Hebrews and the Atonement of Christ – Vintage

Thoughts Prompted by the Reprise of the Topic of the Atonement in Debate Against Robert Sungenis

[For a response to CAI’s “challenge to debate,” click here]  (updated on 5/31/03)

[The following article uses the BibleWorks Greek font, available at: http://www.bibleworks.com/downloads/bwfonts.zip.  Also, Dr. White preached on Hebrews 10 in the morning and evening services at the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church.  You can listen to the AM Sermon here, the PM Sermon here.]

I did not expect that Robert Sungenis would use the same approach he had taken in 1999 in our debate on Long Island when we again addressed the issue of the Mass as a “propitiatory sacrifice” in a debate on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Saturday, April 5th.  So when he again began quoting from The Fatal Flaw, a thirteen year old book that has been out of print for a decade, all to attempt to make me defend myself against the assertion that my views are very “Catholic,” I had to suppress a smile.  As the debate was substantially shorter than the 1999 version, it was, at the very least, a bit more focused.  I was cross-examined on the issue of the perseverance of the saints (just as in 1999).  I asked questions on the subject of the debate, that being the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Toward the end of the brief time, I hit upon what proved to be the most useful line of questioning, that of seeking to get Mr. Sungenis to deal with the direct details of the text of Hebrews 10:10-14.

The Lord at times uses the strangest things to get His truth through our dull minds and our confusing traditions.  In my case, pressing the issue of the exegesis of this particular text clarified my own thinking in a way that previous encounters had not.  Hopefully sharing these thoughts with others will edify others as the vital truth of this tremendous passage is considered.

Hebrews in Context

            For many the book of Hebrews is a strange, somewhat difficult book.  The reason why it is not at the top of the “favorites” list for most modern Christian readers is easy to discover: it requires a deep familiarity with the context and content of the Old Testament.  And since many in our modern day are rather canonically challenged, viewing the last twenty seven books of the Bible as significantly more “inspired” than the first thirty nine, Hebrews has suffered as a result.

Just as one must understand Paul’s purpose in writing Romans, so too one must keep in mind the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews.  The single factor that has given rise to errant interpretations of this wonderful epistle is that of ignoring the overall purpose and argument of the letter.  When the intention of the original writer is allowed to give consistency to the letter as a whole, much light is shed on the difficult passages of the book.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is an apologetic argumentation for the supremacy of the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.  It is addressed to Hebrew believers gathered in the context of the Church.  Since it is addressed to the gathered church, it contains both promises and warnings, for those who stand before God’s people must announce both, as we have not been given the ability to see into the hearts of men so as to be able to identify true saving faith.  The promises will ring true in the hearts where they are joined with the divine work of the Spirit in saving faith: the warnings are used by God both in the exhortation of the saved as well as the judgment of the hypocritical.  The central thesis of the argument is easily discerned: since Christ is the fulfillment of the promises of God in the Old Testament, there is nothing to “go back to.”  Those who were being pressured by family and culture to return to the temple or the synagogue are warned, through numerous forms of argumentation, that there is no “going back.”  Everything in the “old way” is shown to have been done away with, fulfilled, in Christ.  There are no more priests, no more sacrifices, no means of purification outside of the finished, once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.

Each section of the epistle builds upon this theme in various ways.  Beginning in chapter seven the writer moves into the demonstration of the superiority of Christ’s work as High Priest, and this moves into His work of atonement or sacrifice.  When we keep in mind the “big picture” we will always ask, “How does this passage move forward the author’s argument?”  And if we interpret it in such a way that it does not assist the argument, then we know we have lost our way.

The Specific Text

Hebrews 10:1 For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME; 6 IN WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE TAKEN NO PLEASURE. 7 “THEN I SAID, ‘BEHOLD, I HAVE COME (IN THE SCROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) TO DO YOUR WILL, O GOD.'” 8 After saying above, “SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS AND WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, NOR HAVE YOU TAKEN PLEASURE in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “BEHOLD, I HAVE COME TO DO YOUR WILL.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second.

