I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:
And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)
Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.
This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.
Which makes sense to us.
What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.
This is true for individual sin and collective sin:
If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)
Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.
But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.
This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.
They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.
But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.