June 14, 2020 [Pentecost 2]  Romans 3:21-25a,27,28  J.D.Roekle

 

21But now, completely apart from the law, a righteousness from God has been made known. The Law and the Prophets testify to it. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all and over all who believe.

In fact, there is no difference, 23because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God publicly displayed as the atonement seat through faith in his blood.

27What happens to boasting then? It has been eliminated. By what principle—by the principle of works? No, but by the principle of faith. 28For we conclude that a person is justified by faith without the works of the law.

 

Atonement

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

          This section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome summarizes the central doctrine or teaching of all of Scripture: justification by grace through faith.  Martin Luther once said that this is “the doctrine upon which the Christian church stands for falls.”  Luther went on to say: “Where this article is kept pure, there Christianity remains pure and free of sects; where it becomes contaminated, it becomes impossible to protect the church from error and sectarianism.” 

          Simply put, if we don’t get the teaching of justification by grace through faith right, then it can lead to dire consequences.  If we don’t get it straight, it can lead people to hell, instead of to heaven as it is designed to do. 

          But before we go on, we need to define what we mean by justification by grace through faith.  What good are terms if we don’t even understand them?!  In order to understand the term, we first need to understand who we are by nature.  When we are born, that is.  When we come into this world, we are automatically separated from God.  There is a divide between us and God because of the sin in our hearts that we have inherited.  The sin that has been passed down from generation to generation all the way back from our first parents, Adam and Eve. 

          Because we are separated from God, we also stand condemned before him.  That means if nothing changed, we were on a path that would be permanently separate us from God.  Even after we die. 

          So how do we rectify that?  How can we change our path?  Well, the truth is, because of our sinfulness, we cannot do it.  Because of our sin, we are guilty and therefore we cannot declare ourselves not guilty.  We cannot justify ourselves.  There is nothing we can do in order to make ourselves innocent.  We are sinful. 

          We need to rely on someone else to change that path for us.  That’s where justification comes in.  Jesus came to justify us.  God declares us innocent because of what Jesus did.  This wasn’t because we deserved it; it was because God loves us.  And this declaration of innocence before God is ours through faith in what Jesus has done. 

          Now, what has Jesus done?  What is it that we have faith in?  That’s where the word for today comes in.  Atonement.  Atonement helps to teach us what Jesus has done.  So, we want to consider what atonement is all about.  Simply put, atonement is being made “at one” with God.  But how is that possible?  What has Jesus done to make that possible?

          In order to get a better understanding of atonement, we head back to the Old Testament to discover that truth.  In fact, we head back to a special day that the people celebrated year after year.  A day that is still marked by Jews even now.  It is known as Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. 

          The Day of Atonement was a day on which everyone was to recognize and be filled with sorrow for their sins.  One way that the people were to mark this, was by fasting.  No food for the day.  Another way was from not doing any work that day.

          It was on this day, that high priest did things that he didn’t do on any other day.  The high priest who was normally dressed in very ornate clothing, was dressed very simply.  On this day he was a simple linen tunic with a sash around the waste and a turban on his head.  The reason for this simple clothing was to set the mood or the tone for the day.  Instead of the normal ornate clothing he wore as mediator between God and the people, he wore this simple clothing because he would be entering into the very presence of God. 

          This was the one time a year, that the high priest would be able to enter the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies) in the tabernacle or the temple.  Inside the Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant.  On top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat of God.  God’s presence was there! 

          Because God was there and the high priest was sinful, he had to humble himself with what he wore in order to acknowledge his unworthiness to come before the perfect God. 

          The high priest would then proceed to enter the Most Holy Place four times.  The first time he would enter, he would take incense inside.  The cloud of smoke created by the incense was designed to cover the mercy seat of God.  Sinful people cannot see God and live! 

          The second time the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place, he would bring a small bowl with blood from a bull he sacrificed.  He would take that blood and sprinkle it on the mercy seat of God.  The third time he entered the Most Holy Place, he would bring a small bowl of blood from a goat that he sacrificed.  He would do the same thing with the goat’s blood as he did with the bull’s blood.  He would sprinkle it on the mercy seat of God.  The fourth and final time he would enter the Most Holy Place, he would remove the censer with the incense. 

          The other big thing the high priest would do that day was to take a goat.  He then would lay both his hands on the goat’s head, and then he would make confession of Israel’s sins.  The goat was then taken out into the wilderness far enough away so that it could never find its way back to camp. 

          These were the highlights of the day.  But what does it all mean?  Throughout the course of the year, the things that Israel used for worship would become contaminated by sin.  The ritual with the sprinkling of blood in various places showed that the requirement for sin was taking place.  Take had occurred and so therefore, everything could be cleansed. 

          In the case of the goat taken to the wilderness, this was symbolic that their sins had all been taken away from them never to return to harm them. 

          The Day of Atonement has been called the Good Friday of the Old Testament.  Are you starting to see the picture as to why that is?  The whole day was designed to point ahead to Christ and what he would do on Good Friday in order to rid us of our sins.  In order to atone for our sins. 

          The blood all symbolizes the blood of Christ Jesus which was shed for our sins.  Death is necessary for our sins to be taken away, and Jesus did just that.  The high priest was the only one to enter the Most Holy Place.  Jesus is like that high priest since he is the only one that could serve as Mediator between us and God.  And Jesus is like that goat taken into the wilderness too.  That goat has been known as scapegoat.  The goat had nothing wrong.  The sins of the people were laid on an innocent party.  All our sins have been laid on the innocent party, Jesus.  He took on the punishment we should have endured!  And just as the scapegoat was removed from camp never to return, Jesus took our sins away permanently, never to return and haunt us! 

          That’s what atonement is all about.  It is permanently removing the thing that once divided us from God…namely, sin. 

          On this side of heaven, we may be asked or even forced to make amends for the things we do wrong.  For instance, someone who destroys someone else’s property may be forced to pay a fine to make up for it. 

          But making amends with God has already taken place.  You and I do not need to make amends with God.  In fact, it is impossible for us to do so.  We cannot atone for our sins.  Because Jesus already did!  May we rejoice that Jesus atoned for our sins so that God would forgive us and reunite with us.  Amen.