Hebrews 10:4 is regularly quoted in response to questions about the efficacy of Mosaic sacrifices:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Hebrews 10:4, ESV
The conclusion is usually that this verse proves that the sacrificial system does not, in and of itself, provide atonement. However, this conclusion does need to be squared with verses from the Old Testament such as Leviticus 16:30:
For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. Leviticus 16:30, ESV
In this case the ‘day’ of ‘atonement’ clearly refers to a particular day in the Hebrew calendar rather than a future, greater, day of atonement (at least in the first instance).
Some kind of attempt to reconcile Hebrews 10:4 with verses such as Leviticus 16:30 must be attempted, and many are essentially similar to Piper’s approach1:
Here again the analogy is not perfect. Yes, without the death of Christ there would be no forgiveness in the Old Testament. But, No, those saints did not have to wait thousands of years to experience the forgiveness that the death bought for them. In Exodus 34:7 God says, as part of the old covenant, that he “forgives iniquity, transgressions and sins.”
Piper and others are saying that, yes, forgiveness was available in old covenant times, but that it depended on Christ’s forgiveness extending backwards over the millennia, just as it extends forwards to the present day.
This is true: the cross of Christ is the focal point of biblical revelation and demonstrates God’s eternal redemptive plan vividly. Forgiveness under the old covenant cannot be divorced from God’s eternal plan of salvation.
However, this is not what the author of Hebrews meant in 10:4. He is writing about forgiveness, but not only about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not even his primary focus. He is concerned primarily with the inclination to return to sin, not with the forgiveness from sin.
I will first make the difficult attempt to set Hebrews in the wider context of the entire biblical narrative, before covering the earlier chapters of Hebrews itself. Finally I will argue that the author of Hebrews was referring to the broad solution to the problem of sin, and not only to forgiveness, with the words ‘take away sin’ in 10:4.
② The Wider Biblical Context
The problem of sin starts in Genesis 3, when man is alienated from God and placed under the curse of death for his disbelief and disobedience. It is plain that God intends to resolve this issue (though at this stage it is not clear how) because:
- He does not simply destroy mankind at this point
- His curse on the serpent hints at a future battle against, and victory over, evil
- He shows kindness to the man and woman in the midst of judgement as he clothes them
The ultimate reconciliation of God and man is the background story of the biblical narrative. The curse of death will one day be revoked and access to the tree of life restored. But something clearly needs to change first:
22Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:22-23, ESV
But what is it that needs to change? What needs to happen before the way can be opened again and the curse lifted? This is revealed in the unfolding narrative of further revelation.
The Failure of Lesser Grace
The Old Testament narrates a variety of ‘attempts’ to fix the problem of Genesis 3. None fix the problem2. However they all prefigure the eventual effective solution and, by failing, reveal the problem more clearly and more deeply. There are other examples, but I will look at three in slightly more detail:
By the flood God wipes the slate clean and recreates the world. However sin returns immediately and God promises that “…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh”. The problem is not solved and God will never again try to solve it in the same manner. So what has been gained? It has been shown that the problem is more than skin deep — it cannot be merely washed away. It has been shown that the problem is present inside the righteous man, not just the wicked3.
The repeated cycle in Judges exhibits the grace of repeated forgiveness. Israel turns away from God to idolatry; God disciplines the nation until they cry out for deliverance; God sends a deliverer and the land has rest for a time; the judge dies and Israel turns back to idolatry.
What is gained in all of this? It seems clear that God intends to effect a lasting positive change but that the actual lasting effect is negative:2
19But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. Judges 2:19, ESV
God is genuinely moved to pity. He sends a genuine deliverer and the people genuinely repent — for a time. But still the basic problem remains. The ultimate root of sin is present and so Israel never perseveres in repentance. The problem of the curse of death has not found a remedy.
The sacrificial system provides atonement and purification, among other functions. God is setting apart a people for himself with intention that they would provide a light to the world. However, this is not achieved — rather it becomes more and more apparent that something else is needed, something that gets to the heart of the problem.
16For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:16-17, ESV
6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. 7But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. Hosea 6:6-7, ESV
11“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Isaiah 1:11-17, ESV
Eventually, God has had enough of forgiving the people only for them to fall back into sin. They must ‘cease to do evil’ whole-heartedly. The law and the sacrifices were supposed to teach Israel ‘to do good’, but the underlying inclination of the people is to depart from his ways and return to sin. He wants their heart-worship, but their hearts are moving further away as they hide behind religiosity.
