Atonement and Justification – Part 2



Text: Leviticus 16:1-34

Introduction: This past Monday, Oct. 2, was Yom Kippur.  This is the Hebrew name for “The Day of Atonement”  (cf. Lev. 23:27, lit., day of expiations), and was the most important day in the Jewish ritual calendar.  It was the greatest feast day, occurring once a year and looking forward to her future national day of atonement.  In the Talmudical treatise on the day, it was called “Yoma,” or the day, which expressed its importance.

My former professor of Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the late S. Lewis Johnson[1] noted that lessons of the Day of Atonement are many and varied.  It was first and foremost a ceremony that taught that all the sacrifices composing the Levitical system, faithfully carried out through the year, and did not avail for the removal of sin.  If the system’s many sacrifices removed sin, why was this day necessary (cf. Heb. 10:1-3)?

Second, the ceremony, in which the High Priest was enjoined to enter the Holy of Holies for the only time during the year, taught that the true goal of worship is not reached until the worshipper in his representative, the High Priest, has free access into the presence of the Most High in the Holy of Holies.

Third, it taught the sinfulness of man in a most complete and impressive way (cf. vv. 2, 21).  Even the daily offerings and the series of other required offerings for sin could not cleanse the sinner, although they might act as a temporary covering of guilt (cf. Heb. 9:8-10).

Fourth, it taught the holiness of God, therefore, in a very solemn way.  Even the High Priest, upon entering the Holiest, must offer incense, typical of a prayer for the grace and mercy of God even in the performance of divinely required sacrifices.

Fifth, it taught the necessity of blood expiation for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Heb. 9:22).  In the fact that the blood was brought into the Holiest of All, into the typical presence of God, it represented the most perfect type of the one offering of Jesus Christ by His blood sacrifice on Calvary.

Sixth, it taught the principle of representation, for Aaron represented the people of Israel in what he accomplished on “the Day.”  Typically he secured for them by his mediation expiation of their sins and redemption for another year.  In this work Aaron represents beautifully our Great Mediator and High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Seventh, the imperfect realization of the idea of the priestly office was clearly taught.  (Heb. 7:27) Phillips rightly observed, “From the postulation of the perfect innocence of Christ, as defined in the preceding verse, it follows that, unlike the Levitical high priests, he was under no necessity to offer a sacrifice first for his own sins before doing so for the sins of others.  This is a further significant point of contrast between him and those high priests of the Aaronic line, for (as already mentioned in 5:3 above) because they were without exception sinful mortals, themselves in need of reconciliation no less than the people in whose stead they ministered, they were required to sacrifice a sin offering on their own behalf before doing so on behalf of others (see Lev. 16:6, 14, 15).  This procedure, moreover, had to be followed with interminable repetition (daily).  Such considerations in themselves testify emphatically to the imperfect character of the Aaronic priesthood and its ministrations and to the need for another priesthood which would be free from frustrating inadequacies and therefore finally and eternally effective.”[2]

I.          “The Day,” and its Redemptive Truths:  There are a number of important redemptive truths that are typically illustrated in the ritual of the Day of Atonement.

A.        First:  And very important, is the clear acknowledgement of the sin of the people.  The sanctuary, the high priest, and the people are each seen as unfit for the presence of God apart from divine redemptive cleansing.  And the fact that the Day must be repeated each year adds to the proclamation of Israel’s sin (cf. Heb. 10:1-4).

B.        Second:  The entire ceremony placarded the holiness of God, as in the command that Aaron must not enter the Holiest but once a year, that even then he must be clothed in special garments of holiness (cf. v. 4), that he must burn the incense in merciful appeal that God would not look upon him in his sin, that even the sanctuary itself must be cleansed, that the directions must be followed scrupulously, that the participants must bathe themselves even after doing God’s requirements, and that the elaborate ceremony still did not really purify the people, since it must be repeated each year.

