Is there anything missing when we compare the details of The Day of Atonement with the details of the work of Christ?
When we read Leviticus 16, we see a lot of overlap.
There is a holy God who is angry at sin and requires perfect obedience through the work of a priest. Specifically, the priest is to make atonement on behalf of his people. The priest deals with God’s wrath and the guilt of human sin in the way that God prescribes.
Theologians often speak of the Law’s requirements in terms of its positive and negative demands. John Murray wrote,
“It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings.”
In other words, failure to perfectly obey God’s Law brings two significant issues to the table: the presence of a penalty and the lack of perfection. Any sin against God requires the removal of wrath and guilt as well as perfect righteousness (obedience to the Law).
The ‘problem’ with The Day of Atonement becomes clear: as soon as the sacrifices were offered and the joy of forgiveness is felt (Lev. 16.30) the clock begins to tick on the rest of the believer’s sinful life. Even if the sacrifices were able to finally and complete remove sin, the Day was impotent to save finally. They did not have the ability to walk forward in perfect righteousness. Therefore, with each subsequent heart beat sin occurs. And where sin occurs wrath and guilt accrue (Rom. 1:18, 3:23, 6:23; Gal. 3:10; 1 John 3:4).
Do you see the awful predicament here? As soon as they walk home from the Tabernacle they are undone by their sin. The Day of Atonement is not enabled to provide eternal redemption. It is intentionally short-armed. As we have seen the priests are inferior (Heb. 7:22-28), the sacrifice is inferior (Heb. 10:4), and imputed righteousness is absent.
Contrast this to the Work of Christ
Contrast this with the work of Jesus. He is the better priest who offers the better sacrifice. In addition he provides the righteousness needed to stand before God as blameless.
What I mean by this is that Jesus not only satisfied the negative aspect of the Law’s requirements but also the positive. He not only removes divine wrath and bears human guilt but he also provides everlasting righteousness for his people.
Through his perfect obedience to his Father, Jesus deals with God’s wrath, our guilt and our need for righteousness (Joh 4:34, 8:29; Rom. 3:23-27, 4:5, 5:1-3, 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21). He brings the blood to the mercy seat, he is the true and better Azazel that carries away our guilt and he is the last Adam who earns our righteousness.
Think through this reality: God is no longer angry at his people because his wrath has been perfectly satisfied by the death of Christ. Our guilt before God for failing to keep his Law has been perfectly borne by Christ in his death. The Law’s requirement of perfect obedience has been satisfied by Christ’s obedient life. The righteousness based on Christ’s obedience has been charged (credited, or imputed) to those who trust in Christ (Rom. 3:24-27; 5:1-3; 8:1; Phil. 3.9). This is staggering. It is true. It is gospel truth.
What is Lacking in Our Day
It is very common in our day to speak of our forgiveness and acceptance before God exclusively in terms of the death of Christ. When I say this I mean that the life of Christ is omitted.
Why is this a problem?
First and foremost, it is unbiblical. Christ submitted himself to the Law of God in order to fulfill it on behalf of his people (Matt. 3.15-17; John 4.34, 8.29; Rom. 5.15-7; Gal. 3.10-13, 4.4-5; etc). Christ is the last Adam who comes obey God’s Law for his people.
A way to tease this out is to think through the importance of the life of Christ. If Herod had his way and killed Christ as a young child would that death have been redemptive? Why or why not? There is nothing that changes inherently in the nature of Jesus between ages 2 and 33; he remains fully divine and wholly man. However, there is a significant difference in terms of his relationship to the Law of God.
He fulfills everything required of him to be the Savior for his people (Matt. 1.21). It was as necessary for Jesus to live for his people as to die for them.
Second of all, it is dangerous. It is dangerous because Christians often times adopt a concept of salvation that mirrors Roman Catholicism. Us Protestants use different words but the concept is closely aligned. We rely on Christ’s death to take away our guilt and then rely on ourselves and our obedience for sanctification. Whereas the biblical model seems to present a declaration of righteous (justification -Romans 3, 4 5) and then the obedience in sanctification that flows out of a justified life (Romans 6, 7, 8, 12-15) not to maintain it. Our standing place is maintained by being “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.1).
I think a lot of our evangelical gospel knots could be untied by understanding and applying the important doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Think about it. Why would we need moralism, legalism or other isms that we love to latch onto? We have been justified in Christ. The righteousness is settled.
Do You Preach a Day of Atonement Gospel?
Are folks then not preaching a Day of Atonement ‘gospel’ if the imputed righteousness due to the active obedience of Christ is neglected in preaching and teaching today? Where is the basis for joyful resting in being accepted? How are people truly declared righteous before God? There is marked difference between being only aquitted for past sins and being declared righteous going forward. To avoid the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is to rest in the former. And this, I submit, is to preach a Day of Atonement Gospel.
Resolve to Preach Christ
Preaching Christ is preaching his life, death and resurrection. The death of Christ is the culmination of his obedient life. The resurrection of Christ is the proof of his obedience being accepted.
I appreciated what Tulian Tchividjian wrote recently along these same lines:
Christ’s life, in other words, is just as central to our rescue as his death. Apart from his law fulfilling life, there is NO righteousness to impute. As I’ve said before, we are not saved apart from the law. Rather, we are saved in Christ who perfectly kept the law on our behalf. This is nothing new…it’s been a stamp of historic Reformed theological conviction for centuries!
So, Christ’s death is not the center of the Gospel anymore than Christ’s life is the center of the Gospel. One without the other fails to bring about redemption. It’s much more theologically accurate to say that Christ himself is the center of the Gospel (incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and promised return). I think this is a really big deal because the practical life implications of neglecting the totality of Christ’s person and work are disastrous.
The shadows were intended and have actually been fulfilled. Do not dishonor Christ’s work by underemphasizing, marginalizing or avoiding the crown of his obedience. And do not rob his people of the joy of resting joyfully in the certainty of being declared not only not guilty but eternally clothed with the everlasting righteousness of Jesus.