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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of theology today. We are in the midst of covering soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, and last time we just began to cover justification, which is the heart of the gospel. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to begin today?

Dr. Spencer: By reading the verses from Romans that I mentioned at the very end of our last session. We read in Romans 3:21-26, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 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—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.” [1]

Marc Roby: That is a truly marvelous and theologically rich passage. What do you want to say about it?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to note that these verses speak about a “righteousness from God”, which comes “through faith”, and that we are “justified freely” through the redemption earned by Christ. James Boice wrote that “justification by faith is God’s answer to the most basic of all religious questions: How can a man or woman become right with God?”[2]

Marc Roby: And, of course, as the passage notes, the bad news is that we have all sinned, so no one is right with God on his own.

Dr. Spencer: That is the problem. We have a bad inheritance from our first father, Adam. Because he was our representative before God, when he sinned, which is called the fall, we all sinned in him. Therefore, we inherit both his guilt and his sinful nature. And because of our sinful nature, we all personally sin and increase our guilt daily. Question 17 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?”

Marc Roby: And the answer says, “The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is the Catechism’s way of expressing the bad news. Certainly, when we look at the history of the world, we see the truth of this statement. It doesn’t negate the fact that life can have many legitimate joys and pleasures, but when you look at all of the sickness, cruelty, wars and even death itself, calling this an estate of sin and misery is accurate. But even worse is the fact that we must all face judgment at the end of this life. Every single human being will then either go to eternal heaven, or eternal hell. There are no other options.

Marc Roby: And Jesus said the same thing. In Matthew 25:46, he famously said that sinners, “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: And we are all sinners. Hence, to rephrase Boice, the most basic of all religious questions, and I would say the most basic and important of all questions of any type, is “How can a sinner be made right with God?” Our eternal destiny depends on being right with God.

And modern Christianity often tragically neglects this most basic question. The focus is often on how God can help us to live better lives here and now. But as Christ himself asked, in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”

Marc Roby: And by forfeiting the soul, Christ was referring to going to eternal hell.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Nothing could be worse. It doesn’t matter how good this life is if you go to hell. And there is another heresy that is common among those few churches that do talk about heaven and hell or, more often, just about heaven. They will often present a gospel that, in effect, claims that you can earn your way to heaven. Many people think that God grades on a curve. That he will look at our life and weigh, if you will, the good and the bad things we do and so long as the good outweigh the bad, we will go to heaven. But that is not what the Bible says. Jesus told us, in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, no one can meet that standard.

Dr. Spencer: No, we can’t. Even if a man lives a perfect life from the moment he is born again, he won’t be saved by his own righteousness because he sinned before that time. He is not perfect.

Marc Roby: And no one ever lives a perfect life, even after being saved.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that is certainly true. But even if someone did, it wouldn’t be enough. There are 162 games in a normal major-league baseball season and if a team loses the first game, then it can’t have a perfect season. Even if it wins the next 161 games in a row, it still isn’t a perfect season. God does not grade on a curve. He is perfect and we must be perfect to be in heaven with him.

Marc Roby: Well, that makes it sound hopeless given the fact that no one is perfect.

Dr. Spencer: But there is hope in God because he can make us perfect. But that is a different topic, which we will get to later. For now I want to stick with justification, and justification isn’t about making us perfect, it is about our legal standing before God. In other words, it is about our guilt. God will ultimately perfect us, and he has begun that work in every born-again person, but our justification is not related to our own righteousness, that is a very common misunderstanding.

Notice what Paul wrote in the passage we started with. He said, “But now a righteousness from God … has been made known”, and that “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ …”. In other words, this righteousness is not our own, it comes from God.

Marc Roby: I’m glad to hear that.

Dr. Spencer: And so is every person whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see his own sin clearly. In his commentary on this passage, Martin Luther quoted St. Augustine, who wrote that Paul, “does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.”[3] In other words, this is speaking about the righteousness that is imputed to us when we place our trust in Christ. We spoke about the double imputation last week; God imputes our sin to Christ – meaning he places our sin in Christ’s account, and he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us – meaning he places his righteousness in our account.

Marc Roby: Augustine’s writing that God clothes us with this righteousness is a very descriptive way of putting it, and it completely agrees with the Bible. In Romans 13:14 Paul wrote that we should clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And it also harkens back to the Old Testament. In one of the visions given to the prophet Zechariah, we see the high priest Joshua presented before God’s court. We read in Zechariah 3:3, “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.” The filthy clothes represent Joshua’s sin. In his natural state he was not worthy of coming into God’s presence. And then, in Verse 4, we read, “The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’” In other words, he clothed Joshua in righteousness that came from God. That is the only way we can be declared righteous, or just, in God’s sight. We cannot earn our salvation, it is a gift.

