The idea of being washed by the blood of Jesus is popular among conservative Christians who adhere to the “paying our sin debt” interpretation of Jesus’s death. Recently, Jessica Brodie (mostly from sources outside Paul or the 4 Gospels) summarized it this way:
- In fact, it was the shedding of Jesus’ blood, his “blood sacrifice,” that paid the price of our own sin-debt forever in the eyes of God. The Bible tells us the blood spilled as a sacrifice by Jesus ensures we are forgiven and redeemed from our sins (Ephesians 1:7). That blood reconciles us to God (Colossians 1:20) and gives us direct access to God, the “Most Holy Place” (Hebrews 10:19) without need for an intermediary priest. As the apostle Peter wrote to the early church, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus’s blood was the sacrifice that established a new covenant between God and the people, all who believe. He told the disciples as much at the Last Supper, when He took bread and wine, blessed it, and told them it was His body and blood. Giving a cup to the disciples to drink, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:23), and we still do this ritual of Holy Communion today in remembrance of this divine arrangement.
- Being “washed in the blood” or “cleansed by the blood” describes the act of one accepting the free gift of salvation offered in Jesus. In Revelation 1:5, we’re reminded we are freed from our sins by the blood of Christ. Later in Revelation, the writer sees a great multitude standing before the Lord’s throne wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. He is told, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). In 1 John 1:7, we’re told the blood of Jesus “purifies” us from all sin. Other translations use the word “cleanses” or “washes.”
- The Book of Hebrews describes this in full, summarizing, “19 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19-23). The holiness of Christ’s blood, then, washes us clean. See https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/what-does-it-mean-to-be-washed-in-the-blood.html
Dr. James McGrath has pointed out the flaw in this methodology where a few “apparently sin debt friendly” passages are taken as the core of what the New Testament writers are saying, and everything else, however awkwardly, are interpreted through their lenses. McGrath writes:
- But penal substitution is also problematic when it is presented as though it were “what the Bible says.” The Bible as a whole, and the New Testament more specifically, uses a range of images and metaphors related to sin and atonement. I will not try to argue that penal and/or substitutionary imagery is never used. But the case can be made that it is not central either to the Bible as a whole or to the theology of specific authors.
- For instance, the Levitical background to Hebrews (as clarified by Gordon Wenham) helps us understand that the imagery there is of purification of the sanctuary so that God can dwell in the midst of a sinful people. In Paul’s writings, many different images are used (including sacrifice and reconciliation), but main his focus is on being “in Christ” and participation with him in his death and resurrection. According to Paul, through our union with Jesus we are not spared a death that we deserve, but we die so that we can also live through our union with him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2015/06/problems-with-penal-substitution.html
In Leviticus, 2 animals are involved: the sacrificed animal, and the scapegoat that the sins are placed upon. One animal is killed, and the other one, the scapegoat, is released into the wilderness. In other words, the death of the one animal is not what is responsible for the removal of sins.
So, I take as my inquiry question when Paul cites the Corinthian creed/poetry “Christ died for our sins,” does this mean Christ died to pay our sin debt, or rather Christ died to make our hidden sinful nature conspicuous as a catalyst for repentance? Coleman Glenn nicely sums up the problem with penal substitution:
- The problem, though, is that even though the logic of it is sound if you accept the propositions, and even though you can find some evidence for each of those propositions, the propositions themselves are deeply flawed and out of line with the Bible’s overall message about who God is, starting with the very first one. God’s justice does NOT demand punishment for the past sin of someone who has repented – Ezekiel 33, for example, says this:
- 14 Again, when I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live. (NKJV) See https://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth/2015/03/why-satisfaction-theory-is-so-satisfying-even-though-its-wrong/
So, Jeremiah 31:31-33 offered the new prophecy that the law will be written on the hearts of the Jews, whereas Paul seems to expand this to the idea that the law is already written on the hearts of Jews and gentiles, but needs the blood of Christ to wash away the satanic influence and sinful inclinations from the heart, and can then be grown through love and Christ in you, the spirit or resisting Satan’s temptations.