Why have the flood, the forbearance in the time of the judges, and the sacrifices of the Mosaic law, failed to lift the curse? What is lacking? Is more or greater forgiveness the primary need? No, forgiveness has been abundant! Lasting righteousness is lacking. Change is needed. The ultimate root of sin must be dealt with. God’s grace to his people has been extraordinary from the first sin to the last, and even now, in his intense frustration, he is working out his purposes to get to the heart of the problem and fix it forever.
There is a problem with the human heart that lies behind unbelief, unfaithfulness and short-lived repentance. This problem must be addressed, and not merely by superior forbearance.
The Promise of Greater Grace
As the end of the Old Testament approaches, the prophets reveal ever more clearly that God will decisively address the underlying problem of the heart:
28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. Joel 2:28-29, ESV
The pouring out of God’s Spirit on all his people is his means of changing the hearts of the people4, and fixes the root problem with sin.
22“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. Ezekiel 36:22-28, ESV
By getting to the root of the problem in the human heart, God effects an actual change in his people: instead of them getting worse, despite his ‘lesser’ grace, they are now inclined to walk in his ways. This ‘greater’ grace is a change that will be seen: God is vindicating his holiness before the eyes of the nations, instead of having his name profaned among them.
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:33-34, ESV
The author of Hebrews quotes from this passage of Jeremiah at length in chapter 8 and again in chapter 10; I will address this in greater depth at the end of section ④.
③ The Superior Solution (Hebrews 1-7)
Hebrews begins by affirming that Jesus has come to do something much bigger and greater than what has been revealed previously. He is presented as superior to the prophets (1:1-4), angels (1:5–2:18), Moses (3:1–4:13) and the Aaronic priesthood (4:14–7:28).
The prophets have not succeeded in calling Israel to lasting righteousness. The Mosaic law, and the priestly sacrifices offered under the old covenant, have not achieved a resolution of the problem of sin. However, this is not because of a problem with the prophetic message, or with the law itself5. Rather, the problem is with the heart — after repentance or atonement, Israel has always returned to her idols, whether Baal worship or religious hypocrisy.
We are left in no doubt that this new ministry is much bigger and more powerful that what has preceded it, and this is a strong clue that the ‘greater grace’ promised by the Old Testament prophets has arrived.
Along the way, we are exhorted again and again to pay close attention to the message of Jesus. We must not harden our hearts against him as the people of Israel did. The author continually draws our attention to the level of the heart as the battleground — as you would expect at this stage of salvation history. He is well aware of the history of God’s dealings with Israel so far, and the prophetic promise to fix the heart.
Jesus is mediating an entirely new covenant: a covenant with the heart itself.
④ The Law and the Heart (Hebrews 8-10)
Jesus is presented as a better priest, and a better sacrifice, but the presentation is firmly cemented in the wider biblical narrative. Central to the Hebrews narrative is the original problem of sin and its promised resolution. This is deliberately invoked when the key passage from Jeremiah 31 is quoted, first in chapter 8 and then again in chapter 10. The author is saying that the superiority of the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus addresses the problem of the human heart; mankind’s fundamental inclination back to sin. In other words, it is not just forgiveness in view. Or it is a deeper, spiritual forgiveness that includes the inscription of the law on our hearts, and therefore opens the way back to the tree of life and revocation of the curse of death.
This is the new covenant of Jeremiah — the same covenant that Jesus mediates in his role as priest. If we misunderstand the role of his priesthood to be the mediation of forgiveness only, then we neglect the central contrast between the old covenant and the new. The new covenant is the regeneration of hearts whose most fundamental inclination is now towards God, rather than away from Him. This is a concrete change, not a judicial imputation of righteousness. It is effected in the elect by the Holy Spirit, through the mediation of Christ, in his role as priest. Sin continues and righteousness still needs to be imputed if a holy God is to have satisfaction, but this was true under both old and new covenants — indeed it was more true under the former than under the latter.