Marc Roby: And, since you referred to God’s court, we could say that this justification is a legal declaration of God.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what it is. In his systematic theology, Wayne Grudem defines it this way: “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”[4]  Theologians sometime use the word forensic, which simply means having to do with the law, so this doctrine can be called forensic justification. We’ll talk about this more when we get to the nature of justification, but there is something else I want to discuss first. Theologians sometimes speak of the “triangle of salvation”[5]

Marc Roby: Now, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is a useful way of describing the different aspects of salvation, which can sometimes be confusing to people because different terms are used for the different aspects of salvation and there is some overlap in the meaning and use of the terms. For example, in Matthew 1:21we are told that Jesus was named Jesus because, “he will save his people from their sins.” That uses the generic term “save”, which has a range of uses. Then, in Luke 1:68 we read about John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” That talks about being redeemed, which is more specific and we will discuss that in a moment. And in the verses we are considering now, we read in Romans 3:24-25 that we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” These speak about being justified, and about redemption, and about a sacrifice of atonement, or it would be better to translate that as a propitiation.

Marc Roby: OK, there are a lot of different words used here. So what are the important differences and how does this so-called triangle of salvation come into play?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s define some terms first. The word atone means to make amends for some wrong that has been done to someone. It is a fairly general term that can apply to the whole of Christ’s work in paying the penalty we owe because of our sinful rebellion against God. Redemption, on the other hand, is more specific and refers, for example, to paying a ransom to free a prisoner or a slave.[6] Justification, as we have already said, is a judicial term and refers to declaring someone to be just, or righteous in the sight of the law. And, finally, to propitiate means to pacify, to appease, in other words to regain the favor of an offended party.[7]

Marc Roby: And God is the offended party in this case.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. To quote John Murray’s excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which we have used a number of times, “sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin”.[8] To propitiate is to pacify God’s just wrath. And this is done, specifically, by covering our sins. To quote John Murray again, “Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[9] He also wrote that in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, propitiation “is expressed by a word which means to ‘cover.’”[10]

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Psalm 32, that wonderful penitent psalm of King David. That psalm begins by saying, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great psalm and it uses poetic parallelism to equate having our transgressions forgiven with having our sins covered. The Greek word used in Romans 3:25, which the NIV translates as “sacrifice of atonement”, but which the ESV[11] more correctly translates as “propitiation”, is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion). This word is used in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ, to refer to the atonement cover on the Ark of the Covenant.

Marc Roby: I remember that we have discussed the symbolism of the atonement cover before.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we have. In Session 134 we noted that in the Old Testament period the high priest would go into the Most Holy Place once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, which is the atonement cover. The ark contained the law of God, which the people had broken and which, therefore, testified against them. The symbolism was that when God, who appeared above the cover, looked down toward the ark, his view of the law would be blocked by the blood. In other words, the blood covered the tablets of the law, which testified against the people.

Marc Roby: And so, Christ’s sacrifice of atonement, to use the NIV translation, refers to his having covered our sins with his own blood.

Dr. Spencer: Which is offensive to modern man, but that is the symbolism used. And the fact that it is offensive is appropriate. Sin is ugly. Sin is offensive. It must be punished. It is a topic that we should find very disturbing. And we are told in Hebrews 9:22 that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

Marc Roby: Which immediately makes me think of Leviticus 17:11, where God explains why the Jews were prohibited from eating meat with the blood still in it. God said, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that verse is foundational. Now, I personally don’t like blood. I could never have been a medical doctor. But we need to come to grips with how serious sin really is. We need to personalize these things. I need to realize that my sin is so ugly that God, being the holy and just Judge of the universe, could not forgive my sin without its having been paid for by blood, it had to be covered. Either my blood, or some acceptable substitute. And I am eternally grateful that God provided Jesus Christ, the only acceptable substitute, and the final sacrifice to which the entire Old Testament sacrificial system pointed. He provided propitiation for me.

Marc Roby: And now that we have these three terms defined, justification, propitiation and redemption, what is the triangle of salvation?

Dr. Spencer: It is a good way of visualizing the amazing completeness of Christ’s work on our behalf. Picture a triangle with a horizontal base and one of the vertices on top in the middle. In other words, it is shaped like a mountain. That top vertex, or the peak of the mountain, is God the Father, the vertex on the bottom-left is Jesus Christ, in other words God the Son, and the vertex on the bottom-right is a Christian. Each side of the triangle represents a relationship, but specifically with regard to our salvation. The bottom represents our relationship to Christ; he is our Redeemer. The left side represents Christ’s relationship to the Father; Christ is our Propitiation. His sacrifice appeases the wrath of God. The right side represents our relationship to the Father; he justifies us.[12]

Marc Roby: We are certainly the winners here in every transaction! Christ provides our propitiation, he redeems us, and God the Father justifies us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are blessed beyond our wildest imagination, and we contribute nothing positive to our justification, we only contribute our sin, which is entirely negative. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: I know that there are theologians who disagree with the idea of propitiation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there are some who don’t like the idea of God being angry and wrathful toward men. But they have to do some exegetical gymnastics to try and avoid the clear biblical teaching about the anger and wrath of God. For example, in speaking to the Israelites on the plains of Moab to prepare them for entering the Promised Land, Moses told them, in Deuteronomy 9:8, that “At Horeb you aroused the LORD’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you.”

Marc Roby: And Moses was referring to the time the people had Aaron make a golden calf as an idol for them to worship while Moses was on the mountain speaking to God.[13]

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It is impossible to read the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, and miss the fact that God is angry with sin and wrathful toward sinners. We are told in Psalm 2:12, for example, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” And in Psalm 7:11 we are told that “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” The prophet Jeremiah spoke the Word of the Lord to the people in Jerusalem to warn them prior to the Babylonian captivity. And in Jeremiah 32:31 we read that God said, “From the day it was built until now, this city has so aroused my anger and wrath that I must remove it from my sight.” There are literally dozens and dozens of other verses I could cite.

