The Cross of Jesus
We are studying cornerstones of our faith and one of those cornerstones is the doctrine of the atonement — Jesus offered Himself as the holy Sacrifice for sin, through which sacrifice He has made available salvation to all who turn from sin and confess their faith in Christ.
Many people ask, “Why did humanity need a sacrificed Savior?” Because we have separated ourselves from God by our sin. The result is the universal condition known as death: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God did not create death. Death is the result of humanity’s rebellious attempt to live apart from God, the Source of our life and being. Just as a branch, separated from the vine, withers and dies, so a human being, separated from God by sin, will die.
The problem on earth is not that God is cruel, uninvolved or unloving but that humanity fell from relationship with God. The disintegration and disaster in people and nature and in human society is the result of this fall. Furthermore, in our state of separation from God, we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1) and blind to our condition (2 Cor. 4:4).
We cannot save ourselves, cannot give enough offerings to pay for our sin. We cannot do enough righteous works to undo the consequences of our sin. We cannot perform enough religious rituals to cover our sin. We cannot save ourselves (Psalm 49:7-9). We need a Savior.
So God sent a Savior and “laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). On the cross of Jesus Christ, God reconciled the world to Himself by placing our sin, and His judgment of sin, on Jesus.
“But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself ... having been offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:26,28).
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them ... He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:19,21).
Our sins were placed on Jesus, who became a sin offering on our behalf. A holy God cannot ignore our sin and a merciful God does not desire that we perish forever under the weight of sin and judgment. So at the cross an incredible exchange took place, ordained by God. All the evil consequences due to humanity because of our sin came upon Jesus so that all the good due to Jesus through His sinless existence, might come upon us.
When people ask, “Why doesn't God remove evil?”, they reveal that they don’t understand the root cause of evil. Evil is the result of morally free creatures using their freedom to disobey God, to do evil rather than good. God could eliminate evil by removing human freedom but then we would no longer be human. Rather than stand by passively and watch us mutilate our humanity through sin, and rather than remove our freedom, thereby extinguishing our humanity, God sent His Son who became the holy Substitute for sinners, taking our evil upon Himself.
On the cross, Jesus, the holy Lamb of God, bore our sin and took upon Himself God’s wrath poured out against the sinner. Jesus became the holy sacrifice slain in the place of sinners. He is now able to offer us mercy instead of judgment, forgiveness instead of justice, eternal life instead of eternal death. He offers us salvation from sin.
What the Cross Reveals
1. The cross reveals the righteous wrath of God.
“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:9).
God cannot deny His holy nature. He must be faithful to Himself. Therefore, in the moral order which God has established, sin evokes His wrath and must be judged. Wrath, judgment, is always God’s response to sin. Since all have sinned, all stand under the wrath, the judgment of God.
2. The cross reveals the love of God.
It is the love of God which caused the atonement to take place. Because God loved this fallen world, He gave His only Son “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Love is an eternal, unchanging attribute of the being or character of God. There is a fundamental difference between the love of God and the anger or wrath of God. Anger is something which sin arouses in a holy God and which God expresses against sin. Love is part of the essence of God’s being. A loving God desires to deliver the objects of His love from the wrath that necessarily comes upon us because of our sin.
Atonement, then, is the loving response of a holy God to the impossible human dilemma. We cannot escape God’s judgment nor can we satisfy it. Only God can deliver us from His wrath. This deliverance is through the sacrifice of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus took our sin and the consequences for our sin — God’s wrath and the resulting separation from God which created our death — upon Himself. This sacrificial act was motivated by love.
3. The cross reveals the justice of God.
A just God demands justice when His righteous law is broken. Jesus, on the cross, bore the full judgment demanded by divine justice. This enables God to demonstrate His justness while declaring sinners to be justified. The cross shows God to be both “just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23,24).
Through the cross of Jesus, God maintains His just, holy nature while declaring sinners, who repent of sin and place their faith in Christ, to be just. God is both “just and justifier” of the unjust.
Those who refuse to repent and trust in the sacrifice of Christ will bear their own judgment. But the one who trusts in the finished work of Christ on his or her behalf, “Does not come into judgment but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
4. The cross reveals the wisdom and power of God.
“The word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
“We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).
The idea that God would appear in human form to die an atoning death for sinful humanity, the concept of a crucified Savior, was scandalous and offensive to the religious Jew and absurdly ridiculous to the wise Gentile. But this crucified Savior is nothing other than God’s wise, powerful, life-giving remedy for sin and the death that sin creates.
