Why the Blood?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/2024

There is one single line in my work The Story of Reality that has stopped readers in their tracks. One person informed me that when he read that line, he closed the book and never opened it again. Others have aggressively challenged my orthodoxy, deeply troubled that I had completely mischaracterized the gospel and besmirched the character of God.

The Story of Reality won “Book of the Year” awards in its category from Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition, was an Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) finalist, and was included in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s annual list of “Best Books” in 2017. It passed muster with theologians like Michael Horton and Fred Sanders, and with philosophers like J.P. Moreland, Douglas Groothuis, and Gary Habermas.

Even so, one single sentence has called the entire theological legitimacy of the book into question for some. Here is that offending sentence—the last line in this paragraph clarifying the rescue Jesus accomplished for us:

So, Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. Save means to “rescue from imminent danger.” Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was that danger? What was Jesus rescuing us from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father.[1] [Emphasis added.]

For clarity’s sake, I qualified my statement with a footnote: “Jesus saves us from the Father, but his intention is not at odds with the Father since it was the Father who, out of love, sent Jesus to rescue the world in the first place.” My clarification wasn’t adequate for the critics, though.

One wrote that this makes God the problem, not idolatry, unfaithfulness, injustice, evil, or sin. Worse, if—as Reality describes—God exhausts his wrath on himself in Jesus, that polarizes the Godhead by putting the Father at odds with the Son. Further, if the core of the gospel is appeasing God’s wrath, why didn’t Jesus or the apostles proclaim that message post-resurrection?

The particular doctrine being challenged here is a view of the atonement known as “penal substitution.” Simply put, Jesus was the substitute who bore the punishment due us, paying the penalty for our rebellion, his blood atoning for sin and thus cleansing those sinners who are in Christ. Jesus willingly offered himself to satisfy the Father’s wrath so that—the debt having been paid to the Father and his justice and righteousness upheld—God freely releases the grace of forgiveness to us. That is the rescue.


Why is this understanding of Christ’s atonement controversial? There’s a reason. Blood is unseemly. Blood is barbaric. Blood sacrifice is primitive. Thus, the blood is under attack.

That Jesus died for us, in our place, thus placating the wrath of a violent deity is seen by many as savagery unbecoming of a perfectly loving God. Worse, it’s “cosmic child abuse”[2]—a vengeful father satisfying his lust for blood sacrifice by venting his anger on his innocent son.[3]

I always thought it biblically self-evident that Jesus rescued us from the Father. Jesus warned his disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). That would be the Father. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

So, here is my question: If sinners are not saved from the Father, then what are they saved from? Some suggest we are saved from sin, but “saved” in what sense? God’s wrath is not directed towards abstracts like sin, rebellion, unrighteousness, depravity, etc. Instead, his anger is against those who practice sin, rebellion, unrighteousness, and depravity.[4]

Clearly, the cross provides rescue from a host of spiritual hazards (I will say more about that later). Yet that series of magnificent benefits cascades down from something specific that took place on the cross to secure those outcomes.

So, what was accomplished when Jesus was impaled on the tree that triggered the cascade? What took place during those three dark hours on Golgotha that secured a rescue for us and became the source of all subsequent good consequences of the atonement?

The answer depends on the answer to another question: Before whom are we guilty of the sin that brings wrath? There is only one. The Father. Saying we are “saved from sin,” then, is simply shorthand for saying we are saved from the One who punishes sin. All other benefits of the cross are secondary in sequence. Sins must be dealt with before the cascade of spiritual benefits begins.

First Things First

The initial step in finding clarity on any theological doctrine is not to first consider the difficulties it would seem to raise if true. Rather, the first step is to start with the text to find out what is true, scripturally. First determine what the text teaches, then sort out the apparent difficulties in light of its teaching.

As obvious as that principle sounds, it’s frequently overlooked. That’s true with the atonement. Many alternative atonement theories (moral influence, Christus Victor, ransom to Satan, governmental theory, etc.) are speculations that fail to account for the core claims of Scripture regarding the work of the cross.

The brutal crucifixion of Christ provided a solution of some sort. It resolved a problem. What difficulty, though, did the death of Jesus rectify? What wrong did it right? What breach did it repair? About that, there should be little confusion. The gospel—the good news—doesn’t tell us. For that, we must turn to the bad news.

Bad News: Wrath

In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul’s magnum opus on the gospel’s good news, he begins his case where he should—with the bad news. The good news of God’s grace is the antidote for the bad news of God’s anger. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18).

God’s deep goodness animates deep rage towards those who are not good—fallen, rebellious humans who suppress the truth and celebrate evil. Thus, “the judgment of God rightly falls upon [them]” (2:2). They are “without excuse” (1:20, 2:1), “storing up wrath for [themselves] in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5). Paul writes later that before we were redeemed, we were all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

Do not miss this point. The good news of the gospel is grounded in the bad news of the Father’s wrath directed not against sin in the abstract, but against rebellious, sinful human beings.

Paul’s conclusion: Mankind is shut up under sin “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). Every person is thus rendered mute, speechless before God’s holiness. The sinner’s massive guilt silences his every appeal.

