God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
For Christians whose hearts are unable to receive grace, the unconditional forgiveness and new life offered us through faith in Jesus Christ are simply intellectual concepts. They may accept as true, rationally, what the New Testament proclaims about salvation, but this truth has little or no effect on their heart. They are still trapped by the effects of their sins or the sins of others against them.
What their heart needs to understand is that Jesus bore and atoned for sin, all sin, so there is no need for them to do so. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) – and its effects on us. In the Old Testament the cure for sin involved the sacrifice of a goat, sheep or lamb on the temple altar. Sin was ceremoniously transferred by a priest from the person who brought the animal (an animal without blemish) and onto the beast. The goat became the bearer of the person’s sin, making atonement and obtaining for them forgiveness and freedom. This is where we get the term, scapegoat. However, every time a person sinned he was required to return to the temple and exchange his sin with a “scapegoat.”
God’s permanent solution to the problem of sin and atonement was to send his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to become the bearer of all sin, for all time, when he was nailed to the cross. He became humanity’s “scapegoat.” Our sins were transferred onto him and as a result of this transaction we are forevermore forgiven – and set free from the consequences of sin – through faith in Jesus Christ. So his death atoned for all sin, once and for all. (Hebrews 9:26b, 10:12-14, 18) For a more detailed explanation, see Bringing Home the Faith, Letter No. 5: Why Jesus Had to Die.
However, it isn’t enough for a person who still suffers from the effects of sin simply to hear this good news and accept it; their heart needs to experience this transfer taking place of their sin, and its effects, onto Jesus.
In the office in which I counsel those in need of inner-healing prayer I keep a framed copy of Matthais Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion. This work of art expertly captures both the brutal reality of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross and the hope of salvation we now have as a result of it. It conveys an essential truth that an empty cross, without a body on it, cannot: Jesus died as a scapegoat for our sins.
I place this rendering of the crucifixion in full view of those I counsel because pictures and images based on the great stories from the Bible are sometimes more effective in conveying the truth of the gospel to the heart than the words used to proclaim it. I don’t use Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion scene in order to make someone feel bad about their sins. Instead, I use it to demonstrate visually how Jesus takes our sins from us and onto himself as our “scapegoat.” Seeing the truth of the gospel portrayed in this way can help the heart to grasp it intuitively.
Furthermore, I learned from Leanne Payne how engaging the imagination, through the use of Christian imagery and symbols, can help the heart receive God’s forgiveness. In her book, The Healing Presence, she writes about how she instructs those with whom she prays and counsels “to see, with the eyes of [their] heart, Jesus on the Cross” (p. 39) as they confess their sins. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we can use our imagination (which belongs to the part of the soul we refer to as the “heart”) and picture the crucifixion scene before us. As we confess our sins, we can then envision them coming up and out of us, and going straight into his wounds. The prophecy of Isaiah provides us with the scriptural basis for “seeing” this happen: But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed… For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (53:5, 12b)
This is how I lead the people I counsel through a confession of sin, after I have invoked the Holy Spirit’s presence and petitioned him to direct and guide us. Afterwards, as Leanne Payne advises, I offer words of absolution, while sprinkling them gently with water which has been blessed and set aside for use in inner-healing prayer. Water is used in this way throughout the Bible to signify cleansing from sin. Then I pray, while laying hands on their head, that the person’s heart would be loosed from the effects of their sins and that they would be filled to the measure with the abundant life of Jesus (John 10:10). I conclude by anointing their forehead with holy oil, which Scripture calls the elders of the church to use when praying for healing (James 5:14).
Jesus is the one whom Isaiah prophesied as setting the captives free and healing the broken-hearted (61:1b, 3). The Holy Spirit can use the blessed water and oil to convey the release and cleansing from sin – and the healing of the heart previously bound by sin’s effects – all of which Jesus procured for us through his death and resurrection. Therefore, the use of the imagination, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, as well as Christian imagery and symbols — and elements which in Scripture symbolize forgiveness and healing — can be very effective in helping the heart to grasp the good news of the gospel and joyfully accept God’s grace. For this reason they are important tools in the ministry of inner healing prayer.
Next week: How gospel truth takes hold through “pictures in the heart.”