What Really Happened on the Cross? Part 1
Sacrifice and Propitiation
by Mike Riccardi
The atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross stands at the very epicenter of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that the cross-work of Christ is the heart of the gospel. When the apostle Paul summarized the gospel he preached, he encapsulated it by speaking of the atonement: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). The cross is the content of the gospel itself, for “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). The gospel message by which we are saved is “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18). The eighteenth-century slave-ship captain turned Puritan preacher, John Newton, captured it well when he said, “I advise you by all means to keep close to the atonement. The doctrine of the cross is the sun in the system of truth.”
One way to “keep close” to the atonement is to ensure we understand precisely what happened on the cross. We’re likely familiar with the events of the crucifixion, but the significance of those events is so boundless that it will be the theme of the saints’ praise for eternity (Rev 4–5). Despite this, there has been, historically, and there is, today, great confusion concerning this central and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. We must therefore ask of the text of Scripture, “What really happened on the cross? What is it that Jesus has accomplished in His work of atonement? What is the biblical significance of what our Savior has done on our behalf?”
The most fundamental description one can give to the atonement is that it is a work of penal substitution. The cross is not a ransom payment to Satan; the chief captive of hell is in no position to demand ransom payments from God. The cross is not an illustration of God’s general moral government of the world. Still less is the cross God’s declaration of the value and worth of humanity, except as it testifies to the depth of our sinfulness. Neither is the cross merely a cosmic victory of good over evil or a good example for Christians to imitate. Most fundamentally, the cross is a work of penal substitution—the Lord Jesus suffering the penalty for the sins of His people as a substitute for them. In His great love, the Father appointed the Son to stand in our place, to bear our sin, to carry our guilt, to receive our punishment, and thereby to satisfy the righteous wrath of God against us.
The Lord Jesus is the Suffering Servant who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa 53:4), who “bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:12). On the cross, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6), and so “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11). He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) by taking that sin upon Himself. The Father “made [Jesus] to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor 5:21); our guilt was counted to be His. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13), in our place. “He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross . . . for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Simply put, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isa 53:5; cf. also, e.g., Mark 10:45; 2 Cor 8:9; 1 Pet 3:18; Gal 2:20). Penal substitutionary atonement is woven into the very fabric of God’s revelation from beginning to end, because it is the very heart of the gospel message.
But we ought to press further and ask, “What precisely is the character of this substitutionary atonement? What exactly did Christ accomplish on the cross?” Scripture answers with at least five themes, or motifs, of the atonement: (1) it is a work of substitutionary sacrifice, in which the Savior bore the penalty of sin in the place of sinners (1 Pet 2:24); (2) it is a work of propitiation, in which God’s wrath against sinners is fully satisfied and exhausted in the person of their substitute (Rom 3:25); (3) itis a work of reconciliation, in which sinful man’s alienation from God is overcome and peace is made through the blood of the cross (Col 1:20); (4) it is a work of redemption, in which those enslaved to sin are ransomed by the precious blood of the Lamb’s (1 Pet 1:18–19); and (5) it is a work of conquest, in which sin, death, and Satan are defeated by the power of a victorious Savior (Heb 2:14–15). Each of those five motifs is worthy of our reflection and consideration.
First, Scripture characterizes the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ as a sacrifice (e.g., Eph 5:2; Heb 9:26). This imagery draws from the Old Testament’s prescriptions for Israel’s sacrificial worship to God under the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Heb. 9:23), outlined most thoroughly in the Book of Leviticus. As Leviticus begins, the tabernacle has been completed, and the glory of God has come and filled the tabernacle, signifying that the spiritual presence of Yahweh is now dwelling in the midst of His people (cite Lev?Exod 40:34–38). The presence of God, then, becomes a key theme in Leviticus, as the phrase “before the Lord” or “in the presence of the Lord” appears fifty-nine times. Further, Leviticus teaches that this God who is present is also holy; the terms holy and holiness appear 150 times, more frequently than any other book. Thus, Leviticus answers the question: “How can the holy presence of God dwell in the midst of a sinful people?” The answer God gives is that sinners are to make sacrifices to the Lord that will atone for their sin and render them acceptable in his presence. The worshiper “shall offer [his sacrifice] at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf” (Lev. 1:3–4). Immediately we are confronted with penal substitutionary atonement by sacrifice.
The pinnacle of the sacrificial system was the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement. Once a year, the high priest of Israel was to enter the holy of holies into God’s presence in order to “make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel” (Lev 16:17). He was to offer two goats, one to be sacrificed to God and the other to bear the sins of the people and be banished from the Lord’s presence (Lev 16:8–10). The blood of the sacrificial goat was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the place where atonement was made (Lev 16:15). With regard to the scapegoat, “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Lev 16:21–22).
