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The Blood Sacrifice and Forgiveness

By Timothy Copple

Why Does Orthodoxy Ignore Forgiveness?

One common question that arises in many minds from the Western perspective about the atonement in Orthodoxy is where do the sacrifices fit in? Where do we plug in concepts like justification and the forgiveness of sins? When Westerners read Scripture verses like:

1Jo 1:7 ASV but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

…they tend immediately to see the substitution and satisfaction understanding of the atonement. As has usually been understood in much of Western thought, the violation of the Law required the death of the violator. The animal is essentially taking the place of our death, dying in our place in order to satisfy the demands of the Law, and allow God to forgive us freely. However, they had to sacrifice repeatedly, but Christ comes and does it once for all, completing the work that the animal sacrifices could only do in an incomplete manner. In this understanding, God forgiving the person for breaking the Law and declaring him or her "not guilty" becomes the primary point of salvation. The death of the animal essentially takes our place and is guilty for us.

The problem many inquirers into Orthodox face is that much is said about the atonement being about defeating death, rescuing us from Satan and giving us new life, but little is said about forgiveness, justification and where the blood sacrifices fit into the picture. Some take that to mean that we ignore these key concepts. Such is not really the case. The reality is they do play a key role in Orthodox theology. Because forgiveness is not the point at which one is "saved," however, the more holistic approach makes it seem to the Protestant that it plays little if any role. Where, then, does it fit in?

Though you can find this information in other articles on this site, first allow me to summarize here the Orthodox view of salvation. When Adam and Eve sinned, it brought about the fall. The fall was primarily the death of the soul "on the very day" they ate from the tree from which they were not to eat. This resulted in a separation from God, a corruption of the human nature, and the fall of all creation into corruption in order that we might continue to exist for a period in the hope of our salvation. Because of the fall and this corruption, we are prone to sin personally. Christ, through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, defeats death, gives us the means to unite to Him, and through Him to become reconciled to God, once again having His Spirit flowing through our souls and making it alive to God. At the Last Judgment, our bodies will also be renewed and freed from corruption for those in Christ, and reunited with our souls to complete the redemption and salvation of man.

There is much more that could be said there, but that will suffice for a basic outline. As noted, what are missing are forgiveness, justification, and sacrifice. Where do these come into play?

Sacrificial System of the OT

First, let us look at the sacrificial system and its meaning. There were many sacrifices prescribed for the people for various purposes. Some were thanksgiving offerings, sin offerings, first born offerings, and for specific cleansing purposes. We could spend a long time discussing the various ones and their rituals and meanings. However, we are focusing on the meaning behind the sacrifices in general, and specifically the meaning of the blood, which is central to the sacrificial system.

It is important to understand a couple things about the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The first thing to note is that all the sacrifices were pointing to a future reality. They themselves could not substitute for the death of the person, cleanse sins, provide forgiveness, or do anything. Their value lay in the concept of "icon" as understood in Orthodoxy. They were essentially windows that allowed those prior to Christ to participate in His sacrifice by faith through these icons. So, we read in Hebrews after St. Paul discusses the Old Testament sacrificial system:

Heb 9:9-14 EMTV which was symbolic for the present time, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are being offered, which are not able, in respect to conscience, to make perfect the one performing the service, (10) concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances which are imposed until a time of reformation. (11) But Christ came as a High Priest of the good things to come, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. (12) Not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered once for all into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption.

He later says that the temple and its sacrifices were "copies" or shadows of the heavenly one. They point to the reality. The only power of those animal sacrifices to accomplish anything in the people that preformed them was in Christ making it effective through His sacrifice. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the blood itself of the sacrifices could do nothing to help those who offered it.

Verses in the Old and New Testaments make it clear that God did not desire sacrifices at times because instead of pointing to Christ, the people did them as if the act itself had power to forgiven and heal. Therefore, you have comments like the following:

Psa 51:16-17 ASV For thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering. (17) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Hos 6:6 ASV For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings.

Mat 9:13 ASV But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

Psa 40:6 ASV Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in; Mine ears hast thou opened: Burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required.

The required blood to forgive sins is not the animal's but Christ's blood. They did not need the icon of the sacrifice if it did not point to the reality. This is important to remember because some theologies would have these sacrifices actually accomplishing forgiveness of sins because of the blood of the animal rather than the blood of Christ.

