The Scent of the Gospel

I’ve often heard that the sense of smell is the sense most closely related to the memory. A particular smell has a powerful way of effecting our recollection of a vivid memory. Every now and then, I’ll smell something and in my mind I’m instantly sitting at the round table in my grandmother’s kitchen. I’m not a doctor--nor do I play one on TV--but, I have read that the olfactory bulb (i.e. the part of the brain that processes smells) is closely connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus (i.e. the parts of the brain that handle memories). So there is a physiological reason why our sense of smell is so powerful.

Perhaps there is something more than just physiology that makes our sense of smell so powerful. Perhaps our sense of smell is so powerful because it is something we see described frequently in God. There are scents that God finds to be pleasing. And there are scents that God finds to be displeasing. We who are made in the image of God then reflect that quality in our bodies. Put simply, a pleasing aroma has the ability to transport us back to a pleasant memory. It can delight our minds. It can make our mouths water. It can bring joy. The scent of my wife’s pillow brings comfort to me when she is traveling. A fragrant aroma is a delight.

A foul stench, however, can have the equal but opposite reaction. One of my general life rules is that if someone says, “Smell this,” the answer is always, “No.” After Hurricane Katrina, I took teams of college students to Mississippi and Louisiana for recovery work. At one house we had to remove a fridge full of shrimp. Mind you, this was 6 weeks after the hurricane. In the summer heat. And there had been no electricity since the storm. We had to move that fridge out of the house and to the street. When that fridge door got jarred a little loose, the putrid odor hit us and made us all retch and gag. A foul stench is odious.

What are some of the odors that God finds pleasing? When the Flood had subsided and everyone and everything exited the ark, Noah built an altar. He made a sacrifice on that altar. And “when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man” (Gen 8:21). The proper sacrifice of Noah was a pleasing aroma. In fact, all the proper sacrifices and offerings of God’s people were a pleasing aroma to God (Exod 29:18, 25, 41; Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 8:21, 28; 17:6; 23:13, Num 15:3, 7, 10, 13, 14, 24; 18:17; 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). The proper worship of God’s people results in a pleasing aroma and God delights in it.

While these proper sacrifices are pleasing aromas to God, not all sacrifices and offerings will be received that way. In Isaiah 2:22-4:1, the city of Jerusalem had rejected God by worshiping idols. Part of the judgment that came was that “instead of perfume there will be rottenness” (Isa 3:24). What was previously a pleasing scent became a putrid one. The prophet Ezekiel warns that sacrifices made to idols may produce an aroma that is pleasing to the worshiper, but it will be rejected by God (Ezek 6:13; 20:28). We should take note that our enjoyment of worship seems to have little bearing on the appropriateness of worship. Leviticus, likewise, makes clear that the result of covenantal disobedience is that God “will not smell your pleasing aromas” (Lev 26:31). A rejection of that fragrance was a rejection of their apostate worship. A sacrifice in and of itself is not pleasing to God, but rather the pleasure of the aroma comes in a sacrifice properly made to cleanse and remove the defilement of the people. A form of worship without the presence of God leads to estrangement from God, alienation, and eventually death. And death stinks (Exod 7:18, 21; Eccl 10:1; Isa 50:2; Amos 4:10; John 11:39).

Jesus Christ, as the perfect sacrifice (Heb 10:14), is able to make the ultimate offering. Paul notes that Jesus “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). Jesus was the perfect sacrifice and offering for our sins, and one of the signs that God received it was that it was a pleasing aroma, a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus was the proper sacrifice made to cleanse and remove the defilement of the people. And now those who are in Christ carry that same aroma. “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one the fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:15, 16). To the elect of God, the smell is delightful and calls them to joy and life in Christ. To the reprobate, the smell is putrid and calls them to a life of judgment, wrath, and death.

There are a number of ways for us to apply this truth. The first and simplest way is that we should thank God for things that smell good. A pleasing aroma is a reason to delight in the Lord and a call us to thankfulness for his blessings. But beyond the blessings of common grace in our sense of smell, it should also remind us of the sacrifice of Christ. The most perfect and pleasing of all aromas is the fragrance of the accepted sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. But we should be careful. There is such a thing as olfactory fatigue. This is the condition where we become accustomed to certain odors and forget them. When you visit a friend’s home, there is a smell to it. But your friend doesn’t smell it because they have gotten used to it. There is a danger that we’ll experience fatigue with respect to the pleasing aroma of Christ. We can forget or assume Christ without being delighted by the fragrant aroma. We have to fight this olfactory fatigue in our spiritual lives and keep that pleasing aroma fresh. We must remind ourselves anew of the pleasures of Christ through God’s Word. We should delight in the grace he has given us. And we should rejoice that the aroma of Christ is one of life and not death.

Donny Friederichsen