The writer begins this section with a discussion, through verse four, of the repetitive nature of the old sacrifices.  The Law (of Moses) was, by nature, a shadow, a mere picture of what would come in Christ.  Therefore, the annual sacrifices, which are offered “continually year by year,”[i] could not “make perfect” those who draw near to worship through them.  This is then evidenced by the fact that if they did perfect those for whom they were made, they would not have to be offered repeatedly.  The worshippers, being perfected by the offerings, would no longer have had consciousness of sins.  Why?  It is important to note what the text says.  “Having once been cleansed (a[pax kekaqarisme,nouj).”  The perfection to which the author refers has to do with cleansing.  The removal of the stain of sin therefore removes the guilt, which is related to the conscience.  Perfect offerings remove guilt, imperfect ones do not.  Since, however, these offerings are repeated over and over and over again, they end up functioning as an avna,mnhsij “anamnesis,” a reminder or remembrance (as it is translated in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) of sins.  The repetition of a sacrifice demonstrates its inherent inability to perfect anyone for whom it is offered.

The fact that the High Priest had to enter the holy place each year functioned, in God’s economy, to point the people to a greater fulfillment.  Remember, it was this very lesser sacrifice to which the Hebrew Christians were being drawn by the pressures of family and culture.  Hence, to demonstrate that what they were being drawn back to was actually a mere foreshadowing of what they had now come to see as the fulfilled and final sacrifice was a devastating apologetic argument, a firm basis upon which to exhort the gathered church to continuation in their profession of faith.

The writer then asserts the reality that the sacrifice of bulls and goats cannot avfairei/n a`marti,aj, “take away sins.”  He has, previously, said that Christ “put away sin” (9:26), so the contrast is strong.  Christ’s death, by nature, has a power the blood of goats and bulls does not.  And therefore the person who goes back to the “old way” goes back to a system that simply cannot provide a means to take away sins, because to “go back” would involve the open and public denial of the satisfaction found in Christ’s atoning sacrifice (the point of 10:26-27)!

Verses 5 through 9 form a biblical argument drawn from Psalm 40:6-8 (as found in the LXX).  The argument is fairly simple, for the writer sees in this passage the same contrast that he has just drawn in the first four verses.  Specifically, he contrasts the sacrifices and burnt offerings, which he points out were offered in accordance with the law, with the coming of the one who does God’s “will.”  He concludes that He (Christ) takes away the first (the offerings and sacrifices) “in order to” (i[na, purpose clause) establish the second, which would be the “will” of God accomplished in the death of Christ. 

10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, 13 waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

This leads us to the heart of our study, verses 10 through 14.  We need to see that verses 10 and 14 function as “bookends” in a sense, with 11-13 providing us with another Old Testament proof-text.  By wrapping these two verses around the primary Messianic text from the Old Testament (Psalm 110:1), he creates one of the strongest assertions concerning the singular offering of Christ upon the cross in all of Scripture.

The “will” that is referred to in verse 10 is the “will of God” Christ came to accomplish noted in verse 9.  The cross was not an after-thought for the Father, it was, in fact, the will of the Father for the Son (Matthew 16:21).  By means of this will, then, something has happened, something has been accomplished.  And what is it?  “We have been sanctified.”  It is vital to “hear” this term in the context of Hebrews itself.  The writer is speaking within the context of sacrifice and tabernacle, offering and cleansing, and we should not, as a result, immediately import a systematized meaning into the text.  That is, many will think of the idea of “progressive sanctification,” whereby we are conformed to the image of Christ and our fleshly lusts mortified.  But this is surely not the intention of the writer, nor is that the meaning of the term as it is used in Hebrews.  To sanctify something, within the context of the tabernacle and sacrifice, is to set it aside as holy unto God.[ii]  We note (and will return to) two other important aspects of interpreting this term: as it is used here it is the immediate result of the sacrificial offering of the body of physical body of Jesus Christ, and this is a once-for-all, singular event (expressed by evfa,pax, ephapax).  These considerations are important for this is something that has been accomplished by the death of Christ.

The specific construction the apostle uses is that of a periphrastic construction.  For many the introduction of such a grammatical phrase causes the eyes to move south for friendlier territory, but I urge you to press on.  The phrase is h`giasme,noi evsme.n, hagiasmenoi esmen.  One of the key elements in grasping the tremendous message of Hebrews ten is to hear it not in the modern parlance but in the ancient context, as the author intended.  He spoke, and wrote, in a particular fashion, and just as we speak in phrases that carry meaning, so did he.  Often those who are only marginally trained in the original languages will focus solely upon a single word, or the tense of a particular term, and ignore its syntactical relationship to other words.  The phrase the author uses to describe the result of Christ’s work carries a particular meaning.  Periphrastics combine the ever-expressive Greek participle with a finite verbal form (normally of eimi).  The result is an enhanced or emphasized “tense meaning.”  In this case, when you combine a perfect participle with a present tense form of eimi, the result is a perfect tense periphrastic construction.

