The Achievement of Christ Without Which There Would Be No Others
The Gospel Coalition 2021 National Conference | Indianapolis
In a day when the message of Christ is co-opted for political ideologies, and twisted — sometimes beyond recognition — into a rope to hang up the banner of our social causes, I’m very zealous that Bible-believing pastors and their people put in the foreground of their proclamation the achievement of Christ without which none of his other achievements would stand. This achievement is so foundational to the work of Christ, so central to the work of Christ, so essential to the work of Christ that all his other achievements collapse without this one.
To be sure, I want us to magnify every achievement of the cross of Christ, but especially the achievement without which none of the others can happen. By all means, let us magnify every achievement of the cross of Christ, but especially the achievement that deals with the one human problem that, if not remedied, will nullify everything else that people look to Jesus to receive. Such an achievement should not be secondary in our proclamation. It should not go unstated or be downplayed in the marshaling of Christ’s work for our social causes.
“The great, foundational, central crisis in the history of mankind is that we need to have the guilt of our sins removed and the wrath of God averted.”
This is what I have seen in the text that was assigned to me: Hebrews 9:1–10:18 (46 verses!). The most foundational, most central, most essential achievement of the death of Christ is the removal of guilt and the averting of the wrath of God from those who are in Christ.
I have seen at least six ways in which the greatness of Christ is revealed in this passage. I’ll name them, and then we will focus on each one closely enough to see how each one magnifies the guilt-removing, wrath-averting work of Christ, especially as this achievement unleashes other achievements — like the actual moral renovation of human lives, and our protection in the final judgment, and our enjoyment of an eternal inheritance.
So, the six pictures of the greatness of Christ are:
- Christ: The Great Absence — The Old Covenant
- Christ: The Great Achievement — An Eternal Redemption
- Christ: The Great Accession — Enthroned at the Right Hand of God
- Christ: The Great Application — Making His People Holy
- Christ: The Great Arrival — His Second Coming
- Christ: The Great Abundance — Our Eternal Inheritance
1. Christ: The Great Absence — The Old Covenant
The first ten verses of Hebrews 9 have no Christ in them. And you can see that’s intentional because verse 11 begins, “But when Christ appeared . . .” There’s the difference. The great absence. And the great appearance.
Copies and Shadows
Those first ten verses describe the furnishings and regulations of old-covenant worship. Hebrews 9:1, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship.” Indeed, it did! And they’re spelled out in these verses: the furniture of the tabernacle, the function of the priests, the bloody sacrifice.
So, what’s the meaning of all that Christ-absent ritual? Hebrews 9:9 says that this first tent is a parable for the present time — it’s a parable for us. Hebrews 10:1 says, “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come” — shadows of real things that we experience. According to Hebrews 9:23, they are “copies of the heavenly things” — parables, shadows, copies.
And lots of blood. Hebrews 9:22, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood.” Lots of things “made with hands” (Hebrews 9:24). Lots of ever-repeated priestly ministry (Hebrews 9:25). Lots of reminders of sin (Hebrews 10:3). But according to Hebrews 9:9, none of this can “perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” Or, as Hebrews 10:1 says, they can “never . . . make perfect those who draw near.”
And this is because of the Great Absence of Christ.
Foreshadowing Full Presence
To which you should say, “Well, not exactly, Pastor John. Not entirely absent.”
- Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
- And Peter said Christ was there guiding the prophets (1 Peter 1:11).
- And Paul said Christ followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4).
- And that it was Christ’s blood that made the passing over of all those Old Testament sins righteous (Romans 3:25).
- Indeed, the God of the old covenant says, “The Lord, the Lord . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7).
In fact, God appointed the whole Old Testament sacrificial system — and the shedding of blood in particular — as the path where he really did forgive sin. “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11). “And they shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:20). (The phrase “and he shall be forgiven” occurs nine more times in Leviticus.)
So, is there a Great Absence in the old covenant, or isn’t there? There is a Great Absence. And there is also a significant presence. Christ was there by his Spirit, moving the prophets (1 Peter 1:11), ministering to the people (1 Corinthians 10:4). And the work of Christ was there by anticipation, and by God’s reckoning. Christ’s guilt-removing, wrath-averting work was there by anticipation in the blood of the animals. Wherever true old-covenant believers looked to his mercy through their sacrifices — to his future perfect redemption — their sins were forgiven, and God’s wrath was averted.
The Old Testament saints knew what David knew:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
(Psalm 51:16–17; see Hebrews 10:5)
They knew the truth of Hebrews 10:4: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” They knew Hebrews 10:11: repeated sacrifices “can never take away sins.” But there was forgiveness. It came through God’s merciful application to them in advance of the guilt-removing, wrath-averting blood of Christ — who had not yet come.
The great absence, the utter inadequacy of the sacrifices of the old covenant, points to the centrality of the very thing we are focusing on — namely, the guilt-removing, wrath-averting work of Christ.
This removal of guilt is the overwhelming focus of our text.
- Hebrews 9:7: The priest takes blood and “offers for himself and for the . . . sins of the people.”
- Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
- Hebrews 10:4: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
- Hebrews 10:11: Those sacrifices “can never take away sins.”
What’s the point? The point is that the great, foundational, central crisis in the history of mankind is that we need to have the guilt of our sins removed and the wrath of God averted. The old covenant dealt with the crisis provisionally. The coming of Jesus dealt with it decisively.
So, in Hebrews 9–10, the Great Absence of Christ in the old covenant is a thunderclap of warning and wonder. The old covenant in and of itself is powerless. We must have a Redeemer. Otherwise, our guilt will not be removed, and God’s wrath will not be averted.
We turn now to our second picture of the greatness of Christ in this text.
2. Christ: The Great Achievement — An Eternal Redemption
Christ comes. He willingly sheds his own blood. And he achieves what the sacrifices and the law never could. And what he achieved, most fundamentally, most centrally, most essentially, was to take away the guilt of sin, and thus avert the wrath of God.
- Hebrews 9:26: “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
- Hebrews 9:28: “Christ [was] offered once to bear the sins of many.”
- Hebrews 10:12: “Christ . . . offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.”
- Hebrews 9:12: “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Let there be no ambiguity, no misunderstanding, no confusion here. When the author speaks of putting away sins, or a sacrifice for sins, or the bearing of sins, he’s not simply referring to the purifying of something ceremonially unclean. He is referring to the removal of guilt, which is a real, moral demerit, deserving of punishment from God.
“God requires an infinite payment. That payment will either be eternal judgment, or it will be the blood of Christ.”
We know this because guilt correlates with forgiveness. If you forgive somebody, it’s because they’ve done something that deserves your disapproval (at least!). And when you forgive them, you acknowledge the real wrong done — real, moral demerit — and you pass over it. You let it go. And when we sin against God, we deserve God’s judgment. If that is going to be averted, we must be forgiven. And that’s the language of Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” And Hebrews 10:18: “Where there is forgiveness of [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin.”
That’s the meaning of redemption in Hebrews 9:12: “By means of his own blood, [he secured] an eternal redemption.” Redemption means that there has been a blood payment to liberate us from the bondage of the guilt of sin. The blood of Jesus removes our guilt and makes forgiveness righteous. Paul states it like this in Ephesians 1:7: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” Blood. Redemption. Forgiveness. It’s the same in Paul and Hebrews.
The blood of bulls and goats could never do this. But Jesus Christ, the God-man, was infinitely valuable, and therefore his suffering was of infinite moral weight, so that when God passes over our sins for Christ’s sake, he is seen to be just (Romans 3:25). He doesn’t commit sin by taking sin lightly. He doesn’t sweep it under the rug of the universe. He is righteous in his forgiveness. He requires an infinite payment. That payment will either be eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2), or it will be the blood of Christ.
This is the Great Achievement following the Great Absence. Hebrews 9:12: by his own blood, he secured an eternal redemption. Millions upon millions of wrath-deserving sinners redeemed by a single offering — the perfect and finished purchase of the removal of guilt and the averting of wrath. This is the greatest achievement in the history of the world.
Now the third picture of the greatness of Christ.
3. Christ: The Great Accession — Enthroned at the Right Hand of God
Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:11–12)
Or as Hebrews 1:3 says, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Christ died, he made a single sacrifice for sins, he rose from the dead, he appeared to his apostles, ascended into heaven, and today sits in the highest place of honor in the universe. The most vivid contrast between the priests of verse 11 and the Christ of verse 12 is that they are standing daily, ever in motion, continually offering sacrifices that simply cannot do what needs to be done; they cannot take away sins.
But Christ is not standing. He is not in perpetual motion. He is not managing hopeless, repetitious sacrifices. The sacrifice of himself for sins was perfect, complete, and final. There will never be another sacrifice for sins — ever. His was perfect. And therefore, he sat down.
He does happen to rule the world. And care for his church. But he doesn’t need to stand up to do it. According to Psalm 8:3, he made the stars with his fingers. It is no stress for him to rule one, infinitesimal planet without jumping out of his seat like a basketball coach, or pacing back and forth like a general waiting for news from the front lines.
The accession of Christ to the throne of the universe — and his sitting on his throne with complete equanimity — is a signal to all his enemies, and to us, that this war has been won. The one thing in the universe that could damn his people is no more — namely, the guilt of unforgiven sin. Satan can’t damn us. Cancer can’t damn us. Bankruptcy can’t damn us. Pick the worst sin you’ve ever committed. It can’t damn you. One thing can damn a human being. One thing brings down the holy wrath of God — and only one thing: the guilt of unforgiven sin. And that is no more for those who are in Christ.
All the enemies of Christ rage against him and his people. All in vain. They can attack you. Harass you. Slander you. Shame you. Make you sick. And kill you. But that’s all. They cannot damn you. Guilt has been removed. Wrath has been averted. By one sacrifice, your eternal life was secured forever. This war has been won. The damning work of the devil against the bride of Christ was destroyed at Calvary. That’s the meaning of Hebrews 2:14: “Through death he [destroyed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” He disarmed him of the one damning weapon he could use: the guilt of unforgiven sin.