By laying his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessing all Israel’s sins over it, the high priest symbolized that God had reckoned the sin and guilt of the people to be transferred to the goat. Instead of bearing their own iniquity and being banished from the holy presence of God, Israel’s sin was imputed to a substitute. The innocent scapegoat bears the sin, and guilt, and punishment of the people and is banished in their place. By sprinkling the sacrificial blood of one substitute on the mercy seat, and by virtue of the imputation of sin to a second substitute, Israel’s sins are atoned for and the people are released from punishment.
The only other picture of Old Testament sacrifice that rivals the Day of Atonement in Israel is the Passover sacrifice. As the Lord was about to send the tenth plague upon Egypt, He promised to kill every firstborn child and animal throughout the land. And though Israel had been spared from the first nine plagues, they were not automatically spared from the tenth, because they had fallen into idolatry and worshiped the gods of Egypt (cf. Ezek 20:8). In order to be spared from God’s wrath, He required each family to kill an unblemished lamb and to put its blood on the doorposts of the house (Exod 12:13). The Passover lamb died as a substitute for the firstborn children of Israel. The wrath of God was turned away by the blood of a spotless lamb slain in their place. Yahweh forgave Israel’s sins by a substitutionary sacrifice (Exod 12:27).
Both the Levitical sacrifices as epitomized in the Day of Atonement and the rite of the Passover vividly picture the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Passover meal was the setting of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, when He instituted the New Covenant, declaring that His body would be broken for them, and that the cup poured out for them was “the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20). At this Passover meal, Christ declared that the breaking of His body and the pouring out of His blood would be the fulfillment of the Passover. He is, as John the Baptist heralded, “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29), whose “precious blood . . . as of a lamb unblemished and spotless” redeems God’s people (1 Pet 1:18–19), “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Just as the blood of the slain lamb protected Israel from the execution of God’s judgment, so also does the blood of the slain Lamb, Jesus, protect His people from the Father’s wrath against their sin.
Jesus is also the fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system. While God graciously allowed Himself to be temporarily satisfied by Israel’s sacrifices, those sacrifices were never truly final or perfectly efficacious (Heb 9:9; 10:1, 4). That is why there had to be a greater, perfect sacrifice that would put away sin once for all: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, He entered then through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11–12). The parallel imagery is astounding. Just as the high priest entered beyond the veil into the most holy place, so also Christ is the “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb 4:14) and entered beyond the veil of the heavenly tabernacle into the very presence of God Himself. While the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial goat on the mercy seat to make atonement, the Lord Jesus sprinkled His own blood. And inasmuch as His blood is infinitely more valuable than that of goats and calves—inasmuch as His blood speaks better than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24)—He secured an eternal redemption. Our great Mediator and Substitute is the fulfillment of both the high priest and the sacrifice. He is both offerer and offering, for “He offered Himself” (Heb 9:14).
Not only this, but Jesus is also the fulfillment of the mercy seat. The high priest was commanded to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat, where God’s holy presence was uniquely manifest for fellowship with Israel (Exod 25:22; Lev 16:2) This is a holy place that cannot be entered except under the strictest of circumstances by the most qualified in the nation. And yet the apostle Paul declares that God displayed Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom 3:25). And that word “propitiation” is actually the word for propitiatory—the Greek word that translates the Hebrew term for the mercy seat in the holy of holies. Just as the mercy seat was the place where atonement was made and God’s wrath against sin was averted, so now is Jesus the place where atonement is made and God’s wrath against sin is averted. The Lord Jesus Christ is the high priest who offers, the sacrifice that is offered, and the mercy seat upon which the sacrifice is offered!
And still further, He is also the fulfillment of the scapegoat. Just as the high priest confessed Israel’s sins over the head of the scapegoat, such that their sins were laid on the goat, so also has the Father “caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa 53:6). The Father imputed to Jesus every sin of every person who would ever believe (2 Cor 5:21), so that it can truly be said that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24). As the midday sun is shrouded in darkness, the Father is, as it were, laying his hands on the head of the Son, and confessing over Him the sins of His people. And as a result of bearing their sin, like the scapegoat the Son is banished from the presence of the Father, leaving him to suffer outside the gate (Heb 13:12), and to experience the terrifying abandonment of His Father, leaving Him to cry out those wretched words: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” God the Son—from eternity the apple of His Father’s eye, His ever-present companion, in whom His soul was always well-pleased—was forsaken by the Father, as He laid upon Christ the iniquity of us all, and abandoned Him to bear the unleashed fury of Almighty God in the place of His people.
“Outside the camp,” away from the presence of the Lord and of His people, was where the carcasses of the sacrifices were to be disposed (Lev 4:12; Heb 13:11), where the leper was isolated to bear his shame (Lev 13:46), where the blasphemer was stoned (Lev 24:14, 23). It is to that place of shame and of isolation that the Son of God was banished, so that we guilty, treasonous, sinful sons and daughters of Adam might be welcomed into the holy presence of God.
