Sins - Covered or Gone?
There is a word that is used many times in relation to the sacrifices offered under law, but which is not used once in relation to the death of Christ. Time and again we read of it in the Old Testament (OT) but never once in the New Testament (NT). I refer to the word “atonement”.
But surely “atonement” is the word that most people use for the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus on the cross? True, but then why is it that the Spirit of God never uses that word once to describe the work of Christ? In Leviticus the word occurs over 40 times, and yet in Hebrews, its companion volume in the NT, it is not employed at all. Surely such facts suggest that the Holy Spirit avoids employing that word in relation to the death of Christ on purpose! Does the use of one word matter that much? Well Scripture is wiser than we are and there must be a very good reason why the Spirit does not use that word in relation to the sacrifice of Christ. Scripture is not haphazard. There must be a reason, so what is it?
Some who use the word to describe the work of Christ would say that ‘atonement’ means at–one–ment, inferring that it has the sense of reconciliation. But if atonement is no different to reconciliation, then as the sacrifices of the old economy effected atonement, they must also have effected reconciliation and if the OT sacrifices reconciled man to God, why did Christ have to die?
Atonement is an OT truth, not a NT one, but with reconciliation the reverse is true. Reconciliation is as peculiar to the NT as atonement is to the OT. Some who are not clear as to the meaning of atonement propagate associated erroneous ideas: “Our sins are covered by the blood”––“We are sheltering beneath the blood”. These ideas belong to the OT but are foreign to the NT. They are in fact derogatory to the work of the Lord Jesus. Such errors lower the glory of the sacrificial work of the Saviour to the level of the animal sacrifices. Sure, those atoning sacrifices all foreshadowed the greatest sacrifice of all, yet the greatest of all sacrifices is never said to atone. Why?
Well just what does that word “atonement” mean? The word translated “atonement” is generally (although not always) used in a sacrificial sense as something done for man towards God. In such contexts it conveys the idea of removing a man’s guilt from the sight of God. However, there are occasions when the word is not so employed. One of these occasions is the very first time the word is used in the Bible, (and when something is mentioned in the Bible for the first time, it is that mention that very often gives the key to its use throughout the whole book). Gen. 6: 14 states “Make thyself an ark of gopher wood: [with] cells shalt thou make the ark; and pitch it inside and outside with pitch”. The word given as “pitch” is the same word as “atone” and means “cover”. The covering of the ark ensured that its occupants were preserved from the waters of judgement in the flood. Hence if you look in a concordance you will find that the root meaning of the Hebrew word translated in the English Bible as “atonement” is “to cover” or “to make a covering”.
The animal sacrifices of the OT put a man’s sins out of God’s sight by covering them, that is, by atoning for them. So that when we read of “the blood that maketh atonement for the soul” in Lev. 17: 11, the sense is that it is the blood that maketh a covering for the soul. But you won’t read words like those in connection with the work of the Saviour. The OT sacrifices atoned for sins, those sins were neither exposed nor removed––they were covered. Dear reader, get a hold of this simple fact of paramount importance: WHAT IS COVERED IS STILL THERE! Sins covered are not sins exposed, but neither are they sins removed. The sacrifices of old could cover any sin BUT COULD NOT REMOVE A SINGLE ONE. Covering is a provisional expedient; removal is a final solution. Every one of those animal sacrifices looked on to the greatest sacrifice of all which never covered a single sin, but which removed every sin that was borne by Christ. A simple illustration may help to explain the difference.
A lady is expecting the imminent arrival of an important visitor. She has a final look around her room to see if everything is in order and her eye lights upon a bottle of ink that has been left on the bureau with its cap off. She hastens to replace the cap on the bottle, but in her haste the bottle slips from her fingers and the ink spills down the pale lemon wallpaper. Just as she is wondering what to do, the doorbell rings. Her important visitor has arrived! What can she do? There is no time to remove the ink stains, and yet her visitor must not see the wall in that state. There is only one solution. She pulls the bureau along the wall so that it covers up the stains. The visitor is ushered into the room, is seated, and conversation begins. The visitor is completely unaware of the stained wallpaper because the bureau provides a perfect covering. But what is the host thinking about? The stained wallpaper of course! The bureau may act as an adequate covering but the lady is very conscious that all is not as it should be.
Does the bureau provide a provisional solution or a permanent solution for the stained wall? Is she going to leave the wall in that state? Of course not! When her visitor leaves, the first thing that she will do is to pull the bureau away from the wall and remove the stains. The bureau was only a temporary solution. Now she is going to effect a permanent solution.
