What's All the Controversy About John MacArthur and the Blood of Christ?
A reply to some lies being perpetrated by fundamentalist zealots.

Copyright © 2000 by Phillip R. Johnson. All rights reserved.

December 2000

oes John MacArthur "deny the blood of Christ?" The accusation has become one of those dripping-faucet urban legends that will not die, like the infamous Madalyn Murray O'Hair FCC-Petition Hoax and the Procter & Gamble Satanism Myth. Nearly every month, I hear from someone who has heard the allegation for the first time and wants to know if it is true that John MacArthur denies the saving efficacy of Christ's blood.
    No, it is not true, and it never has been. The allegations are ridiculous—perhaps originally based on a thoughtless misunderstanding, but now clearly fueled by a deceitful malevolence.
    The controversy was originally ignited by a supposed "news" item written by Bob Jones, Jr. in the April 1986 issue of Faith For The Family (a Bob Jones University-sponsored magazine). Jones quoted some remarks MacArthur had originally made in a live Q&A session at Grace Community Church sometime in the early 1970s. MacArthur's comments had been transcribed and published in the May 1976 issue of the Grace Church newsletter "Grace Today." The Jones article cited the comments without any documentation, and without noting that they were from a ten-year-old source.
    In the BJU article, Jones quoted MacArthur as saying, "It is not His bleeding that saved me, but His dying." Jones then cited Hebrews 9:22 ("without shedding of blood is no remission") and intoned, "MacArthur's position is heresy."
    On June 13, 1986, MacArthur wrote to Bob Jones III, complaining that the magazine had taken snippets of his remarks out of context and deliberately made them seem sinister. MacArthur assured the magazine's editors that he absolutely affirms the necessity of the shed blood of Christ for atonement and explained that the point he was trying to make in the quoted excerpt was merely that the saving efficacy of Christ's blood is not because of some property in the blood itself, but rather because Christ had poured it out in death as a substitute for sinners.
    Indeed, in the very same source Dr. Jones, Jr. had selectively quoted from, MacArthur had written,

Peter calls His blood "precious" and I agree . . . but Peter's reference there is to the sacrificial nature of His death. . . . The phrase "Christ died for our sin" (Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3) expresses the truth that death was the penalty, not blood. . . I Peter 2:24 is not saying we are saved by his wounds. . . . If we say that it is the blood that saves . . . what are we saying? His actual blood, physically, saves us? Or perhaps we are stuck with the Roman Catholic Church "perpetual offering" view that some hold. This view says that Christ perpetually sacrifices Himself. He took His blood into heaven and keeps offering it. Hebrews 10:12-14 forbids such a view.
    Clearly it was His death . . . once for all. His shed blood was part of the violence of it, and speaks of it as sacrifice, but we are saved by His substitutionary death for us, not by the chemicals in His blood.

    Plainly, MacArthur was not denying that Christ literally shed His blood. He was not denying that the literal shedding of blood was a necessary aspect of the atonement. His only point was that the efficacy of Christ's blood lies not in some property of the blood itself, but rather in the fact that Christ shed it in death, and such a death was the price of atonement for our sin.
    Moreover, if the blood of Christ is in any sense "eternally preserved" in heaven, it would be in the glorified body of the risen Lord, not in a bowl or a vial where it is perpetually offered or literally applied to sinners in some way.
    After an exchange of correspondence in which MacArthur thoroughly and carefully explained his original remarks, Jones wrote on October 16, 1986, saying, "I believe the position [MacArthur] has taken in this matter is a heretical position, and all the correspondence in the world is not going to affect my convictions on that point."
    Nonetheless, BJU officials soon began trying to downplay the controversy. They were clearly embarrassed by some of the squalid half-truths that were beginning to circulate among fundamentalists. They also now had a file of correspondence from MacArthur clarifying his position, making it clear that he was orthodox. Even Jones, Jr. declined to give any rational or biblical reasons for continuing to regard MacArthur's view as "heresy." But he was obstinately committed to his original verdict, and by his own admission, "all the correspondence in the world [was] not going to affect" his thoughts or public statements on the matter. Instead, BJU as an institution attempted a quiet retreat from the fray.
    But as Procter & Gamble will testify, once rumors like this get into the fundamentalist rumor mill, they sometimes circulate and spawn more and more fanciful rumors for years, no matter how much the truth is broadcast. In this instance, the rumors became inbred and increasingly sinister. Various fundamentalist scandal-sheets passed the tale around for several more years, keeping it alive and reviving it with a new twist every time it nearly died.
    Finally, five years after the original correspondence with Jones, Jr., Bob Jones III wrote MacArthur (July 3, 1991) and assured MacArthur that BJU had tried to let the matter drop. He clearly did not regard MacArthur's position as heresy:
Once you published in your own paper an article stating that the blood was "efficacious and meritorious" we have never said another word about it. The issue was resolved at that point; and it has been our joy to tell people who continue to be concerned that they can be at ease, and refer them to your own published statements as evidence.

