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The Last Scapegoat

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 4:6–8

Biblical doctrine is always relevant to life. The great truth of justification by faith alone grants us the blessedness of knowing our sins have been forgiven, covered, and taken away, never to be counted against us.


Long before the apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans, the world had developed religious rituals to try to deal with their sense of sin and guilt. The mystery religions throughout the Greek world involved initiations for people joining the religion—initiations that supposedly covered their sin and guilt.

The initiate went through a series of ceremonies known as identification rites. In one particular mystery religion, the initiate was lowered into a deep pit. Beams were then put across that pit, and on top of the beams a bull that had been killed was laid; its throat had been cut. The blood of that bull would pour down into the pit, literally bathing the person below. The mystery religion actually referred to this event as their “salvation.” And when the ceremony was over and the initiate was brought up out of that pit, covered in blood, he was referred to as “reborn for all eternity.”

Who came up with these ideas? Where did they come from? They were all distortions of God’s original plan of atonement, delivered to mankind all the way back at the beginning of human history, when Adam and Eve sinned. God graciously covered them with animal skins, a picture of the first animal sacrifice to atone for sin—the death of an innocent animal for the sins of a guilty couple.

And of course, this looked forward to the final sacrifice of an innocent person, the Son of God, who died to permanently atone for the sins of the human race. All who trust in Him alone are freed from the penalty and guilt of sin.

In Romans 3, Paul described the doctrine of justification by faith alone—how someone can be made righteous. Righteous does not mean perfect; it means “right with God.” And being right with God does not come through digging a pit or going through a series of initiation ceremonies. It comes through faith alone in Christ alone.

Now here in chapter 4 of Romans, Paul is going to give us an illustration of what that looks like in the life of a sinner. He writes in verse 6, “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” In other words, David is an example of how a sinner can be made right with God.

King David was guilty of adultery and conspiracy to murder. He is a perfect example of somebody who does not deserve the forgiveness of God. And that is Paul’s point, beloved.

David later testified of the blessing of undeserved grace and forgiveness in Psalm 32. Here in Romans 4:7-8, Paul takes a quote right out of that psalm.

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Wow! What a powerful testimony!

Let me highlight three key words here that describe God’s work of atonement. The first word is “forgiven.” The Greek word means “sent away” or “taken away.” John the Baptist used a similar expression when he introduced Jesus Christ in John chapter 1 as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

No doubt David was thinking of the Old Testament Day of Atonement, when the high priest would lay his hands on a live goat and confess over it the sins of the people of Israel. According to Leviticus 16—which we studied in our Wisdom Journey some time ago—that goat, called the scapegoat, would then be released in the wilderness. The scapegoat symbolically took the guilt and carried away the sins of the people.

To this day, when we talk about a “scapegoat,” we are speaking of an innocent person who takes the blame for something somebody else did. The scapegoat was a picture of Jesus Christ, who hung on the cross for us. He, the innocent Lamb of God, had our iniquity placed on Him. He took the blame and carried our sins away. That is what this key word “forgiveness” means.

The second key word here in David’s song is “covered.” Verse 7: “Blessed are those . . . whose sins are covered.”

Again, God came up with this idea. It goes all the way back to that ancient practice, when the high priest took the blood of an innocent animal that was sacrificed and sprinkled it inside the holy of holies as a sin offering for the people. This annual sacrifice looked forward to the sacrifice of Christ, who—once and for all—did away with sin.[1] This sacrifice—in fact, all the sacrifices of the Old Testament—could not permanently atone for sin. The people’s sins were covered temporarily, until Jesus paid for it all completely and forever.

So, David’s ticket to heaven would be paid for in the future death of Christ. Your ticket to heaven was paid for in the past, there at Calvary’s cross.

The third key word is “count.” Paul continues his quote from David here in Romans 4:8: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” “Count” is an accounting term, so the phrase here could be rendered, “The Lord does not put David’s sin into David’s ledger.”

Earlier in verse 3, Paul used the same word, writing, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” In other words, in Abraham’s ledger the Lord wrote the word “righteousness”—“right with God!” Just imagine that. God removes sin from our ledger and writes in the word righteousness.

And that is true for every believer today: the ledger of your life has had every sin erased and the word righteousness written across every page. You can’t remove it either. God writes that word with a permanent marker; it is all a gift of God’s grace that you received by faith in the atoning work of Christ.

Let me tell you, there is a day coming when every human being would gladly give everything he owns, everything he has, everything he has ever wanted to have, in exchange for his slate being cleansed of sin, his record, his ledger of sin, being permanently erased and righteousness written into his account.

Beloved, there is not a religious ceremony in the world that can accomplish that for you. It does not matter how many initiation rites you go through; they cannot cover up your sin and deliver you from the judgment of God.

I remember reading about a man who had a pet snake. One day he decided to purchase a live mouse to use as food for his snake. He dropped the mouse into the large glass cage where the snake was sleeping on a bed of sawdust and wood shavings. That little mouse immediately knew it was in danger. At any moment the sleeping snake could awaken and swallow him for dinner. Obviously, he needed to come up with a plan. So, what did he do?  He quickly set to work scooping those shavings with his little paws, furiously covering the snake with sawdust. The mouse apparently thought this would solve his problem. Well, the only salvation for that little mouse came from outside the glass cage when the man took pity on him and removed him from the cage. 

Religious ceremonies, human effort, good works, religious rituals—they are like piling wood chips upon sleeping judgment. They are not going to work at all.

David says it well. How blessed—how incredibly, eternally blessed—is that person whose sins have been carried away forever, that person against whom the Lord will not count his sin against him because his sins have been forgiven forever.

[1] See Hebrews 10:10-12.

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