I often teach the Epistle to the Romans in Shiloh Bible College here in Ethiopia. I am again teaching this great book of scripture and again an important and foundational truth of the gospel has leapt off the pages to me. It is that truth that I want to share today.
Romans 3:25 tells us that God put forward Jesus as a “propitiation” by his blood to be received by faith. A multitude of scholars have noted that the word “propitiation” is an unfortunate English translation for several reasons. For the sake of brevity let me simply say that the word means to give a gift for the purpose of gaining favor from someone. In modern English we would read its meaning that Jesus gave his blood as a bribe to the Father to obtain our forgiveness. Of course that is not proper doctrine, Jesus did not give his blood as a bribe to God. The underlying Greek word should better be translated as “atonement.” Jesus gave his blood as atonement for our sins. The understanding of the meaning of that is found in Leviticus 16 that describes what was to be done by the High Priest of Israel once each year on the Day of Atonement.
To give the important points from Lev. 16 in brief, the High Priest took two goats, one as a sin offering and one for release. The blood of the one goat was taken into the Holy 0f Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled on the top of the Ark of the Covenant as a sin offering by blood that would cause God to forgive the sins of Israel for the previous year. Then the Hight Priest would take the other goat and laying his hands upon its head, he would confess all the sins of Israel over that goat and then give it to a man who was prepared for this task that would lead that goat into the wilderness where he would release it. This is the instruction of Lev. 16:15-22. Thus there were two parts to the atoning process represented here, one was the sin offering of blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant or what is often called the “Mercy Seat” or better, the “Place of Atonement,” the other was the removing of sin from among the people of Israel represented by the goat that was taken into the wilderness and released.
So the background that provides understanding of Paul the Apostle regarding Romans 3:25 is Leviticus 16. Jesus is our atonement by his blood sacrifice and that work of Christ must be received by faith. Since Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant movement, Romans has been read through the lens of only one question, “How does a person go to heaven?” We have answered this question, “By faith and not by works!” The question of how a person may go to heaven has so dominated the thinking of Protestant scholars over the generations that virtually no other topic is seen as important in the entire 16 chapters of Romans. But as important as that is, it is only half of the story.
We are justified or we could say, our sins have been forgiven, by the sacrifice of Christ and the shedding of His blood. In this aspect of Christ’s work we say grace means “unmerited favor.” We do not deserve nor can we earn salvation but rather we receive it as a free gift from God in response to faith in Christ. This is both true and it is half of the the work of Christ. The other half of Christ’s work is what is often called the work of the cross. It is represented by the other goat on the Day of Atonement. The atonement of Christ did not only affect the forgiveness of sin but also the removal of sin. The removal of sin connects to the other half of the definition of grace that is so often ignored. Grace is on the one hand unmerited favor, it is on the other hand, God’s power to do what I can not do myself. I cannot save myself but God’s grace empowers me to believe the truth of the gospel and to be saved thereby. That is, salvation is an offer to humanity, made by God that must be received through faith. As a human I may choose to receive forgiveness for sins through faith in Christ or I may reject it. But the door is open to all humans to be cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus.
The door is also open for me to enter into the other half of the truth of atonement. I may receive the power of God to overcome sin. I cannot walk in holiness by my power any more than I can save myself, but God’s grace extends here as well. The same faith that receives forgiveness may also receive God’s power to live without sin, sin may be removed from my life. Both of these aspects of grace are included in the atonement.
For much of the Evangelical and I would say the Pentecostal church as well, today, sanctification is an additional and optional work of grace. Baptism in water is considered a sacrament that for all Christians ought to be a part of their Christian experience but not necessarily a living reality of human experience. When Paul writes about baptism and sanctification in Romans 6:11 that we must consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God, we take it as an optional truth mainly for “super saints.” Normal Christians do not die to self and overcome sin. No, normal Christians live their lives having made peace with sin and continue to sin their whole life and then when they die they go to heaven. This is possible because salvation by faith and not by works has been understood to mean that God does not see our sin since we have received Christ by faith.
