I have not done a survey but I would hazard a guess that most Christians, especially those brought up in Christian households, would not have committed the more serious sins listed near the start of my last article, Forgiveness. Nonetheless, we can see throughout Scripture that sin, whether very serious or seemingly mild, needs to be dealt with. As the Apostle James has told us:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.James 2:10 (NIV)
Given that no one is perfect, so all have sinned, how could we possibly live forever in such a state of inadequacy before God’s presence for all of eternity. The fact is, God wouldn’t and won’t stand for such a scenario. It is like asking why God could not just say, in answer to His people’s confessions, “That’s OK, I’ve forgiven you”? On what basis has He, could He, forgive us? Here we come into the realm of theology.
A biblical and theological term, ‘atonement’, is central to answering our question. Throughout human history, God has dealt with the sin of humanity by means of atonement. ‘Atonement’ carries as part of its meaning that of being made one or made right with God. Atonement allows us to be treated by God as though we were/are perfect. It is not a case of God balancing our good deeds against our bad ones, with the balance somehow just swinging in our favour. As the James verse above indicates, the Law is very exacting, as is the call to perfection. Not one human being who has ever lived, except for Jesus Christ, has perfectly kept the Law – God’s standard of perfection. Not one. So the question arises, how does atonement work to make us perfect?
Atonement is sacrifice for sin and usually involves a blood sacrifice. The concept of atonement runs throughout Scripture. Immediately following the first ever human sin, Adam and Eve were provided with the means of atonement by God Himself.
21 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.Genesis 3:21 (NASB)
Later, the nation of Israel was to sacrifice animals to atone for their sins, along with confession on their behalf by the priests. Atonement through animal sacrifice can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Confession and a renewed heart, attempted obedience of God and His law and ordinances, were all to accompany the sacrifices. In other words, a right heart was to accompany repentance and sacrifice. The atonement animals were to be the best of flocks – unblemished.
Later still, in the New Testament, we switch from animals to a new and perfect and complete sacrifice for sin, achieved through Jesus Christ as the “spotless Lamb of God”. This atonement by Christ is perfect and final, as attested to by Jesus rising from the dead, showing God’s pleasure in His Son’s perfect atoning death. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ perfect and final atonement:
1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” 8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.Hebrews 10:1-14 (ESV)
Atonement is a mystery. We do not know exactly why atonement in the form of a blood sacrifice has been God’s requirement to expiate sin. What is happening or has happened at the metaphysical level for a blood sacrifice in the form of our innocent, crucified Saviour, Jesus Christ, to effect God’s forgiveness for eternity for sinners? Theologians have struggled with this very question and have come up with various atonement theories, all of which contribute something to our understanding of this profound mystery.
Human beings cannot achieve sinless perfection on this earth. Those who are God’s through belief in Jesus Christ as their atoning, perfect sacrifice will one day be made perfect – the other side of death. How could God in His holiness have one speck of sin in His presence in heaven? Atonement has rid God’s people of every speck of sin. No one can achieve this perfection without God’s intervention through the atonement. Anyone who would want to live with God in a state of perfection is welcome to by repentance (asking God for forgiveness) and belief/trust/faith in Jesus as their Saviour (perfect atoning sacrifice) and Lord (yielding to God’s gradual re-shaping to become closer to His Image).