What does the blood of Jesus actually do?

A basic principle of Christianity is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. What exactly this statement means has increasingly come under debate in our time. For most of the modern period, Protestantism has almost exclusively understood Jesus’ death on the cross as a punishment that pays a debt, or “penal substitution.” Added to this has been the assumption that the primary problem resolved by the cross is God’s anger about our sin. These are two separate issues. I believe that penal substitution has Biblical support, but it has been drastically over-weighted; I do not believe that a view of the cross as an appeasement of God’s anger is Biblically faithful. One way of exploring this phenomenon (imperfectly) is to look at all the references to Jesus’ blood in the New Testament to see what the Bible says that the blood actually does.

I. Jesus’ blood establishes a new covenant (6 references)

Mark 14:24 (c.f. Luke 22:20, Matthew 26:28)
He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

1 Corinthians 11:25
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Romans 3:23-25
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a mercy seat by his blood, effective through faith.

Hebrews 9:12
He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

In Jesus’ words of institution for the Lord’s Supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians, he says that his blood is the basis for a new covenant. In Romans 3:24, there is a direct reference to the Jewish ritual of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), in which the mercy seat (hilasterion) of the Arc of the Covenant is covered with the blood of a sacrificial bull as part of the official act by which Israel’s covenant with God is restored after a year’s worth of sin. When Paul says that God put forward Jesus’ blood as a mercy seat, he is saying that Jesus’ death on the cross is the eternal basis for the new covenant between God and His people, a point which Hebrews 9:12 makes more explicitly in its reference to the Holy of Holies where the priest would go on Yom Kippur.

II. Jesus’ blood purifies us (5 references)

Hebrews 9:14
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9:22
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews 13:10-12
We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.

1 John 1:7
The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Revelation 7:14
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

I think that the cleansing function of Jesus’ blood gives us the most trouble as interpreters outside of a pre-scientific context. For ancient people, the blood of an unblemished animal was the cleanest and holiest thing you could possibly touch. Hebrews 9:19 relates the important role that physical blood had in sanctifying the sacred documents of the ancient Israelites: “For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats,with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people.”

Leviticus 17:11 explains why blood has such a critical role in the Israelite sacrificial system: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” In our scientific antiseptic age, when people are covered in blood, it’s an unsanitary situation that speaks of death, not life! The blood of animals is not something sacred you rub on yourself; you put on gloves to avoid getting blood on your hands.

So the only positive meaning for blood in a scientific age would have to come from the violence that caused the blood. In other words, we assume that it is as punishment that blood makes atonement, but Leviticus says that blood makes atonement as life. So insofar as we are cleansed by the blood of Jesus, it is not through feeling guilty about the contribution of our sins to the punishment of the cross. It is rather that His blood is a pure and holy source of life that cleanses us eternally, particularly through our sacramental ingestion of it in the wine that we share in holy Eucharist.

III. Jesus’ blood redeems us from slavery to sin (4 references)

Ephesians 1:7
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.

1 Peter 1:18-19
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

Revelation 1:5-6
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.

Revelation 5:9
You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.

The two words redemption and ransom have become somewhat abstracted in our time so it may be helpful to look at the Greek for all of these words. The word used in Ephesians 1:7 is ἀπολύτρωσι, which means to pay a price for someone to be set free. 1 Peter 1:18 appears to use a derivative of the same root word (ἐλυτρώθητε). When Revelation 1:5 says that Jesus’ blood “frees us from our sins,” the word is λύω, which means to loosen or untie. When Revelation 5:9 speaks of ransom, it uses the word ἀγοράζω, which means to do business in the marketplace.

These four passages and others like them generated the first atonement theory in the early church, which was called the ransom theory, which held that Jesus’ blood paid a ransom to the devil who had held humanity in hostage with sin ever since Adam and Eve decided to follow the serpent’s word. The ransom theory fell out of favor over time because Christians became scandalized at the thought that the devil needed to be paid anything. Then 11th century monk Anselm displaced the devil entirely from his atonement theory and made the payment of Jesus’ blood about a debt to God’s honor.

What’s important is that the way these four passages describe Jesus’ blood as a payment does not refer to a debt incurred through sin and owed to God. In every context, it is a payment given to a captor to release a captive. My own opinion is that we need to recover a notion of ransom theory in our prism of atonement theories because it’s unfaithful to these four passages to act as though a payment that buys freedom is the same thing as a payment that earns acquittal. They are not the same!

