I am hoping in this blog post to explore the connection between forgiveness, loving others, encouragement, and the death of Jesus. Perhaps that may seem convoluted, but I hope to suggest that the author of Hebrews actually combines all of these things together. Firstly, it is important to stress that forgiveness is possible not because the sins of a person have been arbitrarily cancelled, but because God articulated the sentence for sin, and the requirements for forgiveness, but rather than individual people having to suffer the consequence of sin, Christ did it in their place.[i] We see in Hebrews 9:22 how a substitutionary death is needed to bring about any type of forgiveness.[ii] Many commentators make this same definition of forgiveness being the removal of debts by, through, and via the cross in Colossians 2:13-14.[iii] Specifically, it is the “cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demand” that is the explanation of the forgiveness of sins in Colossians 2:13b that comes via the cross.[iv]
“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
What a person thinks about forgiveness is telling. A simple search for non-Christian fridge magnet style quotes reveals a deep running pop-culture level understanding about forgiveness. The following quips are worth noting
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”.
– Mahatma Gandhi
All major religious traditions carry basically the same message; that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.
– Dalai Lama
Both of these approaches are fundamentally anti-Christian. To Gandhi, the Gospel would say, “the strong became weak, in order to forgive us.” Additionally, the author of Hebrews would say to the Dalai Lama, in the loudest possible voice, NO! Not all religions carry the same message. The message of Christ is fundamentally different. There is an exclusivity to Jesus, forgiveness is only through him, and, ultimately, there can be no forgiveness without the blood of Jesus. And so we begin with a study of one of the core passages, Hebrews 9:22. It is not my goal here to explore every conceivable way this passage could be read.[v] But we can simply study the most striking and the most obvious.
Let’s note that Hebrews 9:22 says “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Words that seem evocative and similar to the famous words of Jesus himself, who said in Matthew 26:28: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[vi] But Hebrews goes on to clarify what he means. Hebrews 9:25-26 reminds us that the animal sacrifices were a regular occurrence, but the sacrifice of Jesus was a one-time event. Later, Hebrews summarizes his argument with the following words:
Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time
– Hebrews 9:28
Clearly, again, we have penal substitution themes. He bore the sins of many. Without the death of Christ there is no forgiveness. Without his blood being spilled, without hammer, nail, thorns, spear, loud cries, agony and the bearing of sins, there could be no forgiveness. Jesus was a sacrifice and bore “the sins of many.” We find in Hebrews 9 and 10 some clear representations of the death of Jesus, bearing the penalty and punishment for sins, to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness with God, but also with a practical outworking of how the death of Jesus impacts our daily Christian lives.
What we can see is that Hebrews 9:22 stands as part of Hebrews’ overarching argument that culminates in Hebrews 10:19-39.[vii] Importantly, Hebrews 10:19-13:25 contains multiple practical ways to work out the breathtakingly powerful doctrine found in Hebrews 9:1-10:18.[viii] Take, for example, the words in Hebrews 10:19-25
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
– Hebrews 10:19-25
It is important to begin by noting the word “therefore” at the beginning. There we see a big signal light drawing together all that has gone before, all that has happened and been discussed about the death of Jesus in Hebrews 9 and 10 so far is filtered into that word “therefore.” Ultimately, because of the blood of Jesus we have forgiveness and reconciliation with God! This is the main argument that we can see in Hebrews 10:19-22.[ix] But then we come to the way this practically works out in the Christians life. We are encouraged to hold onto what we confess, not to waver, encourage others to do good, encourage others to love, and to continue to meet together, even if it risks everything.[x] These are some of the practical outworking that the book of Hebrews directs us to grasp hold of, in response to a right understanding of the death of Jesus.
