In the previous article, we began a study on the very heart of the gospel, the bedrock foundation of Christianity itself: the nature of the atonement of Christ. We framed our study around the question: “What really happened on the cross?” Now, anyone acquainted with the rudiments of Christianity is familiar with the historical narrative of the crucifixion. All four Gospels vividly picture the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the scourging, the crucifixion, and the death of Jesus Christ. We understand the events that took place. But the rest of the New Testament, when read in the light of its Old Testament background, gives us insight into the significance of the death of Christ—things you would not know anything about even if you were with the disciples in the garden, with Pilate in the Praetorium, and with Mary at the cross. The theological significance of what happened on the cross is so inexhaustible that it will be the centerpiece of our praise in heaven (cf. Rev 5:9). Christ’s people will celebrate for eternity the blessings of what really happened on the cross. But that celebration begins even now, as we devote ourselves to understanding God’s revelation concerning the theological significance of the atonement.
Previously, we argued that the most fundamental characterization one can make of the atonement is that it is a work of penal substitution—the Lord Jesus suffering the penalty for the sins of His people as a substitute for them. Then, we claimed that we might further define this penal substitutionary atonement according to five key themes, or motifs: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, and conquest. The former article examined the first two of those in detail. In this article, we will devote ourselves to the final three, as we seek to gain a richer understanding of what Christ has accomplished on the cross for those who trust in Him. And we devote ourselves to such study because our theology is the ground and the fuel for our doxology. Our praise to Christ soars only so high as our understanding of His glorious person and work is rooted in the rich soil of God’s Word. The heights of our worship will never exceed the depths of our theology. The followers of Jesus devote our minds to truth in order to enflame our hearts with worthy worship.
In addition to being a substitutionary sacrifice and a propitiation, Christ’s atonement is also the means of reconciliation between God and man. Man’s sin has not only incurred guilt (which requires sacrifice) and aroused God’s wrath (which requires propitiation). Sin has also effected hostility between God and man which must be overcome.
This alienation is pictured vividly throughout Scripture. In the Garden, after Adam and Eve sinned, Scripture records, “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8). It seems it was a regular occurrence for the holy presence of God to be moving about in the Garden. God would have had what could be described as face-to-face communion with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. Yet after disobeying God, their immediate instinct was to hide from Him and avoid his fellowship. Before our first parents had even seen the Lord again, the presence of sin had already fundamentally altered their relationship. Eventually, Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, cut off from the holy presence of their God (Gen 3:22–24).
In Israel’s history, God’s separation from sinful man is powerfully illustrated by the threefold barrier of the tabernacle and temple. The tabernacle and the temple were where God uniquely manifested His presence, but because of sin there was a threefold separation between God’s people and God’s presence. First, there was the outer court, which was accessible only to those who were bringing substitutionary sacrifices for their sins. Second, there was the holy place, which was accessible only to the priests who offered sacrifices for the people. And third, there was the holy of holies, or the most holy place, which was accessible only to the high priest only on the Day of Atonement, when he would make propitiation for the sins of the entire nation. Consider how far mankind had fallen. Adam and Eve once enjoyed face-to-face fellowship with God in the cool of the day; now blood had to be shed for one person in all of Israel to enter the presence of the Lord on one day of the year. The lesson? Sin separates from God.