Marc Roby: And the same message is also found in the New Testament. In John 3:36, no less than John the Baptist said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” And in Romans 1:18 Paul wrote that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness”, and then again in Romans 2:8 Paul wrote, “But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”

Dr. Spencer: And Revelation 6:16 speaks of the wrath of the Lamb, which refers to Jesus Christ. And then in Revelation 19:15 we are told the following about Christ, “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.” So no one should think that it is only the Father who is wrathful. God is one. We need Christ to propitiate the wrath of God, which is against every sinner.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to learning more about how Christ accomplished that great work for his people, but we are out of time for today. So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 416

[3] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. By J.T. Mueller, Kregel Publications, 1976, pg. 76

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 723

[5] E.g., P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 133, and Boice, op. cit., pp 322-323

[6] E.g., see Boice, op. cit., pp 323-330

[7] E.g., Webster’s says “to gain or regain the favor or goodwill of”, also see Ref. 8

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 30

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] English Standard Version

[12] See Boice, op. cit., pg. 323

[13] See Exodus 32:1-8

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. And we are using the order presented by John Murray in his excellent book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He gives the following order: effectual calling, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and finally, glorification.[1] In our session last week we finished regeneration, so, Dr. Spencer, I think we are ready to begin examining repentance and faith.

Dr. Spencer: We are indeed. And what a glorious topic that is. As we have discussed, when a person is born again, or regenerated, by the Holy Spirit, he or she is made into a new creation. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”[2] And the first thing this new creation does is to repent and believe. And that is something that we must personally do. It is our response to God’s monergistic work of regeneration.

In fact, it would be impossible for a born-again person to not repent. The man who has been regenerated sees clearly, although not yet completely, just how vile and terrible his own sin is. He is now aware of how he has offended God and the only possible response is to fall at God’s feet and cry out for mercy. Just as a man who is dying of thirst must drink, so a man who has been born again must seek God’s forgiveness. It grieves him that he has offended God, his guilt gnaws at his soul and his longing for God, who he now sees as supremely good, draws him forward.

Marc Roby: One of the most beautiful expressions of this attitude in the Bible is Psalm 51. In that psalm, King David cries out to God in repentance after God used the prophet Nathan to convict him of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and then his having her husband Uriah the Hittite killed in order to cover it up.

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful psalm. It not only displays great sorrow for having offended God, it also demonstrates a great hope that God will be merciful in response to true repentance.

Let me read the first 8 verses. David cries out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.”

Marc Roby: You get a great sense of the pain that David felt when he was brought to the place of seeing his sin clearly. And he understood that although he had sinned greatly against Bathsheba, her husband Uriah and even the people of his kingdom, his real problem was that he had sinned against God. And he had nothing he could plead in his defense; all he could do was to cry out for God’s mercy.

Dr. Spencer: I agree it is a wonderful psalm and I encourage our listeners to read it over carefully and apply it to their own lives. David also clearly understood that God is the only one who could take care of his sin problem. And he knew that the basis for any relief would have to be in the unfailing love and mercy of God, not in something David himself could do.

There are also a couple of much shorter, but no less poignant, expressions of true repentance given to us in the New Testament as well.

Marc Roby: What are those?

Dr. Spencer: Well, one of them is the thief on the cross. Remember that two thieves were crucified with Jesus. And initially, they both mocked him, but then God mercifully caused one of them to be born again. That thief was immediately made able to see the truth and we read in Luke 23:40-41 that he rebuked the other thief for continuing to mock Jesus. He said, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Marc Roby: That is a simple but profound confession, he saw that he deserved punishment and that Jesus did not.

Dr. Spencer: And he then went on, as we read in Luke 23:42 to cry out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He clearly saw that Jesus has an eternal kingdom that transcends this life and by faith he entrusted himself to Christ. We don’t know exactly how much this man knew about Jesus’ teaching, but he obviously knew enough.

Marc Roby: And he received what must be one of the most wonderful comforts ever given to any human being. We read in Luke 23:43 that Christ told him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Dr. Spencer: That is amazing. And that thief has been in glory for nearly 2,000 years. But there is an even shorter confession in the New Testament, which I’d like to take a little time to examine. In Luke 18 we are told the wonderful parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Marc Roby: Let me read that parable. In Luke 18:9-14 we read, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

Dr. Spencer: There is a lot of rich teaching in that parable, but notice how succinct the tax collector’s confession is. He simply said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The brevity of this confession in no way argues against the value of confessing our sins to God in detail, this man was obviously not in a position to be making a long confession. But his confession makes it clear that what is essential is a heart that has been changed. It has been changed so that it sees God in his holy majesty and it sees how our sins, even the smallest of them, are wicked rebellion against this most glorious and gracious God.

Marc Roby: We also see the tax collector’s reverence for God in the facts that he stood at a distance and wouldn’t even look up to heaven. He obviously understood that he was unworthy to come into God’s presence.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s very true and very important. In fact, as Luke indicated, Jesus told this parable to some “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else”. We must always guard against thinking that we are somehow worthy of salvation. The truth is that what we are worthy of is damnation. Salvation is a free gift offered by grace alone. If anyone thinks that he is worthy of going to heaven, then he is not saved and he is on his way to hell. God’s standard is absolutely perfect holiness, and no one outside of the God-man Jesus Christ meets that standard.

