Rebuilding the Foundations
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Scripturally, it is the offerer that purifies the sacrifice and not vice versa.
I was always taught that the reason Christians don't offer sacrifices is because Jesus' death did away with sacrifices. Hebrews chapters 7-9 seem to clearly back this up. Thus, I was surprised—even shocked—when I read early Christian answers to Jewish complaints that they claimed to be righteous, but didn't sacrifice. Here's an example:
As to our not sacrificing, the Framer and Father of this universe does not need blood, nor the odor of burnt offerings, nor the fragrance of flowers and incense. ... The noblest sacrifice to him is for us to know who stretched out and vaulted the heavens, fixed the earth in its place like a center, gathered the water into seas, and divided the light from the darkness. (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians 13. AD 177.)
Athenagoras is just an example of a consistent early Christian answer. The Letter of Barnabas from the first half of the second century says, "[God] has revealed by all the prophets that he needs neither sacrifices, nor burnt offerings, nor oblations" (ch. 2). Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, wrote, "We have received by tradition that God does not need the material offerings which man can give, since in truth he himself is the provider of everything (First Apology 10).
They didn't teach that Jesus did away with sacrifices. They taught that God never wanted them!
Why did they say this, and how could they claim that God revealed this by "all the prophets"? An example is Jeremiah:
I did not speak to your fathers, nor did I command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people, and walk in all the ways I commanded you, so that it may be well with you. (Jer. 7:22-23)
Surely God is not saying that the issue of sacrifices never came up when he brought them out of the land of Egypt because it did. God knew that, and Jeremiah knew that. The point, however, is that sacrifices were a small side issue. They did nothing for God. They were for the people, along with all the other rituals, to remind them to keep their eyes on God.
King David understood this deeply. After committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed to hide his sin, he tells God, "You didn't want sacrifice, or I would have given it to you. You take no delight in burnt offerings."
Of course we all know what David went on to say in verse 17. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a broken and sorrowful heart.
What's amazing is that despite his sin with Bathsheba, David knew God. He knew that God wasn't impressed with ritual. God wanted mourning and repentance, so that is what David gave him.
After David repented, though, and presented God with the offering of his broken spirit and sorrowful heart, then his sacrifice was gladly accepted!
Then shall you be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering. (v. 19)
There is a principle to be garnered from King David's experience.
We are used to thinking that sacrifices are to purify the one who offers. As we have seen, however, God isn't interested in sacrifices to make up for sin. He wants a broken spirit and sorrowful heart.
We see that again in Isaiah. In chapter 1, verses 12-15, he expresses hatred and revulsion toward the nation of Judah for all their rituals, including their burnt offerings. Instead, he told them, "Wash, and make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your deeds from before my eyes. Stop doing evil" (v. 16).
God consistently rejects the offerings of the rebellious. King Saul was ordered by God to destroy the Amalekites, including all their cattle and flocks. When he returned, however, the prophet Samuel could hear the sound of sheep bleating and oxen lowing. Saul tried to excuse himself by saying he saved these for sacrifices for the Lord. Samuel's answer is telling:
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. (1 Sam. 15:22-23a. NIV.)
As with David, so with Saul. David was not just more favored than Saul. He understood the Lord better. He gave God what he wanted, not just what would clear him of his sin. Saul wanted to cling to his sin, and his offering was rejected by God.
We have convinced ourselves, at least in evangelical churches, that the reason that Cain's sacrifice was rejected was because he brought a bloodless sacrifice, an offering from the fields. Abel, on the other hand, brought a firstling of his flock, and his sacrifice was accepted. We think this is because it was a blood sacrifice.
I didn't realize this until I began to read about sacrifices in the writings of the early churches, but it's stated quite clearly in our Bibles. I have to suppose we miss it because tradition has clouded our mind. I suggest that there are hundreds of verses in the Bible like this that we evangelicals miss because we think we know. Our tradition has given us far too much confidence.
Here's the verse. It comes from the apostle John.
Not like Cain, who was of that wicked one and slew his brother. Why did he slay him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous. (1 Jn. 3:12)
Genesis 4:5 tells us it was when Cain's offering was rejected that he became "very angry." God speaks to him, trying to help him, but the next thing we read is that he's murdering his brother.
Genesis ties the murder of Abel to the rejection of Cain's sacrifice. John ties the murder of Abel to Cain's general wickedness. The only way to reconcile these two statements is to conclude that Cain's sacrifice was rejected for the same reason that any sacrifice is rejected. His deeds were wicked.
But we have more than this reasoning. God shows us that Cain's wickedness was the problem in what he said to help Cain get over the rejection of his sacrifice.
