Heb. 9:22b, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” “No forgiveness”—none. The concept of substitutionary sacrifice for the purpose of propitiating God’s wrath against sin runs like blood throughout the body of Scripture. What should be an undeniable truth is, of course, attacked and denied.
The idea of substitutionary sacrifice originated with God, who sacrificed an animal to clothe the sinners in Eden with skins (which is a powerful picture of substitutionary sacrifice). The fact of Cain’s and Abel’s offering, with Cain’s grain being rejected and Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb being accepted, including God’s personal communication regarding the matter, proves that this was instituted by God Himself at the very beginning of human history. The author of Hebrews also tells us why Cain’s offering was rejected:
Hebrews 11 4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts…
Not only was it true that Abel had faith and Cain did not, but notice also that Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable than Cain’s. Cain’s lack of faith was evident in his failure to choose a substitutionary blood sacrifice. As men multiplied, they took these ideas with them; and as they moved away from the truths of God, they corrupted such practices, and offered sacrifices to false gods.
After the flood, Noah offered sacrifices to God, which were pleasing to Him. Once again, humanity began to be multiplied and dispersed, and the truth was corrupted, but yet remained in similar forms, as pagans offered sacrifices to idols. However, God preserved His truth and the proper use of sacrifices, and taught Abram, who offered Him sacrifices. And when God took for Himself a people in the form of the Israelites, He dictated to Moses a Law, consisting of both the universally understood law written on the hearts of all men, as well as many additional commands just for Israel.
There are certain principles at the heart the Mosaic Law that are keys to understanding sacrifice and atonement. Sin incurs the wrath of God, expressed in the form of physical death. Whether one’s sin was “great” or “small,” law and justice had to be satisfied. In the case of murder, blasphemy, adultery, etc., law and justice could only be satisfied by the death of the sinner. However, within the law were provisions of limited grace in the case of “lesser” sins, by which an animal could be put to death in the place of the sinner, and satisfy the sinner’s obligation to law and justice. The satisfaction of law and justice through the means of a substitutionary sacrifice is atonement.
A. A. Hodge, in The Atonement, states:
As a matter of fact, the very first recorded instance of acceptable worship in the family of Adam brings before us bleeding sacrifices, and seals them emphatically with the divine approbation. They appear in the first recorded act of worship. Gen. iv. 3,4. They are emphatically approved by God as soon as they appear. From that time down to the era of Moses they continued to be universally the characteristic mode in which the people of God worship him acceptably. Gen. viii. 20-22; xv. 9, 10; xxii. 2-13; Job. i. 5; xlii. 8…
…That the sacrifices instituted by God, under the Mosaic economy, were vicarious and expiatory is susceptible of abundant proof. The death of the bleeding sacrifice was a poena vicaria, a vicarious punishment, the life of the victim being substituted in the stead of the life of the offerer. This is the traditional and orthodox view of both the Jewish and the Christian Churches, held in common by all writers of authority, from the Rabbins and the early Fathers down to the very recent times…
The principle of God’s wrath against sin was continually reinforced under the law, made more vivid with every stoning of an adulterer, blasphemer, or murderer, with every priest or Levite who dropped dead for failure to comply with God’s law concerning the Ark, etc., as well as with every bull, ram, goat and bird sacrificed in the place of sinners. Those under the Mosaic law could not escape the fact that God does not compromise—He demands righteousness or He demands death. But they also could not escape the fact that God is gracious and allows that demanded death to fall on an eligible substitute. The sinner was not to focus on what the animal cost him (as a purchase value), but he was to focus on what his sin cost the animal. Sacrifices were not fines, but stark pictures of substitutionary execution for the sinner’s crime. On the Day of Atonement, if the High Priest did not first slay the bull in his place, for his personal sin, then the High Priest would be slain by the Lord when he entered the Holy of Holies. One or the other must die.
Even in the Day of Atonement, where two goats were viewed as one sacrifice, offered for the sins of all the people, the backdrop of these continually reinforced principles would have served to bring home to the sinner his own sinfulness and worthiness of death, so that the bloodshed on the Day of Atonement would be understood as in his place—operating as a one-for-one substitute in the case of every one of the people, rather than as a one-for-many substitute by which some fraction of the penalty borne applied to each individual. The law was an effective teacher of the fact that every man deserved to be put to death.
Though the Levitical sacrifices themselves were not the True Sacrifice (Christ), they served as channels of faith that pointed to a Christ who would come and who was not yet understood. Salvation in the Old Testament was through a genuine belief in God and in His promise to save by means of substitutionary sacrifice. The animal sacrifices were a necessary and God-directed focus through which those of true faith acknowledged their sin and that they deserved destruction and God’s wrath, as well as a faithful acceptance of God’s graceful provisions for putting away their sin. While the animal sacrifices in and of themselves did not take away sin or save anyone, the kind of faith that did save could not be had apart from such sacrifices, since it was a faith in God’s Word and promise—and it was God who prescribed such sacrifice and promised to remove sin. Though such sacrifices were not the True Sacrifice, the faith exercised in the offering of such sacrifices was true faith in the God who saves by substitutionary sacrifice (the Holy God who demands death for sin but who is graceful and allows a Substitute). For those open to embracing God’s truth, the Mosaic Law engendered such faith as it pointed the sinner to Christ in a way that the heart could understand (salvation by grace through faith). In other words, they saw beyond the ritual to the heart and intentions of God. But for those who were not open to embracing God’s truth, the Mosaic Law was merely a set of strict rules to obey (supposed salvation by works)—all they saw was the ritual.
The primary goal of sacrifice is not to change the one offering the sacrifice. The sinner stands under the condemning wrath of God. God’s wrath is not the same as human anger, as if it were mere irrational emotion. God’s wrath is God’s will to punish sin.
Deut. 7:9-11 9 “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. 11 Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them.
Hebrews 10:26-31 26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Rom. 1:32; 2:1-12 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. 1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: 7 eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; 8 but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God. 12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.
This fact that sin incurs the wrath of God is why the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ was a necessity. Many say that God is not angry, but the Bible calls Christ’s sacrifice a propitiation. It propitiates the wrath of God against our sin.
Rom. 3:25 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,
Heb. 2:17 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
1 John 2:2 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
1 John 4:10 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Robert Culver, in his Systematic Theology, cites Patrick Fairbairn (The Typology of Scripture) on this subject. Culver:
The idea of substitution and predictive symbolism present in the Old Testament ritual is treated in page after page by Patrick Fairbairn, perhaps the most authoritative writer on the typology of Scripture… As one reads hold in mind that expiation of sin in Fairbairn’s views also included propitiation of divine wrath, both ideas being present in the Hebrew word Kaphar, to cover, usually rendered “to atone.’ Patrick Fairbairn summarizes:
To make our meaning perfectly understood… we shall go at once to… the very core of the religion of the Old Covenant — the rite of expiatory sacrifice. That this was typical, or prophetically symbolical of the death of Christ, is testified with much plainness and frequency in the New Testament…. Yet, independently of this connection with Christ’s death, it had a meaning of its own, which it was possible for the ancient worshipper to understand, and, so understanding to present through it an acceptable service to God…. It was in its nature a symbolical transaction, embodying a threefold idea; first, that the worshipper having been guilty of sin, had forfeited his life to God; then, that life so forfeited must be surrendered to divine justice; and finally, that being surrendered in a way appointed, it was given back to him again by God, or he became re-established, as a justified person, in the divine favour and fellowship.
The principle of substitutionary atonement for sin is the blood that runs through the body of Scripture. To strip theology of that principle is to rob it of its very life.