So, what is it about the blood? Some people have trouble with a God who requires a blood sacrifice to be able to forgive us. That view is an unfortunate consequence of the Satisfaction theory of the atonement, first made popular by Anselm and spread through a more juridical understanding by a majority of Protestant groups. I explain this in my article on the atonement. In that view, God is unable to forgive us because His divine justice prohibits Him from forgiving freely. There is a sense in which that is true, but not as often portrayed in a juridical view of the atonement.

To understand where blood fits into the sacrificial system, we must first go back even before that was instituted to see what "blood" represented.

Gen 9:4-5 ASV But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. (5) And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; At the hand of every beast will I require it. And at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man.

First, notice the restriction God places from the very beginning on drinking the blood of any life. This pre-Law prohibition is through all of salvation history. This is important in understanding the roll of blood in our salvation.

The other important piece of information is that the blood contains the life of the animal. This is critical in understanding how blood fits into the picture, especially Christ's blood to which this blood will be pointing.

Consequently, God commands them not to drink the blood of any of the sacrifices:

Lev 17:10-12 ASV And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. (11) For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. (12) Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.

Note here what is specifically affecting the atonement…the life of the blood. Why? Keep in mind that this points to Christ. God tells them in many of the sacrifices to eat the flesh but not to drink the blood. The sacrifice, which defines all sacrifices in the Old Testament, is the Passover sacrifice. Here we see what it is that the life of the blood accomplishes:

Exo 12:7-8, 12-13 ASV And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it. (8) And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it….(12) For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Jehovah. (13) And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

The life of the blood was to give life to those under it. The life of the blood was to counter death. It is through this function that the blood atones for our sins. Sin is what causes death to our souls, both our own sins and the sin of Adam, which has passed down this death from the beginning. The life defeats death, but the only life that is able to do this is God's life. Therefore, these animal sacrifices point to the one life that can give our souls new life and defeat death.

This sacrifice Biblically points more clearly to the sacrifice of Christ. St. John clearly has this in mind when he places Jesus' crucifixion happening at the same time the Passover lambs are slaughtered. St. Paul also has this very much in mind:

1Co 5:7b ASV For our passover also hath been sacrificed, even Christ.

Indeed, from the beginning of the Church, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ was called "Passover" by using the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew term for Passover, "Pascha". This is still the term most used to refer to this feast and as the Passover was for the Jews, Pascha is the central liturgical feast of the whole year.

Notice something else in this passage from Exodus. The people were to eat the sacrifice at their home, not in the temple even. As we have noted, however, they did not drink the blood, but put it upon the doorpost of the dwelling. Yet, notice a key change when we come to what Christ says:

Joh 6:53-56 ASV Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves. (54) He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life: and I will raise him up at the last day. (55) For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (56) He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him.

Here Christ tells us not just to eat His flesh, but also to drink His blood in order to have life. This is the only time in the whole Bible God tells us to drink blood. Why? Because only Christ's blood contains the life that can actually give us life and defeat death. How are we to drink this blood and eat this flesh? By sacrificing his body so that the blood may flow. By becoming one of us, with divine life, He is able to defeat death and gives us a means to unite to His life once again.

Heb 2:14-15 ASV Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; (15) and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

Therefore, the sacrifices were pointing to the life of His blood by which we can unite to His life. By this life, death is defeated, but to unite with Christ, first He had to be broken so that we could partake of Him.

1Co 10:15-18 ASV I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say. (16) The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? (17) seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we are all partake of the one bread. (18) Behold Israel after the flesh: have not they that eat the sacrifices communion with the altar?

Do you see the link St. Paul is making here? The fact that the Israelites ate from the altar and by doing so participated in the sacrifice, so partaking of Christ in the Eucharist is a participation in the life of Christ. This union to Christ by grace is what saves us. This is a critical point in Orthodox theology on salvation. It is the heart of the Gospel as revealed in the Scriptures.

Forgiveness in Orthodoxy

Before we move onto that, however, let's look closer at where forgiveness fits into this picture. In much of Protestant theology, God's forgiveness is the point at which one is "saved". The rest flows from that point. In some theologies, one can lose their salvation if one does not move onto sanctification and holiness. Yet, it understood that God saves by forgiving one's sins.

