I have learned something in recent years. People come to cherish words like atonement and justification when you expose them to other words like bloodguilt and reckoning.

I’ve tried to teach gospel-centric words effectively as stand-alone concepts. It has produced a few amens, yet lives were not radically altered toward God and the good works he has prepared for us to do. I was serving coffee at breakfast, rather than arriving with cool water as people fled from within a burning building. Then I came to understand two things that altered my life and my preaching, two things that expose the terrible thirst that the gospel addresses.


First, I came to understand the meaning of bloodguilt according to the Bible. Bloodguilt is God’s term of indictment for the shedding of innocent blood. Bloodguilt reflects God’s intention to vindicate each precious life—-created in his own glorious image—-and to avenge innocent lives cut down. For such things there is a reckoning (Lev. 24:17).

According to Deuteronomy 21, the shedding of innocent blood leaves everyone in the community under bloodguilt. Those who actively shed blood are guilty. Those who watch it or take no steps to stop it are guilty. Even if you can pray, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed” (Deut. 21:7), the whole community is still under bloodguilt. An act of atonement is required (Deut. 21:8). Only then will the bloodguilt be “purged” (Deut. 21:9).

If someone you love is murdered, you have no trouble understanding the preeminent nature of this evil. Everything is affected. When a stranger is murdered (Deut. 21:1), you are apt to shrug, go to work, and believe things are not much affected. This is the corrupting lie. So God taught the Israelites that when innocent blood is shed, they should assemble on a prime piece of property, sacrifice a prime animal, and pray. This repoints the moral bricks of their community. They discover their earnest need for blood-atonement for their own bloodguilt. The blood of a heifer stands as a place marker, until God provides the better and lasting atonement.

Moral Courage

This leads to my second life-altering discovery. I came to see that abortion is the shedding of innocent blood on our own watch. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, there are 42 million induced abortions worldwide every year. This figure has held fairly constant for 30 years. In the United States, only women older than 80 have lived through some or all of their child-bearing years in a time without legal and accessible abortion. Bloodguilt is arguably the most applicable word to assign to our time.

If this is true, if this is even close to true, how can we be silent? The cross is about the shedding of innocent blood! Why not apply it to the sin of shedding innocent blood? Why let the Devil do all the talking! “You killed your baby,” he says. “God cannot forgive you.” Or to the struggling Christian, “I know your secret! Missions? Not you!”

Today, the Devil has people by the neck with their sexual sins and abortion. If we think of abortion as a merely political issue, we fundamentally misunderstand a defining reality of our times, and we fail to see that the cross alone can satisfy the just wrath of God for the shedding of innocent blood.

We have a word for this: propitiation! There is no forgiveness for the shedding of innocent human blood, except by the shedding of Christ’s innocent blood. He is our substitutionary sacrifice. We have a word for this, too: atonement! He covers over all our sins.

The same unbreakable principle of justice that condemns you prior to faith in Christ defends you going forward. God will always act justly. If he punished you in Christ for your bloodguilt, and paid the penalty in full, it would be wrong to punish you again for the same crime. If you put your faith in Christ and look to the cross as your own just punishment, even for the sin of shedding innocent blood, then God is justified in showing you his mercy. All has been paid. We have a word for this: justification!

Conscience of this Generation

We need to bring the main thing – the cross – to bear on the one thing that most plagues the conscience of this generation and hamstrings their service to God: the disaster of sexual sin that so often ends in the death of the weak and innocent. Tragically, many addressing the bloodguilt of abortion today offer a sprinkling of gospel on a plateful of Kübler-Ross. The abortion-recovery materials now in circulation tend to be anthropocentric, therapeutic Band-Aids over the wasting disease of the soul produced by abortion.

We need you, preachers and teachers. We need theologically rigorous instruction about the sufficiency of the gospel to cleanse away the bloodguilt of abortion and to reconcile us to God. Abortion needs to be called out by name, confessed with tears, and brought under a gospel that atones, justifies, propitiates, expiates, and brings us peace. And we need to remind our people to hold on to this gospel with all their might when the accuser comes at night.

This article originally appeared on thegospelcoalition.org on December 3, 2011.