If we imply that under the new covenant sins no longer matter, we commit a gross distortion6. Yes, all sin committed by any member of the new covenant is dealt with by a single sacrifice. Yes, Jesus bears the cost of sin on our behalf, as he puts himself in our place of wrath. No, this does not mean that sin no longer matters! That would be opposed to both the revelation of the Old Testament and the exhortations and warnings of Hebrews. The new covenant, mediated by Jesus, effects a heart change in those who participate. The ultimate root of the desire to sin has finally been addressed, and sin will henceforth decrease for those who are truly changed. Sanctification will happen — finally culminating in the glorification of all who have been regenerated.
This is affirmed later in Hebrews by the use of the word ‘conscience’, which the author uses as a virtual synonym for regeneration7:
If the writer believed the new covenant only mediated superior forgiveness, he would relate a ‘clear conscience’ to assurance. Instead he parallels a clear conscience with a change in desire. The members of the new covenant now sin despite their new nature rather than because of their old nature. Their fundamental inclination towards sin has gone.
Now we may understand the reasoning in verse 18, after he quotes from Jeremiah 31 for the second time:
15And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Hebrews 10:15-18, ESV
Why is there no longer any offering for sin? Because the greater and more serious sin problem has been resolved forever. The vestigial sin of the regenerate is a much smaller thing than the root of sin in the heart of the unregenerate. If “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (v14), God has fixed the ultimate root of sin and does not require further offering for what remains to be sanctified.8
⑤ The Removal of Sin (Hebrews 10:4)
What does Hebrews 10:4 mean then?
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Hebrews 10:4, ESV
This verse is sometimes understood to mean that Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary in order to effect true forgiveness, which was impossible under the old covenant. This interpretation would have the author of Hebrews contradict himself:
22Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22, ESV
Here the implication is clear that there was indeed forgiveness of sins by the spilling of the blood of bulls and goats under the old covenant.
Instead, this verse should be understood to refer to a concrete change: regeneration; the destruction of the ultimate root of sin. Once the root of sin is removed, no-one goes on sinning ‘deliberately’:
26For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Hebrews 10:26-27, ESV
If the ‘taking away’ of sin only involves superior forgiveness, why does the expectation of judgement remain for those who go on sinning deliberately?
Rather, continued deliberate sinning evidences a lack of regeneration and non-membership of the new covenant — it indicates that the person does not have the law written on his heart. The new covenant and the new heart ‘take away sins’ by breaking the endless cycle whereby whatever grace we are offered, without a new heart, we always return to sin. We are like the sow who, after washing, returns to wallow in the mire.9
The work of Jesus is superior in every way to what came before, and indeed his atonement is no exception. Forgiveness is attained with a single sacrifice for all sins, past, present and future. Forgiveness is now available to the whole world. However, we are selling the new covenant short, and failing to teach the most vital work of the cross, if we do not teach that Jesus mediates regeneration as well as forgiveness.
Of course the blood of bulls and goats never could ‘take away’ sin — this is precisely why God’s patience, though extraordinarily long-lasting, was finally exhausted and he ultimately hated sacrifices.
But now, the fundamental inclination in the heart of God’s people has changed. The Christian is different, and it is in this sense that sin has been ‘taken away’ (and will eventually be perfectly taken away) under the new covenant mediated by Jesus.
The heart of the work on the cross is the work of the cross on the heart. By regeneration, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God has fixed the ultimate root of sin. Sanctification is ongoing, and glorification is yet to come, but the decisive battle is over, and victory is secure. It is finished. We are his people and he is our God.
This is not to say that God’s sovereign will is thwarted, because the failure of this ‘proto-salvation’ serves God’s ultimate purpose. By analogy, if I want to prove to you that I cannot ride a unicycle, I could attempt to do so — I would try my very best to balance but would still fall off. Though I genuinely try not to fall off, my ultimate purpose is achieved: I have proved my point! God is genuinely trying to produce lasting positive change in his people Israel, but at this stage he uses a means that he knows is futile, in order to reveal to us the need for something deeper.↩↩ ↩
For the correspondence between the new heart and the action of the Holy Spirit, see the Theopedia definition of regeneration: “Regeneration is the spiritual transformation in a person, brought about by the Holy Spirit…” ↩
Even the new covenant can be ‘partaken of’ in this manner, attractive for a time but not effecting the deep heart change that evidences true membership. Warnings against such ‘partaking’ are present in Hebrews itself, in the parable of the soils and also in 2 Peter, which I allude to here. ↩