust in Jesus alone. The law ought to drive us to our knees in fearful anticipation of the righteous wrath of a holy and awesome God. But then the mercy and grace of God exalts us as he demonstrates through the cross his great love for his unlovely people. We are now new creations, with a new life, future and hope. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). We now have a whole new way of living and a new way of thinking because Jesus has made atonement for our sins.
The atonement ought to make us love our God in response. As a result of his sacrifice for us, how can we not give back to him everything? Our time, money, family, calling, everything we have comes from him and has been redeemed by him. Therefore we can say with David, "How do I love thy Law? It is my meditation all the day. . . ."
Only by grace can the mercy of God be given, only by faith can the mercy of God be received. "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.