There is a very wonderful verse in the book of Hebrews that I have been thinking about for years now. After the writer sets out the theology of Christ as the better Priest and the better sacrifice of a better Covenant, he contrasts the Old Covenant sacrifices (which were continually offered) with the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Then he draws this conclusion: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins” (Heb. 10:1-2). No more consciousness of sin? What does this mean? Does this means that I am without sin now that I am in Christ? Does it mean that there is no more conviction of sin? Of course, anyone who has read the Scriptures knows that there is both indwelling sin and ongoing conviction of sin in the life of every true believer. We also know that Christ uses the condemnation of sin to bring believers to Himself. Gerard Wisse, in his unique little book–Christ’s Ministry in the Christian—explains how Christ employs the knowledge of the condemnation in His work of bringing about the conversion of His people:
When God, the Holy One, uncovers a sinner to Himself, the priestly ministry of Christ also functions–yes, already from the outset. How does this occur? This occurs when God, who is Judge, engages Himself to glorify His subjective work in the sinner, that is, when God brings the sinner to the place where, as a result of self-loathing, he learns to cry out, “Woe is me!” In short, this occurs when, in the way of justification, God brings the elect sinner face to face with the totality of his condemnableness before God. When this takes place, however, all is not condemnatory in nature, but rather is of a redemptive and salvific nature. Therefore, such discovery, however deep and humbling it may be, is nevertheless a gracious discovery. In other words, it is not a discovery that leads to actually condemnation; it is saving, rather than condemning in nature. In a word, it is indeed a discovery in full harmony with justice; however, it procedes from the love of God. The fact that the love of God functions in this uncovering work–yes, that is procedes from love–is a fruit of the priestly work of Christ. Therefore, such an uncovered sinner is kept from dispair, and is driven out to this Surety.
This is, of course, substantiated by the experience of both Isaiah and Simon Peter. As Wisse noted above, when a sinner is brought to a place of conviction of sin he will cry out with Isaiah the prophet, “Woe is me, for I am undone” (Isaiah 6:5). When Simon Peter first realized who Jesus was–and who he was in light of Christ’s holiness–he cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). This seems to be the common experience of those who come under the work of Christ in uncovering the sinner. Any who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation have, to one degree or another, experience something of this same conviction of sin and consciousness of the just punishment that they deserve.
Wisse rightly noted that “such discovery, however deep and humbling it may be, is nevertheless a gracious discovery…it is not a discovery that leads to actually condemnation.” Every true believer who experiences something of the converting sense of deserved condemnation will always be brought from it to a sense of acceptance and peace with Christ by faith. This movement is found in Jesus’ “Do not be afraid” statements (Luke 5:10: Matt. 14:27; Matt. 28:5; Luke 8:50; Rev. 1:17).
John Owen, commenting on Hebrews 10:2, Explained how the once-for-all expiatory sacrifice of Christ takes away the consciousness of sin’s condemning power in the conscience of the believer when he wrote:
[Believers] have not the least sense of fear concerning any insufficiency or imperfection in the sacrifice [i.e. of Christ] whereby sin is expiated. God has ordered all things concerning it so as to satisfy the consciences of all men in the perfect expiation of sin by it.
Owen proceded to explain how the finished work of Christ at the cross should create in the mind of the believer a peace from the knowledge that sin’s guilt and condemnation has been removed:
“They should have no conscience agitating, tossing, disquieting, perplexing for sins;” No conscience judging and condemning their persons for the guilt of sin, so depriving them of solid peace with God. It is conscience with respect unto the guilt of sin, as it binds over the sinner unto punishment in the judgment of God. Now this is not to be measured by the apprehension of the sinner, but by the true causes and grounds of it. Now these lie herein alone, that sin was not perfectly expiated; for where this is not, there must be a consciousness of sin–that is, disquieting, judging, condemning for sin.
This is clearly the intent of what our Lord Jesus taught when he said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24). It is the central focus of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5:6-11, culminating in that glorious statement of Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It is what the Apostle John wrote when he declared, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:17-19). The sacrifice of Jesus ought to produce in the minds of all believers a sense of peace since the wrath of God has been satisfied in His death on the cross. Unlike the sacrifices that were repeatedly offered in the Old Covenant, the once-for-allness of Jesus’ sacrifice assures us that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ.”
While this glorious truth of Gospel privilege is set out everywhere in the pages of Scripture, the reality is that most believers have their assurance shaken at many times and in many ways–and often have a deep sense of condemnation (i.e. terror of conscience). So, how do we reconcile this common experience of believers with the truth of Hebrews 10:2? Owen explained:
The way and means of our interest in the sacrifice of Christ are by faith only. In this state it often falls out that true believers have a conscience judging and condemning them for sin, no less than they had under the Law; but this trouble and power of conscience does not arise from hence–that sin is not perfectly expiated by the sacrifice of Christ–but only from an apprehension that they have not a due interest in that sacrifice and the benefits of it…God hath ordered all things concerning [the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ] so as to satisfy the consciences of all men in the perfect expiation of sin by it; only they who are really purged by it may be in the dark sometimes as unto their personal interest in it.
Owen’s point is that a true believer’s “conscience judging and condemning them for sin” arises from a lack of faith in the once-for-all expiating sacrifice of Jesus. This lack of faith is often a direct result of the presence of some sinful practice(s) in the life of the Christian. When a believer continues in a sinful practice his or her conscience is wounded. In several places, the Westminster Confession of Faith refers to “a wounded conscience” in regard to a believers loss of the peace that is his by virtue of the finished work of Christ:
[A true believer] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (WCF 17.3).
True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair (WCF 18.4).