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.
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.”
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.
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)
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!
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
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)
We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.
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. 7 There are three that testify:[b] 8 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.
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.