That is the bad news, and there is no ambiguity in the message since it is ubiquitous in the record from Matthew to Revelation. Note, for example, John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Yet for some reason, massive numbers of Christians are incapable of countenancing the fact that a holy God is furious with sinful, rebellious human beings who suppress the truth to further their unrighteous ends. The first disobedience in the garden placed mankind under judgment from the Father, and judgment has hung over the human race ever since. The fall—followed by man’s continued rebellion—is the core problem leading to all other human maladies.

So, who is angry? The Father. Why? Mankind’s rebellion. What is his response to that ongoing sin? The wrath of his justice. Who is the object of that just wrath? Sinners. Then who is in danger of the wrath of the Father? Sinners. Each and every one of them.

That is the terrible news that makes the good news so good.

Good News: Atonement

The English word “atonement” is sometimes rendered “at-one-ment,” a derivation from Middle English. That characterization is premature, though. Rather, purging and cleansing, not restoration, are the root meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “atonement.”

To be at-one-with God is to be reconciled to him. Yet that cannot happen until the problem causing the separation is solved. Sin separates us from God. We are defiled, we owe him, and God is angry. This much—the bad news—is biblically undeniable. That stain must be cleansed, the debt must be paid, and the anger must be spent. Only then—when the breach is mended—can “at-one-ment” be restored.

So, here is the question: What exactly happened on the cross that removed those barriers and made forgiveness possible? Paul said, “Jesus…rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). That’s good news in light of the terrible fix we’re in, but how did he rescue us? Peter wrote, “Christ died for sins…so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). In what sense, though, is Christ’s death for our sins? That is the ambiguity. What is the “for” for?

The ancient Jews knew the answer because atonement was not foreign to them. Their understanding that an unblemished, innocent substitute would give its life for the sins of the people was central to their sacrificial system. Indeed, their entire ritual of atonement was soaked in blood.

“Behold, the Lamb”

When John the Baptist, the Messiah’s forerunner, first identified Jesus as the promised one, his initial characterization was not of Jesus as Messiah or Jesus as the Son of God or even Jesus as the Savior. Rather, he simply said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The “Lamb of God” meant volumes to John’s Jewish audience.

First, God’s Passover lamb protected the Jews from God’s final judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians through the angel of death, who descended on Egypt, striking the firstborn of every household. There was only one means of safety from the Father’s wrath that night: the protection provided by a sacrificial lamb’s blood splashed on the lintel at the top of each home’s doorway and on its left and right doorposts.[5]

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Ex. 12:13)

The blood of the Passover lamb saved those who were “under” it from the wrath of the Father. That offering, repeated every year at Passover, was one of the many substitutionary animal sacrifices in the Levitical sacrificial system.[6] The writer of Hebrews tells us, “All things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).[7]

The blood of the Levitical sin offering served two functions: to expiate—to cleanse of guilt or impurity—and to propitiate—to satisfy or appease wrath, making forgiveness possible: “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:35b).

Do not miss the calculus here: 1) A person’s sin was atoned for before the Father, 2) through the substitutionary sacrifice of an unblemished, innocent animal, 3) whose blood cleansed from guilt and impurity, 4) thus atoning for sin, 5) making forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father possible.

That was the provision of the Old Covenant, but it wasn’t enough. The writer of Hebrews tells us that animals cannot ultimately pay for humans:

For the Law…can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near…. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:1, 4)

Animal sacrifice was a temporary provision. Through it, God “passed over” sins previously committed until the perfect Lamb would come and make perfect payment to perfectly take away the sins of the world.[8]

Jesus’ body, offered as one sacrifice for all time, provided the complete forgiveness required, utterly eliminating the need for any further offering for sin (Heb. 10:10–18). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law,” Paul writes, “having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

From the beginning, God set up a pattern. Blood cleanses. Death atones. The price must be paid, and that price is the life of a substitute. The perfect substitute was Jesus, “who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).

Detractors have offered up a host of objections about substitutionary atonement. Even so, the textual record is clear. Peter tells us plainly in 1 Peter 2:24. In English, the language of his summary is rhythmic and poetic, functioning like a simple creed explaining the work of the cross:

He Himself
Bore our sins
In His body
On the cross…
For by His wounds
You were healed.

Let those words sink in, especially the last line. Peter tells us what the “for” in “died for our sins” is for. His words did not originate with him, though. To describe the efficacy of Jesus’ death on the cross, he quotes the most explicit statement in Scripture on the exact nature of the atonement, a passage that the New Testament authors considered the essence of the good news.

The Heart of the Gospel

One of the complaints I mentioned above about my take on the atonement in The Story of Reality was this: If the core of the gospel is appeasing God’s wrath, why didn’t Jesus or the apostles proclaim that message post-resurrection? They did. It was at the very center of the early church’s message.

On the day of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two of his bewildered disciples on the road to Emmaus and chastised them for not taking seriously the prophetic testimony in Scripture that the Christ must suffer first before he entered into his glory (Luke 24:13–27).