Marc Roby: Jesus himself told us in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the reality. God is perfect. He will not bring sinners to heaven to dwell with him forever without perfecting them first. And we all need serious change, as Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. There is no hope for any of us if we try to stand before the judgment seat of Christ on our own merits. Our sins must be atoned for. The tax collector saw this problem clearly. He saw that God is perfect in his holiness and justice and he realized that he was a rebellious sinner. That’s why he wouldn’t come close and he wouldn’t lift up his eyes to heaven.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of the very first line of John Calvin’s Institutes, Calvin wrote that “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[3]

Dr. Spencer: That is very true. The tax collector had been born again and as a new creation he saw clearly the Creator/creature distinction. He knew he had a problem that he couldn’t possibly solve himself. James Boice in his book The Parables of Jesus points out that the beginning and ending of this simple prayer reveal the tax collector’s understanding of his problem.[4] The prayer begins simply by saying, “God”, and it ends with “me, a sinner.” There could not be a greater contrast than that.

He stood before God, albeit at a distance and with his head bowed in shame, as a guilty sinner deserving God’s wrath and unable to pay the debt himself. But he knew much more than that. In our English translation the prayer reads, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But in the Greek, the word translated here as “have mercy” is ἱλάσκομαι (hilaskomai), which means to propitiate.[5] And, as John Murray explains, “Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[6]

Marc Roby: It’s also interesting that hilaskomai is the verb form of the Greek word used for the mercy seat, or atonement cover, in the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ. The mercy seat was called the ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) in the Septuagint.

Dr. Spencer: Boice makes that point also, and even offers an interesting translation of the tax collector’s prayer. He correctly says that it could be rendered, albeit quite awkwardly, as “God, be mercy-seated toward me, a sinner”.[7] Now Christ had not yet died, so the tax collector still had in mind the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the high priest would go into the holy of holies once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat. But the New Testament makes clear, particularly in Hebrews 9, that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing toward Christ. He alone is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” as John the Baptist declared in John 1:29.

And so, the tax collector’s prayer, while very short, was also very profound. He had a deep understanding of his problem and of the solution that God offers. And he came to God in true repentance for his sins and faith in the solution God offers in the gospel. And that is why Jesus said he went home “justified before God.”

Marc Roby: We will be talking about justification soon since it is the next item in the ordo salutis, but for now we should probably note that it is a legal declaration wherein God declares a sinner to be righteous in his sight.

Dr. Spencer: And we should add that the declaration is made on the basis of our being united to Christ by faith. As you said, it is a legal declaration. God is not saying that we are righteous in ourselves, that would be a lie. But, because we are united to Christ by faith, his righteousness is counted as ours. He took our sins upon himself and paid for them on the cross and, in return, he gives us his perfect righteousness. This is the double transaction, or double imputation that we have mentioned a number of times and which Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where we read that “God made him who had no sin” which, of course, refers to Jesus Christ, “to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Marc Roby: And that is the glory of the gospel in one verse. It doesn’t get any better than that. We give God the filth of our sins and he gives us the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is the best deal anyone could ever possibly imagine getting. But we are getting off topic a bit since we are considering conversion, or repentance and faith, today.

Marc Roby: Well, it’s not really off topic since we are united to Christ by faith.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But let’s get back to finishing what it truly means to repent. The tax collector had true repentance, but there can also be a repentance of sorts that does not lead to salvation.

Marc Roby: I assume you are referring to what Paul calls worldly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10, where we read, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what I’m referring to. Often, when people say they repent of something they have done, or more likely they just say that they are sorry for something, all they really mean is that they are sorry for the circumstances it has produced. When we sin, we pay in some way. It isn’t always immediate, nor are the consequences in this life always proportional to the sin, but we do pay.

So, for example, if we look at a young man who has been lazy all through school and as a result ends up working in some menial job for minimum wage, he may say that he is sorry for not having applied himself in school, but what he really means is that he is unhappy about the fact that he can’t get a job with higher pay. In other words, he is sorry for the consequences of his sin, not the sin itself.

Marc Roby: And that kind of worldly sorrow is very common. But that is a far cry from the biblical idea of repentance.

Dr. Spencer: It is very different. True repentance would require that the young man see that his laziness was a sin against God. That God gave him the ability and the opportunity to learn and that he was being rebellious against his Creator by not applying himself. He would not just feel bad because the consequences of his sin are unpleasant, he would feel deep sorrow at having offended God and, more importantly, he would forsake his laziness and start working hard to improve himself!

Marc Roby: That’s a very important aspect of true repentance. We can’t go back and undo the past, but we can certainly work hard to not repeat the same sins in the future. In speaking about the new life a truly repentant person will live, Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:28, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”

Dr. Spencer: That does illustrate the difference made by regeneration very clearly. There is a false teaching in the world that is quite common in churches and individuals that call themselves Christian. It is the idea that Jesus can be your Savior without being your Lord. In other words, you don’t have to repent and forsake your sins, you just have to acknowledge Jesus as Savior.