    But, as author Roy Branson Jr. (who investigated this controversy thoroughly) notes:
There is a problem here.
    First, There is absolutely nothing in the article to which Dr. Jones III refers that is a whit different from what MacArthur has always said, and what he has written numerous times in his books and publications. If that article satisfied BJU, why were they ever dissatisfied at all? Second, the article to which Dr. Jones III referred was in MacArthur's "Grace to You" newsletter, Summer of 1988. However the attacks on MacArthur continue to this day in 1992! We do not know that BJU continues the attacks, but those who picked up on the original BJU attack continue.
    The third question naturally follows the first two: If the Joneses believe "The issue was resolved at that point," why have they not given the same broad distribution to that clarification as they did to the original accusation? After all, the attacks began with the BJU publication. [Dear Abner, I Love You, Joab (Bristol, TN: Landmark, 1992), 107.]

    Nonetheless, it is surely significant that even the president of the institution that first published the accusation finally admitted that there is no substance to the endlessly-circulating charges of heresy.
    The truth is, as Branson correctly pointed out, there never was any real substance to the allegations.
    Look again at the point MacArthur was attempting to make in the first place: When Scripture speaks of Christ's "blood," the expression is normally a reference to His sacrificial atoning death, not the actual red and white corpuscles. And the vivid language in our hymns about the cleansing ability and "wonder-working power" of the blood and "a fountain filled with blood" is not meant to be taken literally. There is no magical or mystical cleansing property in the red fluid, and there is no container of blood in heaven that is somehow literally applied to sinners. Such language is meant to speak of Christ's sacrificial atonement—just as when Paul spoke of "the preaching of the cross" he had in mind the death of Christ, not the literal wooden instrument on which the Savior died. We're not to think a piece of wood is the point of our preaching. What happened on that cross is what is efficacious for our salvation, not some magical power in the wood itself. Similarly with the blood of Christ: it is the violent pouring out of blood in Christ's sacrificial death that saves us, not some supernatural property of the fluid itself—just what MacArthur said in the first place.
    The obvious truth of all that has escaped a few militant fundamentalists who have no clear concept of the biblical notion of blood atonement, but who revel in labeling anyone who is not part of their group a heretic. They continue to insist that MacArthur is actually denying the efficacy of Christ's blood.
    To buttress their point, several of Macarthur's detractors insist that Christ's blood was never human blood at all, but the very blood of God, endued with divine power. That view is disturbingly similar to the ancient Docetic heresy, which denied that Jesus' body was truly or fully human.
    Some of MacArthur's more militant critics have allowed their superstition on this matter to get the best of them. During the World Congress on Fundamentalism, which met on the BJU Campus, August 4-8, 1986, they passed a resolution declaring that Christ's actual blood is eternally preserved in heaven, where it is by some mystical means literally applied to each believer. According to the World Congress, such a rigidly literal view of Christ's blood is now to be considered a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and they will break fellowship with anyone who denies it:
The precious Blood is indestructible. It cannot be anything else because of its permanence. The Blood is eternally preserved in Heaven.

and furthermore,
This congress . . . Rejects every attempt either to deny the literalness of the Blood or to minimize its efficacy and the necessity of its shedding in Christ's death on the cross. Such denial is a dangerous and devilish deception.