Long before the penal substitution interpretation of the cross, St. Augustine wrote to explain the Satan Ransom theory. Ransom atonement is to view it as a cosmic victory of Jesus over Satan and his kingdom. Passages like Hebrews 2:14 (“14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”) tell us that when Christ died on the cross, He destroyed the power of the evil one (also Colossians 2:15).
- The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors— Doctrine of the Atonement, Catholic Encyclopedia
“Redeeming” in this case literally means “buying back,” and the ransoming of war captives from slavery was a common practice in the era. The theory was also based in part on Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6, where Jesus and the forger of Paul mentioned the word “ransom” in the context of atonement. The one holding man hostage here is not God, but Satan, since scripture is clear a person can’t ransom another person from God:
- 7 Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, (Psalm 49:7)
That man can be ransomed from Satan doesn’t put Satan on the same level as God, because man can’t pay a ransom to God. Jesus’ life was the price that needed to be paid to break Satan’s spell/free hostage humanity. Jesus, if you believe he was the specially chosen one by God meant to restore the Davidic throne, has, through his death, the power to break the spell of Satan over us. We read:
- 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; 11 put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, 12 for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
Satan the accuser in the Old Testament incited David to take a census of Israel, and Incited God to move against Job without cause (Job 2:3), but in the New Testament we hear things like how he went into Judas (Luke 22:3, John 13:27), and once Judas realized what he did, he hung himself. Revelation thus says Satan is the deceiver of all humans and humanity’s accuser (Revelation 12:9–10), he creates guiltiness in man even though it’s something Satan himself, not man, is responsible for. In Acts 5:3 Peter talks about how “Satan filled your heart.” Satan is identified as the source of sin:
- 44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
The blood redeems us, breaking the stranglehold of Satan and his minions who were behind the puppet human leaders of this evil world (the demons who Paul calls the archons of this aion). It is the blood of Christ that overcomes Satan (Revelation 12:11, 1 John 3:8). From 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” The blood of Christ cleanses, washes away. In what sense?
One Conservative Commenter points out:
- Throughout the New Testament, the term unclean spirits (akathartos in the Greek language) is mentioned over twenty times. Throughout those passages we read that unclean spirits can possess people and cause them sickness and harm (Matthew 10:1; 12:43; Mark 1:26; Luke 4:36; 6:18; Acts 5:16; 8:7), that they are searching for someone to possess if they are not currently possessing someone (Matthew 12:43), that some are more unclean or evil than others (Luke 11:26), that unclean spirits can interact with one another (Mark 5:1–20; Matthew 12:45), and that unclean spirits are under God’s authority and must submit to Him (Mark 1:27; 3:11; 5:8, 13).
- An unclean spirit or demon is “unclean” in that it is wicked. Evil spirits are not only wicked themselves, but they delight in wickedness and promote wickedness in humans. They are spiritually polluted and impure, and they seek to contaminate all of God’s creation with their filth. Their foul, putrid nature is in direct contrast to the purity and incorruption of the Holy Spirit’s nature. When a person is defiled by an unclean spirit, he takes pleasure in corrupt thoughts and actions; when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, his thoughts and actions are heavenly. https://www.gotquestions.org/unclean-spirits.html
What is the logic of the lamb’s blood? Jesus was wrongly killed by the satanically enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, and crowd placating indifferent to justice Pilate “in all of us.” Believing him to be God’s specially chosen one makes this conspicuous for us and is a catalyst for repentance. His great words and works are meant to testify to who he was. Specifically, believing he was innocent and yet died to show us our sinful and satanic ground inspires repentance. Historically, such an event is referred to with the “turning the mirror” metaphor. The blood of Christ washes away the satanic and sinful grime off the law written on our hearts that Paul identifies (Romans 2:15), and that heart can then mature and grow through Jesus’ teachings, especially of the redefinition of love/agape to include love of enemy. Hence, on the cross Jesus says “forgive them, they know not what they do.”
To see other articles in this series on penal substitution and justified lying, see the gathering post here: https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2022/05/i-get-interviewed-on-freethinker-podcast-about-mythicism-atonement-and-gnosticism/