If you do good, will you not be accepted? If you don't do well, sin is lying at your door, desiring you. You must overcome it. (Gen. 4:7)
What acceptance is God talking about here? The context makes it clear that Cain will only feel accepted if his offering is accepted. Acceptance was contingent on his doing good and overcoming sin, not on whether his sacrifice included blood.
Thus we see that our principle is true. It is the offerer who sanctifies the offering, not vice versa.
This is the ultimate example of the principle that the offerer purifies the sacrifice. Let's not confuse ourselves. Jesus was the one who offered the ultimate sacrifice, not us. His sacrifice was pure because he was pure.
We who are not worthy can receive the benefit of his sacrifice, but we could never offer it. His sacrifice would have been meaningless were he not the "spotless" Lamb, and we are not spotless like Jesus was.
In fact, we cannot even receive the benefit of Jesus' sacrifice unless we meet the same standards as King David met: a broken spirit and a sorrowful heart. God saves the repentant, no one else.
Is this true? And if it is true, is it a violation of salvation apart from works?
It is true. God does save only the repentant. So let us hope it is not a violation of salvation apart from works!
Acts 11:18 tells us that it is repentance that leads to life. When the Jews asked Peter what they had to do to be forgiven and delivered from horrifying sin of crucifying their own Messiah, he began with "Repent" (Acts 2:38). The apostle Paul summed up his whole ministry as being the proclaiming of repentance to everyone (Acts 26:20).
Obviously Peter (Acts 2:38), the Christian Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 11:18), and Paul (Acts 26:20) found no conflict between a required repentance and salvation apart from works.
Just like King Saul, Cain, King David, and the nations of Israel and Judah, if we want our sacrifice, or our belief in Jesus' sacrifice, to be accepted, then we need to repent of our evil ways.
Sometimes our evangelical definition of works is nothing short of bizarre. Works, by the very definition of the word, are deeds. Changing one's mind is not a work. Agreeing to submit to baptism is not a work.
Think about it. If repenting and being baptized is a work, then none of the Jews were saved on that first Pentecost. They were all told that their sins would be forgiven and they would receive the Holy Spirit if they would repent and be baptized. Peter offered no alternative that involved just believing.
Much of the reason that we struggle with the idea of repentance is because we are confused about what it is that a person is supposed to believe in order to become a Christian.
One of the reasons that evangelicals get so confused about faith is because they are confused about the object of faith. Jesus and the apostles did not just ask their hearers to believe. If they had, the answer would have been, "Believe what?"
We seem to think that the apostles asked their hearers to believe that Jesus died for their sins, but if that is true, then they forgot to tell that to every single lost person with whom they ever talked or to whom they ever preached.
That may be stunning, but it's true. The letters of the New Testament are written to churches and, thus, to Christians. The only time we find apostles preaching to the lost is in Acts, and there they never mention that Jesus died for anyone's sins. While it is true that Jesus died for everyone, the lost don't hear it from the apostles, not even once.
Look it up. It doesn't take that long to read the book of Acts.
The apostles asked the lost to believe in Jesus, not in his atoning death, and what they were to believe about him is that he is "the Messiah, the Son of God."
The proof that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God is his resurrection. It is for this reason that the apostles repeatedly identify themselves as "witnesses of the resurrection" (e.g.; Acts 1:22; 3:15; 4:33; 10:41; etc.).
You can search the Book of Acts to see that the apostles constantly preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that they verified it by testifying to his resurrection. John, however, says outright what we are to believe in his Gospel.
These [things] are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name. (Jn. 20:31)
If we believe that Jesus died for our sins so that we can have a free ticket to heaven, then there is no compulsion except gratitude to repent and obey him. Admittedly, gratitude can be a strong compulsion, but it is not the motive to which the apostles appealed. The apostles appealed to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, God's eternal King, and that we would judge all mankind some day (cf. Acts 17:30-31).
If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the one who will judge us on the last day, then it makes perfect sense that we would need to repent and be baptized. If he is the Messiah, the King of God's Kingdom, then the only sane response to that announcement is to bow our knee to the new King and to join his kingdom. The way he has given to join that kingdom is by the washing of rebirth (Tit. 3:5).
When we do that, we get two wonderful gifts: forgiveness of sins and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are no longer mere humans, but we become sons of God, born again as part of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection.
Thus, when we understand faith properly—more accurately, understand the object of faith properly—it becomes obvious that repentance and baptism are not works, but simply the reasonable response to the proclamation of God's Kingdom arriving in the form of his Anointed and eternal King.