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“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
These striking words in the letter to the Hebrews are almost incidental to its teaching on the work of Christ, but they should encourage careful reflection for modern man. Every part of that statement is challenged today, although in the ancient world Christians and most pagans would have viewed it as self-evident. Today, many doubt that anything happens after death, and even more would doubt a coming judgment. Some even doubt the reality of death, calling it an illusion. Some certainly reject the existence of the God who appoints a time of death or judges the dead or has a moral standard by which to judge them.
For Christians, however, the reality of God, of death, and of judgment is a firm conviction. So, we must ask ourselves and others: How will we be judged? We know that the moral standard by which the holy God will evaluate us is His own perfect law. We also know from our own consciences and from the law of God that we as sinners cannot stand in the light of God’s holiness. The proper response to this situation is to say with Isaiah: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5).
As sinners, we will no more stand in the judgment in our own righteousness than the leper will heal his own leprosy. Who will cleanse, who will save, who will take our place in the judgment? The answer to this question is found in the Christian doctrine of justification, the doctrine of getting right with God. This doctrine is most fully explicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, but it is taught in various ways throughout the Bible. As Paul uses images of the courtroom to explain justification, Hebrews uses images of the temple. In discussing the priesthood of Jesus, Hebrews shows how sinners can stand in the judgment: “[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26).
Whose sins did Christ put away? Clearly not His own. Hebrews states repeatedly that Christ was sinless. He is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins. . . . How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God? (7:26–27; 9:14)
The perfect purity of Christ is arrestingly summarized by John Murray: Christ has “a righteousness in which omniscience can find no spot and perfect holiness no blemish.”
Did Christ, then, die for all the sins of all people? Again, the answer is no. Hebrews 9:28 states pointedly, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time.” Here clearly is an echo of the great messianic prophecy: “He bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). Jesus did not die for the sins of all, but He died for the sins of His people: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). His sacrifice put away the wrath of God from the sins of His people.
The perfection of this sacrifice of Christ becomes perfectly ours: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14; see also 7:11, 28). While Hebrews does not explicitly examine the doctrine of the full imputation of Christ’s righteousness as Paul does, its teaching on our perfection in Christ implicitly teaches it. What perfection do we possess now? Not the perfection of complete sanctification or complete glorification. It is the perfection of perfect righteousness credited to us by the mercy of Christ. It is in this sense that Hebrews also describes Christians as purified: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:14) and “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean [pure] from an evil conscience” (10:22). This purity is presented as complete and final: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22). The blood of Jesus that brings the complete forgiveness of sins has purified His people. Again, by implication we see here the imputation of the pure righteousness of Christ.
The people of God receive the benefits of the perfect work of Christ as a gift from God—that is, by grace. One way that we can see that here in Hebrews is in the citation from Jeremiah 31 about the new covenant that brackets the discussion of the work of Jesus as High Priest. While most of the attention is on the accomplishment of redemption in the sacrifice of Christ, Jeremiah 31:33, cited in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16, declares that the application of redemption is the gracious work of God: “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” The promises that God will act to apply redemption to us are the better, more gracious promises on which the new covenant in Christ is founded (Heb. 8:6).
This gift is received by faith. Again, Hebrews does not express the truth of “faith alone” in Pauline terms but makes it clear in its own terms. Those who have received the blessing of sins forgiven are “eagerly waiting” in faith for Jesus to come again (9:28). Their “confidence” is a fruit of faith (10:19) as is their “full assurance of faith” (v. 22). They live out their faith by which the mercy of Christ was given them.
The effect of the truths of Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone is to fill Christians with confidence. The call to confidence in Hebrews is recurring and strong (e.g., 4:16; 10:19; 11:1; 12:1–3, 22–24). Yet, we might well ask whether Hebrews itself does not encourage a measure of uncertainty. At points, Hebrews may seem to encourage anxiety and uncertainty in the Christian life. For example, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). But this is a warning against any sloppiness or indifference in living the Christian life. This warning is really an encouragement to carefulness and thoughtfulness and indeed a reiteration of certainty:
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised. . . . But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (vv. 35–36, 39)
We can be certain that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion because Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
The effect of the doctrine of justification as presented in Hebrews and all of the Bible also has profound effects on our understanding of the church and strongly reinforces a Reformation doctrine of the church. After the work of our Great High Priest in His sacrifice, the church has no need of other priests or sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the once-for-all final sacrifice (9:26, 28; 10:10, 12, 14, 18), putting an end to sacrifices for sin and to a sacrificing priesthood. The Roman Catholic Church in its doctrine of justification and of the Mass as well as in its ministry and liturgy stands condemned by Hebrews 9 and 10. Rome tries to exculpate itself by saying that its priests offer only the one sacrifice of Christ, but since each Mass is believed to be propitiatory (wrath-satisfying), Rome cannot account for the clear teaching of completeness and finality in the work of Christ on the cross that we find here in Hebrews.
The great ministry of the church is not the offering of propitiatory sacrifices but the teaching of the Word of God. The New Testament generally and Hebrews specifically stress the centrality of the Word of God to the life of the Christian and to the ministry of the church (e.g., 1:1–2; 2:1–3; 3:7–4:12), summarized in Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.”
It is indeed appointed for man once to die and after that the judgment. The good news of the gospel is that before we die and before we face judgment, we can know that Jesus died to put away our sins and to purify and perfect us in His righteousness, and that we can live in peace and confidence (but not with presumption) that our salvation is settled and finished in Jesus Christ alone. We will stand in the judgment because Jesus has done for us all we need in the accomplishment and application of salvation.