Sacrifice, Atonement, and Grace – A Deeper Understanding

In John 8:31 Jesus advances His famous, somewhat puzzling phrase, “if you are my disciples then truth will set you free“. Later in chapter 8, The Truth Will Set You Freewe learn that the truth of which Jesus speaks frees us from sin. The question naturally arises, what does this mean, “to be free from sin“? Does it mean that we will no longer sin? Or, does it mean that all our sins are washed away and that sins we may commit in the future are now irrelevant or do not count?

Neither, as it turns out and one of the foundational clues to the answer is found in Leviticus 17:11.

To begin, we note that to know the truth to which Jesus is referring, one must be a disciple of Jesus. Since the word ‘disciple’ comes from the latin (discipulus meaning learner) translation of the Hebrew word for ‘student’ (תַּלְמִיד talmid or learner), Jesus is here referring to the truth of His teachings, and that by following His teachings (as opposed to those of His contemporaries), His talmidim (plural of talmid) will have the means necessary to live a life in which sin will not rule over them. Will disciples of Jesus continue to commit sins? Certainly, but they have the means by which sin can be overcome.

Exactly how does this work? How does accepting the truth of Jesus’s teachings set one free from sin? The answer lies in the 17th chapter of Leviticus in which the author reveals God’s theology of atonement by sacrifice. The 11th verse is especially noteworthy. Here’s the NIV’s translation:

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.(emphasis in red)

A straightforward reading of the NIV’s translation correctly teaches us that blood is an essential requirement for atonement. But, is that all there is? Are we to come away from this verse knowing that blood is essential to a proper sacrifice? Let’s see what the Bible really says.

Of the seven English Bibles I consulted[1], only the NET Bible renders the Hebrew phrase, wyTit;n> ynIa]w: (vaani nethativ), correctly. Here’s the NET’s translation:

For the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I, myself, have given it to everyone on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life. (emphasis in red)

Notice the difference. In the other Bibles, the phrase is translated as “I have given“. Yet, in the NET’s more literal translation it is rendered as “I, myself, have given“.

Is this significant? In Hebrew (but less so in English), to repeat the subject of a sentence, as in this verse, is to call attention to the subject of the sentence, over and above the action or the object of the action.  In other words, the emphasis is on God as giver, not what God gave, i.e., the process of atonement.  This is not unlike English. When we want to emphasize ‘who’ does something, we might say, “I, myself, took out the garbage.” In other words, I want everyone to know that I took out the garbage, not someone else or that the garbage was simply taken out.  With this in mind, the emphasis in Lev 17:11 is clearly on God the giver, not just what He gave — the process of atonement.

Thus, while it is true that blood sacrifice is for the purpose of making atonement, the larger, more important teaching is that God gave us the process in the first place. In other words, Holy Scripture wants us to understand that, important as atonement is, it is even more important to know who gave us this process — God!

In Lev 17:11, then, God reveals to us that the sacrifice we ‘give’ to God is, from God’s perspective, nothing more than the means by which He may express His grace to us in the form of forgiveness. We see this reflected throughout the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Throughout all the narratives, songs, poems, and histories of the Bible, God is shown as providing sinners with the means to achieve forgiveness in the first place. Hence, Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In God’s incarnation, death, and resurrection He not only sacrifices Himself, but does so using the means He specified in the first place.

To be free from sin, then, is simply to know that God provides the means by which we can gain forgiveness and restore our relationship with Him. It is like the loving parent who knows his child will fail from time-to-time, but nevertheless stands ready to forgive[2]. In exactly the same way does God manifest His grace; a grace that frees us to flourish in spite of our own failings.

Now, go and study

  1. [1]Specifically, the RSV, KJV, NAB, NAU, NET, NIV, and NKJ translations.
  2. [2]Provided the child learns his lessons and repents… but that’s another posting
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1 Response to Sacrifice, Atonement, and Grace – A Deeper Understanding

  1. Pingback: Forgiveness Requires Repentance - Thus Said the LORD

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