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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:How God Atones for Our Sin
Text:LD 6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Revelation of the Gospel

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 66:1,6                                                                                    

Hy 5:1,2,3,4  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Leviticus 16:1-34; Hebrews 9:11-15

Ps 51:1,2,3

Sermon – Lord’s Day 6

Hy 38:1,2,3,4

Ps 32:1,2,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, have you ever read a self-help book? The kind of book that encourages you to take control of your life, reduce clutter, and live in the power of now? There’s some helpful tidbits in these books, but ultimately, self-help is always going to fail. Because we are the problem, not the solution. Real help for us will always be ‘other-help,’ not self-help.

In the previous Lord’s Day, the Catechism told us that we cannot bring about our own salvation (Q&A 13). We’re still sinning every day, so we can’t ever escape the burden of guilt. It’s like being at the bottom of a deep hole and trying to dig yourself out.

So how about someone else? Can some other being provide a way of escape? Another ‘no’ from the Catechism: “God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed” (Q&A 14). In that answer, we hear Hebrews 10:4, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats can take away sins.” An animal is not enough—it’s not strong enough, not pure enough, not human enough.

But then what about all those Old Testament sacrifices, we wonder? What about all those detailed regulations for selecting sacrifices, for slaughtering them, draining their blood, and offering up their parts to the LORD? Did these not work to take away sin?

They did ‘work.’ There was true atonement from sin for God’s people in the Old Testament. But only because a greater sacrifice was coming—because the Lamb of God was on his way. He was the hope of God’s Old Testament people, and He is our hope. I preach God’s Word to you, as summarized in Lord’s Day 6,

The holy gospel reveals how God atones for our sin:

  1. the many imperfect sacrifices
  2. the one perfect sacrifice


1) the many imperfect sacrifices: One of the marvelous things about the Catechism is how it gets to the heart of an issue. We see that in our Lord’s Day. For in just a few well-chosen words, it sums up our greatest need as sinners. We see it in Q&A 16, “The same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin.”

Payment: that says it all. And we shouldn’t think of this like making a monetary payment, when we give card or cash to acquire some product or service. It reminds me of this new thing called Afterpay. Maybe you’ve seen it advertised in the stores. Afterpay lets you buy now, then pay over six weeks, interest free—unless you miss a payment! Immediate enjoyment, delayed charges. That’s a lot like how we think about sin. In the moment of sinning, we’re focused on short-term benefit: my pleasure, my sense of power, my ease and comfort. We’re not so concerned about the ‘afterpay,’ the consequences in the long term.

But there always is. Our sin has a price. That’s a terrifying truth: after another day of sinning, think what we owe God! And this idea of payment is central to the Old Testament law, those sacrifices and offerings described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We read the principle in Hebrews 9:22, “Without [the] shedding of blood there is no remission”—that is, there is no payment of debt, no forgiveness of sin.

There had to be blood. Here’s how it went. A worshiper brought to the tabernacle an unblemished animal. This was an animal that the worshiper had raised himself, or that he paid for himself. It was a sacrifice, in the truest sense of the word: giving up something valuable. Because it was valuable, it could be said that the worshiper was offering a little part of himself to God. And then the animal was killed and its blood was put onto the horns of the altar.

The blood confirmed the fact that the animal had died, and that its blood was being given to the Lord. The blood marked the fact that this person’s sin had been paid for in the sight of God—atoned for with the life of another.

Sounds straightforward enough: you sin, you sacrifice. But it was far from a perfect system. They were just animals, after all, that were killed at the temple. And the people who brought the sacrifices were still sinful; no sooner had they offered a sacrifice, than they needed to offer another. Even the priests who made the offerings were sinful, so they needed atonement too. You see that sin encumbered the whole process, from start to finish.

It’s not much different from the sacrifices we make today. As redeemed Christians, we try to serve God, and bear fruit for Christ. In gratitude, we try present ourselves ‘as living sacrifices’ (Rom 12:1). It’s why we pray. It’s why we gather for Sunday worship. It’s why we try to shape our marriage by God’s Word, and our home life and business. It’s why we give God a portion of our income, and we serve on committees or on consistory. In all these things—even when we make ‘sacrifices’ of our time and money—we’re trying hard to honour the Lord.

Yet sin stains our sacrifices too. We are far from flawless, whether as parents, husbands, wives, children, or anyone. For when we’re doing these good things for God, our motives might well be impure: we hope for a bit of recognition, or we’re trying to ease a guilty conscience. Or as we pray to God, our thoughts might be angry or proud. Aside from all that, a penetrating guilt afflicts everything we do. We realize that nothing we do can bring us back into God’s favour.

That’s what happened in Israel too. Because of the people’s sin and the sin of the priests, even the sanctuary became defiled. Through another year of daily sacrifices, the very structure of the tabernacle, the furniture and the building and the holy places, was covered with a toxic build-up. So the LORD’s house needed to be cleansed and purified.