While some grammarians today do not see the periphrastic as containing an added emphasis, many do.  In this case, the periphrastic would emphasize the completedness of the action (which makes perfect sense in light of the argument the author is presenting).  The writer is then emphasizing the fact that the “will” fulfilled or accomplished by Christ in His offering of His own body upon Calvary has sanctified us as a completed action in the past.  This is not a conditional statement.  It is not a provisional statement.  It is not a theoretical statement.  It is a statement of fact, placed firmly in the past with perfective emphasis.  “We have been sanctified.”  We have been made holy, we have been set apart unto God.  This must be kept in mind when we read verse 14 and its description of those who are sanctified.

This completed act of sanctification is through (dia.) the offering of the physical body of Jesus Christ.  That offering is the means of the action (dia with the genitive expressing means).  What Christ does is the means of the result: our being sanctified.  There is a direct correlation.  This might also seem to be a simplistic observation, but for many the work of Christ exists solely in history and does not, in and of itself, do anything.  It creates a theoretical possibility in the minds of many, so that through some other instrumentality the work of salvation takes place.  But the writer to the Hebrews short-circuits this humanly-oriented concept by insisting upon the direct results of the work of Christ.

The term “offering” (th/j prosfora/j) is a technical term used of “offerings” in the preceding quotation of Psalm 40:6 (39:7 LXX).  There was divine sacrificial intention in the cross.  This may strike the reader as yet another “obvious” statement, but in today’s post-modern theological climate, it is not.  For many today the death of Christ was something He stumbled into, and the Christian faith is little more than His disillusioned followers doing their best to make something good come out of an aborted attempt to renew Judaism.  But the Scriptures know nothing of this.  Christ gave Himself as an offering and that for a purpose.

What was offered?  “the body of Jesus Christ” (tou/ sw,matoj VIhsou/ Cristou/).  His was a physical offering.  He gave his physical body.  This was a true sacrifice.  He gave His flesh.  Again the importance is clear, for the contrast between the old sacrifices and the one sacrifice of the New Covenant would not be meaningful if the sacrifice offered was less than that of the Old Covenant.  The life that was given was true life, the body given a true body.

“Once for all” (evfa,pax) is a temporal adverb as we noted above.  The term marks the strong contrast between the repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant and the one time, never to be repeated, singular sacrifice of the New.  The repetition of the term both in its unemphasized form (Hebrews 9:26, 28) and in this emphasized form (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:10) is central to the writer’s argument at this point in light of the repetitious nature of the old sacrifices.  Repeated sacrifices are imperfect: perfection comes through that which is offered once for all time.

Verses 11 through 13 form a parentheses, repeating in another fashion the argument already enunciated regarding the Old Covenant and its repetitious sacrifices.  Passages such as this strongly argue that Hebrews was written prior to the destruction of the temple.  “Every priest stands daily ministering” is a poignant observation of the on-going temple worship.  The same sacrifices are offered over and over and over again, all in accordance with God’s law.  The writer will contrast the standing priest (e[sthken) whose work is never done with the seated Savior whose work is finished and accomplished.  He likewise makes sure the on-going, repetitive nature of the old sacrifices is seen (kaqV h`me,ran leitourgw/n) by including “daily” and using the present tense of the participle “ministering.”  He piles terms upon terms to make sure we see the entirety of the long line of priests, offering sacrifices that can never take away sins.  How can the congregants go back to a system such as this, when they have come to understand the singularity of the finished sacrifice of Christ?  These repetitive sacrifices lack the power or ability to take away sins (ouvde,pote du,nantai).

In verse 12 we have the very purposeful “but He” in contrast to “every priest.”  It is literally “this one” (ou-toj).  Christ “offered,” past tense (prosene,gkaj) one sacrifice for sins forever, this over against the regular offering of the priests of the Old Covenant. [For an excursus on a fascinating mistranslation by the Latin Vulgate at this point, click here].  On going in contrast to completed, never ending over against finished.  And the contrast is made complete in stating that Christ sat down at the right hand of God, fulfilling, in verse 13, the great Messianic Psalm, 110.  He does not go in and out, as the old priests, but he waits, rests, His work as High Priest confined now to the passive presentation of His finished work in His own body: indeed, He is the Lamb “standing, as if slain” in the vision of John (Revelation 5:6) before the throne.  His work of intercession is not a further work that adds to His sacrifice: His people are united to Him in His death, and His death avails for them.  As the risen Victor He is seated at the right hand of the Father, His ever-present resurrected body still bearing the marks of the sacrifice, “pleading effectual prayers” in the words of the hymn writer, the constant testimony to the finished work accomplished on Calvary.

