“…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)
It is very clear that the Bible says there is no forgiveness without blood, but to the modern ear, this may sound rather barbaric and bizarre. Why can’t there be forgiveness without blood? Is God some blood-thirsty maniac? In our every day life, we forgive our friends or relatives all of the time without demanding a payment in goat’s blood. We’d laugh if one of our friends made such a request! It seems that forgiveness at most only requires sincere repentance on the part of the wrongdoer and a merciful will to let go of the offense. If this is true then Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross seems completely useless. A supremely nice gesture, to be sure, but a deeply misguided one all the same. All God needs to do is snap His fingers and say, “You are forgiven.” If God needs blood, then perhaps we are better at forgiveness than God is.
Of course as Christians we know that this must be wrong. First, it may come as a surprise to some that the Bible affirms part of the objection: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb 10:4). Sacrifices never took away sins, but they certainly covered up those sins like a garment and ultimately foreshadowed the blood of Christ. Second, blood is only valued because it is the vessel of life. As Lev 17:11 says, “For the life of a creature is in the blood…” This is important because God does not value blood for its own sake; rather God values the life it carries because He is life and all life has value through Him. Third, before we can understand why God requires blood, we need to understand what sin does. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Death is not optional or externally imposed; it is what sin naturally produces. Sin therefore works against life in the way that cancer does.
What is sin? Elihu asks, “If you sin, how does it harms God?” (Job 35:6) and his answer is that it doesn’t affect God at all. Sin “only harms humans like yourself…” (Job 35:8). Notice sin is defined in terms of harm, but not just any kind of harm, but harm as determined by human nature. God created the way things are (their natures) and declared that nature as very good. If you accidentally became blind, that is bad for you because it is in our nature to have sight. But if a person intentionally blinded you, that would be evil. Something is evil when a person understands what is good for our natures but chooses to act against it. So you see that in order for the action to count as evil, it must be first true that it harms your nature before the intention can transform something bad (blindness) to something that’s evil. Putting your finger on a rock isn’t bad for you so it can’t be evil to intend it.
The Demands of Justice
God’s created order is good, but what evil does is that it puts this order into disorder. Now whenever we harm that order, justice demands that we restore that order. This is called restitution. If I am a serial eye-gouger, I must be punished in a way that is proportionate to the crime – namely by having my own eye removed or something equivalent. Now theoretically everyone could “forgive” me (in the sense that you relent any harsh feelings) and not seek justice, but soon enough all of the city will be blind because of me. Justice isn’t dependent on people seeking it because justice is a fact of nature: you should have two eyes. This naive view of forgiveness cannot restore anything. Forgiveness that lets disorder remain is itself a cause of further disorder and is therefore an evil. Even when a friend asks for forgiveness for insulting you, you expect repentance in return. That’s a kind of payment that restores order. Forgiveness must be consistent with justice.
Now sin chooses death over life, which is the crime of all crimes because it is a rejection of God Himself and is a destruction of the entirety of His created order. Now ideally, justice demands that we restore that life but that life was eternal and perfect. We cannot restore it because we do not have it. No man has the power to give back his own life, let alone the life of another. Since we cannot do this, justice demands that we receive what we have chosen: death. If I kill a man, I deserve death. Simple as that. My actions turn on my own head because I share the same nature as that man, and if I judged that man to not have a right to life, then I have judged myself to not have that right. God judges us accordingly. But He is also merciful. So what is He to do to satisfy the demands of justice all the while exemplifying His mercy?
We all know that He sent Jesus, the perfection of life, as a replacement for us. God may seem obsessed with blood but this is only because He is obsessed with life. There needs to be life to take the place of death. You may ask, “But how does this satisfy justice? If I murdered someone and a person offered to take my punishment, how is that fair? Justice demands that only I receive the punishment.” This is a great question. I will only be able to briefly answer this here. You see, Jesus took our place but He did it in such a way that when He died, we also died. Prior to salvation we were dying, but we had yet to die. Now the law only applies to those who are living. As Paul says, “a married woman is legally bound to her husband while he lives. But if her husband dies, she is released from the law…” (Romans 7:2). Something similar happened to us. We died, and then we rose again to have new identities. The law can only apply to an identical individual, but if that individual no longer exists, then justice’s demands are over.
Do not expect to fully understand this. Even the angels seek to look into these things. But know this: God is Justice, and if justice’s demands cannot disappear with a snap of a finger, then God cannot forgive sin away with the snap of a finger either. Forgiveness is not free. The cost was infinite, but the reward of Christ’s work on that cross is infinitely beyond what we could ever expect or deserve. You are most certainly not better at forgiveness than God. Never has a man been able to take the punishment of another and give new life to that person. In comparison, your forgiveness is as worthless as all the sands of the world put together. You can barely forgive your friends and even then you fail, so how can you pretend to forgive your bitter enemies as Christ did? There is no greater forgiveness than the salvation of Christ!