This is what the rituals on the Day of Atonement were intended to do, to clean the tabernacle. To appreciate the gravity of happens, think about the great divide between God and mankind. This separation was seen in the tabernacle’s design. With all those curtains and gates and walls and courts, there was no mistaking the clear partition between sinners and God, between the Holy and the unholy. Compare it to the razor wire and barricades that you see at a hostile border.

And at the very back, protected by all those layers and levels, stood the ark of the covenant. It was in the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. This was called God’s throne room, the earthly version of God’s throne room in heaven. On the ark were two carved images of cherubim, showing how the LORD is enthroned between the cherubim in heaven above. This was the focal point of God’s holy presence on earth, the nerve centre of glory. So who’s ever going to enter that room? Who could approach without being destroyed?

The priests couldn’t just come at any time, and in just any way. But they could come! God says that on this one special day, one man may draw near, the mediator between God and man. This was a job for the high priest.

To prepare, Aaron would wash not just his hands, but his entire body. Notice how he’d put aside his official robes, ornate and impressive with purple and precious stones, and he’d dress in a simple white garment. Among his fellow Israelites he had great dignity, but in God’s presence he is stripped of all honour.

Then he’ll offer two sacrifices. The first was a sin offering for the priests, and the second for all Israel. After the first offering, Aaron would take “a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil” (v 12). For the first time that year, the only time that year, someone enters the Most Holy Place.

Let’s take a look at that veil or curtain, the final one that separated God’s throne room from the rest of the tabernacle. In Exodus, in the instructions for the tabernacle, you learn that this veil had angels woven into the fabric with golden thread. These also bring to mind the cherubim who guarded the way to the tree of life in Paradise. When we fell into sin our parents were expelled from God’s presence, and prevented from re-entering. The angels on that veil were like a blaring announcement to anyone who came near: No further!

But the high priest goes past the cherubim, into God’s throne room. And once inside the Most Holy Place, Aaron placed two handfuls of incense onto those coals in his censer. The incense would produce a cloud of smoke, and this protected the high priest’s eyes from seeing God’s glory.

Safely in front of the ark, the blood from that first sin offering was sprinkled on the mercy seat. This was where the LORD’s presence hovered. And underneath was stored the “Testimony,” or the tablets of the law; this was the law that testified to Israel’s constant sin. But God in his great mercy is willing to cover their sin, to pay its cost with blood. 

After this, there’s the second sacrifice, involving two goats. After he exits the tabernacle, the high priest chooses one of the goats as a sin offering for the people. Again the priest enters the Most Holy Place, and he sprinkles blood on the mercy seat seven times.

Then the high priest takes the second goat—often called the scapegoat—and he lays his hands on it. Verse 21 says, “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat.”

I wonder how they made that confession. What would Aaron say? How can you express a year’s worth of sinning in a few words? Even confess the sins of an entire nation? Words fail us when we confess sin because we really have no idea how bad it is. But God promises that He is faithful to forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

After the confession, the scapegoat is sent away. Someone leads the goat out to a distant place, and then turns it loose. The meaning of this is powerful, “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land” (v 22)— an area far outside the camp, maybe on the other side of a deep valley, so the goat had no chance of returning.

This goat is God’s vehicle for removing iniquity. Sin is being sent to a place from where it can never return. The scapegoat has been called the ritual “garbage truck,” hauling away the transgressions of the entire nation. The holy gospel is that human sin is purged, sin utterly removed, sin fully forgiven.

While all this is happening, Leviticus says the Israelites should be “afflicting themselves,” probably fasting, eating no food for the day. It was also a day free from work, so that everyone could focus on these events. Over this past year they’d again sinned and now deserve only death. Yet there is joy. This is actually a great day, for God is gracious, and with blood He’s atoning for every sin.

So, being the practical-minded people that we are, we ask: Did it work? Was this a real forgiveness, true atonement? On the one hand, we see that the whole system was futile. So many offerings made, day after day. We read about this futility in Hebrews 10, “Every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices” (v 11). By their repetition, by their very number, it was clear these sacrifices could not really take away human sin.

Even the Day of Atonement—special as it was—had to be repeated, year after year. None of this in itself could make clean those who drew near to God. For how could a creature sustain the burden of God’s wrath? How could the blood of bulls and goats serve as payment?

Yet the free gift of God’s grace is at the centre of all these sacrifices. There was real atonement, real forgiveness—for we can find real mercy at God’s throne! The sacrifices did work, not in themselves, but because a greater sacrifice was going to be offered.

The Catechism uses the word “foreshadowed” (Q&A 19). It’s like when you’re walking in the late afternoon and the sun is behind you, your shadow is cast far ahead—sometimes so far that it touches things that are several metres away. These Old Testament sacrifices threw their shadows far ahead to Christ and what He was going to accomplish. All these offerings pointed to the ultimate high priest, and the perfect Lamb of God, who is the one perfect sacrifice.


