An old hymn has a stanza that asks the question posed in the title of this article. That’s a very good question, with many answers, but at least four of them are of ultimate importance in truly understanding the gospel of Christ. I recently preached a series of two sermons answering these questions, and since the lessons seemed to be received well, I was motivated to put them into article form and post them on this teaching website. I changed the title and broke the two lessons down into a four part written series. Each of the parts is placed in a sequence that I believe is logical, and you will hopefully understand the reason for the sequence as the answers unfold.
Answer #1 – His Death Makes Possible the Impossible
First, Jesus came to die for our sins. The verses that say this could be multiplied, because this is the foundation of the gospel. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He didn’t just die for the sins of the world; he died for the specific sins that each of us has committed (and will yet commit).
The Astounding Nature of Forgiveness
Astounding is the right word when thinking of the magnitude of our individual sins, to say nothing of the combined sins of the entire human race from its beginning. The ways to sin are many, the Bible tells us.
- Wrong actions – 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
- Wrong words – Matthew 12:36-37: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Wrong thoughts – Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
- Wrong motivations – 1 Corinthians 4:5: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”
- Failure to do right – James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
In light of these passages, and many more like them, the sin problem of mankind is enormous. How many sins have you committed? How many sins has humanity as a whole committed? I remember reading an old restoration preacher’s writing who made a comment back in the 19th century about the number of our personal sins. Since he was a part of a very doctrinally focused group, his answer was surprising. I supposed that he thought of sin mainly as doctrinal errors, but he said that a mature sinner had surely committed at least a couple of million sins. He was far more in touch with reality than most today, I would have to say.
To even start approaching the number of sins that mankind as a whole has committed and will yet commit, I had to Google the terms by which large numbers are called. Starting with millions, it goes in this ascending order: billions, trillions, quadrillions, quintillions, nonillions, decillions, googols, centillions, googolplexes – and beyond. Astounding! Unfathomable! Overwhelming!
How is Forgiveness Even Possible?
Then we must come to a consideration of how all of those sins could be forgiven. Hebrews 10:4 assures us that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” In the Old Testament, there were many types of animal sacrifices prescribed by God, the main ones being the burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings and a number of others. The burnt offerings were sacrificed each morning and each evening, plus additional ones on the Sabbath and other special days. This means that well over 1 million animals were killed from the time of Moses to the time of Christ just in this one category of sacrifices. I recall reading of an official Roman report sent to Rome from Jerusalem during the first century, noting that 256,000 lambs had been sacrificed in Jerusalem during one Passover Feast.
All told, no doubt billions of animals were slaughtered during the Mosaic period. Keep in mind that these animals were totally innocent, they were painfully slaughtered (often by the one who brought them to be offered), and in spite of these sacrifices numbering in the billions, all of them combined simply could not take away one sin! With this realization comes the realization that our sins are far more heinous before our God that we can possibly imagine.
Our problem in grasping the awfulness of sin is that we have allowed Satan to do what he does best – deceive us into thinking that we are basically good people. Perhaps many of us are, when compared to our fellow man (the bad ones for sure). But compared to the sinless Jesus, we are anything but good. What we deserve is death and hell; by God’s grace we can escape the latter if we truly live as Jesus calls us to. When I teach the first three chapters of Romans, I give it the heading of “The best of us is a mess!” Chapter 1 shows the horrific sins of the Gentiles; chapter 2 shows the self-righteous sins of the Jews; chapter 3 sums up the problem of all mankind with these words: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Isaiah described it in even more shocking terms when he said in 64:6 that “all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Are you overwhelmed yet? I am. Forgiveness of the magnitude of sins we have all committed is a concept that our mortal minds simply cannot begin to grasp. Then how can God possibly forgive as freely as the Bible says he does? God had to become a man – there is no other possible answer. The Deity of Christ cannot be glossed over in any way. It is a salvation issue.
The Nature of Christ Jesus
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was God’s first creation and then Jesus created everything else. They believe that Jesus is an archangel, nothing more and nothing less, and specifically they view him as being Michael the archangel.
This is nothing short of heretical teaching. Mathew 4:10 says that only God can be worshipped. Revelation 19:10 shows clearly that angels cannot be worshipped by humans. Jesus accepted worship from humans during his personal ministry, and Hebrews 1:6 states clearly that Jesus was worshipped by angels. “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” The term “firstborn” is obviously used symbolically to mean “highest honored,” as it is used of David in Psalm 89:27. Two verses later in Hebrews 1 (verse 8), the Father says of Jesus, “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.’”
Regarding Michael the archangel, Jude 1:9 had this to say: “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” Jesus certainly had no hesitation in rebuking Satan personally and strongly (Matthew 4:10).
But back to the biggest issue of how forgiveness of sins is possible when considering the just nature of God! I mentioned the first three chapters of Romans in how they describe sin and the penalty due for it. A careful study of these chapters doesn’t leave you with the question of how a loving God can send people to hell; it leaves you with the question of how a just God can do anything else! Sin is deadly and a deadly serious matter. By the grace of God, Jesus came to earth and died for a magnitude of sins that our finite minds cannot begin to grasp. Hence, living as Jesus demands is no small matter, and self-denial is the only possible starting place in imitating him.
Forgiveness in the Old Testament
Some of you may be wondering about those who lived before the sacrifice of Christ – were they saved and if so, how were they saved? If the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, what happened to those who died before the cross? The general answer is that they were saved just like we are, by grace through faith. Their faith was a seriously committed faith as ours must be, and the grace came by the cross of Christ just as ours has. The effects of the shed blood of Christ went backwards as well of forwards.
Hebrews 9:15b – “… he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
Romans 3:25-26 – “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
We tend to get confused by the time factor of when Christ’s crucifixion took place, but that is because we are time-bound creatures. Time means nothing to God. As Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Revelation 13:8 ties it all together beautifully as it states that Jesus was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” Before God created humankind, he knew that he would ultimately be nailed to the cross for the redemption of his creatures. And that is the story that mortal mind could never have invented nor comprehended without the revelation of God.