Paul has asked the question in Romans 6:1, “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” His answer was, “By no means,” in other words, Paul says “NO!!” But in effect that is exactly what Christian doctrine is doing among Evangelicals and Pentecostals today. We teach that we cannot overcome sin in this life and we should not expect to do so. But it does not matter because God sees only Christ when He looks our way. Unfortunately, this conflicts with our other doctrines about God and the clear word of scripture. We all confirm that God knows all and sees all. But evidently he has put on blinders when it comes to my sin. Hebrews 4:13 ESV reads, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 12 tells us that God corrects us if we are His children and if He does not correct me then I am an illegitimate child. So what is He correcting? If when God looks my way all He sees is Jesus, what is there to correct?
And so many Evangelicals and Pentecostals today know and teach only half of the atoning work of Christ (some might say less than half but that is another blog). We teach forgiveness for sin through the atonement of Christ but we do not teach the removal of sin. We teach grace as unmerited favor but not as the empowering of God to do what we cannot do ourselves. When Christ died on the cross and was raised again his death, burial and resurrection brought about both forgiveness of sins and removal of sin from the life of the believer. Both are accessed by faith and both are essential and part of the normal Christian life. Every Christian is called to live in victory over sin and freedom from bondage. That is the whole gospel, it is time to preach again the fullness of the atonement of Christ.
The reason this has happened is that having only half of the gospel we are forgiven but not empowered by grace. Since I am forgiven but do not understand how to access God’s power for sanctification I am left to try to bring about my own sanctification by my own strength. Of course this is impossible and I will always fail. So either I can understand the fullness of the power of grace and receive God’s power by faith to put my sinful nature to death and live in holiness, or I can adjust my doctrine to say that such holiness is not necessary for the Christian. We are only “sinners saved by grace.” We have no expectation nor do we consider it necessary to overcome sin in this life. No one can do it… right? The truth is that everyone has access to the power of God to overcome sin in this life through the empowering grace of God. So why did this clear and important doctrine taught by Paul in Romans get twisted around to say just the opposite? The truth is we are happy to have our sins forgiven, we are happy to be going to heaven (and that was our question after all), but we are not happy to change. So we must adjust Christian teaching and doctrine to accommodate our going to heaven without actually changing how we live. I want to make my own choices, do what I want, when I want to do it. If I do not want to do what God says I don’t want to be “accountable” to God for that. In other words, I want to be my own God and still go to heaven and not be bothered by my Christian faith that there may be something wrong with this picture.
So we developed doctrines like “positional righteousness.” We are righteous because we are “in Christ” and not because we actually act righteously. So righteousness has been redefined from right action to right belief. If I believe right, I am righteous, whatever I do. And in this way we have turned the word of God on its head and righteousness is actually unrighteousness. And if anyone (like me in this blog) should try to argue the point they are teaching “works righteousness” or they are diminishing the work of Christ. Not at all, indeed “positional righteousness” diminishes the work of Christ. Such teaching says Christ is not able to work in me sufficiently to remove sin and to cause me to live in righteousness, doing right. I call this Christian double think from George Orwell’s book, 1984. We say we are righteous but we do not do right. We say we are holy but we sin and have no expectation of every overcoming sin. Indeed we expect to sin right up to the day we die and then go to heaven. Thus for many Evangelicals and Pentecostals today righteousness means unrighteousness and in fact, if we are honest, we would answer Paul’s question in Romans 6:1, “Yes, absolutely we should sin the more that grace may that much more abound.”
It is time for the other half of grace and the other half of the atonement to be taught and lived by Christians. It is not by our power, but it is by God’s power. And that power is available to all who put their faith in Christ. Sanctification is not an optional work to be undertaken by super saints who are beyond the experience of normal Christians. No, sanctification and holiness are the normal Christian life and the way that the church becomes a witness in the earth.