Paul repeats Jesus’ point that the proper understanding of Christ’s sacrifice—the atonement—had already been revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures when he reminds the Corinthians of an ancient creed going back to the earliest days of the church—one he’d received from others and had passed on to the Christians at Corinth. It contains the very essence of the gospel:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3–4)

To what was this primitive creed referring? What prophetic Scripture alerted the Jews that the Christ would actually shoulder the pain of the punishment for the sins of others? What text in the Old Testament suggested that the death of the Messiah would be payment for the crimes we had committed against God?

A single passage in the Hebrew text holds the answer to understanding the atonement. It is the very same passage Peter cited when he said, “For by His wounds you were healed.” It is Isaiah 53.

Here is how Isaiah describes the “suffering servant.” Do not miss the unmistakable references—highlighted in italics—of the Father’s wrath poured out on this innocent substitute who bears the guilt for the iniquities of others to secure their justification:

Surely our griefs He himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him….
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?...
But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief,
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities….
He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many.[9]

This is the passage the confused Ethiopian eunuch had been reading on the road to Gaza when Philip arrived and “beginning from this Scripture…preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:25–35).[10] “Ten of the twelve verses of Isaiah 53 are quoted in the NT,” William Lane Craig notes, “which also abounds in allusions and echoes of this passage.”[11]

It is simply unthinkable anyone could read a passage that so many New Testament writers applied to Jesus and not clearly see the punishment for our sins laid upon Christ by the Father to rescue us from his wrath.

Every further benefit of the atonement—redemption, forgiveness, freedom from sin, freedom from Satan, justification, propitiation—cascades down from this one act of selfless sacrifice, terminating with “at-one-ment”—the final and complete reconciliation with the Father, whose wrath and rage against sinners has been fully spent.

Note W. G. T. Shedd, the great theologian of the 19th century: “Christ’s atonement ‘covers sin’ from God’s sight. It ‘propitiates’ God‘s wrath against sin. It ‘reconciles’ God’s justice toward the sinner. It ‘pays a ransom’ to God for the sinner.”[12]

Father vs. Son?

Which brings me to the other complaint: Substitutionary atonement polarizes the Godhead by pitting the Father against the Son. This perspective, however, was not Jesus’ view.

The Son himself volunteered to take the body the Father had prepared for him to be the sacrificial lamb (Heb. 10:5–7), a selfless act that actually earned the Father’s favor towards the Son:

For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. (John 10:17–18)

In the atonement, then, there is perfect accord between God the Father and God the Son acting in unison to satisfy both justice and mercy. Even though, as Shedd points out, “the doctrine of vicarious atonement…implies that in God there exist simultaneously both wrath and compassion,”[13] there is no polarized conflict, but rather complete harmony between the divine persons:

God is the being who is angry at sin, and God is the being who propitiates this anger. God is the offended party, and he is the one who reconciles the offended party. It is divine justice that demands satisfaction, and it is divine compassion that makes the satisfaction. God is the one who holds man in a righteous captivity, and he is the one who pays the ransom that frees him from it. God is the holy judge of man who requires satisfaction for sin, and God is the merciful Father of man who provides it for him. This fact relieves the doctrine of vicarious atonement of all appearance of severity and evinces it to be the height of mercy and compassion.[14]

When it comes to the atonement, Scripture speaks with one voice. Whatever additional benefits flow from the cross—and they are many—each follows from the principle work of the crucifixion: a sinless substitute paying the penalty due us for our sin.

If the penalty has not been paid, then we have not been purified. If the Father’s justice has not been satisfied, then we are still in our sins and the Father’s wrath hangs over us. That is bad news.

The good news at the heart of the gospel is this: Jesus’ blood cleanses from all sin and fully satisfies the divine demand for justice. He rescues us from the wrath to come,[15] the Father’s wrath. In short, Jesus rescues us from the Father, but he does that so he might restore us to the Father:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God. (1 Pet. 3:18)


[1] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 117, emphasis added.

[2] The “cosmic child abuse” language was coined by Steve Chalke in “Cross Purposes,” Christianity magazine, September 2004, 44–48.

[3] Note, by the way, that the child abuse charge reflects a low Christology. If Jesus is, in fact, God, then the Father is not punishing an innocent bystander. Rather, the penalty is borne by God himself. Unitarians rejected substitutionary atonement precisely because they did not believe in the Trinity.

[4] Observe the list of things Solomon says God hates: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers (Prov. 6:16–19)—not abstracts, but body parts representing those who are guilty of these evils and thus recipients of God’s righteous, hate-driven anger.

[5] It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sign of the cross here.

[6] See Leviticus 4.

[7] Thus, God could not benignly dismiss sin. Without retributive action, evil would be left unpunished, which would be unjust and a violation of God’s goodness.

[8] Romans 3:25.

[9] Isaiah 53:4–6, 8, 10–12.

[10] Find the entire account in Acts 8:26–40.

[11] William Lane craig, The Atonement (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 16.

[12] W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Third edition (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2003), 702.

[13] Ibid., 704.

[14] Ibid., 702–703.

[15] 1 Thess. 1:10.