Washed in the Blood? A Search for Relevant Symbols of Salvation

by Peyton L. Palmore III

Peyton Lee Palmore III was a fourth generational missionary to the United Church of Christ in Japan for over twenty years. He has done graduate work at Yale Divinity School,, Union Theological Seminary, and McCormick School of Theology in Chicago. He presently enjoys being self employed as a home repairman and lives with his wife in Arlington, Va.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, pp. 408-412. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When we try to communicate the experience of salvation we can only use analogies, symbols and poetic images. Unfortunately, most of the traditional ones come from another era, another culture, time and place. How can we find more relevant ways to communicate the Gospel today?


Have you ever found yourself in difficulty when you tried to explain to someone why being "washed in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14 ) should make one "whiter than snow" as that old gospel hymn puts it? A Japanese church member once complained to me that not only was the concept confusing, but that all this talk about blood was repugnant to the Japanese mind. Even for one who has been brought up "in the faith" a bit of reflection makes one admit that the shades of difference between propitiation and expiation or between redemption and ransom are rather vague in one's mind. In fact, most of these symbols of salvation, growing out of a different time in history seem rather distant or even irrelevant to us today.

This has bothered me through the years because when we try to communicate the experience of salvation we can only use analogies, symbols and poetic images. Unfortunately, most of the traditional ones come from another era, another culture, a time a place and a context which seem only distantly related to us in these modern days whether we have been brought up in the West or the East. How can we find more relevant ways to communicate the Gospel?

Perhaps the best way to start is to look at the symbols of salvation used in the Bible. I have noted many of them and tried to categorize them under various themes and patterns in the following chart. You will note the Dramatic Stories are like little vignettes with fairly clear plots. The Metaphorical Statements are shorter word pictures, and the Direct Sayings are simple statements of witness to the experience of being saved by God through Jesus Christ.

There is talk about a slain lamb, freed slaves, a high priest offering himself as a sacrifice on the altar, the canceling of a bond and nailing it to a cross in public, - - all of this and more can seem quite bizarre today. And yet these are obviously the efforts of people who have found themselves so caught up in a "happening" that they have searched all areas of their personal experience and their religious and cultural background to find ways to somehow communicate this great event in their lives to others.

Look at the following chart and then we can analyze it further:


Peyton L Palmore, III, February, 1999


A. Symbol Used

B. Man’s Condition

C. God’s Work

D. Result: Man’s New Condition

E. References

1. Jewish Temple Cultus

a) We have offended against God and cannot approach him without a sacrifice or offering being made for us.

a) Christ, the High Priest offers the perfect sacrifice on our behalf.

a) We are enabled to approach, praise and serve God.

a) Heb. 2:17

4:14 - 16

b) Same as above.

b) Christ becomes the spotless lamb and gives Himself as our expiation or guilt offering.

b) Our offence is taken away by the propitiation of the blood of the lamb.

b) Rom. 3:25

Eph. 1:7

I Pet. 1:18–19

Rev. 1:5; 5:9


c) We are unclean in our sin and cannot come into the pure holy of holies before the Lord.

c) We and our garments are "washed in the blood of the lamb."

c) We are made clean, our robes are made white, and we can come before the throne of the Lord.

c) I Cor. 6:11

Rev. 7:14






2. Jewish Law and God’s Judgement

As sinners we are condemned under the Law. The wages of sin are death.

Christ is punished in our stead and our sins are vicariously expiated or atoned for.

Through this expiation, we are justified and freed from the condemnation of the Law, and redeemed from evil ways. We are "put right with God."

Rom. 3:24; 4:25

7:21; 8:2

I Cor. 15:3 II Cor. 5:21

Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:14

Tit. 2:14

I Pet. 3:18

I Jn. 2:2; 4:10






3. The Slave System

We are slaves to sin and slaves to the Law. No slave is able to free himself by himself.

We are freed from the condition of slavery by being bought back, ransomed or redeemed through the payment of the life of Christ.

Since we are freed from our slavery, we are free to serve our new master, our redeemer.

Mark 10:45

Rom. 7:21; I Tim. 2:6

I Cor. 6:20; 7:23

I Pet. 1:18f

Rev. 5:9






4. Legal Document

There is a bond which stands against us.

God marks out or cancels this bond against us and then nails it to the cross for public view.

We are free from the bond against us.

Col. 2:14






5. Demonology

We are under the influence and domination of the Devil, death, evil spirits and darkness.

Christ battles with the powers of darkness and conquers. Thus He becomes Lord of all the powers and king of all lords. He is "Christus Victor."

Through Christ’s victory we are freed from the power of the devil and can live a life of victory and power in Christ.

Jn. 12:31; 16:11

Acts 26:18

I Cor. 15:24f

II Cor. 2:14

Eph. 6:12; Col. 2:15

Heb. 2:14f






6. Historic Eons

In the old eon because of the fall of Adam, all men were under the sway of sin and death.

God sent Christ, the new Adam through whose perfect obedience the new age is ushered in.

Through the new Adam, we are welcomed into the new age in which we can obey God.