2) the one perfect sacrifice: So who could make full payment to God for sin? One who meets every requirement—and this is Christ. He alone had the right credentials and qualifications to deal with our sin and guilt. Jesus was not merely an animal, and He was more than a man, but He was even God himself.

Says the Catechism, Christ was a true man, having “the same human nature which has sinned,” and He was a righteous man, able to “pay for others” (Q&A 16). What’s more, Christ was true God: “So that by the power of his divine nature He might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath” (Q&A 17).

In Hebrews, we meet this great high priest. Now, Hebrews says that when the Old Testament high priest entered the Most Holy Place, this was like the priest was entering God’s throne room, drawing near to petition for mercy. When He was on the cross, Christ was stuck in place with nails through his hands and feet, but He was doing the same thing—in those moments, He was approaching God, drawing near as the mediator between God and sinners. Hebrews 9 says that “with his own blood He entered the Most Holy Place” (9:12).

The Old Testament high priest cast a long shadow forward to Christ, to the one who brought his blood before God. But that isn’t the only foreshadowing that we see in Leviticus 16. For Christ was both priest and offering. He was both the sacrificial goat and scapegoat.

Like that first goat in Leviticus 16, Christ was killed for the sin of God’s people. He was the great substitute. For He was a righteous man, pouring out precious blood as a sufficient payment. This is what Isaiah prophesied, “For the transgressions of my people He was afflicted.” His blood was given to God, and his blood covers our sins. And this time, just once was enough: one sacrifice, one outpouring of blood.

And like that second goat, Christ was loaded up with our sins. He was burdened with all our impurity. “The LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and then He removed it far from us. For Christ, it meant being banished from God’s presence, when He descended to hell.

Jesus carried all our sin out of God’s sight forever—He brought it all into the black hole of eternity, to a place where sin can never again be held against us. We sing about this in Psalm 103, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (v 12). It means that whatever sins you have done, and however long you have held onto this evil, if you confess your sins, and repent of them, God forgives you in Christ. Your sins are truly gone: but yes, you must confess and you must repent.  

Let’s explore a few results of this holy gospel. First, it changes our relationships with each other. Think about how God’s forgiveness is complete, how He doesn’t bring up our sins anymore and will not hold them against us. Remember again that God banishes our sins to oblivion, that God dumps them in the farthest place.

That is a beautiful model for how we can love each other in the church and our families: a generously forgiving love. For we’re not very good at this. We still remember how that brother once wronged us, and we bring it up from time to time. And we hold onto our resentment against this teacher, and we’ve got short fuses with our children—or with our parents. But grace must change us. It should make us grace-filled and gracious! Have a short memory for wrongs, and a big heart for love.

This gospel also means the joy in not having anything to add to Christ’s sacrifice. He’s done everything already! Sometimes we think we’re not good enough for God. I hear people say that we don’t do enough, we don’t pray enough, and we still sin too often. And that’s true: you don’t do enough. You never will. You won’t get there by ‘self-help,’ you need ‘other-help.’ And by faith in Christ, you already have your peace with God. If you believe, your salvation has never been more secure.

Through Christ, we can draw near to God at any time. Humble still, and deeply reverent before the holy God, but bold. For God has torn down the barriers, opened the way, and now we can enter heaven itself! We may look up above us, and look behind us, beside us, and within us, and know that God goes with us.

This confidence is such a gift. Even sincere believers sometimes live in the dread of God, or we walk around with a heavy load of guilt, or feel like He doesn’t really care. But God sees you as forgiven, redeemed, accepted. For when we’re united to Christ by faith, we know that whatever He did, we did. We went with Him into hell, and we went with Him into heaven. So now God loves us with an unbreakable love!

And yes, this gospel also means we can pray. We know that’s our privilege, but probably we all struggle to do it. We forget to pray, or we can’t be bothered. Sometimes we wonder what words to use when we pray, or we wonder if God’s really listening. But when we pray, we can be sure of a perfect welcome, sure of full forgiveness, sure of his tender mercy. So pour out your thanksgivings and troubles and trials. The Father delights to hear from his children. Pray to God in full assurance, knowing that if you believe in Christ, God accepts you freely.

Finally, we saw that part of the Day of Atonement was how Israel humbled themselves, fasting grieving for their sins. That’s an example to us too. Who are we sinners, that God should think of us? He has been very gracious. And his grace should move us to mourn our sins.

If you love Christ for what He did for you, then repent from your sin. Leave behind the ugly remnants of your old way of life—your sexual lust, your envy of people who are richer or prettier, your discontentment, your prideful spirit—break the habits of the sinful flesh. Go on to holiness, where you are pure and content and humble in the Lord.

Beloved, we used to have a serious problem. It was a problem that threatened to sink us, threatened to kill us. That problem was sin. But God did something about it. He has given us Christ, who has become “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (Q&A 18). We can come to the throne of God’s grace and kneel before him.

For the payment has been made.

The sacrifice has been accepted.

Your sins are forgiven.

Now go, and sin no more.  Amen.  

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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