Now, we must agree that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. No one will ever be saved because he repented and forsook his sins. Our repentance is not the cause of our salvation, nor is our faith a cause of our salvation. They are the response of someone who has been born again. And you cannot have true faith without true repentance. They are inextricably linked together.

Marc Roby: And why is that?

Dr. Spencer: Because true conversion is the result of regeneration, which causes us to see that our own best works are like filthy rags in God’s sight. It causes us to realize that we can do nothing to save ourselves and that we have offended the holy God. We see our own sin as odious and we see Christ as glorious and wonderful and we naturally turn away from our sin with great disgust and turn to Christ in joyful, loving faith. We cannot turn to Christ and lay hold of him as Savior without simultaneously letting go of our sin and turning from it. It is an impossibility. In 1 John 3:9 we read, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.”

Marc Roby: I look forward to your completing that biblical case to support the contention that repentance and faith are linked together, but we don’t have much time left for today, so this is a good place to stop. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to answer you.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 87

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, 1.1.1 (pg. 4)

[4] James Boice, The Parables of Jesus, Moddy Press, 1983, pp 83-91

[5] E.g., see Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 404, or Walter Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 375

[6] Murray, op. cit., pg. 30

[7] Boice, op. cit., pg. 90

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, in our session last week we started to look at the doctrine called limited atonement and you said that you wanted to follow John Murray’s outline for covering the atonement. He began by noting that all of Christ’s work could be subsumed under the rubric of obedience.

Dr. Spencer: And that is a critically important point since, as we read in Romans 8:29, we were “predestined to be conformed to the likeness”[1] of Jesus Christ. If his whole life’s work can be properly characterized by obedience, and Murray is certainly correct in saying that it can, and if we are to be conformed to his likeness, then it must also be true that our lives should be characterized by obedience.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a perfectly rational conclusion, and we could add that our obedience should be increasing all the time.

Dr. Spencer: We could add that yes. All true Christians are in the process of being sanctified. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

And, in Christ’s great high-priestly prayer in John Chapter 17, he says to the Father, as we read in Verse 4, that “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And we are told in 1 Corinthians 10:31 that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” The conclusion is obvious. To glorify God, which is our purpose in life, we must obediently complete the work he has given us to do, just as Christ himself did.

Marc Roby: And this reinforces the point we made at length in Session 121 that true Christians walk in what Paul called the obedience of faith[2].

And, after presenting the obedience of Christ as the “comprehensive category under which the various aspects of Biblical teaching may be subsumed”, Murray went on to say that “The more specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ are sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.”[3] So, how would you like to begin to look at these categories?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s take them one at a time and begin with the first one he lists; namely, sacrifice. I first want to show that Murray is correct in saying that the Bible presents Christ’s work of atonement as a sacrifice and then explore a bit what that means. If we turn to the book of Hebrews, we find a clear presentation of this idea. In Hebrews Chapter Nine the author speaks about the Old Testament sacrificial system. He describes the setup of the tabernacle and refers to the inner room or Most Holy Place, which contained the famous ark of the covenant.

Marc Roby: That ark contained the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And our listeners may remember that the high point of the Jewish year is now, and has always been, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. On that day during the Old Testament period, the high priest went into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled blood on the cover of the ark, which was called the atonement cover.

Marc Roby: And it is worth noting that only the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place and even he was only allowed to do so once a year.

Dr. Spencer: That is important. This was the most sacred duty the high priest had. Remember that the Most Holy Place was in the tabernacle, which was also called the Tent of Meeting since that is where God said he would meet with the representative of his people.[4] The symbolism is that when God, who said he would appear in a cloud above the ark,[5] looked down at the ark, he would see the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the cover and that would block his view of the law, which his people had broken.[6]

In any event, in Hebrews 9:7-9 we read that “only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.”

Marc Roby: In other words, the Old Testament sacrificial system was not ultimately capable of dealing with our sin problem. It pointed toward a greater reality.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the point. And the writer of Hebrews explains this. In Hebrews 9:11-14 we read, “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

Marc Roby: That clearly tells us that Jesus “offered himself” to God, which means he was the sacrifice, the ultimate Passover lamb. In fact, in John 1:29 we are told that when John the Baptist saw Jesus he said to his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Dr. Spencer: And the writer of Hebrews also uses the word sacrifice. In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And the Greek word used here for sacrifice is θυσία (thusia), the normal word used to describe the Old Testament sacrifices.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think we have established that Christ’s atoning work can be described as a sacrifice.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, we have shown how the Jews at the time of Christ would have understood that idea. They would have understood it in the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system.

Marc Roby: Which involved far more than just the sacrifices performed on the Day of Atonement. Sacrifices were a normal part of worship in the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: They most definitely were. The animals offered in sacrifice were intended to be received in place of the person bringing the offering, in other words, they were substitutes. God instructed his people through Moses how the sacrifices were to be made. In Leviticus 1:4 we read that the person bringing a sacrifice “is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”

Marc Roby: This is the doctrine called substitutionary atonement. By laying his hands on the animal, the sinner was symbolically transferring his sins to that animal.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It was the person who had sinned and deserved to die, but God graciously provided this means of atoning for his sin. It is bloody and disgusting, especially to modern people like us who purchase our meat in shrink-wrapped containers at the grocery store, but it was meant to be a reminder of the seriousness of sin and the fact that it must be punished.

