I made a statement in my Sunday School class, recently, about how I used to always feel worse about myself after church than I did before I went in. As I looked around the room, heads were nodding up and down, so I know I am not alone in this experience. I have always had a tender heart toward God from the time I was a little girl, and I remember going to the altar weekly as young as first grade, which is likely when I gave my heart to the Lord. As a teenager, I responded to every altar call to “recommit” my life to God, and was always aware of how I fell short as a Christian. I desperately wanted to live the holy life that was preached from the pulpit, but it seemed so elusive, and I felt certain that I was a constant disappointment to God. Every time I was admonished to examine my heart I found fault and was certain God did too. I felt shame, condemnation, and hopeless that I would ever be good enough to not feel a guilty conscience in church. (But before I go further into my story, let me say I have no condemnation toward my pastors or teachers because it was not their plan for me to feel this way; it was the devil’s, and he is the enemy in this series, not church leaders.)
My family is currently reading through the Bible, and as God’s timing would have it, we have landed in the book of Leviticus during Holy Week. Let me just say up front that it does not bless my 12 and 15-year-old to read about ritual cleansing of infectious skin diseases and grotesque sacrifices. But we are reading it anyway because otherwise it’s too easy to forget the sacrificial system that Jesus replaced through his death on the cross. In order to appreciate the second covenant and understand what Jesus did for us, we must study the first. The sacrificial system had no power to keep God’s people blameless. In fact, the Levitical laws (pertaining to ritual cleansing and sacrifice) were meant to make us aware of how we fall short of God’s holiness. The sacrifices were needed in order to make atonement for sin, but they had to continually be offered day after day, year after year. God set up sacrifices to even cover unintentional sins (Leviticus 5:17-19). Try to imagine how discouraging it would be to see an animal slaughtered for your sins that you didn’t even mean to commit, but once you have become aware of your guilt you must pay the penalty. “The gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper” (Hebrews 9:9). Imagine knowing that God is so holy you have no hope of being righteous, even if you followed every command to the best of your ability.
Actually, most of us can easily imagine this because even as Christians under the new covenant, we still act like we’re under the old. Why? The enemy has blinded us to the fact that we have been sprinkled by the blood of Christ – the perfect sacrifice that put an end to the old sacrificial system – and have been made holy in the eyes of God.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14)
The old sacrificial system could only make people outwardly clean, but the new covenant through Christ’s blood shed for us has the ability to cleanse our conscience. However, we have to receive this cleansing. Unfortunately, many of us in the church are convinced that what God wants from us is outward cleansing. So we stand just outside the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven, trying to wash ourselves off with the hose of guilt over our shortcomings. We believe the lie that if we just keep scrubbing and cleansing ourselves on the outside, we can finally be good enough to be accepted into the Kingdom. But the King has already invited us to enter through the Gate, Jesus Christ. He desires to cleanse us from the inside so that we are set free from a guilty conscience. However, the enemy has ensnared God’s people in a trap of guilt and condemnation because he knows that once our consciences are cleansed, we will “serve the living God” (v. 14).
The devil wants us to believe that Christ’s sacrifice for our sins was not enough to keep us right with God. Oh sure, we can be saved by grace, but he wants us to believe that grace is only sufficient for salvation and cannot keep us blameless. If the enemy can keep Christians focused on ourselves and our failings by encouraging us to look within and feel shame, he knows that we will:
- Never experience the full joy and freedom of victory over sin through Jesus, or even believe it’s possible
- Never live up to our full potential and effectiveness in our work, family, and church
- Trade the life of peace God offers for one of continual works that keep us exhausted and burned out
- Run from God when we make mistakes, instead of drawing near to God for restoration
- Become numb to the Holy Spirit because we can’t distinguish God’s gentle voice from our own harsh criticism
- Live in fear of God’s judgment, rather than peace in God’s Kingdom (and we’ll discuss later in this series why fear and peace cannot coexist in our lives because fear takes us into the enemy’s territory)
The devil cannot take away our salvation, but he can try to limit our effectiveness by keeping us focused on our guilt within. That’s why it’s so important for God’s people to understand what Christ’s sacrifice means for us, and the power that Jesus has over the enemy, so that we’ll stop agreeing with the Accuser and start agreeing with God!
Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The enemy knows the day is coming when he will be humbled and made a footstool for Jesus, so he is hard at work trying to trip up God’s people and make them feel like they need to be saved again and again. God’s sacrifice for your sin and mine was once and for all – all our sins, even the unintentional ones we commit in our weakness. If the old covenant provided sacrifices for unintentional sins, why do we think the new covenant is powerless to cleanse us from guilt over our failings? By that one offering, Jesus “forever made perfect those who are being made holy” (v. 14). Let that sink in. Jesus’s one sacrifice makes us perfect forever in God’s eyes, even as we are in the process of being made holy. And how does God make us holy?
“This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day,” says the Lord:
“I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he says, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.” And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:16-18)
If we are made perfect and are being made holy, we do not need to continue in a life of guilt and shame, trying to earn God’s favor through determination to work harder and be a “better” Christian. When God writes his laws on our minds through time spent in his Word (Romans 12:2), and on our hearts as we yield to the gentle leadership of the Holy Spirit in prayer, there will be times when we will become aware that we need God’s grace and power to perfect us in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). This is how we are “being made holy,” as we immediately agree with God and yield to the Holy Spirit within instead of yielding to external guilt and shame. There is no condemnation as we are in the process of being made holy (Romans 8:1), only continual grace and restoration as we gradually become more and more like him.
God is not impatiently waiting for you to hurry up and get sanctified. Believe it or not, he enjoys the process of making us holy because this holiness happens as we are in relationship with him. And that’s the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice for us, to restore us to relationship with our Creator. God does not require more sacrifices from us – continually going to the altar to “recommit” our lives to God – just continual relationship with Jesus Christ who paid the price so that God will never again remember our sins. The enemy wants us to remember our sins. He wants to keep our failings front and center in our eyes in order to trample the grace and power of God in our lives. He wants us to be insecure in our standing with God because then we are not a threat to him. But God’s children are not meant to live this way.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. (Hebrews 10:19-23)
And what is God’s promise? That he will make us holy and remember our sins no more. If God remembers our sins no more, then why do we? We need to allow our guilty consciences to be sprinkled with Christ’s blood and made clean. And we need to stop feeding our guilty conscience by assuming every word of rebuke we hear is for us. (I’ll explain how to do this later in this series.) We need to encourage one another so that we will not grow discouraged in our faith (Hebrews 10:25). Instead of thinking of how to motivate one another toward guilt and repentance – which is unnecessary if we are remaining in Christ (Hebrews 6) – we need to think of ways to motivate one another toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). And how did Jesus motivate people? By loving them. That’s how the world will know we’re his disciples, after all. We forgive as Christ forgave us (something we’ll look at in detail in Part 3). We love because he first loved us, and because he has poured out his love into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit (and it’s this power that keeps us blameless, which we’ll discuss in Part 2). We step into the light and receive cleansing from Christ so that we can be free from guilt and shame.
Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. (Galatians 5:1)
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at how we yield to God, rather than yield to the enemy, so we can move into a place of victory and blamelessness.
In Part 3, we’ll look at how the enemy holds us captive, and how we can follow Jesus’s example to be completely set free from negative emotions and strongholds.
In Part 4, we’ll look at how we can discern God’s voice and offer the right “sacrifice”. (Hint: It’s not about our sacrifice, but praising God for his!)