How does Jesus make people clean?

The typical gospel presentation is that we are all sinners and that if we confess our sins to Jesus he will forgive our sins through his sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection. This is clearly true according to Scripture. However, this gospel only addresses the sins that you have committed (as a sinner) and neglects to deal with the sins that have been committed against you (as a victim).

Throughout the Bible, some dozen words are used frequently to speak of sin in terms of staining our soul, defiling us, and causing us to be filthy or unclean.1 The effect of sin, particularly sins committed against us, is that we feel dirty. The Bible mentions a number of causes for our defilement, such as any sin at all, as well as involvement with false religions and/or the occult,2 violence,3 and sexual sin.4

Thus, souls are stained and defiled by the filth of sins that people commit and that are committed against them. In Scripture, places,5 objects (such as the marriage bed),6 and people are defiled by sin. Subsequently, the Old Testament and the Gospels are filled with people who were ritually unclean and not to be touched or associated with. The commandments for ceremonial washings and such foreshadow the cleansing power of the death of Jesus.

The predictable result of defilement is shame, including the fear of being found out and known, and our deep, dark secret getting revealed. This pattern was firmly established with our first parents, who covered themselves in shame and hid from God and one another after they sinned. Shame exists where there is sin, and so feeling ashamed, particularly when we sin, is natural and healthy. Therefore, shame is not bad, but unless the underlying sin that causes the shame is properly dealt with through the gospel, then the shame will remain, with devastating implications.

Jesus forgave our sins at the cross and cleanses us from all sins that we have committed and that have been committed against us. Through the cross, Jesus Christ has taken our sin away forever, as was foreshadowed by the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. This goat was sent away to run free into the wilderness, symbolically taking the people’s sins with it. Theologically, we call this the doctrine of expiation, whereby our sin is expiated or taken away so that we are made clean through Jesus, who is our scapegoat.

The Bible uses words such as atonement, cleansing, and purifying fountain that washes away our defilement and shame to explain that our identity must be marked only by what Jesus Christ has done for us and no longer by what has been done by or to us. The Bible clearly teaches that dirty sinners can be cleansed.

  • For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.7
  • I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.8
  • On that day there shall be a fountain opened . . . to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.9

Jesus not only went to the cross to die for our sin, but also to scorn our shame. As Hebrews 12:1–2 says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

As a result, we can walk in the light with others who love us in authentic community. On this point, 1 John 1:7–9 says: If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Jesus does “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This means that because of Jesus’ cross we can be cleansed and made pure. The beauty of this truth of the expiating or cleansing work of Jesus is poetically shown in symbolic acts throughout Scripture, including ceremonial washings,10 baptism,11 and the wearing of white in eternity as a continual reminder of the expiating work of Jesus.12

Is there anything in your past that makes you feel dirty, defiled, or unclean? Talk with Jesus about that today and invite the Holy Spirit to help you experience cleansing.

1E.g., Ps. 106:39; Prov. 30:11–12; Mark 7:20.
2Lev. 19:31; Ezek. 14:11.
3E.g., Lam. 4:14.
4Gen. 34:5; Lev. 21:14; Num. 5:27; 1 Chron. 5:1.
5Lev. 18:24–30; Num. 35:34.
6Heb. 13:4.
7Lev. 16:30.
8Jer. 33:8.
9Zech. 13:1.
10Ex. 19:10.
11Acts 22:16.
12Rev. 19:7–8.

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