As we noted, verse 14 is closely related to verse 10.  Both verses speak of the offering of Christ.  Both emphasize the singularity of the event, verse 10 by using “once for all” and verse 14 using “one [offering].”  Verse 10 tells us the offering of the body of Jesus Christ “sanctifies” as a perfective action; verse 14 says it “perfects” or “completes,” this time using the perfect tense verb, tetelei,wken. The intriguing difference between the verbs is the use of “sanctified.”  In verse 10 it is the result of the “will” of God fulfilled through the offering of the body of Christ.  “We have been sanctified.”  But in verse 14 it becomes the identifier of the objects of the action of making perfect, “those who are sanctified.”  So the question becomes, how can the offering of Christ be the means of creating  the group who are sanctified and also be the means of perfecting that same group.

Before we address this question, one other issue should be noted.  Some translations have “those who are being sanctified” in verse 14, translating the present tense of the substantival participle.  Now, one possible view of the present in this case, if we are to see any emphasis upon the tense at all, is that those who are being sanctified would refer not to a process of on-going sanctification in an individual’s life (contra v. 10), but to the fact that those thusly sanctified experience that setting apart over a period of time (indeed, to this point, over the course of nearly 2,000 years).  Hence this would refer to the on-going application to each generation of believers of the one, finished action of the cross.

While this is a possible view, I do not think it is necessary to understand it in this way.  The participle “those who are sanctified” should be understood in light of the emphasis that has already been made regarding the perfective result of the work of Christ: “we have been sanctified,” and hence, we are sanctified.  Hence it is a simple statement of fact: this singular offering perfects those who are sanctified.  It is not the author’s intention for the participle to add a further statement about the nature of sanctification, as that has already been stated in verse 10.  So the NASB’s translation correctly identifies the function of the participle with the rendering, “those who are sanctified.”

And so we return to the main question: how can the offering of Christ be the means of creating the group who are sanctified and also be the means of perfecting that same group?  The answer would seem to be found in considering that the second statement is simply an expansion of the first: the one sacrifice sets apart as holy in a perfective manner, it is a small step to the fuller statement that it perfects those who are sanctified.  The second statement would amplify the first: those who have been set apart are perfected in their standing. 

Sungenis’ Comments Refuted

Robert Sungenis has written a book titled Not By Bread Alone.  It is a defense of his understanding of the Roman Catholic eucharistic sacrifice (I say “his understanding” because Mr. Sungenis often takes unique positions, and has recently embraced a radical form of traditionalism that is not representative of the mainstream of Roman Catholic apologists).  Hebrews 10 is mentioned in many places, but the only attempt to actually interact with the text is found on page 105.  Here we find the following:

Although some opponents may interpret the clause in Hebrews 10:14 (“…made perfect forever those who are being made holy”) as suggesting that the salvation of the Christian is complete and totally secure with no possibility of falling away, this is not what the verse is teaching.  We can see this by the way the word “perfect” is used in the book of Hebrews.  According to Hebrews 10:1-2, the individual’s “perfection” refers to having his sins completely forgiven in order that the conscience may be free of guilt, something which the Old Covenant law could not provide (cf., 7:19; 9:9)  Thus, the individual stands “perfect” because his past sins have been completely forgiven, not because he has reached a perfect state which eliminates the possibility of losing his state of grace.  It follows, then, that the use of “perfect” here does not mean that the individual cannot retard the sanctification process, or that his eternal perfection is a foregone conclusion (cf., Hebrews 11:40; 12:23).  The verbal form chosen for “being sanctified” is a Greek participle of continuing action, which specifies the process of sanctification, a process by which we are continually forgiven of our sins, albeit now it is a complete or “perfect” forgiveness for the sins we have confessed.  In other words, Christ did not make a blanket forgiveness of sin but has perfected the process by which sin is forgiven when it is confessed.  Thus no more sacrifice is needed for past sins, but this does not mean we cannot forsake the process by refusing to repent of our future sins.

Just a few comments are in order here:

1)  The actual exegetical issues of verse 14 (its relationship to the immediately preceding text, the relevance of the periphrastic in verse ten to defining the arthrous substantival participle in verse 14, the meaning of “sanctify” in Hebrews vs. its meaning in systematic theology, etc.) are not even mentioned in the comments.

