Are not Repentance, Prayer, and Good Works Sufficient to make Atonement?

The Day of Atonement has been observed in different ways throughout Israel’s history. Initially the high priest would enter the holy of holies once a year on the Day of Atonement and sacrifice would be made. During the Babylonian exile,  prayer, fasting and repentance all took greater precedent since sacrifices could not be offered.[i] The principle of blood atonement was then observed and continued for the most part until during the second temple period.[ii] A good example of this is in the historical account of the Apocrypha concerning the martyrdom of Eleazar in Maccabees 4:28-29, “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

After the temple was destroyed in AD70. Yochanan Ben Zakkai considered texts such as Hosea 6:6 and Proverbs 15:8 stressing the importance of mercy rather than sacrifice and knowledge of God more than burnt offerings, or the prayer of the righteous above the sacrifice of the wicked. Nonetheless even today, the sincere actions of “teshuvah”, “tefillah” and “tzedakah” do not guarantee assurance of sins being forgiven.

Until Rashi, most Jewish commentators believed Isaiah 52:13-53:12 related to Messiah, though most would not have said that related to Yeshua. Nonetheless after Rashi, most Jewish commentaries state that the “suffering servant” in Isaiah is Israel making atonement for the nations.

The Requirement for Blood Atonement

Leviticus 16 provided the instructions for Aaron on the Day of Atonement. This immediately followed the event involving the profane fire offered by his sons Nadab and Abihu resulting in them perishing. Leviticus 17 outlines the sanctity of blood and Leviticus 17:11 the requirement of blood with reference to making atonement for the soul ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’

Today, in support of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, many would appeal to texts such as Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 6:6; Hosea 14:2 and Isaiah 1:11. At face value and if these verses were quoted in isolation they would appear to support the notion that justice, mercy and returning to the Lord supersedes sacrifice. Nonetheless in each of those four instances, either the context of the chapter, or the immediate preceding verse, show clearly that God was chastising Israel and that since they had already turned from the lord and were not repentant; those particular sacrifices were meaningless. Remember Nadab and Abihu offering profane fire. We must approach a holy God on His terms, not ours.

The temple was crucial with reference to the sacrificial system. When Solomon built the temple, the Lord appeared to Solomon by night saying, “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice (2 Chronicles 7:12).” Therefore following the Babylonian exile and until the temple was destroyed in AD70 sacrifices were made on the Day of Atonement.

How can Sin be Atoned for?

So far it has been mentioned that nowadays on the Day of Atonement, there is no assurance or guarantee of sins being forgiven. Following the destruction of the temple in AD70 the sacrificial system has not been in place. What provision is there today for forgiveness of sins? Earlier the point was made that most Jewish commentators before Rashi understood Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to refer to Messiah who would suffer and make atonement for sin. What momentous event happened before the temple was destroyed to make atonement possible?

Isaiah 53:7 tells us ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.’ In the Brit Hadasha, John the Baptist saw Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)!” Commenting on the sacrificial system and the Day of Atonement, the writer to the Hebrews stated, ‘And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission (Hebrews 9:22).’

When David repented after Nathan went to him after he had gone into Bathsheba, David recognised the inherent nature of sin prevalent in all of us. ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).’ Isaiah decimates our inflated views of self-righteousness, ‘But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away (Isaiah 64:6).’

Who Provided Atonement Once and for All?

Blood atonement was necessary. When a sacrifice was made it had to be in accordance with God’s requirements. Jesus never sinned. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world as He offered Himself making substitutionary atonement in our place. The apostle Paul explains this in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that Yeshua became a sin offering for us, ‘For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

How can anyone have assurance of their sin being atoned for? Not through deeds, neither works nor our efforts, nor through fasting and prayer. Only by grace. What is grace? Unmerited favour. It is a natural desire to earn our salvation and to make atonement through our efforts. Paul makes a clear distinction between our works and God’s grace in Romans 11:6 ‘And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.’

How can we receive God’s grace and forgiveness for our sin? Through turning (repentance) and trusting and following Him alone. Yeshua has made atonement and through believing in Him one can have their sins forgiven past, present, and future. Will you turn to Yeshua and trust in Him as your Saviour, Redeemer, and your atonement today?

[i] Kaufmann Kohler Atonement

[ii] Ibid