And, as Murray notes, “the Old Testament sacrifices were basically expiatory. This means that they had reference to sin and guilt. Sin involves a certain liability, a liability arising from the holiness of God, on the one hand, and the gravity of sin as the contradiction of that holiness, on the other. The sacrifice was the divinely instituted provision whereby the sin might be covered and the liability to divine wrath and curse removed.”[7]

Marc Roby: And, as you noted, this provision is gracious. It would have been just of God to demand the life of every sinner.

Dr. Spencer: In which case there wouldn’t be anyone left. But God’s plan is to create and to purify a people for himself. And this is the way he has chosen to do it. The Old Testament sacrificial system was incapable of ultimately solving our sin problem, it pointed to Christ.

The author of Hebrews points this out when we read in Hebrews 10:1-4 that “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Marc Roby: The logic of those statements is impeccable. If the Old Testament animal sacrifices had been ultimately efficacious, they would have stopped. There would not have been any need to repeat them.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the logic is unassailable. And the writer goes on to contrast the limited nature of the Old Testament sacrifices with the ultimate efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice. We read in Hebrews 10:10 that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: I like that phrase, “once for all.” It reminds me of what Jesus himself declared from the cross. We read in John 19:30 that “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Christ’s work of redemption was finished.

Dr. Spencer: That is important. In one sense, there is still work to do since God has not yet called all of those whom he has chosen to repentance and faith. And he has not yet finished working in those whom he has called, we are still in the process of being sanctified. But in another sense, the job is finished. There is no further need of sacrifice. The work of redemption is complete, all that is left is the application of that work to individual believers.

Marc Roby: It is wonderful to know that the end is absolutely certain. God’s plan will be executed without fault. We can be absolutely sure of all of his promises.

Dr. Spencer: And of all of his threats. There truly is only one thing needful in this life, and that is to come to know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord. All of God’s enemies will be eternally destroyed and all of his people will enjoy eternal life in his presence. The best bumper sticker I’ve ever seen simply said “I know what happens in the end, God wins!”

Marc Roby: I like that.

Dr. Spencer: There is, however, one more important point to make about Christ’s atoning work being presented in the Bible as a work of sacrifice.

Marc Roby: What point is that?

Dr. Spencer: That Christ was not just the sacrifice, he was also the priest. John Murray wrote, “That Christ’s work was to offer himself a sacrifice for sin implies, however, a complementary truth too frequently overlooked. It is that, if Christ offered himself as a sacrifice, he was also a priest. And it was as a priest that he offered himself. He was not offered up by another; he offered himself. This is something that could not be exemplified in the ritual of the Old Testament. … in Christ we have this unique combination that serves to exhibit the uniqueness of his sacrifice. The transcendent character of his priestly office, and the perfection inherent in his priestly offering.”[8]

Marc Roby: As we noted last time, Christ was not put to death against his will, he was actively obeying the Father in allowing himself to be crucified.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an amazing truth. And it makes me think of the best human illustration I’ve ever heard about God’s plan of salvation.

Marc Roby: What illustration is that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I think it was R.C. Sproul that I heard tell this story, but I don’t know exactly where I heard it. In any event, it goes something like this.

There was an earthly king who discovered that someone had stolen something very precious to him. So he issued an edict that a search should be made throughout his kingdom to find the object. And, if the person who stole it was identified, he specified that the punishment would be 40 lashes with a serious whip.

Marc Roby: That’s a very harsh punishment.

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I said, the object that was stolen was precious to the king, and we must remember that the offense was against the king, not just against some ordinary citizen. But to continue with the story, when the object was found everyone was shocked to learn that it was the king’s own very old mother who had taken it.

Marc Roby: That would put the king in a very difficult situation given the punishment he had decreed for the offender.

Dr. Spencer: It would indeed. In fact, the king’s mother was so old and frail that 40 lashes would undoubtedly kill her. But the king had issued his edict and it would be patently unjust of him to change the punishment solely because the offender turned out to be someone he personally knew and loved.

Marc Roby: So what did he do?

Dr. Spencer: He did the only just thing, he ordered that she be given the 40 lashes. And you must picture the scene. The king’s men take his frail old mother and tie her to the post, and the man with the whip steps back and looks to the king for the order to begin the sentence.

The king does, in fact, order that the sentence be carried out, but at the same time he wraps himself around his mother so that the blows all fall on him and his mother’s life is spared. By doing this, the king could demonstrate both his justice in making sure that the appropriate punishment was meted out and his great mercy in taking the punishment himself in order to spare his mother.

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful illustration. Jesus had always had perfect fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, and it is impossible for us to imagine the pain he endured when the Holy Spirit abandoned him and the Father poured out his wrath on him.

Dr. Spencer: We get some small indication of the pain from Jesus’ cry from the cross. We read in Matthew 27:46 that when Christ was on the cross, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Marc Roby: And Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, where King David uttered the same cry.

Dr. Spencer: But in the case of King David, the reality is that God never completely abandoned him. Whereas God did abandon Jesus while he poured out the full force of his wrath upon him.

