The problem with the Old Testament sin offerings was that instead of deterring people from sin by requiring them to pay for their sins with a lamb or a goat, they could actually encourage people to transgress, in the thought that whatever they did they could make up for it with a sacrifice and all would be forgiven. Today some Christians, or at least some people who regard themselves as Christians, have exactly the same attitude with respect to Christ's sacrificial death. They will quote Romans 8.1: 'There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' and think, “God will always forgive me, because Christ has paid for my sins. His grace covers it all. So sin is nothing to worry about now. What a relief!" Such false teaching is being perpetrated by some church leaders and evangelists. While they may not express it quite so blatantly their essential message is, "Believe that Christ paid for your sins and you will go to heaven." Dear reader, this is not the gospel!
The fundamental difference between Christ's sacrifice and the Old Testament sacrifices was that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross not only provided forgiveness for our past sins but it also provides deliverance from present sins. This is the central message of the letter to the Hebrews. With regard to the Old Testament sacrifices Hebrews 10.3,4 says, 'In these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.' However, with regard to Christ's sacrifice Hebrews 9:26 says, '...he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself.'
Both forgiveness of sins and freedom from sin are in the gospel. "Through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses," says Paul in Acts 13.38,39. The old children's hymn got it right: 'He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good.' Both! So, to go back to Romans 8.1, the reason that those who are in Christ Jesus no longer live under condemnation is not because God has decided to overlook their sins. It is because they no longer live sinful lives. 'Our old self was crucified with him so that [our] sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin... Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God (for those who have been freed from their slavery to sin through faith in Jesus) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Extracts from Romans 6) It is unpardonable to quote Romans 6.23 without also quoting the verse before it.
Under the Old Testament law there was actually no sacrifice for deliberate sin. All the various sin offerings related to unintentional sins. (See Leviticus 4:2,13,22,27; 5:14,17; Numbers 15:27-29) 'The person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity (i.e. the consequences of it) shall be upon him.' (Numbers 15.30,31) For deliberate sin there was no remedy at all.
So has God changed his mind about deliberate sin when dealing with Christians? Is he no longer concerned about it? Not at all! In the New Testament he is just as concerned about it as ever. 'If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries (those who set themselves against God).' (Hebrews 10.26,27) 'Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral (fornicators), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.' (1 Corinthians 6.9,10) 'As for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall in in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.' (Revelation 21.8) "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5.20) From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is unequivocal: the wages of sin is death. Jesus came to deliver us from death by delivering us from the sin that produces it. If I were heading for an early death as an alcoholic and a doctor offered to rescue me I wouldn't expect him to give me something that would prolong my life while I continued to drink heavily: I'd expect him to stop me drinking.
I am not for one moment suggesting that a single slip-up into sin will send a Christian to hell. When Paul talks about the unrighteous - fornicators, idolaters, sexual perverts, drunkards, etc. - he is talking about people for whom such behaviour is their continuing lifestyle, people who have no intention or desire to change their ways even if they claim to follow Christ. When John in Revelation talks about the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted etc., he is not talking about one-off sins but about lives characterized by cowardice, faithlessness, uncleanness, etc. Even when Hebrews tells us that we'll incur a fearful punishment if we sin deliberately after coming to know Christ as Saviour and Lord, the Greek verb translated as 'sin' is in the present continuous tense, which means it can legitimately be translated as 'If we go on sinning...' Once again the warning is for those who deliberately persist in a lifestyle of sin.
I think the difference between an unrepentant lifestyle of sin and the life of a truly repentant person who occasionally still falls into sin is what Jesus had in mind when he told Peter at the Last Supper, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean...” (John 13.10)
It is true that 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1.9) Personally I believe that at this point in his first letter John was still addressing unbelievers, encouraging them to confess and forsake their sins and to come out of the darkness of sin into the light of Christ. But even if this promise applies to believers as well, notice the last part of it: 'and cleanse us from all unrighteousness'. John does not say, 'if we confess our sins he will forgive our sins and let us go on living in unrighteousness.' He says, 'he will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' For he goes on to say, 'He who says, "I know [God]" but disobeys his commandments is a liar... [Jesus] appeared to take away sins... no one who sins has either seen him or known him.' (1 John 2.4; 3.5,6) There it is again: 'to take away sins'. Similarly John the Baptist cried, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1.29) Jesus appeared to take away our sins, not merely to take away their consequences. The blood of Jesus saves us, not by paying for our wrongdoing, but by cleansing us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus is of no avail if we persist in behaviour that God's word condemns.
The more we love God the easier it is to do his will and thereby remain free from sin. Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with us. We are not saved by our works, but by God's work in us: 'God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.' (Philippians 2.13) But God will continue to work in us only if we want him to. That is why Hebrews 12.14 tells us to 'strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.' We must always be on our guard: we shall never be totally free from temptation. That is why Jesus told us to pray every day, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one." (Matthew 6.13) Both the command and the promise are there: 'As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."' (1 Peter 1.14-16) As John Wesley once remarked, "Every command in the Old Testament becomes a promise in the New."
Why is sin such a problem? In God's promised kingdom there will be no sin, and therefore there will be no sinners. The whole reason that death had to enter the human race and that people could no longer be permitted to live for ever was that Adam sinned and all his descendants have sinned ever since. 'The wages of sin is death' has not somehow become untrue just because Christ died for our sins. Sin still spells death, eternal death, and that is why Jesus had to die. He died for our sins in order to set us free from them, to make us fit to live with him for ever in God’s kingdom to come by dying to self, 'for he who has died is freed from sin.' (Romans 6.7) We are to die to self in order to live for Jesus. For those of us who have heard the Gospel there is no other route into everlasting life. Please, please take this lesson to heart!