Sin brings Death.
I’ll never forget the time I was dropping off treats for a VBS program when I heard a teacher utter a statement so dark and condemning that I couldn’t believe it was being said to small children. Sin brings Death. The sound of it gave me a shiver, and I thought, “Teach the good news, not the bad news!”
Of course, that was a time when I was woefully unfamiliar with the word of God, especially the book of Hebrews. In time, by God’s grace, I became the one on the receiving end of the questions, and they have gone something like this: Do we need to dwell so much on sin and death when teaching our innocent children about the Bible?
Let’s start with the misconception that children are innocent. We know that statement is true neither doctrinally nor practically. Just consider what it is that makes a baby demonstrate a demanding, impatient, unyielding spirit—often several times a day! If by innocent the questioner means that children are too young to understand such concepts, I grant that the vocabulary tends to get muddled with seminary-speak, but that doesn’t mean clear and concrete lessons on iniquity, atonement and grace can’t be drawn from the words of Scripture—look at parables such as the lost sheep, the sower, and the prodigal son. They are meant to befuddle those enslaved by the flesh, but all who are made alive by the Spirit will understand them (Matthew 13:10-17). That can include children!
Secondly, the Bible doesn’t seem to dwell on the Sin = Death dynamic. It begins with it; it is liberally laced with it, from the Pentateuch to the histories, from the poetry to the prophecies, from the gospel to the missives of the early church. And it finds its culmination in the greatest, most glorious, spiritual duke-it-out on the Cross of Christ. The Bible doesn’t just appear to have a fixation on this theme, much to the dismay of many who would rather dismiss the notion of a putrid, decaying condition of the heart keeping the masses out of the celestial realm of harps and endless dreams. Even the most casual reader can’t escape it (which may explain why they’re casual readers). What seems to be true is that if we don’t get the point at the starting line then we will miss the whole point of the race.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “And without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22a), and yet we know that only in Christ can anyone find salvation. A dilemma? Must be the fault of those seemingly unnecessary sacrifices, right? To better understand why there’s so much talk of death and sin in the New Testament, let’s follow the author of Hebrews back to the practice of animal sacrifice in tabernacle and temple worship—no, go further back to pre-Abrahamic days, back to the Garden right after the Fall.
Immediately after the transgression by Adam and Eve in eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God executed the “Sin Brings Death” formula, literally. No, not their physical deaths immediately and literally. They died spiritually upon committing the Original Sin, and brought the curse upon their descendants of natural generation. But as a picture of the blood atonement required, God killed creatures He had made so that skins could be prepared to cover the nakedness of His disobedient children. And He sent them out of the Garden to wait for the promised Redeemer. (Genesis 3)
We see with N.T. eyes that the blood of these animals was insufficient in completely satisfying the great and holy God (Hebrew 9:11-14), so why would He require it? The faith that penitents showed in believing that God would keep His word and the obedience that flowed from that faith pleased Him. And this crimson flow spilling the essence of life all over the ground would be a reminder of the propitiation equation that because Sin = Death, then without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.
The theme was reinforced in the account of Abraham’s obedient response to God’s call to sacrifice his son, Isaac, interrupted by the substitution of another offering provided by the Lord Himself – the ram caught in the thicket (Genesis 22). In the psalms and prophecies, the picture becomes clearer: not just any sacrifice, but a perfect sacrifice, and as Adam and Eve eventually figured out, He had not yet come. The Seed of the woman would not be in their generation, in fact would not be born of ordinary generation, but of a Virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. This God-Man would be put on the altar, like a lamb led to the slaughter; His blood would spill to cover our sins. (Isaiah 53)
The skins of animals covered nakedness but not sins. The blood of a ram was substituted for Isaac at that moment, but not for eternity. The sacrifices of animals from the institution of the system to the arrival of Jesus were sufficient “to sanctify for the purification of the flesh,” but not “to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:24). This new Substitute’s act of obedience was not just for ceremony, but to accomplish, as promised, a real and perfect atonement for His people, the sheep found abiding in Him, Jesus Christ, who is the Spotless Lamb of God.
Too many Christian institutions are capitulating to the politically correct voices from the liberal corner of religion (Machen’s Liberalism, that is). They say we need to make the message of the Cross less violent, more “green” (i.e., symbolizing life and newness, like Spring Solstice—yeah, that orthodox holiday). One popular meme in the past decade has been that the time has come to reject the “cosmic child abuse” story of penal substitution. Sadly, this easy line is fed to countless unwitting students in Christian colleges who are unprepared to do battle against heresy for the most part because doctrinal truths had been withheld from them in their lukewarm Sunday Schools.
Let’s not neglect it. Let’s start rehearsing it now. The season of the Incarnation, though past, is still exuding all the glory and majesty of the first coming of the perfect Lamb. Jesus’s life and death cancels out the equation of Sin = Death because He triumphed over the grave and is today seated in glory. He is raised! His sacrifice overcomes sin, and victory goes to the heavenly realms. Now that’s a higher math we can all take delight in! Joy to the World, indeed!
The season leading up to Resurrection Sunday is ahead of us. We can teach and exhort those in our spheres of influence, including our children, the glorious equation of Salvation:
Regeneration = Faith + Repentance —> Obedience and Eternal Life
Add some higher math to your witness today. Begin with an understanding of the old equation and end with the majesty of the new. With God’s mercy, stone cold hearts will be turned to flesh, light will overpower the darkness, and the eternal result will be redeemed lives walking in Christ.
This article is a revision of a piece published Three Rivers Grace Church blog on March 7, 2014.