Law and Grace: Part 3

Baruch Levine emphasizes one of the most important characteristics of the Hebrew view of law when he says:

. . . the laws of the Torah did not permit Israelites to expiate intentional or premeditated offenses by means of sacrifice.  There was no vicarious, ritual remedy – substitution of one’s property or wealth – for such violations, whether they were perpetrated against other individuals or against God Himself.  In those cases, the law dealt directly with the offender, imposing real punishments and acting to prevent recurrences.  The entire expiatory system ordained in the Torah must be understood in this light.  Ritual expiation was restricted to situations where a reasonable doubt existed as to the willfulness of the offence.  Even then, restitution was always required where loss or injury to another person had occurred.  The mistaken notion that ritual worship could atone for criminality or intentional religious desecration was persistently attached by the prophets of Israel, who considered it a major threat to the entire covenantal relationship between Israel and God.[1]

What a mistake it is to think that the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Scripture provided forgiveness for intentional sins.  It did not!  Intentional sins fell under the governance of justice and justice demanded punishment.  The sacrificial system existed in order to insure ritual purity for those offenses that occurred without willful intention.  But deliberate sins precipitated legal sanctions.  “Forgiveness” for premeditated sins was really a matter of restitution, not removal of guilt, and was only accomplished by means of the enactment of punishment.  Willful sins required payment, sometime with your life.

The failure to recognize this crucial distinction has led Christians to claim that the Old Testament view of atonement was based on a “works” righteousness.  Thinking that sacrifices were a means for seeking forgiveness for deliberate sins, Christians espoused the position that the sacrificial system was eliminated with the death of the Messiah.  His sacrifice for sin was viewed as the final substitute for the Old Testament sacrificial system.  Christians believed that it was no longer necessary to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins since the final atonement had been accomplished by the blood of Yeshua on the cross.  But Levine’s comment demonstrates that the Christian view is a comparison of apples and oranges.  Since there was no provision for the forgiveness of deliberate sin in the Hebrew sacrificial system, it is simply illogical to suggest that the atoning death of the Messiah replaced the previous sacrifices.  The previous sacrifices never had any effect on deliberate sins, so the Messiah’s death could not be a replacement.  There was nothing in the Hebrew system to replace.  What the death of the Messiah accomplished did not replace the Hebrew sacrifices.  It fulfilled a need that the sacrificial system could not address.  The atoning death of the Messiah was the answer to the question, “What do I do about my deliberate sins?”  That answer was just as important to the Jew as it was to the Gentile.

With the correction in mind, let’s reconsider the place of sacrifice.  First, the purpose of sacrifice is to properly approach a holy God.  God Himself specifies the protocol for worship.  Worship requires purity.  The Scriptures provide us with instructions concerning purity in order that we might come into the presence of the holy God.  Those instructions include the necessity of ritual purity concerning unintentional violations of the holiness code.  In other words, if I am devoutly serious about my condition before the Lord, I will want to make sure that I have done nothing accidentally that would diminish my purity in His presence.  Therefore, I will need instructions to cover the eventuality that I may have inadvertently dishonored Him in some way.  The sacrificial system provides a means to insure that I may enter into His presence purified of my unintentional mistakes.

Secondly, the sacrificial system specifies the proper steps required to approach holiness.  God provides exact instructions for my behavior if I wish to be ritually pure before Him.  He alone has the authority to determine the proper methods.  The sacrifices are proscribed behaviors that allow me to be acceptable to Him.  But since they do not affect deliberate sin, the acceptability achieved with the sacrifices does not in any way offer me the possibility of removing my guilt through human action.  These are God’s divinely ordained rituals for proper worship.  They are not negotiable and they are quite specific in their application and circumstances.  Unless all of the conditions apply, the sacrifice does not accomplish its purpose.  Today some of the critical conditions of the sacrifices are not possible.  Until they are, the sacrifices cannot be effectively performed.

Finally, we must notice that removing the error concerning deliberate sins shifts the issue from grace to justice and the application of punishment.  Guilt is “expiated” within the society by the proper application of required punishment.  If a man deliberately sins, the proper expiation of that sin within the society is the application of the required punishment.  So, a man who steals must be brought to justice and he must repay with penalty what he has taken.  A man who injures another is subject to the general provision of “measure for measure.”  A man who murders another must die.  This judicial requirement removes the guilt in the society, but, of course, it does not remove the guilt of the offense before God.  Furthermore, the society that does not execute the required justice leaves the matter unresolved and the forensic debt remains unpaid.  In such cases, the whole society bears the burden.  This is why the proper execution of justice within a community that follows YHWH is critically essential for every member of the community.

Grace, mercy and spiritual forgiveness must be left to God Himself.  So, the social impact of deliberate sin becomes the concern of the judicial system but the religious and spiritual impact of deliberate sin oversteps the sacrificial provision and rests entirely with God.  Until God dealt with this critical issue, no man – from Adam to the present day – could be forgiven of his intentional violations of holiness.  God did deal with this issue in the perfect sacrifice of His Son “before the foundation of the world.”  It is on this basis alone that there is forgiveness of deliberate sin.  The Old Testament and the New Testament do not present two opposing means for forgiveness.  They present one uniform, eternal provision.


[1] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (The Jewish Publication Society, New York), 1989, p. 3.

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