The “blood controversy” involving John MacArthur and Bob Jones, Jr. is infamous within Baptist fundamentalism. It is a sad event. Even now, there are some fundamentalists who wrongly believe MacArthur is a “heretic” because of this unfortunate slander from Jones. Phil Johnson wrote a letter clarifying the issue 19 years ago, and explained:1
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 Jones quoted some remarks MacArthur had originally made in a live Q&A session at Grace Community Church sometime in the early 1970s.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.”
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.
MacArthur finally wrote a letter to his church in 1988 explaining his position, in an effort to set the record straight:3
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