Did the death of Jesus pay the price for past, present and future sins?
This is the first of two questions on the crucial subject of sin and forgiveness. The second question will appear in next month’s issue,
THE NAME ‘JESUS’ means ‘God is salvation’. He was given that name because, as the angel Gabriel explained to Jesus’ mother Mary, “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Gabriel also said that Jesus will one day sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem as King (Luke 1:32). But his first role was to bring salvation from sin and death, for those who are “his people”.
God cannot and will not forgive everyone, for He is a holy God and will only forgive those who have shown they want to be forgiven, and have come into a relationship with Him in the way that He made possible. We need to understand the Gospel, believe it, repent, and be baptised (Acts 2:38, 18:8), and then we must live in line with God’s commandments, to show that our faith is genuine. Baptism is immersion in water. The apostle Paul said this about it:
…Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).
After we are baptised we will still do, say and think things that are wrong, but we have the assurance that God will forgive any and every sin when we ask Him to.
Many people had lived and died in Israel before Jesus was born. They had a relationship with God based on the Law which God gave to Israel through Moses (Leviticus 26:46), which required them to lead a life of obedience to God’s commandments. They kept feasts, offered sacrifices, and made contributions, but nobody was able to keep all those laws. Indeed, as the New Testament explains, God knew that nobody could keep the Law properly, and this was the point of it! The Law was designed to make people recognise their failings and appeal to God for forgiveness as an act of His grace. The Letter to the Hebrews explains that the sacrifices that were offered as part of keeping the Law could not themselves take away sins. Instead they pointed forward in time to one who would come to fulfil that Law, and perfectly obey the will of God:
…In those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when he [Christ] came into the world… by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10:3–4, 5, 14).
Those verses explain the central role of the work of Christ in God’s plan of salvation:
It was foreshadowed by the sacrifices detailed in the Old Testament
Those sacrifices could not, of themselves, take away sins
Christ’s sacrifice was perfect and complete of itself, and
The believer’s role is ongoing: “those who are being sanctified”.
The Lord Jesus Christ died to offer his life as a perfect sacrifice for sins and, in so doing, declared for all to see that God is right to condemn sin, and we all must recognise that sin is wrong and that God is right (or righteous) (see Romans 8:3-5).
Are past sins cleared by the sacrificial death of Christ? For the believer, at his or her baptism they most certainly are, as the apostle Peter made clear: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). But what about all those people who had lived and died before the birth of Jesus? We are told twice that the death of Jesus, which fulfilled everything those arrangements had anticipated, also had retrospective effect. He died to set people free from sin and death, whenever and wherever they lived:
…Whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus… (Romans 3:25–26);
And for this reason he is the mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15).
These are not easy verses to understand and they need to be read in their context. But what they tell us is that:
God was shown to be right (or righteous) when Jesus died
God had previously forgiven sin, in anticipation of what would happen when Jesus was born
The life and death of Jesus opened up a new relationship with God (a new covenant), and thereby it gave retrospective effect to God’s forgiveness for all the sins that had been committed in the past
If we want our sins forgiven, and to be counted as ‘right’ with God, we need to become members of God’s family in the way that He has made possible.
In next month’s issue: will God forgive sins for which we don’t ask forgiveness, and sins we’re not aware of?