"Rejects every attempt . . . to deny the literalness of the Blood"? Do they now agree with Rome's insistence that "blood" in John 6:54-56 is to be understood in a literal sense? Notice that there is no exception to their rule; they reject "every attempt . . . to deny the literalness of the Blood."
    Unfortunately, some of our "fundamentalist" brethren are blithely oblivious to the blatant echo of transubstantiation and popery in that opinion. They seem to be pining for the old days when someone like MacArthur who dared challenge religious superstition would be burnt at the stake. So they have opted to hound him with unrelenting accusations, innuendo, and false accusations. These misguided brethren are so blindly determined to tie John MacArthur to the heretics' stake that they haven't noticed how their own rhetoric has carried them into serious heresy instead, denying the full humanity of Christ's body, and opening the door to a Romanesque literalism regarding the application of Christ's blood to sinners.
    To my knowledge, not one of MacArthur's fundamentalist critics has ever written a dispassionate analysis of his position showing why they believe MacArthur's view is "heresy" from a doctrinal or biblical perspective. The one fundamentalist who dealt with the controversy in a book had the integrity to examine both sides carefully, then declared MacArthur right and his critics wrong [Branson, Ibid.].
    MacArthur's view on the blood of Christ is identical to that of Charles Spurgeon, who wrote:
Jesus Christ has made a will, and he has left to his people large legacies by that will. Now, wills do not have to be sprinkled with blood, but wills do need that the testator should be dead, otherwise they are not of force. As it was not possible that Christ should die other than a violent death, seeing that he must die as a sacrifice, the term "blood" becomes in this case tantamount to "death". . And so, first of all, the blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary is the blood of the testament, because it is A PROOF THAT HE IS DEAD [emphasis Spurgeon's], and therefore the testament is in force (MTP, vol. 26, p. 632).

What is this "blood of sprinkling"? In a few words, "the blood of sprinkling" represents the pains, the sufferings, the humiliation, and the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he endured on the behalf of guilty man. When we speak of the blood, we wish not to be understood as referring solely or mainly to the literal material blood which flowed from the wounds of Jesus. We believe in the literal fact of his shedding his blood; but when we speak of his cross and blood we mean those sufferings and that death of our Lord Jesus Christ by which he magnified the law of God; we mean what Isaiah intended when he said, "He shall make his soul an offering for sin"; we mean all the griefs which Jesus vicariously endured on our behalf at Gethsemane, and Gabbatha, and Golgotha, and specially his yielding up his life upon the tree of scorn and doom. "The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed." "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission"; and the shedding of blood intended is the death of Jesus, the Son of God," (MTP, vol. 32, p. 123).

But what does "the blood" mean in Scripture? It means not merely suffering, which might be well typified by blood, but it means suffering unto death, it means the taking of a life. To put it very briefly, a sin against God deserves death as its punishment, and what God said by the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel still standeth true, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." The only way by which God could fulfill his threatening sentence, and yet forgive guilty men, was that Jesus Christ, his Son, came into the world, and offered his life instead of ours (MTP, vol. 40, p. 325).

    Despite his detractors' claims, MacArthur clearly affirms—and has always affirmed—the necessity and full efficacy of Christ's blood atonement. In The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness he writes,

Scripture plainly teaches that only a blood sacrifice can atone for sin and appease the wrath of God against the sinner. God told Old Testament Israel, "The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (KJV). Hebrews 9:22 states it succinctly: "Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."
    So atonement by shedding of blood is absolutely essential to the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is impossible without a propitiatory sacrifice. Scripture teaches this plainly. The wrath and justice of God must not be downplayed in our understanding of His forgiveness. [(Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 22.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . 