I wonder if you have ever thought about the impact of stirring others up to love and good works and encouragement can make. I know in my own life the impact encouragement has had. I would never, in a million years, be studying for a PhD without the encouragement of my supervisor and people at Church. I would never have made it as a pastor without a few men investing in me and showing me grace. What is more, I serve in a Church right now that is choc-full of encouragers. It is a great Church to be the pastor of. They are just like Barnabas! There are a whole bunch of “Barnabas’s”, or “Barnabers”, or “Barnabi”. Whatever the right word is, I don’t know. I also love the phrase “stir others up.” It’s so evocative. I remember when I was a student, I agreed to do a half marathon. Unfortunately, I thought that because it was a half marathon that it would be relatively easy. It was not. I didn’t fully prepare and, therefore, I definitely did not complete the race in a world record time. But I did complete it! I think a big reason why was the encouragement, the stirring up to finish, of other runners, race officials and those who had come to watch. We have a similar role in the Christian life. We are supposed to encourage and stir other people up to love and do good works. But what is our motivation and basis? Lots of people encourage! But Hebrews teaches that our reason, purpose, motive, and heart is based on the penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ in our place. Because of the death of Jesus, let us hold on to our hope, what we confess, carry on meeting together, encourage people and stir up others to love and good works. The essence of what the book of Hebrews is telling us is that because of the death of Jesus we should excel at encouragement and forgiveness. We should be world class encouragers and elite forgivers, for the glory of God.
Perhaps in your mind you are surprised by the way these two things are put together, forgiveness and encouragement. It is surprising to me. But in the context of a local Church community it makes a lot of sense. I mean, if you are really hoping to live out family and the “togetherness” of Church according the Bible, it strikes me that you will need an abundance of both of these. The old saying goes that “no Church is perfect, and if it was, then I wouldn’t be in it.” So, if you are a part of a local Church family, there are going to be people who you need to forgive from time-to-time and there will be people who you need to encourage from time-to-time. The reality is that if you are living out the Church as described in the book of Acts,[xi] then almost on a daily basis you will need to forgive and encourage. If you try and do both of those things in your own strength, power, and ability, I don’t think you will last long. But if you base your forgiveness and encouragement around the death of Jesus, then things will change. When you see the depths of God’s forgiveness and that he is for you, then forgiveness and encouragement of others should overflow. The practicalities of this are really simple. Is there anyone you can encourage today? Is there anyone you need to forgive today?
[i] D. A. Carson, Atonement in Romans, in: C. E. Hill & F. A. James III (ed.), The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004),p. 134. The critical aspect here is seen, by some, in Romans 3:26 and how Paul resolved the tension between God being “just” and “justifier” using the cross of Christ. See: S. McKnight, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and Atonement Theory (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005), p. 347, footnote 43.
[ii] Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 138. The New Testament connection between Jesus’ death and forgiveness is a major theme within the New Testament according to Howard Marshall, see Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement, p. 56.
[iii] Colossians 2:13b-14 reads: “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Several commentators connect the forgiveness of sins with the following section regarding the erasing of “the record” and its legal demands. i.e. sins are forgiven because the record is erased via the cross. See: R. R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), pp. 264–265. However, not all commentators agree with this explanation. For a contrasting view see: N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 115–116.
[v] For that see the following: P. Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 471–474. W. L. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, vol. 47B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1991), pp. 245–248.
[vi] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), Heb 9:22.
[vii] Specifically, De Silva notes how Hebrews 9:1-10:18 stands as an understanding of the “decisive removal” of sin by Christ. This section then leads up to the words of Hebrews 10:19ff. See D. A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), pp. 291–328.
[viii] D. Guthrie, Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 212.
[ix] J. J. Reeve, B. C. Williams, “Sacrifice,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), p. 2655.
[x] The following are helpful summaries of these verses. J. Calvin and J. Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2010), pp. 236–238. P. H Hacking, Opening up Hebrews, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), pp. 64–66. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Hebrews, The Pulpit Commentary (London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), pp. 265–267.
[xi] For a great book on this theme see: Gavin and Anne Calver, Unleashed: The Acts Church Today (London: IVP, 2020).