2)  Sungenis does not understand the theocentric confession of the perfection of Christ’s work.  All he “hears” is the resultant concept of the perseverance of the saints.  This has been the main focus of his “defense” of the Mass as a sacrifice in our debates.  But such is to attempt to refute the argument by disagreeing with one of its results rather than dealing with its substance.  Yes, if Christ’s work is perfect then He is able to save completely and perfectly without fail.  But since the focus of the text is on the result of Christ’s singular sacrifice, why not deal with the direct assertion of the text?

3)  While looking at the general use of telei,ow in Hebrews is important to proper exegesis, assuming it has the same meaning in every passage is improper.  On this same page Sungenis makes a similar error, connecting Hebrews 5:9 to 10:14 solely on the basis of the similar verb (or so one assumes: the basis is left hanging).

4)  Perfection does indeed refer to the complete forgiveness of sins.  But Sungenis’ entire thesis is that this refers solely to past sins, leaving us with a perfection with a timetable: it only lasts as long as it takes to walk outside the church and encounter the real world.  Then one sins and has to make use of the “system” to obtain forgiveness of these sins.

5)  Whether one can lose “the state of grace” is not the point of the text: the point is what Christ’s offering accomplishes over against the old sacrifices.  And if Christ’s sacrifice has the half-life of the time it takes for man’s heart to find a way to sin, how can this be considered an argument in favor of the New Covenant?  “The Old Covenant could not perfect you by forgiving all your past sins, which the New Covenant can….but, it only lasts for a little while, at which point you are again reduced to a repetitive, non-perfecting sacrifice (i.e., the Mass).”  This is a compelling apologetic?

6)  Sungenis does not even make reference to the function of the participle in verse 14, but simply assumes a verbal emphasis (fitting for a circumstantial participle, but not one functioning substantivally).  The clear connection to verse 10 is ignored, and the ideas of a “process” of sanctification (contra the completed tense of the periphrastic in verse 10) along with confession (!) leap into the text, obviously derived not from exegesis, but from Roman tradition.

7)  The result of this eisegetical stab in the dark is seen clearly with the assertion, “Christ did not make a blanket forgiveness of sin but has perfected the process by which sin is forgiven when it is confessed.”  Process?  Where does this come from?  Surely not from the text!  Again we see the entire apologetic argument of the writer to the Hebrews being shredded in service of Roman tradition.  Where does the text say Christ perfected a “process”?  It says His offering perfected US (v. 10)! 

Sungenis follows up these comments with a reference to Hebrews 10:29.  He asserts this passage teaches one can fall away from sanctification.  He does not show any familiarity with the question of who it is who is sanctified by the blood of the covenant in this passage.  The great Puritan scholar, John Owen, wrote concerning who is the one “sanctified” in Hebrews 10:29:

But the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God, as I have showed before. The priests of old were dedicated and sanctified unto their office by another, and the sacrifices which he offered for them; they could not sanctify themselves: so were Aaron and his sons sanctified by Moses, antecedently unto their offering any sacrifice themselves. But no outward act of men or angels could unto this purpose pass on the Son of God. He was to be the priest himself, the sacrificer himself, — to dedicate, consecrate, and sanctify himself, by his own sacrifice, in concurrence with the actings of God the Father in his suffering. See John 17:19; Hebrews 2:10, 5:7, 9, 9:11, 12. That precious blood of Christ, wherein or whereby he was sanctified, and dedicated unto God as the eternal high priest of the church, this they esteemed “an unholy thing;” that is, such as would have no such effect as to consecrate him unto God and his office.  (John Owen, Commentary on Hebrews, vol. 22, p. 676)


[i] eivj to. dihneke.j is an idiomatic phrase meaning “continually, without interruption.”  It appears four times in Hebrews, each bearing significance to the current discussion: Hebrews 7:3, 10:1, 10:12, 10:14.

[ii] It is interesting to note that being “made holy” is not one of the things listed in Hebrews 6:4-5 in reference to those who were in the fellowship but about whom the writer did not have confidence regarding salvation (v. 9).  This would indicate that for the writer, to be made holy is indicative of true salvation.  It is also significant to note that while the term “righteous” appears in Hebrews as a noun/adjective, the verbal form dikaiovw does not appear (i.e., “to justify”).  These two considerations would seem to indicate that for the writer to the Hebrews, being made holy occupies a similar place of centrality as indicative of the fullness of salvation as being made righteous does in the Pauline corpus.

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