We need to recognize how terrible sin is. In order to solve our sin problem and save us, it required God the Son to become incarnate and it required that the perfect fellowship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit had enjoyed for all eternity to be broken for a time on the cross. It is simply not possible for us to fully grasp this. It is the ultimate possible expression of love, not just on the part of the incarnate Jesus, but on the part of the infinite, eternal, triune God.

Marc Roby: That is incredible to consider. Are we done with looking at the fact that the Bible presents Christ’s work of atonement as being a sacrifice?

Dr. Spencer: Yes we are. So we are ready to move on to the second category Murray mentions; the Bible also represents Christ’s work of atonement as being a propitiation.

Marc Roby: And that will have to wait for our next session. But now I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] See Romans 1:5

[3] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[4] See Ex 25:22

[5] See Lev 16:2

[6] See P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 150

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 25

[8] Ibid, pg. 28

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine Christology. Dr. Spencer, last time we covered the nature of Christ’s sacrifice of atonement. His sacrifice paid the penalty we owe, it provided propitiation, it redeemed us from sin and it reconciled us to God. Are we ready to move on and discuss Christ’s functioning as our Priest?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. As we have said, a priest is a mediator. And we are told in 1 Timothy 2:5 that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. [1]

Marc Roby: That verse doesn’t, of course, negate the fact that there have been other mediators, like Moses. It simply means that there is one mediator, or priest, who is ultimate and continues forever.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. And let me begin our examination of how Christ functions as our priest by looking at Question 25 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “How does Christ execute the office of a priest?” And the answer is, “Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.”

This answer lists two ways in which Christ functions as our priest. And the first is that he once offered himself as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice. In other words, he provided atonement for our sins as we discussed last time.

Marc Roby: And it is very important that he did this once. The Old Testament sacrifices were performed over and over again.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important point. Jesus’ sacrifice was the only one that was truly able to meet our needs. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament provides an extensive explanation of the differences between the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Christ.

Marc Roby: And there are many differences. To begin with, Christ was both the priest who offered the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself!

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a very important difference. In the Old Testament, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies where the ark of the covenant was kept, and he could only do that one day a year, on Yom Kippur, which means the Day of Atonement. And we are told in Leviticus 16:3-6 how the high priest had to prepare for this. The high priest at this time was Aaron, Moses’ brother, and God gave the following instructions to him about the Day of Atonement: “This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household.”

Marc Roby: You get a very clear impression of how solemn this duty was.

Dr. Spencer: You absolutely do. It was the most important day of the year then, and it is still the most important day of the year for practicing Jews, although they no longer offer these sacrifices. But notice that Aaron began by offering a bull to make atonement for his own sin and the sin of his household. Aaron, along with every other high priest outside of Christ, was a sinner and could not atone for the sin of anyone.

In stark contrast, Jesus Christ is the perfect, sinless high priest. We are told about him in Hebrews 7:27, where we read, “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”

Marc Roby: That’s truly wonderful. Aaron had to first sacrifice for himself, and then, after he had atoned for his own sin, he sacrificed one of the two goats for the sins of the people and then released the other goat, called the scapegoat, into the wilderness, which symbolized the removal of the sins of the people. But these sacrifices had to be repeated every year.

Dr. Spencer: And we are told in Hebrews that all of these things were only a shadow of the reality. For example, in Hebrews 10:1-4 we read that “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Marc Roby: The logic of that argument is inescapable. If the offerings made by Aaron and his descendants had been efficacious, they would have stopped! We also see this word “shadow” in Hebrews 8:5 where we are told that Aaron and his descendants “serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.”

Dr. Spencer: The entire Old Testament sacrificial system pointed forward to Jesus Christ and the one, final efficacious sacrifice that would take away the sins of all of God’s people once and for all. In his commentary on the book of Hebrews, the Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote, “The time of shadow is over and the age of reality has come in Jesus Christ. It is foolish to yearn for symbols, vestments, incense, candles, gold, silver, Gothic structure, and the clergy-laity distinction. Away with such carnal things! We have a high priest seated in heaven who ministers in the heavenly, God-built sanctuary.”[2]

Marc Roby: What a glorious thought! Our high priest is seated in heaven and ministers there. And, of course, when Rev. Mathew talks about “symbols, vestments, incense” and so on he is referring to the Roman Catholic church and other churches that still hold to the idea of our needing human priests and rituals to communicate with God.

Dr. Spencer: And for those listeners who may not know, the Roman Catholic mass is a sacrifice! They believe that when the priest blesses the bread and the wine they actually become, in their essence, but not in their outward appearance, the body and blood of Christ, and that the Lord’s Supper is truly a sacrifice of Christ. And yet, we read Hebrews 7:27 a couple of minutes ago, which says that Christ “sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” In addition, in Hebrews 9:12 we are told that Christ “did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” And in Hebrews 9:28 we read that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people”, and in Hebrews 10:10 we are told that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is about as clear as it can get. And we also read about Christ’s sacrificial death in Romans 6:10, which says that “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” And again, in 1 Peter 3:18 the apostle Peter tells us that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an extremely important point. It is one of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic church. It isn’t as important as their unbiblical view of justification, but it is nonetheless a very serious error. The Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice. It is an important and solemn event, but it is not a sacrifice. Jesus himself commanded us, in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, to “do this in remembrance of me.”

But, let’s get back to discussing the priestly office of Christ.