Dear sinner, if the Son of God has humbled Himself to such a place of degradation and shame, will you not humble yourself before His cross? Dear reader, if you are without Christ, humble yourself and come to Him who has died for sinners. Turn from your sins and put your trust in the precious blood of this spotless Lamb slain for your salvation.
A second motif Scripture employs to describe the atonement is propitiation. Christ’s death is not only a sacrifice, but a propitiatory sacrifice. The word propitiation just means appeasement or satisfaction. And when applied to the atonement, it communicates that by receiving in Himself the full exercise of the Father’s wrath against the sins of His people, the Lord Jesus Christ satisfied the Father’s righteous anger, and thus turned away His wrath from us who, were it not for our Substitute, were bound to suffer under that wrath for ourselves.
Four key texts explicitly identify Christ’s work as a propitiation: Romans 3:24–25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10. However, some have objected that these passages have been mistranslated, and argue that the Greek term does not mean “wrath-averting sacrifice.” That would suggest the primitive and obscene notion that God is wrathful toward humanity and must be appeased. Rather than propitiation, these objectors say the hilaskomai word group signifies expiation—the cancellation or removal of sin, without reference to wrath.
But there is clear biblical justification for reading these words as a wrath-averting propitiation, not merely expiation. The Septuagint employs hilaskomai to translate the Hebrew kāphar. While kāphar has a range of meanings—including to forgive (e.g., Lev 4:20), to cleanse (e.g., Lev 14:18–20), and to ransom (e.g., Num 35:29–34), there are several key texts where it is unmistakable that kāphar refers to turning away God’s wrath. For example, when Israel commits idolatry with the golden calf, God responds in wrath (Exod 32:10). But on the next day, Moses tells the people of his intentions to intercede on their behalf: “Now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement (kāphar) for your sin” (Exod 32:30). Moses clearly understood the problem: God’s wrath was kindled against the sin of His people. And his instinctive solution was to try to “make atonement” for their sin, that is, to seek to turn God’s wrath away from His people.
There is a similar scene in Numbers 25. As God was preparing Israel to enter the land of Canaan, the people engaged in sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshiped the gods of Moab (vv. 1–2). Here again, the Lord responds in wrath to His people’s idolatry: “And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel” (v. 3, ESV). That anger was exercised upon them in the form of a plague that killed 24,000 people (v. 9). Verse 4 says that God directed Moses to kill the leaders of Israel so that His wrath might be turned away from them. And just as God said that, another Israelite had brought a Midianite woman to his family’s tent, apparently intending to follow in the immorality of the rest of the people.
Then Phinehas, one of the priests, was so incensed by such outright rebellion that he killed them both (vv. 7–8). As a result of Phinehas’ zeal, God’s wrath was propitiated and the plague was stopped. God then says, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement (kāphar) for the people of Israel” (vv. 11–13). Moses considers the concept of turning back God’s wrath to be synonymous with the term kāphar (see also Num 16:45–59).
Therefore, when the New Testament authors use the same Greek terms that the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew kāphar, it is unmistakable that the hilaskomai word group signifies the concept of propitiation—of wrath-satisfying appeasement—just as it did in the Old Testament. That conclusion is especially inescapable when one considers the contexts in which the term is used. Consider just one of those, in the Book of Romans. Paul spends two chapters detailing how the wrath of God is kindled against the sin of all mankind (1:18) and indicting all the nations of the earth who “knew God” through the creation, but “did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (1:19–21). As a result, God manifested His righteous anger by delivering the Gentiles over to lust and impurity (1:24), to “degrading passions” (1:26), and to “a depraved mind” (1:28). In chapter 2, we learn that the wrath of God abides on the Jews as well, for, though they have the law of God and condemn others for breaking it, they practice the very same unrighteousness as the Gentiles (2:1–4). And so Paul says, “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (v. 5). “Those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness” can expect only “wrath and indignation” (v. 8). In chapter 3 verse 5, Paul calls God “the God who inflicts wrath.” There can be no mistake: God is angry with sinners. Every righteous fiber of His holy being is aroused with just hatred of unrighteousness.
And so this thread of divine wrath has been so woven through this opening section of Romans that the reader is left asking, “If this is the miserable state of sinful mankind—hopeless under the wrath of Almighty God—how will we ever be able to be in a right relationship with Him?” No more important question has ever been asked: How will sinful man escape the wrath of God? And that answer comes to us in Romans 3:21–26, the very heart of the gospel of Christ. God has provided righteousness, but not through the law; we have all broken the law! Not through good works, because we could never perform enough good works to satisfy the inflexible demands of divine holiness and justice! But He has provided righteousness, by publicly displaying his own Son the Lord Jesus Christ, “as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” God Himself has satisfied His own wrath against sin by sprinkling the blood of the spotless Lamb upon the mercy seat of the heavenly altar (cf. Heb. 9:11–15, 23–24). He has punished the sins of His people in a Substitute, and therefore, in unspeakable grace, His wrath has been turned away from us.