The juridical context places forgiveness as the primary point of salvation. We have violated God's Law. God wants to forgive us, but is unable because to do so would violate His divine justice. Therefore, He has His Son die for us in our place, satisfying the demands of the Law and allowing God to forgive us.

This is what I would like to call the "simple" understanding of forgiveness. It is simply God forgiving us for breaking His Law. Most theologies go on from there to speak of cleansing and adoption and regeneration as flowing from that forgiveness even if happening about the same time. The Greek word itself, however, has more than just a simple forgiveness when discussing forgiveness of sins. From Thayer's:

  1. 1) release from bondage or imprisonment
  2. 2) forgiveness or pardon, of sins (letting them go as if they had never been committed), remission of the penalty

As you can see, forgiveness is more than simply God pardoning us. It involves that, but is also includes the fixing of the problem, cleansing of the sin and its effects upon us. That effect is bondage to death. Forgiveness, then, includes our release from bondage.

Even in the juridical view, this understanding is inherent. The judge releases one from prison because God declares them "not guilty." Otherwise, there is no real forgiveness. By God's forgiveness becoming a reality in our lives, God doesn't just pardon us, but frees us from our bondage. In Orthodoxy, that bondage is to death that holds us captive. Forgiveness includes the concept of giving us life.

It is this fuller understanding of forgiveness of which the Scriptures speak in proclaiming that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins. Even the word used in Hebrews instead of forgiveness contains a medical meaning: the remission of a sickness. Our sins to be remitted and forgiven must also have their consequences and effects upon us remedied. Without that, such pardon is meaningless. As meaningless as if the judge said to someone he just declared "not guilty," "Take him back to his prison cell." What good does such forgiveness do if one remains in bondage?

This is where the blood comes into play in regards forgiveness. The truth in the Bible is that God is always ready to forgive us. The only real requirement He has is repentance.

Psa 51:16-17 ASV For thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering. (17) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

2Ch 7:14 ASV if my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

Luk 18:10-14 ASV Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. (11) The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (12) I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get. (13) But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God, be thou merciful to me a sinner. (14) I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

In the juridical view of the atonement, the problem is that God cannot forgive us until His divine justice is satisfied. In the Orthodox view of the atonement, it is more like the father of the Prodigal Son who placed no demands for repayment or punishment before he would forgive his son. It is like the master who forgave his servant a lifetime of wages owed him, requiring not one cent of repayment other than to go and do likewise. The issue in Orthodoxy is not whether God is able to forgive; He is always ready to forgive. It is whether we are able to accept and incorporate that forgiveness into our lives. To do that, we have to have His life in us. God needs to free us from the bondage of death. Otherwise, God's forgiveness is pointless and does us no good.

For us to obtain a full and complete forgiveness, it requires the shedding of blood. For by the shedding of blood are we able to partake of His life, be released from the bondage of sin and death, and God's forgiveness of our sins becomes a complete reality in our lives. Until we have that life in us, God's forgiveness is only an unrealized potential. Accepting His forgiveness freely offered is to unite to Him and live in Him. We do that through the partaking of the blood of Christ and having death pass over us.

Psa 103:10-13 ASV He hath not dealt with us after our sins, Nor rewarded us after our iniquities. (11) For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. (12) As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us. (13) Like as a father pitieth his children, So Jehovah pitieth them that fear him.

The Gospel Foundation

The problem with the juridical and the debt metaphors for the atonement is they have an underlying premise that is unscriptural. That might sounds shocking to some, but read with an open mind and I think I can make this clear in what manner this is true.

In the juridical metaphor many Protestants use, the key to salvation is the Law. There is an assumption that the doing of the Law saves one. The problem is that we sin and cannot fulfill the Law, so we will all suffer the punishment of breaking the Law. Christ, being divine, does fulfill the Law perfectly, so He is able to come in and take our punishment, death, and live anyway. His righteousness, the fulfilling of the Law, becomes our righteousness. The point here is that the fulfilling of the Law is still the basis for salvation. The assumption is if we could fulfill it perfectly, then we could save ourselves. We can't, but Christ can so He does it for us. Whether it is Christ or we, the fulfilling of the Law is still the point of salvation. Otherwise, forgiveness for breaking it would not be required!