Marc Roby: I do think we’ve strayed off topic a bit, although it was an important diversion.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely is important. We have made the point that Christ is our final, unique, high Priest. The book of Hebrews spends a great deal of time explaining the many ways in which the priesthood of Christ is unique. He was, as we have already shown, sinless and did not need to sacrifice for himself. But he was also unique in that he was not a Levite like Aaron and all of the other Old Testament priests. In his human nature Christ was a descendant of Judah, one of Levi’s brothers.

Marc Roby: And so, in Hebrews 7:14 we read that “it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”

Dr. Spencer: In fact, that whole section of Hebrews labors to make the distinction between the Levitical priesthood and Christ. In Hebrews 7:11 we are told that “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?”

Marc Roby: And this Melchizedek that the writer of Hebrews refers to is an enigmatic figure in the Old Testament. In fact, he is only mentioned twice. The first reference is in Genesis 14 where we read about Abraham’s nephew Lot being taken captive and Abraham rescuing him along with many other people. Abraham was still called Abram at this point in time and as they returned from the battle, we are told in Genesis 14:18-19 that “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram”.

Dr. Spencer: As you said, that is an enigmatic passage. And Melchizedek is only mentioned one other time in the Old Testament. In Psalm 110, which was recognized as Messianic even by the Jews before the time of Christ,[3] we see Jehovah speaking to the Messiah and in Verse 4 we are told that Jehovah, “has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”

Marc Roby: And it is only in the book of Hebrews that we find an explanation of what this means.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We learn more about Melchizedek in Hebrews Chapter 7. In Verse 3 we are told that “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” And then, in Verses 6 and 7 we’re told that he was greater than Abraham! We are also told, in Verse 12, that “when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” And then the verse we read from Psalm 110 is quoted twice in making the point that Jesus is the one who is “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Then, in Verse 22, we are told that “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.”

Marc Roby: Well, I don’t think that this clears up all of the mystery, but it certainly makes clear that God was doing something new when he sent Jesus Christ. The old sacrificial system was fulfilled and the priesthood became unnecessary because Jesus came as the final high priest, and he offered the only efficacious sacrifice for his people, himself!

Dr. Spencer: And that is the second thing that is unique about Christ’s priestly service. He didn’t offer some animal, he offered himself as the sacrifice. We read in Hebrews 10:4 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” And then, a few verses later in Hebrews 10:12-14, we read that “when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Marc Roby: What a great picture that is! Jesus sat down because his work of redemption was finished.

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful fact to meditate on. Our salvation is certain. The work is finished and the war, if you will, has already been won. We have to do our part, but there is no uncertainty about the outcome. God has more work to do in each one of us, but Christ has finished his work of redemption.

Marc Roby: But that does not mean that he is done acting as our high priest.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. In Hebrews 7:24-25 we are told that “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” And that takes us to the second part of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s statement about how Christ executes the office of a priest.

Marc Roby: And to help us all remember, the answer to Question 25 says that “Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.”

Dr. Spencer: And while the first part of that answer is certainly the most important because without the sacrifice of Christ we cannot be saved, the second part is also important. Wayne Grudem argues persuasively that Christ’s intercession does not just mean that he remains in the Father’s presence as a reminder that he has paid the penalty we owe.[4] His intercession is much more active than that. The Greek word speaks of petitioning or pleading the case of another person. The same Greek word is also used in Romans 8:34 where Paul writes, “Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” No one can condemn us before God. Not because we are not, in ourselves, guilty of any offense, but because Jesus Christ has paid the penalty and is actively petitioning the Father on our behalf.

Marc Roby: Now, we must again guard against any notion that the Father is somehow reluctant in granting the petitions however. It isn’t that the Father doesn’t love us or that he wants to do us harm and Jesus has to try and change his mind.

Dr. Spencer: No, of course that isn’t the case. We made the point last week that it is God the Father who so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save his people. But, in God’s glorious plan of salvation it is Jesus Christ who is the only mediator between God and men. He is the unique God-man. And we should be immensely grateful that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – loved us enough to save us and provide for us in this way.

Marc Roby: We see a glorious example of Christ’s intercessory prayer for his people in the case of the apostle Peter. In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus told Peter, who was also known by the name Simon, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful example. Note that Christ doesn’t say “And if you turn back”! He knew his prayer was effectual and so he said, “And when you have turned back”. And we all know the story. Peter did deny Christ three times, but he repented and Christ restored him.

Marc Roby: And he also learned a valuable lesson to not rely on his own strength.

Dr. Spencer: That is a lesson we all need to learn. If we try to serve God in our own strength, we too will fail. As Christ told us in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

Marc Roby: And, praise God, the converse is also true! Paul tells us in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we must remember that we need God always. Not just at the point of paying the penalty for our sins, but day by day and moment by moment we need him to help us live holy lives. And Jesus Christ is our faithful high priest, able and willing to help us every step of the way. He promised us, in Matthew 28:20, that “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Marc Roby: And that is a great place to end today. Let me take this opportunity remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will answer as best we can.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] P.G. Mathew, Muscular Christianity, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2010, pg. 174

[3] E.g., see the study note on Psalm 110 in the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Zondervan, 2003, pg. 926

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 627 (incl. fn 4)

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