IV. Jesus’ blood gives us life (2 references)

John 6:53-56
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

1 Corinthians 10:16
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

Jesus’ blood is the basis for the eternal life that we receive sacramentally through the practice of Eucharist. Taking John 6:53-56 seriously makes it very hard to defend a view of the Lord’s Supper as only an act of remembrance and not a mysterious means by which we receive the “true food” and “true drink” of eternal life from God. 1 Corinthians 10:16 adds the element of “sharing.” The life we receive from Christ’s blood is definitively communal. We are given eternal life by being incorporated into a body with others who partake of the same blood and body of Christ.

V. Jesus’ blood justifies us against our accusers (2 references)

Romans 5:8-10
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

Revelation 12:10-11
Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

It is critical to pay attention to the grammar of Romans 5:8-10 (which the NIV revises to suit its theological agenda). First of all, the word wrath in Romans 5:9 does not have “God” attached to it in the Greek so we should not edit our translation to make it God’s wrath (shame on you, NRSV!). Secondly, there is a parallelism at play here; each sentence has two clauses that are being put into analogy with one another. Our justification through the blood of Christ is related to God reconciling us to Himself. Our salvation or healing (either of which translates soteria) from “the wrath” is something that occurs as the result of Jesus’ life. So Jesus’ blood is not associated with wrath in this passage, which is a critical distinction to make!

Revelation 12:10-11 gives more context to the justification attested in Romans 5:8-10. Since the blood of the lamb justifies the brethren, it is the basis for their victory over the brethren’s accuser (Satan) who has been cast out of heaven. To my mind, Romans 8:31-34 further supports this understanding of justification as God’s victory over our accusers:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reassurance that Paul offers here evokes a courtroom in which God is the judge and Christ is the defense attorney. God is not the prosecutor! That’s the point Paul is making when he says “if God is for us, who is against us?” No prosecutor can come forward to bring any charge against us because “it is God who justifies.” Jesus’ blood repudiates any accusation that can be made against us.

Is it penal substitution? Absolutely, but it has nothing to do with appeasing God’s anger or fulfilling God’s personal need for vengeance. It has to do with rebuking the standing of any accusers who try to make claims against people who have put themselves under God’s mercy. Through Jesus’ blood, God demonstrates that every accuser is actually a defendant. Romans 11:32 captures this mystery in a way that’s easy to misunderstand: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This isn’t a description of a pushover God, but rather a God who refuses to accept anyone who will not accept God as their absolute benefactor and champion. God has mercy on all who will let His mercy reign over them, that is, all who accept that they are defendants whose charges have been dropped because of Jesus’ blood and thus have no standing to accuse others.

VI. Jesus’ blood reconciles us (2 references)

Ephesians 2:13
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Colossians 1:20
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

These two verses refer to the two different dimensions of reconciliation that Jesus’ blood provides. Ephesians 2:13 is speaking about the reconciliation between the Gentiles (who were far off) and the Jews (who were near). This reconciliation can be described as an extension of the way Jesus’ blood serves as a covenantal substitution for the mercy seat blood of Yom Kippur. The next verse says that Jesus’ blood “has broken down the dividing wall,” making an explicit reference to the wall separating Gentiles and Jews in the Jerusalem temple compound.

Colossians 1:20 can be taken to refer to the reconciliation of Jesus’ blood in its forensic justifying capacity. God makes peace with and among humanity unilaterally by letting all the self-justifying accusers among us know that none of us have standing as prosecutors in His courtroom since we are all defendants who depend upon His mercy and only receive justification through Jesus’ blood.

VII. Jesus’ blood gives us confidence and assurance (2 references)

Hebrews 10:19
We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.

Hebrews 12:24
The sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

This category of course overlaps with other categories previously mentioned. Hebrews 10:19 can be linked to the role of Jesus’ blood as justification, but it’s important to insist again that its purpose here is to give us confidence, not to appease God’s anger or address any other need of His. We gain confidence that God is safe to approach because of the proof of God’s love that we have received through Jesus’ cross.

Hebrews 12:24 makes Jesus’ blood the official undoing of humanity’s cycle of violence that began with Cain’s murder of Abel. In context, it can also be read to express the reconciliation of humanity’s long-time estrangement with God. Hebrews 12 is drawing a contrast between the dreadful way humanity related to God on Mt. Sinai, a place “that cannot be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest” (v. 18) and the new wonderful relationship made possible through Christ on Mt. Zion, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem [with]… innumerable angels in festal gathering” (v. 22). Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word” about what God wants to do with us than Abel’s blood did.

VIII. Jesus’ blood gives Him authority

1 John 5:6-8,11
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify:[b] the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree… And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

Revelation 19:13
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

This last category is incorporated in all the previous categories. Jesus’ shed blood is what makes Him Lord in the specific way that He is Lord over us. He is Lord as the Lamb of God. Brian Zahnd observed in a sermon series last year the way that this gives the gospel story a comic dimension. All the nations of the world are prostrating themselves in Revelation before a slain lamb. Try googling a picture of a lamb and bow down before it so that you can experience the comedy of it. Contrary to Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind fantasies, the way that power is described in Revelation is an absolute repudiation of all our earthly notions of power.