The prophet Isaiah comments on this broken relationship when he says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear [you]” (Isa 59:2). We who were created for intimate friendship with our Creator have become His enemies (Rom 5:10), alienated from God, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds (Col 1:21). In Romans 8:7, Paul says, “The mind set on the flesh”—which is to say the fleshly human mind in its natural state—“is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” This is our miserable condition. And yet it is precisely here, in the depth of our need, that the atoning work of Christ meets us with saving power. The atonement is a work of reconciliation, whereby the ground of the enmity and hostility and alienation between God and man is removed and peace is accomplished. Note the emphasis:
- Romans 5:10–11: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:18–19: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
- In Ephesians 2:16, Paul speaks of Christ reconciling both Jews and Gentiles “in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”
- And in Colossians 1:20–22, Paul writes, God was pleased “through him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”
In a real sense, Reconciliation is the most ultimate work of Christ’s cross, because it accomplishes the ground of the peace with God that we enjoy through our justification (Rom 5:1). Click To Tweet Because of Christ’s atonement, we who were separated from the God we were created to know and worship will be restored to loving fellowship with Him. As Peter says “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18). This verse speaks of both the judicial and relational aspects of Christ’s work on our behalf. There is the judicial reality of the cross: Christ pays the penalty of our sin as our Substitute. Then, the next phrase tells us the “why” of Christ’s penal substitution: “. . . so that He might bring us to God.” This is the very goal of our salvation: restoring us to the all-satisfying, unspeakably glorious, consummately delightful God from whom our sins had cut us off. The glorious truths of propitiation, redemption, justification, forgiveness, and freedom from punishment (and more) all just get stuff out of the way so that we can get to Him. They exist to give us access to the Father (Eph 2:18), in whose presence is fullness of joy, and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11). What makes the gospel good news is not simply that our sins are forgiven, that we get out of hell, that we do not feel guilty anymore, or that we get to see our friends and family in heaven. The very bottom of why the gospel is good news is because it reconciles us to the God who makes heaven heaven. Our sin had cut us off from Him—this magnificent treasure, this ocean of delight. And the cross of Christ overcomes the alienation and hostility that exists between us and God, and purchases the reconciliation that brings us back to Him.
A fourth motif that Scripture employs to describe the work of Christ’s atonement is redemption. The concept of redemption is fundamentally commercial language. The Greek terms agorazō and exagorazō which both derive from the word agora, which means “marketplace,” and thus “to redeem” means to purchase out of the marketplace. Another word the New Testament uses for redemption is lutroō, which speaks of a purchase by the payment of a ransom. Putting the two together, we discover that a key concept of redemption is slavery. Slaves were redeemed by the payment of a ransom.
For an example, we might turn to Leviticus 25, the first extended instruction on the laws of redemption in the Old Testament. When an Israelite had become so poor that he had to sell himself into slavery, God’s law made provision for him to be redeemed out of slavery by his family members. And the language used is consistently commercial. In verses 47 to 52, we read of the “purchaser” (v. 50), the “price” (v. 50), the “purchase price” (v. 51)—which is the same word for ransom—and “refund” (v. 52). This is the language of the market, of buying and selling. The family of the one who had been sold into slavery could redeem him by the payment of a ransom price.
In a similar way, Scripture testifies that man is in the bondage of slavery—that we are so beholden to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (cf. 1 John 2:15–17), that we are properly said to be enslaved to our sin (cf. John 8:34; Rom 6:16–18; 2 Pet 2:19). And our slavery is so pervasive that it extends even to our hearts: our slave-master has deceived us into loving our slavery.
But thanks be to God that Scripture teaches Christ has come to redeem His people from the bondage of our slavery, to purchase us out of the slave-market of sin by the payment of the ransom price of His own life. Paul declares, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5–6) Jesus Himself says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The mission of His incarnation was a work of ransom, of which His own life was the ransom price that would be given in the stead of the many sinners whose freedom He purchased.
Therefore, Paul tells the Corinthians that they had been bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20). In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, he says that God purchased His church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). The apostle Peter says that we were redeemed “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18–19). And the apostle John records the saints’ heavenly worship of the risen Christ for his atoning work of redemption: “Worthy are You . . . for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).
Redeemed from the Penalty of Sin
But from what, specifically, did Christ redeem us? Galatians 4:4 teaches that “. . . when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Christ had come to redeem us who were in bondage under the law. What, then, does it mean to be in bondage under the law? Just a chapter earlier Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law” (Gal 3:13). The law of God has always brought with it promised blessings for obedience and promised curses for disobedience. Man can try to attain righteousness by his own good works; it is just that the standard of God’s law requires perfect obedience (cf. Gal 3:10; Jas 2:10). Yet because all without exception have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), all without exception have come under that curse. But it is from the bondage of this curse of spiritual death and destruction that Christ has redeemed His people: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Rather than letting us suffer the penalty of the curse for ourselves, He has redeemed us by bearing that penalty in our place.
