by Colin Morris.
This is a subject I had always found personally difficult. Of all the themes in traditional theology, emphasis on the blood of Christ seemed to be a throw-back to an eerie past when devotees in the most sacred moments of life felt constrained to kill something in order to get right with God. So I’ve always let my eyes slide over the phrase ‘blood of Christ’ and treated it as evidence of his fallible humanity and inevitable mortality.
But I was conscious that to exsanguinate the imagery of the New Testament and hymnody is to be left with a very pallid theological landscape. Christ’s blood is splattered across our bibles and hymnbooks and Offices. There are the words John Wesley whispered shortly before his death, ‘There is no way into the holiest except by the blood of Christ’. And Pope John 23rd made the significant comment, ‘Protestants have something to teach Catholics who tend to be devoted to the sacred heart of Jesus and the blessed sacrament but not to the precious blood by which Christ paid for our redemption.’
Unless one holds the most mechanistic view of God’s providence, it was a coincidence that the religious rituals and the punitive procedures of Jesus’ time both involved the spilling of blood. It would not have mattered how much blood Jesus spilt in dying, for the virtue is not in the substance. Indeed, as has been said, Jesus could have been killed in some other way – flogged to death or hanged or poisoned like Socrates; the symbolism would have changed, that’s all.
But it would have mattered had Jesus died in his bed full of years and honour or dropped dead of a heart attack. Everything turns not on his life having been taken from him but on his laying it down – and not simply as a martyr lays it down – there can be an element of wilfulness or even subtle egotism in that; it was not sacrifice by the self but of the self which was the key to Christ’s death. The early Christians were inspired innovators who used the best of Old Testament teaching, religious ritual and judicial procedure to reinforce one another powerfully. Certainly, Athanasius declared the appropriateness of the manner of Christ’s death because, he said, it is only on the cross that a man dies with his arms outspread. But that is a homiletical rather than a dogmatic truth.
Then I discovered the writings of P. T. Forsyth. I cannot quote particular references because I found them scattered throughout some volumes of his I came across in the thatched hut which housed the library of the only theological school in Northern Rhodesia sixty five years ago – a legacy from a long-dead missionary. Forsyth deepened my thinking to see the cosmic significance of Christ’s death, whilst insisting that true sacrifice is an ethical rather than a sacerdotal or mystical transaction. The appeal of Christ’s blood is to the will in obedience or rejection, not to the feelings in sympathy or revulsion.
Because the original sacrifice was made by God rather than to him, the energy behind atonement is God’s grace rather his anger – a truth that undermines all theories based on severity of punishment or degrees of suffering. Forsyth declared that because God was fully present in Christ’s death, he experienced the cost of sin as only God could do, but he experienced the effects of sin as only someone fully human could do for unlike God he could bleed and die.
Hence, when we say that we are cleansed from all sin by the blood of Christ we are stating a truth not just about our personal redemption but about the transformation of the human condition. Sin may still be a lapse or an episode but it need no longer be the principle of our life. The Kingdom of sin may be a region we visit but it need not become our home.
With one exception, Jesus speaks only about his blood at the end of his life; for the rest he spoke of forgiving grace, but that was not possible for the world without judgment and sacrifice. His plea, ‘Come unto me,’ was not enough – only ‘I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me’; that was enough. He was a failed prophet but an effectual saviour.
Theories of atonement that emphasise the revelation of God’s love or the call to repentance have their truth, but Forsyth declared them to be inadequate unless there is struck the note of judgment to do with sin, righteousness and a new creation. This is not the natural idiom of a liberal such as myself but the blood of Christ is such a primal metaphor that the traditional language is most appropriate.
To sing, preach or pray about the blood of Christ is not to wallow in sentimentality or morbidity but to celebrate a wonder – Christ entering wounded into eternal life in order that our eternity might be whole (Forsyth again).