Of course, the authority of Jesus’ blood has to do with way more than repudiating worldly conceptions of power. It is the basis for His Lordship over us because it is the source of our covenant, our eternal life, our freedom from sin, our justification, our reconciliation, and our confidence in God. Christians are people who say, “We are because Jesus bled.” That’s what it means to confess Him as your Lord and Savior.

26 thoughts on “What does the blood of Jesus actually do?

  1. Whatever else the blood of Christ is, it is ritual cannibalism. At that time religions sacrificed animals. Some religions sacrificed humans. Why not sacrifice God and eat of the sacrifice or at least wash in the blood?

    Washing with blood leaves your hands sticky rather than clean. Wiping your hands on a towel would still not clean them.

    Whatever you are talking about, you should find another way, other metaphors and images. Being washed in the blood of a lamb is a disgusting thought.

    • I appreciate your perspective, Dave. Since it’s the central image of our religion, I have to find something constructive to do with it. I would say it’s supposed to be disgusting, but in some strange way, that’s part of why we are healed by it.

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  7. I found this profoundly helpful and wanted to thank you for sharing it. I run a small Christian website that happens to count at least a few atheists among its readership, and a couple of them have been challenging me of late on the penal substitution-theory of the atonement. They think it doesn’t make much sense, and I’m inclined to agree, even from a biblical perspective.

    I think your thoughts here and the scripture you’ve assembled will be really helpful in helping me flesh out (pardon the expression) my understanding of this glorious mystery. Like some of your other readers here, I’ll be meditating on this for a while. Thanks again.

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  11. Too long to respond to fully, but a few little points:

    1. The OT evidence is a lot more ambiguous, or actually, favorable towards the penal interpretation when it comes to the word “blood”, than I see here. Leon Morris has demonstrated that more often than not, “blood” in the OT, clearly means “blood shed” as in death, or life poured out in death–not in some “pre-scientific” magical sense, but in a legal, judicial sense. I would give you more than that, but my books are at work.

    2. The connection of blood to “covenant” actually strengthens this since the covenant-creating ceremonies we see in the OT involving blood, actually involve a legal cursing element. One “cut” a covenant in this sense. For instance, Genesis 15 involves Yahweh taking on himself a maledictory oath, to the effect that, “may what happens to these animals” happen to me if I don’t come through. The same sense is found in Jeremiah “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts— (Jeremiah 34:17-18,)

    The idea here is, if I break this legal covenant, may curse and judgment fall on me. It’s easy enough to see this at work in the Sinai treaties, and it finds confirmation in secular treaty-covenant practices of the surrounding nations. Also, language of being “cut off” from the land of the living, or from Yahweh’s people, as judgment for sin is all over the OT and finds its roots in the idea that the covenant had legal/penal implications.

    3. Following off of this, there is the fact that Jesus says he’s going to “drink the cup”, the cup that he doesn’t want to drink, but the Father has the final say about. (Luke 22:42; Matt. 26:42) What is this but the cup of God’s wrath and judgment that makes the nations stagger in the OT? (Isa. 51:17; Hab. 2:16; Ezek 23:33) He drinks the cup of judgment, so that we can drink the cup of salvation, the cup of the new covenant without fear of the curse, because it has already been born. It creates peace where there was legal emnity, because of a prior loving desire to remove the obstacle of our sin and guilt.

    There’s more to say again, but the total repudiation the covenant, or blood, or death is totally disconnected from God’s judicial “anger” (in the very special, holy, patient, moral sense in which we can speak of it) is, in my opinion incorrect. Jesus’ blood vindicates the saints and silences the accusers because it shows that all debts have already been paid. (Col. 2:13c-15–which was my thesis, btw) God is judge, not prosecutor here, but he’s still judge. Jesus doesn’t say, “Look God, they were never guilty, Satan is totally lying.” He says, “Look, my blood has covered–it is finished–I completed all righteousness as we have desired and taken all judgment they deserved, so they stand vindicated in me. I have brought them into covenant, legally, justly, and mercifully.”

    • Isn’t that basically what I said though in my coverage of justification? It’s not an erasing of the truth of the past. It’s Yom Kippur. It’s go to hell, accusers; those you attack are under my mercy now and covered by my new covenant; accept my sovereign mercy or get the hell out of my face.