Redeemed from the Power of Sin
In addition to redeeming us from the curse of the law, Scripture speaks of Christ having redeemed us from sin itself. The Bible says that in our natural state, men and women are “slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6), for we are slaves of the one we obey (cf. Rom 6:16). Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). Every aspect of the natural man’s being—mind, desires, and will—is held captive by sin. And if you die in that bondage, you will never be free from it.
Precisely because this was our miserable condition, Christ has redeemed His people from sin by paying the ransom price of His blood. He has redeemed us from the enslaving penalty of sin: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph 1:7). He has redeemed us from the enslaving power of sin: Christ “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). This means that the atoning work of Christ has not only purchased freedom from sin’s legal penalty in justification, but also freedom from sin’s power and reign in our lives, which is our progressive sanctification. While we were still enslaved, sin ruled over us as a cruel taskmaster; we had no hope of being freed from its bondage. But by the mighty sufficiency of the blood of Christ, sin no longer has dominion in the soul of the believer. Sin has been dethroned in the regenerated heart! Therefore, God’s people have the power to overcome and subdue sin in our lives through the Spirit who dwells in us.
Not only do we have the power to overcome sin, but we have the obligation to do so. Paul puts it simply: “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Christian, you are not your own; you have been bought with a price. You have been redeemed out of the slave market of sin, and you are now free in regard to sin. But do not let it escape your notice that you were redeemed out of that slave market by another Master: “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. . . . But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom 6:18, 22). God the Son has redeemed us out of slavery to sin at the ransom price of His own blood. We are not our own. Christ owns us. He is our Master, and it is our privilege to be willing and happy slaves of righteousness. The redeeming blood of Christ gives us both the power and the responsibility to live lives that are honoring to God.
Redeemed from the Presence of Sin
But Christ’s redemption does not merely secure our freedom from the penalty and power of sin in the present. The atonement secures our freedom even from the presence of sin in the future. In Romans 8:23, Paul comments on how believers “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” The perfect redemption that Christ purchased for us stops neither at justification nor sanctification. The redeeming and conquering power of the blood of Christ will finish its job, and will finally eliminate all trace of sin even from our bodies at our glorification. While we are in this body, we groan (Rom 8:23), because our outer man is decaying (2 Cor 4:16) and because we are weary of the fight against our sin (2 Cor 5:2, 4). But precisely because Christ has purchased us, we look forward to a day when even our lowly, frail, decaying, sin-sick bodies will be free from all evidences of the curse of sin. Christ has purchased all of us, not merely our souls. He has purchased us as whole persons; soul and body belong to Him. And Christ means to get what He paid for! Therefore, there is coming a day when this perishable will put on the imperishable, and this mortal will put on immortality (1 Cor 15:53), for the cross of Christ has secured not only the inauguration of our salvation, but also its consummation.
Finally, in addition to being a sacrifice and a propitiation, and having accomplished reconciliation and redemption, Christ’s death was also a work of conquest.
Since man’s fall into sin, the entire creation has groaned under sin’s curse (Rom 8:19–22). Because of that, Scripture speaks of this whole world as under the rule of Satan. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” says the apostle John (1 John 5:19). Paul adds that Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2). There is a pretender to the throne of this world who has been given an enormous amount of leniency by its true King. But from the very beginning, God has promised that the true King—the seed of the woman—would crush the head of the serpent and destroy His work (Gen 3:15). Thus, in the fullness of time, when the Son of God came to be a sacrifice for sin, to turn away God’s wrath as a propitiation, to accomplish reconciliation between God and man, and to redeem His people from the slavery of sin, He also came to conquer the pretender to His throne. The apostle John puts it succinctly: “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Even during His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus demonstrated His power over Satan by casting out demons at His will (Matt 12:28; Mark 1:34, 39). In Luke 11:21–22, He speaks of His relationship to the ruler of demons: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder.” Dear reader, someone stronger than Satan has attacked and overpowered him, and, paradoxically, through His glorious sacrifice of humiliation, Christ has plundered the devil’s house and freed Satan’s captives. And so as he nears the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus declares, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31), and “the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11). By the conquering work of His cross, Jesus has dealt the decisive death blow to Satan and his kingdom of darkness.