The accession of Christ to the throne of the universe, and his sitting down, signals to saints and Satan and unclean spirits and all of humankind that his guilt-removing, wrath-averting sacrifice was triumphant. The pivotal battle is over. This war has been won.
Now from his seat, by his Spirit, without the slightest stress or anxiety, the risen, reigning Christ sanctifies his people. This is picture number four of the greatness of Christ.
4. Christ: The Great Application — Making His People Holy
Christ is not doing nothing on the throne. He is applying to us, day by day, the benefits of his blood. He is progressively sanctifying — making holy — those whom he has already perfected by his own blood. And it is precisely because of the benefits flowing to us from our blood-bought perfection in Christ that we are able to make progress in practical holiness.
Perfect, Yet Progressing
Hebrews 10:14 is probably the most important verse on sanctification in the book: “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” If this were Paul writing, he would have probably say, “By a single offering he has justified for all time those who are being sanctified.” They mean essentially the same thing.
This is the greatness and the wonder of the sanctifying Christ. As he prepares his people for heaven, the only people he perfects are the perfected. The only people he sanctifies progressively are those who are already sanctified decisively. The only people he purifies are the pure. The only people he makes righteous are those who are counted righteous. And it is precisely our finished perfection, and our definitive sanctification, and our sinless purity, and our imputed righteousness that unleashes the power of God’s grace that progressively perfects us and sanctifies us and purifies us and makes us righteous in our daily lives.
“The guilt-removing, wrath-averting work of Christ unleashes the renovation of human lives.”
How does that work? Like this: Hebrews 10:14 says, “By a single offering he has perfected . . .” That means that the blood of Jesus completely removes the guilt of all our sins and imperfections. We are counted perfect in Christ. Therefore, all God’s wrath toward us is gone. And when all guilt and all wrath are gone, what’s left between you and God? Total, omnipotent mercy toward you. The fulfillment of all his promises are released for you.
Flood of Promises
Do you remember how I said at the beginning that the guilt-removing, wrath-averting work of Christ unleashes the renovation of human lives? This is what I was referring to. Watch the way it works in Hebrews 13:5–6. Watch how the guilt-removing, wrath-averting work of Christ sets us free from the love of money. And remember, the kind of heart that loves money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
Therefore, I ask: Why can we, who sin every day of our lives, “confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper,’” and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he will never leave me nor forsake me? How can I know I don’t have to be afraid of anything? That confidence, the writer says, severs the root of the love of money. So, how can we have that confidence?
The answer is that, by a single offering, Christ has removed all our guilt and averted all God’s wrath, and opened the sluice gates of heaven, where there is an infinite reservoir of omnipotent grace ready to fulfill every promise of God.
This is the Great Application — Christ making his people holy by the power of God’s promises, which belong to us because, by a single sacrifice, he has removed all our guilt and averted all God’s wrath.
And that is true all the way to the end of the age, when judgment is coming. Which brings us to the fifth picture of the greatness of Christ.
5. Christ: The Great Arrival — His Second Coming
Christ is going to stand up and step from his throne one day — perhaps soon. And in his glorious, resurrection body, he “will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and “with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8).
But the focus of Hebrews is not on how unbelievers will be judged, but how believers will be saved.
Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27–28)
So, the single sacrifice of Christ not only unleashes the power of God’s promises to save us now from the love of money; that single sacrifice also secures the power of Christ to save us from the fire of God’s judgment at the end of the age. How? Because, by a single offering of his own blood, Christ has removed the guilt of sin and, with it, the wrath of God forever.
Hebrews 10:27 warns us about “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Our only hope in that day will be that, by his blood, Christ has secured an eternal redemption — no more guilt, no more wrath. Forever.
And now finally, the sixth picture of Christ’s greatness — not just a great escape, but a great inheritance.
6. Christ: The Great Abundance — Our Eternal Inheritance
Hebrews 9:15 says, “He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.” And how did he mediate the new covenant? Jesus said, “This cup . . . is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). What the old covenant could not do, Christ did. He put away sin — guilt removed; wrath averted.
“There are so many ways for him to be good to you that it will take forever.”
For what? For the eternal inheritance. And what is that? It is ten thousand things. “Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). But what is the best promise in the new covenant? In Hebrews 9:15, the writer connects the new covenant and the eternal inheritance. So, what is the greatest, deepest, highest, longest, most satisfying promise of the new covenant?
It is that God will be our God, and we will be his people.
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
When there is no guilt and no wrath, what does it mean to have God as your God? It means that everything God is and everything he does is for you and not against you. And there are so many ways for him to be good to you that it will take forever. It will take unending ages of eternity for God to pour out on us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
And we will sing forever the song of the Lamb and never forget that this eternal inheritance, and every blessing in it, is owing to the guilt-removing, wrath-averting death of Jesus.
This is the most foundational, most central, most essential achievement of Christ. By it all other achievements stand. Don’t hide this. Tell it from the housetops. In Christ all guilt is removed, and all wrath averted.