The root of the problem
This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. . .The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Hebrews 9:9, 13-14
If your doctrine of sin runs deep, your doctrine of God’s grace must run deeper. Someone holding a very superficial view of sin will normally only seek the Savior in a superficial way, to the extent that He solves their sin problem.
Sin is not a behavior, but an orientation. We are “totally depraved” not in the sense that we always do the most sinful possible things… but that everything we do is done in a sinful way. We are tempted to look at ourselves as morally neutral with sin as an addition to our person; the Biblical perspective holds the contrary, that sin is our person, and the filter through which we make all decisions.
Jesus battled this perspective throughout his earthly ministry. Mark 7:14-23 is a good example: “nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them. . .what comes out of a person is what defiles them.” Or also Matthew 23:25-26 “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . .First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean”. In Matthew 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a famous moment where he explains murder in this way: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment.” He then repeats with adultery: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He concerns himself not just with actions, but with the heart. To Jesus, motives matter.
Paul’s logic in Galatians 5 is the same. The word picture of “fruit of the Spirit” means that if the Spirit indwells you, these different attributes will become evident in time. The same is true of the flesh, with its parallel list in vs. 19-21. Because the logic is not “do these good things, and you will get the Spirit” but rather “those with the Spirit will evidence these good things,” Paul is able to freely say in the same passage that “against such things there is no law.” The OT law only exists to give a portrait of what the sinful orientation creates, not actually a list of things themselves to avoid, as such. (I could go on about similar logic in Romans 14, Acts 10 and Galatians 3).
Now addressing the Hebrews passage at the beginning of this post. The ceremonial laws could not purify at a deep level because they were designed only to address the surface level. They do not change a person’s sin orientation, but instead only put a covering over it so that the person can continue to function within the religious life of the Jewish community. Because it did not change the person on the inside, their sin orientation, their true self, the ceremonial laws beckoned for something better, a more full solution to the problem than rituals or even humans could provide.
That answer is Jesus Christ. His death, symbolized here by his blood, is able to cleanse the deepest recesses of a person and change them from the inside. The death/blood of a heifer could not reach the true root of the human condition. Through Him who brought us from “acts that lead to DEATH” to “serving the LIVING God” (vs. 14), we have received forgiveness, the cleansing of our sin.