Question: "What does it mean that our sins are washed away?"
Answer: When the Bible speaks of our sins being washed away, it means we are forgiven. Our sins, which had defiled us, are gone. By the grace of God through Christ, we are no longer spiritually corrupt; we stand justified before God.
The concept of having our sins washed away is first introduced in the Old Testament. When God gave instructions for consecrating the Levites, He said, “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves” (Numbers 8:7). Isaiah 1:16 commands the rebellious people to “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil.” God often used physical illustrations to help us understand spiritual truths. We understand that washing with water makes us physically clean, so the Bible takes that concept and applies it to our spiritual state.
Throughout the Old Testament, God commanded people to purify themselves by following rigorous instructions about sacrifices, ritualistic bathing, and types of clothing to wear (Exodus 30:20; Numbers 19:21; Joel 1:13). From ancient times, God’s people understood that sin makes us dirty, and dirty people are unworthy to enter into the presence of the Lord. Many of the laws in the Old Testament were given for the purpose of contrasting God’s holiness with man’s unholiness.
David wrote of his need to have his sins washed away. After his sin with Bathsheba was exposed by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 11), David repented with great sorrow. In his prayer of repentance, he says, “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). Jesus refers to Nicodemus’s need to have his sins washed away: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Human beings have always needed some way to have our sins washed away.
The New Testament continues the theme of washing sins away. Ananias told Paul to “be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). God had demonstrated through the Law that we cannot purify ourselves; only He can. So when Ananias instructed Paul to be baptized to wash away his sins, Paul understood that, despite his exalted status as a Pharisee, he was as sin-covered as the lowest tax collector (1 Timothy 1:15–16).
The Bible makes it clear that every human being is born into this world as a sinner (Romans 3:23). That sin makes us ceremonially unclean and unfit to enter into the presence of God. The blood of Christ is what washes our sins away (1 John 1:7; 1 Peter 1:19). Hebrews 9 contrasts the old methods of cleansing with the new covenant that came through Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth to establish a new way of being made right with God. Hebrews 9:13–14 says, “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!”
When we, through faith, apply the blood of Jesus to our unclean souls, God pronounces us clean (Titus 2:14; 3:5). He washes our sins away, as it were; He places our sin debt upon His own Son and declares us righteous in His sight (Colossians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). God chooses to forget our sin and remove it far from Him (Psalm 103:12). We are still sinners in practice, but righteous in position. An adopted child becomes a son the moment the judge declares him so, even though he may not know the parents well, understand their house rules, or be deserving of their love in any way. Over time, he grows to know and love them, assimilating into their family life, and becoming in practice what he was already declared to be in position.
So it is with us. Our sins are washed away the moment we place our faith and trust in the saving work of Jesus on our behalf (Acts 2:21). Over time, we grow to know and love our Father, assimilate into our Christian family, and become in practice what we have already been declared to be in position (2 Peter 3:18; 1 John 3:3). The joy of the Christian life is that, even though we are not perfect, we can live every moment with the confidence that our sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus and we have been pronounced “clean” by the final Judge (see Genesis 18:25 and Romans 8:33).