Christians sometimes trust Christ’s sacrifice made on Calvary to atone for their sins but then continue to accuse themselves repeatedly for those sins. It is as if such sins are never fully forgiven and every fleeting memory of them brings out the weight of fresh guilt.
The Psalmist may be an example of such a plight when he prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth / and my rebellious ways” (Ps 25:7). Understandably, as in his case, even sins that have been confessed and forgiven sometimes seem to leave a sharp edge in the memory.
To Christians burdened by this sort of unrelieved guilt there is an element in the ancient rituals of the Day of Atonement which may offer help (Lev. 16).
On the annual Day of Atonement, the congregation was required to bring two male goats to the tabernacle where lots were cast over them and one goat was marked to be offered as a blood sacrifice and the other was set aside for a ritual of abandonment.
The first goat was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. This was a symbolic ritual of atonement. Then the high priest put both hands on the second animal’s head and confessed over it freely the sins of the people. His prayer was to be all-inclusive for the congregation so that no sin of the past year would be left out.
Then, this symbolically sin-laden animal was led into the far reaches of the desert and released, never to be seen by the congregation again. It was like delivering the second goat — and all the people’s sins — to oblivion.
Thus, the people’s sins were not only atoned for by the sacrifice of the first goat; they were also obliterated forever by the second goat’s one-way journey into the wilderness.
The whole ritual makes one think of other words from the Psalms: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Or as the prophet Micah affirmed of God: “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19)
In the New Testament, John writes to early Christians concerning Jesus that, “he is the covering for our sins” (1 John 2:2) The word used is the same as that used for the covering of the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies where the blood of the atoning sacrifice was sprinkled.
Should John’s word “covering” be translated, “He is the propitiation for our sins?” Or should it be, “He is the expiation for our sins?” Every sin is an offense against God’s holy character and to propitiate means to appease or conciliate an offended party.
But to “expiate” suggests that rather than only covering the sin it is forever removed, taken away, obliterated. Perhaps both words should be used to parallel the Day of Atonement when the blood of the first goat covered or atoned for sin (propitiated), while the other goat symbolically carried the sins into oblivion (expiated).
In the New Testament Jesus is both our propitiation and our expiation. Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree …” (1 Peter 2:24). And the Hebrew letter says, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Heb. 13: 12).
It is possible to accept God’s forgiveness of our sins which he gives freely and fully and then go on reliving our grief and guilt over some sin or sins of the past. But it is better to trust the forgiveness of all our sins to the work of Christ on Calvary and the mercy of God and then go on making our goal in life to serve him in holiness, as he gives us grace to do so.