How essential this concept of propitiation is to a proper understanding of what happened on the cross! To deny that the atonement was fundamentally a propitiation is to deny that God’s wrath is aroused against sin, or that it must be appeased for man to be granted salvation. But such a denial does violence to the full breadth of biblical revelation. The small sample of texts which we have considered has demonstrated that clearly. Whether it is idolatry in Exodus 32, sexual immorality in Numbers 25, grumbling against the leaders in Numbers 16, or any sin committed by any man, God’s response to human sin is to be justly stirred to holy fury. Because God is holy, righteous, and good, He must punish sin in wrath. And that is why propitiation is so precious. Because Christ’s cross-work is a propitiation, the atonement is a wrath-bearing sacrifice. Sin will not be overlooked; God’s forgiveness does not mean that He just sweeps sin under the rug. He would never so violate His own holiness. He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exod 34:7). The Holy One of Israel will ever and always punish sin in one of two places: sin will be punished in the sinner in hell, or it will be punished in Christ the Substitute on the cross.
Dear reader, behold the glory of the cross. If you are in Christ, every ounce of the unmixed fury that God would have visited upon you in the eternal torments of hell was fully poured out on this Substitute in those three terrible hours on Calvary. Because of that, there is no longer any wrath left for you. God is propitious toward His people, because our sin has been paid for and our punishment has been borne. And so we sing with the saints and angels in heaven in Revelation 5: “Worthy are You, . . . for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation! . . . Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Perhaps the best non-inspired worship song that I know that captures the depth of the theology of penal substitutionary atonement—of propitiatory sacrifice—is a nineteenth-century hymn called “O Christ! What Burdens Bowed Thy Head.” In these six verses we behold the beautiful juxtaposition of Christ’s punishment and the sinner’s freedom, and are compelled to worship the Lamb who bore our wrath:
O Christ! What burdens bowed Thy head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
You stood in the sinner’s stead,
Did bear all ill for me.
A Victim led, Thy blood was shed;
Now there’s no load for me.
Death and the curse were in our cup:
O Christ, ’twas full for Thee;
But Thou hast drained the last dark drop,
‘Tis empty now for me!
That bitter cup, love drank it up;
Now blessing’s draught for me!
Jehovah lifted up His rod;
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Your God;
There’s not one stroke for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood, beneath it flowed;
Thy bruising healeth me.
The tempest’s awful voice was heard,
O Christ, it broke on Thee!
Thy open bosom was my ward,
It braved the storm for me.
Thy form was scarred, Thy visage marred;
Now cloudless peace for me.
Jehovah bade His sword awake;
O Christ, it woke ‘gainst Thee!
Thy blood the flaming blade must slake;
Thine heart its sheath must be;
All for my sake, my peace to make;
Now sleeps that sword for me.
For me, Lord Jesus, Thou hast died,
And I have died in Thee!
[You have risen]—my hands are all untied,
And now Thou livest in me.
When purified, made white and tried,
Thy glory then for me!
The load of sin was my burden to bear, but there is no load for me. The bitter cup of wrath was mine to drink, but now I drink from the stream of overflowing blessings. The rod of God’s anger was for my back; the sword of His wrath was to pierce my heart. But it pierced the heart of the innocent Son of God, and now that sword sleeps for me.
Dear sinner, it can be put to sleep for you as well. What fleeting and false pleasure of sin is worth losing your soul to the flaming blade of God’s wrath? God Himself calls upon you who remain outside Christ to turn from your sin—to put away all hope of attaining righteousness and forgiveness by your own good works—and to look upon this Savior and see in Him all the righteousness and satisfaction that you could hope for. He is the one Mediator between God and men, and He is bruised, scarred, broken, dead, forsaken, and risen for sinners, so that you might know the “cloudless peace” of eternal life. Turn to Him and live!
To my brothers and sisters, this is what happened on the cross. May it be that your theology informs your doxology—that the depth of your understanding causes your worship of the Lord Jesus Christ to rise to new heights.
Mike Riccardi has served on staff Grace Community Church since 2010. He currently serves as the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries, which includes overseeing Fundamentals of the Faith classes, eight foreign language outreach Bible studies, and evangelism in nearby jails, rehab centers, and in the local neighborhood. Mike earned his B.A. in Italian and his M.Ed in Foreign Language from Rutgers University, and his M.Div. and Th.M. from The Master’s Seminary, where he is currently pursuing his PhD while teaching as a Faculty Associate in the Theology Department. He also has the privilege of serving alongside Phil Johnson as co-pastor of the GraceLife fellowship group at Grace Church. Mike and his wife, Janna, have two children.