      I think my issue which I’m continually trying to narrow down with more precision is specifically with the unhelpful anthropomorphic psychologizing of the angry God. I also think there’s a Marcionist tendency in evangelicalism to say Father = OT; Son = NT as two separate deities where the NT Son gets crucified to satisfy the needs of the OT Father. To see Jesus as the full revelation of the Father means that we reinterpret the OT through Him and His revelation trumps the OT at least in the sense that we don’t emulate things like the divinely mandated genocide of the book of Joshua, regardless of what we think we’re supposed to receive prescriptively from that text, because Jesus doesn’t do genocide.

      We read Lamentations 3 at our Holy Saturday service. It opens by saying, “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath,” and then goes on to describe all these physical infirmities that the author is suffering. There is no talk of a sin that God is responding to with anger. It is simply a way of narrating inexplicable suffering in a world in which everything that happens is understood to be the will of God. Most Methodists don’t like to say that any kind of suffering is from God; I get scolded if I say in my testimony things like God broke me through my depression so that He could rebuild me from scratch. I tend to narrate the world with a higher sense of divine sovereignty than most of my fellow Methodists but I’m also very wary of anthropomorphism that isn’t openly understood as short-hand for mystery.

      I don’t think it’s a bad thing that our culture no longer takes its motivation from a fear that God will send earthquakes and hurricanes to punish us if we don’t follow His rules. Part of the journey by which the angry God motif lost its credibility has been providential and even Spirit-led. Hebrews 12 certainly makes a case for that. Unless we’re going to adopt a pre-scientific view on everything which is the context in which anthropomorphized orge theou is described, then it seems reasonable to “translate” wrath into terms that are comprehensible to the people who live outside of the evangelical bubble rather than keep on talking about it in terms that they reject entirely.

      I say that divine wrath is very real and it’s the inherent violence with which God’s creation responds to violence against its order. Is it God’s? Yes, because at every instant, God is the source of every created thing. If I get lung cancer after smoking for 50 years, is it because God hates me with perfect hatred and longs to watch me die a horribly painful death? No, but I would still argue that Romans 1 would define that cancer as indeed a manifestation of divine wrath. And that’s precisely the kind of situation where the anthropomorphic psychologizing ends up being blasphemous.

      If we manage to melt the polar ice caps, we will experience God’s wrath in response but it will be His wrathful response to our melting of the polar ice caps, not gay marriage. And it won’t mean that God is laughing with hysterical sadistic pleasure as coastal villages in Africa go underwater. If we throw ourselves into addiction and idolatry, likewise we will be covered in God’s wrath in the form of our anxiety, irritability, and restlessness. But again, the poisonous consequences of our actions shouldn’t cause us to view the Father as any less ready to leap off His porch and bear-hug us in the middle road the minute we start to turn homeward. I just don’t see the positive function of “God hates you.” When preachers say God hates you, it’s part of the means by which a cult of fearful obedience is created *around that preacher.* My experience has been that the safer and more loved I feel, the more I hate the things that keep me from living in perfect hospitality to others and worship of God. Anyway, thanks as always for your conversation!

  12. I love how interpretation changes over time. Even now people are rethinking “angry God” to God who so loved the world. Redemption, reconciliation and grace. I remember you talking about the father in the prodigal and how that is how God see us. Never condemning.

    • He is only ruthless with those who want to be their own gods and reserve the right to put themselves above others.

  13. Thanks for this post. My greatest problem is one you refer to early in the piece – and that has to do with the “pre-scientific” context for the Bible’s understanding of blood. It seems to me one of the greatest challenges for Christ-followers is to understand the life, teachings, dying and rising of Jesus – all of which happened “pre-scientifically” – in such a way that faithfully translates our experience of it in our post-modern context. How does one translate the utter, magnificent simplicity and power of Jesus’ vision and love experienced by those who encountered him and believed in him in the First Century without having to go through the pre-scientifically contextualized contortions of trying to make sense of a First Century world view in a day when we push to the outer reaches of the known universe? Sometimes, when I read posts like yours I come away with a thought reminiscent of a line from Shakespeare – The Christian protests (defends, tries to explain, etc.) too much, methinks. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene II).
    I look forward to reading future posts!

    • Thanks Mark. I think part of it is that we need to unlearn scientism and become 1st century Jews though I realize we can’t and shouldn’t do that entirely.

  14. Thanks Morgan,
    This is a very interesting bible study that I’ll print out and meditate on later. Very important and enlightening indeed.
    The ransom idea is something I liked since I was a child, thanks to Lewis’ Narnia story. The ‘Jesus needed to be punished severely in your p^lace to satisfy the wrath of God’ idea never worked for me… I’d also broaden any theory about the atonement to not be ‘good friday only’ and anclude the incarnation and resurrection, and probably ascension and pentecost too, in the story…

    • I definitely agree with you about the need for a more holistic account of atonement instead of Good Friday only. Since the caricatures of atonement are Good Friday only, I wanted to attack them on their turf.

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