The clear teaching of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that sinners cannot atone for their own sins in any way. A perfect sacrifice was therefore needed to atone for sin on their behalf. This involved shedding the blood (death, not merely blood-letting) of an innocent Substitute. And the substitute must bear on the sinner's behalf the full punishment for guilt, not merely a token penalty (cf. Isaiah 53:5). Only such a perfect sacrifice could satisfy the demands of God's justice, and thus propitiate Him toward sinners. That is exactly what Scripture says Christ's sacrifice provided:
"God set [Christ] 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, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25-26, NKJV).
We unequivocally reject the liberal notion that this doctrine of vicarious atonement places God in the same category as ancient heathen gods who supposedly demanded blood sacrifices in order to be mollified. The atoning work of Christ has nothing whatsoever in common with pagan notions about propitiation and offended deities. The God of Scripture is not at all like the gods of ancient Canaan, or even the more sophisticated gods of Greek mythology. He is not temperamental and irritable, requiring some sacrificial inducement in order to placate a fiery temper. We're not to think of God's wrath as equivalent to a bad mood. His righteous hatred of sin is a fixed and holy disposition, not a volatile temperament. And His demand that sin be atoned for is an essential matter of divine righteousness, not a fatuous need for vengeance.
    Nor should anyone imagine that Christ's sacrifice was necessary to overcome some reluctance on the Father's part to save sinners. God is inherently loving, eager to save, taking no pleasure in the death of any sinner (Ezekiel 33:11).
    Still, it is the clear teaching of Scripture that, as a simple matter of divine justice, the only acceptable atonement for sin was a blood sacrifice, a suffering Substitute who would bear the full wrath of God on the sinner's behalf. Christ is the only worthy Substitute, and His dying on the cross rendered the atonement necessary to provide forgiveness for sinners.
    This doctrine of substitutionary atonement is therefore the whole ground of God's forgiveness. Apart from Christ's atoning work, no sinner would ever have any hope of salvation. [Ibid., 23-24.]

    Finally, here's a letter John MacArthur wrote to his constituents in 1988 in response to those who were trying to discredit him over this issue:

I Believe in the Precious Blood

By John MacArthur
He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing.
    Hebrews 10:28-29

Dear Beloved Friend,
    The blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is holy and precious. The shedding of His blood in death was the price of atonement for our sins. As He literally poured out His blood in a sacrificial act, He sealed forever the New Covenant and purchased our redemption.
    Those of you familiar with my teaching know that I have always believed and affirmed those things. For the past two or three years, however, I have been under attack by a small but vocal group of men who are eager to discredit my ministry. They have charged me with denying the blood of Christ and have called me a heretic in several nationally distributed publications.
    My first response was to write many of those men privately, believing their attack on me grew from a misunderstanding. None of them had spoken to me personally before attacking me in print. Only a handful have yet replied to my letters. Still, I expected the public controversy to die away. My teaching is certainly no secret, and I knew that those who listen regularly to our radio broadcast would know I am a not teaching heresy.
    Nevertheless, for nearly three years a small core of zealots have kept the issue swirling around every ministry I'm involved with. One man has literally made a career of going to any church in the country that will pay his way and giving a series of messages on the error of "MacArthurism." Recently, a couple of key radio stations dropped "Grace to You," not because of anything we taught on the broadcast, but because they did not want to continue to deal with the controversy being generated by rumormongers.
    Over the past couple of years we have received thousands of letters from all over the country, ranging from those supporting our biblical view, to those who are confused, to some who blindly echo the accusation that we are trampling underfoot the blood of Christ. For the sake of all of them, and so that you can better understand what I have taught about the blood of Christ, let's look at three truths that I and all other genuine believers affirm about the blood of Jesus Christ.

1. Jesus' Blood Is the Basis of Redemption

    Peter wrote, "Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, [like] silver and gold . . .but with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:18-19, KJV). Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ nearly three times as often as it mentions the cross, and five times more often than it refers to the death of Christ. The word blood, therefore, is the chief term the New Testament uses to refer to the atonement.
    Peter wrote that election is "unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:2). The "sprinkling of the blood" was what sealed the New Covenant (cf. Heb. 9:1-18). "Without shedding of blood is no remission" (v. 22). If Christ had not literally shed His blood in sacrifice for our sins, we could not have been saved.
    This is one reason crucifixion was the means God ordained by which Christ should die: it was the most vivid, visible display of life being poured out as the price for sins.
    Bloodshed was likewise God's design for nearly all Old Testament sacrifices. They were bled to death rather than clubbed, strangled, suffocated, or burnt. God designed that sacrificial death was to occur with blood loss, because "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11).