In the foolishness of a crucified Savior, God offers a means of reconciliation with Himself which human religion, in all of its professed wisdom, is unable to provide. In the weakness of a crucified Savior, God powerfully breaks the chains of condemnation and death which had bound humanity. The Savior of the world, crucified in apparent weakness and foolishness, is the most perfect, majestic display of the wisdom and power of God.
The cross of Jesus Christ is the center point of history and provides the deepest revelation of the heart of God. It reveals the wrath of God requiring justice; the justice of God in judging sin; the love of God in bearing sin in our place; the wisdom of God in joining wrath, justice and love in this one instrument; and the power of God in saving all who place their trust in Christ.
5. The cross reveals the inadequacy of human religion.
All false religious systems are characterized by the deception that we can earn righteous standing before God through our religious works and rituals. But there is no human offering or ritual that can truly cleanse us of sin. We cannot do enough good works or recite enough prayers to atone for even one sin. God instituted the Jewish sacrificial system to cover sin, not to cleanse from sin. The faithful Old Testament worshipper awaited the blood of the true Lamb of God which reaches back in time and forward in time to cleanse the heart of the truly repentant sinner.
Human religion cannot bridge the separation between humanity and God. Human religion cannot raise us up out of the death which our sin created. We are saved by the grace of God, not by our own religious efforts. Salvation is a gift from God.
To Whom Is This Salvation Given?
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Salvation is God’s gift to those who believe, who trust in Christ’s atoning work.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Faith to believe is the gift of God. To whom does God give the gift of faith? To all who have come to the end of their own effort to save themselves and trust in what God has done for us in Christ. Salvation is God’s gift “to everyone who believes.” Believes in what? Believes in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.
The Atonement of Jesus Was:
Jesus is the Lamb of God whose sacrificial offering of Himself removes the sin barrier between humanity and a holy God (John 1:29 Ephesians 5:2 I Corinthians 5:7).
Vicarious means to serve in place of something or someone else. Jesus did not die for Himself but for us (Romans 5:8 2 Corinthians 5:21).
The sacrifice of Jesus was substitutionary. He bore our sin, took the wrath of God that was released against us upon Himself and died our death in our place as our Divine Substitute (I Peter 2:24).
There is nothing that humanity, separated from God by sin, can do to regain God’s favor. It is God who has provided the holy Lamb which removes the offending sin and now God can show mercy to the repentant, believing sinner. Jesus then is the satisfaction for our sins (Romans 3:24,25 I John 2:2 4:10 Hebrews 2:17).
The holy, satisfactory sacrifice of Jesus does not change God’s heart toward the sinner, for God is unchanging in His mercy and His holiness. But our sin, which separated us from God and created a barrier of offense, is removed and now the grace and mercy of God can be poured out on the forgiven sinner.
Jesus said, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). The word which we translate ransom is lutron which means the price of redemption. It is used of the money paid to ransom prisoners of war or to purchase the freedom of a slave. We were redeemed from slavery to sin and death and the price of our ransom or redemption is the life blood of Jesus (I Timothy 2:6 Ephesians 1:7 I Peter 1:18,19).
“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). The sacrifice of Jesus stretches backward in time and forward into eternity.
The cross of Jesus is not a legend or a doctrine. It is a historical event performed by the eternal God in time. It happened at a particular place at a particular time for people alive in history at that time and on behalf of people of faith before and beyond that time.
Before he died, Jesus shouted, “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is actually one word: Tetelestai, which means perfectly complete. Once, for all time and for all people who would believe in Him, Jesus offered Himself as the holy Sacrifice for sin. There does not need to ever be another sacrifice for sin because this one was perfect and complete.
God has, “Rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Colossians 1:13,14). On the cross, Jesus triumphed over the powers of darkness on our behalf. He broke Satan’s power to enslave us through sin and death.
10. Eternally Purposed
Jesus, though publicly attested by wonders and signs, was delivered to death by godless men. But He was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23,24). The crucifixion of Christ was not a surprise, a random event or unexpected defeat of God’s salvation purpose. It was the predetermined center of God’s purpose and the perpetrators were unwittingly fulfilling the eternal counsel of God.
1. How does the cross reveal the wrath of God?
2. How does the cross reveal the mercy of God?
3. What do we mean when we say that the death of Jesus was substitutionary?