Anthony Carter. Blood Work: How the Blood of Christ Accomplishes our Salvation. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2013. 139 pp. $15.00.
The gospel-centered movement has helped innumerable churches and Christians to aim at the right target. Turning away from the easier targets of moralism, legalism, and activism, many are now taking aim at the more difficult—though more rewarding—target of the gospel.
Multiple books, conferences, sermons, blog posts, and songs have rained a shower of arrows towards this newly popular target. However, not so many hit the gospel bulls-eye of the blood of Christ. To be sure, there are vast quantities of arrows in the second ring, justification, and that’s wonderful. As we move outward, we also find many arrows in the election ring, the adoption ring, the regeneration ring, the sanctification ring, the discipleship ring, and the worship ring.
But for all our hitting the gospel target in general, we’re not hitting the red bulls-eye as often as we ought. The bulls-eye is the atonement, the blood of Christ, which is too often simply assumed, spoken of in shallow clichés, or left largely undeveloped. Perhaps it’s even a bit embarrassing? Yes, there are a few days around Easter when the doctrine of the atonement is brushed off and the suffering and dying of Jesus is mentioned more often. But even then, we often speak in hackneyed terms, repeating mantras and stock phrases without really plunging into its depths.
Enter Anthony Carter with a double quiver full of arrows, laser-targeted on the blood of Christ and all that it means. I don’t think he mentions “gospel-centered” in the book and yet he perhaps gets us closer to the center of the good news than some other books in that genre.
Yes, Carter discusses election, justification, redemption, and sanctification, but always in connection with Christ’s blood. In fact, I was surprised by how many Scripture references there are to this precious blood—nearly three times as many as Christ’s “cross” and five times as many as his “death.” But I was doubly surprised by how Carter highlighted the way every major doctrine in Scripture is connected to Christ’s blood: propitiation, justification, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, election, and so forth.
Moreover, I appreciated Carter’s clarity when it came to the typological role of the sacrificial system in helping Old Testament believers look “through” the animal sacrifices to the ultimate Sacrifice: “When Abel came with the offering of blood he was believing God and was looking forward to the provision of a deliverer” (8). Again, in connection with the Passover: “Israel always longed for an unblemished male lamb who would take away sin once and for all” (12). No mixture of law, grace, and general theism here, but simply saving faith in the coming Christ.
Blood Work brims with memorable facts, illustrations, and quotations that bring out one or more dimensions of the blood of Jesus and all it accomplishes for us. Carter calls the book “a celebration of the life-giving, soul-blessing, power-enduing blood of Jesus.” That’s certainly the tone, as it beautifully interweaves theology with doxology. I was amazed by the number of songs that, he points out, celebrate Christ’s blood.
This is also a practical book, demonstrating how the Bible presents the blood of Jesus not just as our source of pardon but also our source of purity. It cleanses not just our consciences but also our hearts, shaping our relationship with God and with others.
And the practical power of Christ’s blood isn’t just in the removal of sin and guilt, but in the positive realities of peace, freedom, and spiritual growth. It doesn’t simply take away death, it imparts and maintains life. We need the atonement not just to save our souls initially but also to nourish and grow them in the long run.
The Big Question
As I read and reread the book, one question kept challenging me: Why is the blood-red center of the gospel so often on the periphery of our thoughts, words, and ministries?
Is it a fear of being associated with crude and superstitious uses of “blood” terminology? I’ve certainly been in some circles where “the blood of Christ” was employed more like a magic spell, with little theological content. Carter helps us avoid this pitfall, as he observes: “It's not the red liquid so much as what it represents—the last act in the tragedy of Christ life.”
Is it fear or shame? We live in sophisticated and cultured times. Do we really want to be talking about a blood-bought salvation among such educated and refined people? Has the Devil blinded us to the centrality and vitality of Christ’s atonement? At times I’ve realized many months have passed since I preached on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Is it a failure to connect doctrine to the person of Christ? It’s easy to preach a series on justification, sanctification, or election and hardly mention the bruised and bloodied Christ that makes the doctrines possible.
Is our neglect simply ignorance? We simply don’t realize what width, depth, and length there is to the atonement. We stay in the simple shallows of the usual clichés and stock phrases, failing to explore its undiscovered scriptural depths.
Often we just assume everybody knows and so we move on to “higher” things. But there’s nothing higher and not everybody knows. And as even those who do know need reminding, God instituted a specific sacrament—the Lord’s Supper.
Whatever the reason for our neglect of Jesus’ blood, Carter gives us 13 chapters of reasons to refocus our aim on this gospel bulls-eye. Although a relatively short book, Blood Work opens up many dimensions of Christ’s atonement for further and deeper exploration. This is a center-of-the-gospel book for the gospel-centered.
David P. Murray is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Christians get depressed too, How Sermons Work, and the forthcoming book Jesus on Every Page. He blogs regularly at Head, Heart, Hand.