2. Jesus Shed His Literal Blood When He Died

    The literal blood of Christ was violently shed at the crucifixion. Those who deny this truth or try to spiritualize the death of Christ are guilty of corrupting the gospel message. Jesus Christ bled and died in the fullest literal sense, and when He rose from the dead, he was literally resurrected. To deny the absolute reality of those truths is to nullify them (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14-17).
    The meaning of the crucifixion, however, is not fully expressed in the bleeding alone. There was nothing supernatural in Jesus' blood that sanctified those it touched. Those who flogged Him might have been spattered with blood. Yet that literal application of Jesus' blood did nothing to purge their sins.
    Had our Lord bled without dying, redemption would not have been accomplished. If the atonement had been stopped before the full wages of sin had been satisfied, Jesus' bloodshed would have been to no avail.
    It is important to note also that though Christ shed His blood, Scripture does not say He bled to death; it teaches rather that He voluntarily yielded up His spirit (John 10:18). Yet even that physical death could not have bought redemption apart from His spiritual death, whereby He was separated from the Father (cf. Mat. 27:46).

3. Not Every Reference to Jesus' Blood Is Literal

    Clearly, though Christ shed His literal blood, many references to the blood are not intended to be taken in the literal sense. A strictly literal interpretation cannot, for example, explain such passages as John 6:53-54: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
    It would be equally hard to explain how physical blood is meant in Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be on us, and on our children"); Acts 5:28 ("[You] intend to bring this man's blood upon us"); 18:6 ("Your blood be upon your own heads"); 20:26 ("I am innocent of the blood of all men"); and 1 Corinthians 10:16 ("The cup of blessing . . .is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?," KJV).
    Clearly the word blood is often used to mean more than the literal red fluid. Thus it is that when Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ, it usually means much more than just the red and white corpuscles—it encompasses His death, the sacrifice for our sins, and all that is involved in the atonement.
    Trying to make literal every reference to Christ's blood can lead to serious error. The Catholic doctrine known as transubstantiation, for example, teaches that communion wine is miraculously changed into the actual blood of Christ, and that those who partake of the elements in the mass literally fulfill the words of Jesus in John 6:54: "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
    Those who have attacked me seem to be espousing the same kind of mystical view of the blood that led the Catholic Church to embrace transubstantiation. They claim that the blood of Christ was never truly human. They insist on literalizing every New Testament reference to Jesus' blood. They teach that the physical blood of Christ was somehow preserved after the crucifixion and carried to heaven, where it is now literally applied to the soul of each Christian at salvation.
    We are not saved by some mystical heavenly application of Jesus' literal blood. Nothing in Scripture indicates that the literal blood of Christ is preserved in heaven and applied to individual believers. When Scripture says we're redeemed by the blood (1 Pet. 1:18-19), it is not speaking of a bowl of blood in heaven. It means we're saved by Christ's sacrificial death.
    In the same way, when Paul said he gloried in the cross (Gal. 6:14), he did not mean the literal wooden beams; he was speaking of all the elements of redeeming truth. Just as the cross is an expression that includes all of Christ's atoning work, so is the blood. It is not the actual liquid that cleanses us from our sins, but the work of redemption Christ accomplished in pouring it out.
    That is not heresy; it is basic biblical truth.
    If you've been troubled by these issues and you'd like to study them more in depth, please write to us. We'll send you free of charge a cassette tape containing virtually everything I've ever said about the blood of Christ. We've compiled this tape from nearly twenty years of messages given at Grace Community Church. We also have some written material that explains our position, which we will send you again at no charge.
    I hope you'll be like the noble Bereans and study God's Word for yourself to see if these things are true. Please don't be influenced by careless charges of heresy.
    Also, please pray for me. These attacks have been relentless, and I confess that at times it is discouraging. Yet I know one cannot be on the front lines without constant battles, and it is a privilege to suffer wrong for the Lord's sake (cf. 1 Pet. 4:19).
    Thank you for your prayers and support. Please pray that God will protect us as we seek to minister His truth with boldness.
    Yours in His Service,

    John MacArthur     Pastor-Teacher

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