Featured image: Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635-1640. Museo Del Prado.
Just like sin offerings, guilt offerings were also to be sacrificed in cases of unintentional sins, but this time a ram without blemish (5:15), which is a male sheep. Guilt is the specificity in this offering, hence the name. “‘If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the LORD’S commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realises his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity… and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven'” (5:17, 18). Just like the sin offering, the person’s guilt would be placed on the ram; and by the ram’s sacrifice, the person’s guilt would be removed.
As you might expect, this sacrifice prefigures Christ, for the blood of Jesus covers all our guilt. In the words of the modern hymn, In Christ Alone, “No guilt in life, no fear in death, / This is the power of Christ in me.” Better yet, as St. Paul says:
Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Romans 3:19-26
In essence, Paul is saying that no person can be justified (literally, “put in the right”) by works of the Law since the Law gives us knowledge of sin. As a useful analogy, it is like telling a child not to do something. When you tell your child not to touch the hot stovetop, or not to break their curfew, or not to stick up their middle finger, or whatever it is, they become even more tempted to disobey and see what happens, and they end up harming themselves and others. Their knowledge of transgression tempts them to transgress even more.
Similarly, the Law tells us what we ought not to do if we are to be God’s holy people; it tells us what sin is. Like children, then, this knowledge of sin tempts us to commit sin even more and harm ourselves and others. Stupidly, we think, “I wonder what’ll happen if I do this.” Thus, God’s solution was to bring justification through the blood of Jesus by faith, through whom our sins and guilt are removed.
The author of Hebrews speaks on the superiority of Christ’s blood as the sacrifice. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14).
This is highly vital seeing as we live in a guilt and shame culture. Simply go on social media and you will quickly find videos of people attempting to make someone feel guilty about something they’ve committed or omitted, forcing them to feel ashamed, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. During the COVID pandemic, for example, people have been recorded for not wearing face masks in public. The person recording and their lackeys with them would yell at them, trying to make them feel guilty for their negligence. Then they post the video on social media to further shame them and ruin their reputation. (This, and other examples like it, is a violation of the 8th Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour,” which Luther explains: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.)
Should they have worn a face mask at the place they were at? Maybe, but it hardly helps anyone or convinces the “perpetrator” to your position when you yell at them and publicly shame them on two separate occasions: at the event itself and then again on social media. If anything, they are less likely to abide by your unforgiving rules now. The Law does not convert hearts.
It’s not only such evil people who make us feel guilty, however. Our conscience does that well enough on its own. When the Israelites sinned unintentionally and later realised their transgression, they would bear their iniquity until they were forgiven. In the same way, our conscience may reveal to us later that we have violated one of God’s Commandments, and we are filled with guilt (and rightly so). The problem is not that guilt is felt; the problem is when this guilt is not brought before God to be confessed and forgiven.
No Christian needs to hesitate to bring their sins and guilt before God, for they come not before an angry judge but a gracious Father. The blood of Jesus covers their sins and thus removes their guilt. Again, as Hebrews says, “the blood of Christ… [purifies] our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” It’s as if he’s saying, “You have failed to keep God’s commands, so your works might as well be dead. But fear not! Let not your guilt rule you, for the blood of Christ purifies your conscience. Go, therefore, in peace and with a clean conscience.” As St. Peter says of Baptism, it gives us “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). Therefore, we are now able to do the Law with a clear conscience.
Therefore, dear Christian, if guilt haunts your conscience, why wait? Go before your Lord in prayer. Take advantage of private confession and absolution with your pastor. Call him and schedule a time to confess your sin and receive the very body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, which was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Since then, we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:14-16
Theology Terms Used
- Justify: literally, “to make right,” or “to put in the right.” (In Greek, the words “justify” and “righteousness” come from the same word. Thus, to be justified is to be made righteous. Furthermore, to be righteous is to be justified in all you do, no matter what. This is why God alone is righteous; He needs no justification for what He does. That is, He doesn’t need to defend His actions like we constantly try to do.)