Previously we looked at repentance and forgiveness. But if there is repentance for forgiveness, then where does Christ fit in?
Background: Covenant at Sinai
In the covenant that God made for Israel at Sinai, God ordained that a sacrifice could atone for sin. A brief word is necessary about sacrifice and atonement. Jewish theology holds that an unrepentant person's sin is not atoned for even if the appointed sacrifice is offered for it. Some have argued that all intentional, wilfull sins are unforgiven since, according to the Torah, typical offerings only atoned for unknowing or unintended sins. But this argument has been contested by others who note that, in contrast to the appointed sacrifices for unintentional sins, the Day of Atonement atoned for even deliberate sin and rebellion. But, the scholars of the Torah insisted, there was an important point to be made about sins of rebellion: the sacrifice was only effective for the repentant, not for those who still continued in the same state of rebellion which spawned their particular sins. Which is to say, if a sin had been committed while in a state of rebellion, then it was considered forgiven in a state of penitence, but not in a state of continued rebellion.
How were God's chosen people sure of his forgiveness? After all, God has mercy on whom he pleases and hardens whom he pleases, so what guarantee was there of God's mercy? The guarantee was God-given. God bound himself to mercy, to forgiveness -- he made a binding covenant by which people could be sure they were forgiven because of his own word, his own promise. But he did it in a way that never let people forget that life is forfeit for sin, a way that never belittled the seriousness of sin or allowed people to imagine it was a small thing. In the sacrifice the people were invited to die to their wickedness, rebellion, and sin so that they did not die in their souls or continue to cause death around them.
Jesus' words over the cup at his last supper, "This is the blood of the covenant", were a deliberate echo of Moses' words at Sinai, "This is the blood of the covenant the LORD has made with you" (Exodus 24:8). With Jesus' words, the blood of the covenant was no longer the blood of a sacrificial animal. It was now the ultimate sacrifice: Christ. God bound himself to forgiveness and mercy publicly, for all nations, for all times. If people could never forget the horror of sin when a sheep or other animal died to atone for them, how much more could we not forget the horror of sin when Christ died for us. If people could be sure of God's word and promise of forgiveness when an animal died, how much more when Christ proclaimed his sacrifice, and has us proclaim his death until he comes. If an animal sacrifice reminded people to die to their rebellion or face that judgment themselves, Christ's death and resurrection goes beyond that. In it, we are also reminded to die to our rebellion -- and be raised to new life. We are joined with Christ. While in death he takes our place, he is more for us than only a substitute; we are joined to him in his death and resurrection. Our being united with him in his death becomes our death to sin; our being united with him in his resurrection becomes our hope of eternal life. Therefore this participation in Christ's death and resurrection effects our own transformation from sinners into sons of God. Again, Christ in justice has paid the price of death due for our sins; still he is more for us than even the penalty to be paid. In being united with his death and resurrection, we are drawn into the very nature of God, which is love and eternal life.
The Talmud has an interesting if unintentional historical note on Jesus' institution of a new covenant, for those interested.
Next in the series on sin and forgiveness: sacrifice on behalf of those who are unaware of the sacrifice.