Do we need forgiveness?
By now, we’ve already established the sheer magnitude of the problem of sin—both Biblically and psychologically. The question we might be faced with is why we can’t simply overlook it. Move past it. Get over it. After all, if even the Bible emphasizes that we’re all sinners, can’t we just accept this truth and move on?
Thing is, there are some things in life we just can’t move past—nor should we, really. A friend of mine told me the story of why he and his fiancée ended things. He’d been away on business—the ministry, actually—and didn’t see her for a few months. When he returned, he discovered that she’d moved into the apartment of another man. Their relationship was over. He was devastated.
More significantly, though, he was left with something psychologists occasionally call “emotional debt.” He still loved her. The relationship had ended with the abruptness of a car wreck, but the sheer momentum of his love was propelling his heart forward even now, scraped raw against the tarmac. But his fiancée, well…she had already moved on. She wasn’t hurting—at least not as bad as he was. So all—all—of the hurt, all of the betrayal, all of the sudden raw loneliness lay on his shoulders to carry. This was a tremendous debt.
What do we usually do when we experience this? We try and manage that debt by spreading it around. We talk badly about that person. We “warn” others about them—though this is usually just a form of gossip. We let ourselves stew and fester over the past. We fantasize about their downfall—or, alternately, we fantasize about surpassing that person’s success, and inciting their jealousy.
So what happens if we don’t do those things? Then that emotional debt is ours and ours alone to carry.
And that hurts.
Now what if we were the ones who did the offending? And what if the person we offended was not just another sinner like us, but the infinitely good and righteous character of God himself? I’m cautious not to start applying terms like “emotional debt” to an infinite God (as if we God fits into our psychological categories), though there are plenty of places in Scripture when God’s grief comes welling up like a rejected lover thumbing through a tear-stained wedding album.
“I have fond memories of you…how devoted you were to me in your early years. I remember how you loved me like a new bride; you followed me through the wilderness, through a land that had never been planted. What fault could your ancestors have possibly found in me that they strayed so far from me?” (Jeremiah 2:2-5, NET)
If there is to be true justice, if there is to be a sense of wrongs being put right, then this debt must be paid.
The Bible describes this in the language of something called “atonement.” Atonement is the finished work of a blood sacrifice. What does it mean to “atone?” Eugene Merrill of Dallas Seminary does a wonderful job of helping us examine the deeply-storied meaning of the Hebrew word kaphar. Merrill says that if we dig through the related words in Akkadian and other ancient languages (similar to how we might look at Latin roots of English words in the dictionary), we find a lot of language that emphasizes not merely covering over sin, but blotting it out entirely. Wiping it clean.
We find this meaning in an unlikely place—the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32. Though used as part of God’s larger, spectacular plan to fulfill his promise to Abraham and establish his people, Jacob got his start as something of a con man. After cheating his brother out of the family inheritance, he went on the run. Now, he was about to be reunited with Esau, and that was a scary prospect. So he sent a whole series of material gifts ahead of him. Ever the shrewd manipulator, he was trying to “buy off” his brother with material gifts. Here’s what the text of the story says was going through his mind:
For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Genesis 32:21)
If you were to read that in the Hebrew, you might notice that the text reads something like “I will atone him” or—if we paraphrase—“I may wipe his face clean [of anger].” Atonement, we see, is deeply relational.
God established an elaborate system of sacrifices used to shape his people’s relationship with him—particularly in the area of the cleansing of sin. The writer of the letter of Hebrews says:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)
Naturally, we hear the echoes of the Old Testament law, here:
11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Leviticus 17:11
Blood would be the means by which God’s people made atonement for their sins.
Now, if you’ve been in church for a while, you might know that each of the sacrifices meant something very specific. But, as Leon Morris points out in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, if we fast-forward to Jesus’ day, the first-century Jews had blurred the system so that every sacrifice made was thought to remove sin.
Such language must seem shockingly barbaric in the walls of today’s sanitized sanctuaries. Why would animal sacrifice be such a major part of worship for such a long period of human history?
Because it’s gross.
See, I have this theory. You know those awful videos they show you in Driver’s Ed? The ones where they show the bloody aftermath of drinking or texting while driving? They’re almost cliché, really. We’re numb to it. But what if we showed cars running over animals. Dogs. Cats. Pets. That sort of thing. The cuter and fluffier the better. We can watch teens text and drive, then watch puppy guts get splattered along the roadside. I guarantee you this would be infinitely more effective than the footage they show now.
If that horrifies you, that’s the point. Sin is as offensive before a holy God is as blood is before a people who treasure their animals. Granted, a sacrificial lamb would probably not have tugged at the heartstrings as much as a family pet, but the unblemished, male lamb would have been quite valuable to the family. And now the worshippers would watch it bleed to death. It’s as if God is trying to remind us, This is your sin. This is your filth. This is your shame. This is the price of atonement.
As before, we need to let this sink in. We need to let this haunt our imaginations and turn our stomachs. We need to be horrified by a God that is so ferociously holy that he demands blood from the people that have incurred such an impossibly massive debt. Hear the cries of the lamb. See its blood flow in crimson streaks. And let your own tears flow at the knowledge of God’s plan to remove the debt, to cleanse the stain—to bring healing, to bring relationship.