Suppose now that she has just finished cleaning the wall to her satisfaction when the doorbell rings again. Her visitor has returned, there was something that she has forgotten to discuss. She is ushered into the same room for a second time and again notices nothing amiss. But what of the feelings of the host? Is she concerned any longer about the ink stains? No, of course not! Why? Because they are no longer there, they have gone.
In Ps. 32: 1, 2 David says “Blessed is he [whose] transgression is forgiven, [whose] sin is covered”. Note that word! All that the OT sacrifices could ever do was to make an atonement in the way of a covering for sins. BUT WHAT IS COVERED IS STILL THERE! Those sacrifices met the claims of God for the moment but were not a permanent solution. None of them removed a single sin. They all looked on to the to the work of the Lord Jesus and were just shadows of the coming good things (see Heb. 10: 1). They perfected no one. Now it seems to me that if the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus were to be described as a work of atonement, even as the greatest work of atonement, then it would still carry with it the thought of covering. There would be no radical difference between His sacrifice and all other sacrifices. It would lower the work of Christ to the level of the animal sacrifices. But the Holy Spirit, ever jealous of the glory of the Person and work of the Saviour, never employs such a word in relation to the work of Christ.
Let us now look at the language that the Spirit of God does employ in that great epistle of comparisons and contrasts––Hebrews. There the writer takes up the great comparison between the dispensations of law and grace. So that we read of eternal redemption, eternal salvation, eternal covenant, and eternal inheritance but never eternal atonement. Heb. 10: 1 says “For the law, having a shadow of the coming good things, not the image itself of the things”. The law was only a shadow, not even the shadow, and the atoning sacrifices come under that word “shadow”, a mere outline of the shape of things to come, not the image, in which all the glorious details are present, but just a shadow. And then in verse 11 we get “And every priest stands daily ministering, and offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (my emphasis). He doesn’t say which can never atone for sins, or which can never cover sins. No! They did that. But they can never take away sins! That is the vital difference. Now in the next verse comes the great contrast. “But he”, and that word “he” is emphatic, “having offered one” not many, but just one “sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God”. Now there were no seats in the tabernacle and so we read in verse 11 “And every priest stands daily” (my emphasis)––their work was continual, there was no rest, it went on day in day out. But when we read of the Lord Jesus in verse 12 it says He “sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God” (my emphasis). His work was not temporary, but complete and final. He has sat down and will never have to rise again to perform a sacrifice.
Again, if the atonement of the sacrifices of the past dispensation had perfected those who approached, why were they offered yearly, on the day of atonement (see Lev. 16), “Since”, argues the writer “would they not indeed have ceased being offered, on account of the worshippers once purged having no longer any conscience of sins?” (Heb. 10: 2). If sins are still there, even though they may be adequately covered, they will still be on the conscience. (Remember the lady and the ink stains on the wallpaper.) This was the position of the OT saints. Indeed the yearly sacrifices on the day of atonement brought those sins to remembrance: “But in these [there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly” (v3). Why? “For blood of bulls and goats [is] incapable of taking away sins” (v4 my emphasis). But then in contrast verse 14 says “For by one offering he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified”.
Other Scriptures also press the distinctive supremacy of the work of Christ. Heb. 9: 26: “But now once in the consummation of the ages he has been manifested for [the] putting away of sin by his sacrifice” (my emphasis). 1 John 3: 5: “And ye know that he has been manifest that he might take away our sins” (my emphasis). John 1: 29: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (my emphasis).
But what about Rom. 4: 7? “Blessed they whose lawlessnesses have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered” (my emphasis). Paul is quoting there from Psalm 32 and we need to see the reason why he quotes it. He is not citing the psalm to show the greatness of the work of Christ, (indeed the man in the psalm had his sins covered by the OT sacrifices). The point of the quotation is given in the previous verse and that is to show the blessedness “of the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works”. And righteousness without works was reckoned not only long before Christ died, but long before a single sacrifice was ever offered under the law!
Finally, what about those other two Scriptures in the NT that speak about sins being covered? 1 Pet. 4: 8 says “but before all things having fervent love among yourselves, because love covers a multitude of sins” and James 5: 20 states “let him know that he that brings back a sinner from [the] error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins”. Both of these verses are quotations from Prov. 10: 12: “Hatred stirreth up strifes; but love covereth all transgressions”. This is what man can do. The love of saints can cover sins, but it is only God, Who, through the work of the Saviour, can remove them, and that for ever! The sacrificial work of Christ has no peer in the sacrifices of old. So that dear fellow–saint, your sins are not covered, they are gone and gone for ever! Praise His glorious Name!