This basis for salvation is exactly what the Gospel was circumventing. St. Paul spells this our most clearly in Romans and Galatians:

Rom 4:13-16 ASV For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. (14) For if they that are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect: (15) for the law worketh wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression. (16) For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

The contrast here is a righteousness derived from fulfilling the Law compared to one sourced from faith. The unstated "who" here is faith in Christ. Christ is a person, not the Law. He fulfills the Law, yes, but righteousness comes through faith in Christ, not through faith in the fulfilling of the Law. It is the establishing of a right relationship with Christ and God that makes us righteous, not the fulfilling of the Law itself.

Rom 7:4 ASV Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God.

Gal 2:16 ASV yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Gal 3:11-14 ASV Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for, The righteous shall live by faith; (12) and the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them. (13) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: (14) that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

This next section of verses lays this out clearly:

Gal 3:21 ASV Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could make alive, verily righteousness would have been of the law.

Notice here the goal, to "make alive". The Law could not do this. Our justification is by becoming alive to God. This is what righteousness is, to be alive to God. The Law cannot do this whether it is we doing it or Jesus Christ doing it for us. That alone will not save us. Righteousness cannot come from the Law as Paul clearly states in this passage. So, what is the Law's purpose?

Gal 3:23-26 ASV But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. (24) So that the law is become our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (25) But now faith that is come, we are no longer under a tutor. (26) For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus.

The Law's primary purpose was to be a mirror for our sinful condition so that we might not become proud and arrogant against God, so that we would come to Him in humility. The Law's purpose is to lead us to God, to Christ for healing. Seeing how far we are from the character of God, it should cause us to come repentant to Him. Then He forgives us. The purpose of the sacrificial system was to act as a means whereby the people could come to God through an icon. Now that we have the reality of Christ's sacrifice for us, we no longer need that icon and can participate more directly in His body and blood.

Only union with God can save us, not the fulfillment of the Law. This is why the juridical understanding of atonement is incomplete. What it can show us, like the Law, is our sinful condition. It can show us that we are in bondage due to sin. We are not justified to the Law; rather, the Law shows us our sin and indicates to us the gravity of our situation. The Law cannot give us the solution to our problem; it can only show us the problem. That is why the juridical view cannot give us the answer to the atonement for it is a solution based upon the fulfillment of the law. Such a basis for our salvation, righteousness and justification is contrary to the Gospel that Christ has given us.

That is why the Orthodoxy understanding of salvation is the union with Christ who is our life; having faith in Him as the source of salvation. Not simply that He accomplishes it for us, but that He Himself is our salvation and not the fulfilling of the Law.

We see this when Christ was asked what is the most important commandment. He told us that love of God and each other, relationship to Him, is the key. Fulfill that and you fulfill all the Law and the Prophets. Ironically, by uniting to Christ, we fulfill the Law as well for it is that union to which the Law points.

2Pe 1:3-4 ASV seeing that his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us by his own glory and virtue; (4) whereby he hath granted unto us his precious and exceeding great promises; that through these ye may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in that world by lust.

God forgives, but His forgiveness involves forgiveness to Him as a "person" and not to the demands of the Law. An external necessity does not bind God, compelling him to kill someone in order to forgive us. His forgiveness reconciles us to Him: the restoration of life, the defeat of death, and He accomplishes this through the life inherent in His blood and our union to it.

Forgiveness and Blood Sacrifices are Understood Biblically

The point of the sacrifices in the Old Testament was to point the people to the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the only sacrifice whose blood they could drink and become alive. Once alive, God's forgiveness becomes a reality in the person's life. This forgiveness not only involves a reconciliation of the relationship to God, but the freeing of our souls from the bondage of death. God saves us by uniting us to the person of Jesus Christ and not by Him or us meeting the demands of the Law.

From this study, it is clear that the reason many Protestants see Orthodoxy as not focusing on forgiveness is because we do not hold to a juridical view of the atonement. God forgiving us for breaking the Law and Christ satisfying the demands of the Law is not the basis for salvation. This does not mean forgiveness is absent or unimportant, but that we have not extracted this one concept from the scope of salvation and made it the reason God saves us. Rather, we rest upon the whole Gospel as proclaimed in the Scriptures and through the history of the Church's teaching. That teaching is we fulfill the Law by uniting in faith to Christ by which He saves us. Any other basis fails the biblical test and becomes a works based salvation.

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