C.        Third:  The truth of representative atonement is taught. That Aaron acted for the people is plain, both by the nature of his office, the clothes he wore, and his sole privilege and responsibility to slay the atoning goat in the expiation of sins and to enter the Holiest of All with the blood in the propitiation of God by sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat, and then to confess the nation’s sin over the scape-goat, sending it off into the wilderness in expression of the redemptive removal of the nation’s sin.  The means of effecting the atonement was the blood of the sacrificial animal.  Listen to Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood:  and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls:  for it is the blood that maketh atonement through (or, by means of) the soul.”  The life in the blood affects the changed relationship.  “It is the fountain of life,”  Harvey the discoverer of the blood’s circulation, said, and added these words, “the first to live, the last to die, and the primary seat of the animal soul.”[3]  To shed blood is to pour out life, that is to die violently (Heb. 9:22; Eph. 1:7; 5:9; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:14; 10:19; I John 1:7; Rev. 7:14).  To God the blood is important (cf. Exod. 12:13), expiating sin and propitiating Him.  Cf. Luke 18:13, “God be propitiated (HILASTHATI) to me a sinner.”  “The publican is overwhelmed by the sense of his own unworthiness, and rightly so.  It is a great mistake to regard the publican as a decent sort of fellow, who knew his own limitations and did not pretend to be better than he was.  It is one of the marks of our time that the Pharisee and the publican have changed places; and it is the modern equivalent of the publican who may be heard thanking God that he is not like those canting humbugs, hypocrites and kill-joys, whose chief offence is that they take their religion seriously.  This publican was a rotter; and he knew it.  He asked for God’s mercy because mercy was the only thing he dared ask for.”[4]  Note well the relationship between “atonement,” i.e., the mercy-seat where propitiation was made and justification effected.  Note also that the word translated “justified” is DEDIKAIOMENOS, perfect participle passive.  The passive points to the fact that he is justified by an act of God, and the perfect tense teaches that the act is already accomplished so that the “publican” is now in a permanent state of being justified.  From the then current usage of the word it appears “that by the ‘righteous’ we are to understand one whose sin was forgiven.”[5]

D.        Fourth:  The truth of substitution stands out (cf. vv. 21-22).  It is the death of the goat that expiates sin and propitiates God as the means of atonement, with the sending off of the live goat with the sins typically upon its back expressing the effects of atonement in pictorial fashion.  The two goats, of course, formed one offering (cf. v. 5).  As in the Passover experience, when God said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you,” so here God sees, not the sin, but its expiation in blood.

E.        Fifth:  Associated closely with substitution is the truth of imputation.  The sins of the people are imputed, or reckoned, to the animal, while the departure of the sins with the scape-goat is reckoned to the people.  This is the subject of the great song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah fifty-three, the sixth verse of which contains the line, “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Paul expresses the truth plainly in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “The One who knew no sin He made sin in our behalf, that we might become God’s righteousness in Him” (cf. Gal. 3:13).  The curse of the broken law our Sin-bearer bore and exhausted, and God has given us His righteousness in grace.

F.         Sixth:  The goal of the divine ministry is clearly delineated by Aaron’s privilege of entering the presence of God on the Day.  While the repetition of the ceremony each year proclaimed the inadequacy of the Levitical system to take away sin, the entrance of the high priest into the Holiest on this special day was a divine acknowledgement and declaration that the true end of the divine work is not completed until the worshiper has free access to the Most High who dwells in the real Holiest of All.  The thought is overwhelming in its statement of our privilege in worship now that the High Priest of our confession, Jesus Christ, has opened the way for us into the holy presence of the Father.  This is the burden of the Epistle to the Hebrews and its glorious word of affirmation and invitation, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:19-22; 4:14-16).

Conclusion:  It is impossible to construct a Biblical understanding of the nature and design of Christ’s Atonement if the Old Testament’s emphasis on the Day of Atonement is ignored.  Regrettably this is what happens when penal substitution is discarded.  The other two major models (the Exemplar and Christ as Victor) cannot adequately integrate this OT typology into their respective models.  Only the Mediator model can.  Christ’s atoning death, as pictured in the details of the Day of Atonement deals with the very real problem of human sin and the equally pressing problem of Divine wrath.  Furthermore, as earlier noted, the link between Atonement and Justification is critical.  Justification is God’s verdict of acceptance and blessing, whereby God does not reckon sins, thus no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).  It’s polar opposite is captured in the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ where God does reckon or imputes sins to Christ.  Robert Reymond underscores the foundational importance of the covenant of works and its relationship to the active obedience of Christ.  “But a rejection of the full meritoriousness of the work of Christ has devastating implications for the doctrine of justification through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers:  for if Christ’s obedience has no meritorious value, neither has a penal satisfaction been made for our sins, nor is there a perceptive righteousness available to be imputed to us.”[6]


[1] I owe the structure and major features of the analysis of the Day of Atonement to Dr. Johnson’s lectures on “The Old Testament Anticipation of the Messiah” – Fall, 1983.


[2] P. Hughes, A Commentary On The Epistle To The Hebrews (Eerdmans) p. 275

[3] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Service (rpt. Eerdmans, 1950), p. 307.


[4] T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (SCM Press 1957), p. 604.


[5] cf. Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (Eerdmans, 1979) p. 452.


[6] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), p. 432.

With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship

Reformed Christians, ” write D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, “are increasingly divided over how they ought to worship their God.” Considering it an urgent matter “to recover a biblical view of worship, ” the authors have written With Reverence and Awe. Drawing on Scripture and Reformed confessions and catechisms, the authors answer such questions as: When are we to worship? How do we worship with reverence and joy? They also tackle “the most divisive issue”: music, concluding with criteria that can help Reformed believers make sound judgments.

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