In Colossians 2, Paul says that when Christ forgave us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, setting it aside by nailing it to the cross, he removed the basis of all of Satan’s accusations against us. Therefore, Paul writes, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15 ESV).
Perhaps the most decisive text concerning Jesus’ conquest is Hebrews 2:14–15, which says, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” If you were to survey one hundred people on the street and ask them what their greatest fear is, and if they answered honestly, at least ninety of them would answer that their greatest fear is death. For those without the sure hope of eternal life in Christ, death is the great unknown. It is the last enemy. Hebrews 2 says that human beings are so afraid of death that we are subject to slavery all our lives. And it is self-evident how the fear of death controls people. What great lengths they go to, what enormous sacrifices they make, what inestimable sums of money are paid all to forestall the inevitable! But through the paradoxical triumph of Christ’s death, he rendered the devil powerless, and delivered those who are slaves to the fear of death, by conquering the great enemy of death, and securing eternal life.
And on the third day, Jesus displayed his conquest over the power of sin and death by rising from the grave: “God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). Because Christ has been raised, and because we are promised to be raised with Him through repentance and faith in the gospel, the agony of death has been ended. The tyrannical slavery that is fueled by the fear of death is broken. The believer in Christ has nothing to fear in death, because to be absent from the body in death is to be present with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor 5:8). Click To Tweet
In the first chapter of Revelation, the apostle John falls like a dead man before the ascended Christ. Jesus replies, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev 1:17). Now, Hebrews 2 said that Satan held the power of death. But because of the death and resurrection of Christ, Jesus has not only broken free from death’s bonds, but He is now the ruler over death. He has its keys! He has the control over who is released and retained in that realm (cf. Beale, 191). And if He is in control over death, we who are His people need not fear death at all. Just as He said to the grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25–26). And so we sing in triumph with the apostle Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory! ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:56).
Dear friends, our great Champion, the Lord Jesus Christ, has accomplished all this by the blood of His cross. The guilt of our sin demanded the penalty of death, and so the Lamb of God was slain as an expiatory sacrifice on our behalf. The wrath of God was kindled against our sin, and so Christ was set forth as a propitiation to bear that wrath in our place. The pollution of our sin alienated us from God and aroused his holy fury against us, and so by atoning for sin Christ has reconciled God to man. Obedient to sin, man was in bondage to sin through the law that exposed sin in our lives, and so Christ has paid the ransom price of His precious blood to redeem us from such slavery. And in doing so, He has plundered Satan’s house, conquering death and its captain by the exercise of His own power.
Dear reader, let your heart sing in praise to Christ for the infinite fullness and worth of his blood. How perfectly suitable is this Almighty Savior to your miserable condition in sin! You are guilty and condemned before the law of God, and yet in Christ you have a sacrifice that washes away your stains. The wrath of God burns hot against you, and yet in Christ you have a propitiation that swallows up that bitter cup of wrath even down to the dregs. You are alienated from the God you were created to know, cut off from Him in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore, and yet in Christ you have the reconciliation that restores you to delightful fellowship with God Himself. You are a slave to your lusts and passions, sold in bondage to sin—so enslaved to your taskmaster that you have been deceived to love your slavery. And even if you had the inclination, you have no means by which to purchase your freedom. Yet in Christ you have the precious blood of a spotless lamb paid as the ransom price of your redemption. Every need you could possibly have is fully satisfied by the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
That is what really happened on the cross. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!