Hebrews 10:1–4 stresses the Mosaic law’s inability to provide true atonement for sin, concluding that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v. 4). The reason for this is obvious. Bulls, goats, sheep, and so on are mere animals, no matter how clean they might be. They cannot truly stand in for human beings before God because they are not made in His image and cannot authentically represent men and women. Yes, the Lord accepted animal sacrifices from His people under the old covenant as a means of staying His wrath (Lev. 1; 4; 16), but the sins of the people were not actually punished in these animals. God passed over these sins in anticipation of the day in which He would judge them in Christ (Rom. 3:25). The sacrificial system was instituted not to cover our sin but to point us to the One who satisfies His Father’s wrath on the cross (Heb. 10:1–18).
Even if animals could truly represent us, however, the sacrifice of an innocent animal would still not reconcile us to God. Such a sacrifice, at most, could only put us in a state of innocence, which is what Adam enjoyed before his fall. Yet the Lord does not want us merely to be innocent but to have a positive record of righteousness. He has ordained that only those with an obedient record can have eternal life; only men and women who serve Him actively and flawlessly enjoy the blessing of life (Gen. 2:15–17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 5:12–21). We must have a substitute who has actively obeyed our Creator, a substitute who has put God’s law into practice perfectly.
That is one of the points of today’s passage. Peter tells us that when “Christ suffered once for sins,” it was “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus was not merely innocent but obedient as well. He earned the righteousness we need to be restored to fellowship with our Father. This righteousness is put on our accounts — it is imputed to us — when we believe, so that the covenant obedience that gets us into heaven is not ours but Christ’s (Rom. 3:21–26).
The life of Jesus is as important to our salvation as His death. He had to be “truly righteous,” as the Heidelberg Catechism indicates in question and answer 16. Succeeding where Adam failed, Christ earned righteousness for us by resisting temptation and obeying His Father on every occasion (Matt. 4:1–11; 5:17–20; 27:22–23).
Christ not only died for us, He lived for us as well. Understanding this point helps to assure us of our salvation. We are, of course, called to please God through obeying His will. Nevertheless, we realize that the best of our obedience is still not enough. But if we understand that Christ has obeyed the Law perfectly in our place, we are released from worry about our righteous status and freed to love God and neighbor by His Spirit.