Rom. 5:12-19

I Cor. 15:21f






7. Father-son

a) We leave the house of our Father.

a) God loves us and patiently and eagerly awaits our return.

a) We remember the love of God, come to ourselves, we repent and return to God.

a) Lk. 14:11 ff


b) We are prisoners of the Law which is our custodian.

b) By "putting on Christ" in faith, we are made one with Him and thus become true sons of God and freed from the custodian.

b) As fellow heirs, we are freed from distinctions between Greek and Jew, slave and free.

b) Gal. 3:23-29


c) As minors we are under guardians and are no better than slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.

c) In the fullness of time God sends His Son who redeems us from the law and we are adopted as sons.

c) Since we are sons of the true God, we can cry "Abba! Father!"

c) Rom. 8:14-15,

23, 29

Gal. 4:1-7






8. Lost and Found

a) We are like sheep which are lost from the fold.

a) The shepherd finds the sheep.

a) We are once more safely enfolded with the other sheep.

a) Mt. 18:12-14

Lk. 15:3-7

I Pet. 2:25


b) We are like a lost coin.

b) The woman looks for and finds the coin.

b) We are found and picked up by God.

b) Lk. 15:8-10



A. Symbol Used

B. Man’s Condition

C. God’s Work

D. Result: Man’s New Condition

E. References

1. From Death to Life

We are dead in sin.

Through God’s act of raising Christ from the dead, He raises us also.

Since we are "in Christ" we are given new life.

Rom. 6:11

Eph. 2:1-6, Col. 2:13

James 5:20






2. New Creation

We are of the old creation.

Through Christ, the New being; we are made new.

The old being has passed away and we are made new "in Christ."

II Cor. 5:17

Eph. 2:10






3. Becoming one with Christ

We have no connection with God. We are estranged.

Through Christ, God comes to dwell in us and we dwell in God. We are reconciled.

Through being "In Christ" we are made one with Him.

Jn. 15:1-10, 17:21,23

I Cor. 6:15,17

I Jn. 4:13






4. Grafting a Branch onto a Tree

We are shoots from a wild olive tree

God in his kindness has grafted us into a cultivated olive tree.

We share in the nourishing sap from the cultivated olive tree: Israel.

Rom. 11:17-24






5. Flesh and Spirit

As natural man, we are of the flesh and we cannot have fellowship with God who is Spirit.

God sends His Son in the likeness of our own sinful flesh in order to deal with sin.

We are freed and empowered to put to death the works of the flesh, and live directed by the Spirit.

Rom. 8:1-14

I Cor. 2:14; 3:3

Gal. 5:16-25



A. Symbol Used. God’s WorkE. References


1. Moral Example

We are self centered and turn our backs on God.

Christ give us the example of perfect obedience to God.

We are enabled to follow this example of perfect obedience to God

Rom. 5:19; 6:10-11

Phil. 2:8






2. From Idols to the Worship of God

We serve false gods in our daily natural life.

God shows us His true self through the revelation of the Incarnation in Christ.

We can serve the true and living God.

I Thes. 1:9






3. Estrangement and Reconciliation

We are separated from God through estrangement.

We are drawn close to God through the sacrifice of His Son.

We are reconciled to God, and made to be His ambassadors.

Rom. 5:10-11

II Cor. 5:18-20

Eph. 2:12-16






4. Forgiveness

We have sinned against God.

a) God forgives us.

a) We are completely forgiven.

a) Mt. 6:13-14

Lk. 15:1-16; Col. 1:14



b) Christ gives us the power to have faith that we are forgiven.

b) Through believing that we are forgiven, we are saved.

b) Lk. 7:36-50

Col. 2:12






5. Disciple and Master

We are without a Master and wander in confusion.

Christ died and lived, that He might be Lord of the dead and the living.

Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.

Mt. 9:36

Rom. 14:7-9



As people wrestled with these stories and symbols down through the years, key theological terms have developed to describe the different concepts. These terms are not ordinarily used these days but they can be helpful to clarify our own thinking.

Propitiation puts the emphasis on what happens to God. It is based on the Old Testament concept that a sacrifice must be made to appease the anger of God before we can approach Him. In Hebrews 2:17 and 4:14-16 the Jewish cultus of the temple is brought to mind and Christ is seen as the supreme sacrifice which assuages God's anger and enables us to come before Him.

Expiation puts the focus on what happens with us in a legal context. As sinners, we have violated God's law and must pay a penalty before we can come before Him. The many passages listed under I-2 in the chart show that this is one of the most used soteriological symbols in the scriptures. Christ has been punished instead of us, an atonement has been made, a reconciliation with God has been achieved for us and we can once more come before Him.

Ransom and Redemption describes the process by which we have been saved within the context of the slave system so prevalent for so long in most societies. A price has been paid on our behalf and we have been freed from our bonds of slavery and can now walk as new men. (see Chart I, 3-4)

Reconciliation is best illustrated by the poignant story of the returning Prodigal Son. (see Chart I, 7 and Chart III, 3)



Each of us within our own personal context find a language to express our relationship with God in existential terms. This may involve the creation of new words and phrases such as Paul Tillich who originated and popularized the term for God as "The Ground of Our Being" in this ever shifting and unstable life in which we find ourselves. But even this is rooted in the many Old Testament references to God as being the rock of our salvation and evokes memories of the words in that old Gospel hymn: "On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand..."

At-One-Ment: For myself, a reinterpretation of the term "atonement" has come to be the most helpful metaphor. Although it originated from the context of the Jewish Temple Cultus (see Chart I, 1 above) the term can also be used as a symbol for the story of the Prodigal Son if it is broken up into its constituent parts: At-One-Ment: the state of being at one with the father. Many of us find ourselves estranged from others or the society around us, drifting rootlessly through life. But through the recognition that God is the Lord of all life who awaits my return to this "ground of my being" and who relates me in a reconciling way to the world around me, I am made whole again. I feel "at one" with myself and with the world.

Thus, although some of these old soteriological symbols can seem confusing, it can be helpful to look at them once more with an eye to finding more relevant metaphors for ourselves and for communicating the Good News to others today.