As I am writing this blog, today’s date is Friday, April 2nd, 2021. More importantly, today is known as “Good Friday” where Christians around the world are celebrating and giving special attention to the death of Jesus on the cross. The cross is central to Christianity and the gospel. In fact, the cross is the universal symbol for Christianity. Martin Luther called Christianity a “theology of the cross.” Without the cross, there is no Christianity.
However, have you ever wondered why Christians call today “good” Friday? Why would we celebrate a death by crucifixion? What happened that day roughly two thousand years ago that Christians would deem as “good”? The answer to those questions is found, not in the mere act of crucifixion, but what was accomplished or “finished” in the atonement of Jesus Christ.
What is an Atonement?
To atone is to make amends, or to make things right. So as we look at the atonement of Jesus, we are going to be studying what Jesus made right, or, what Jesus restored for His people through His death on the cross. Wayne Grudem defines the Christian atonement of Jesus this way, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.” Thus, the atonement of Jesus is all about what Jesus accomplished on behalf of the elect (those the Father has chosen unto salvation per Ephesians 1:3-4) in His death. You might ask, “what did Jesus accomplish, or finish (John 19:30)?” To answer that question we must first understand what Jesus accomplished in His life.
What Jesus Accomplished in His Life
A good question to ask is why is the atonement of Jesus even necessary? Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Could God not have saved people who had transgressed His law some other way? Well, before we answer questions like these, we need to understand that the atonement of Jesus in one sense was not necessary in that God did not have to save anyone. God was not forced to create the plan of redemption on behalf of sinners. God would have been completely just in allowing sinners to perish under His own wrath for our willful sin against Him. If God did not spare even angels when they sinned, then He would have remained just in not sparing us – “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, NASB95).
But because God in His love chose to make a way for salvation through His Son (John 3:16), the atonement of Jesus was completely necessary. Furthermore, since the atonement sacrifices of animals before God in the Old Testament were unable to forgive sins permanently (Hebrews 10:4) but symbolized the permanent payment for sin in the person of Jesus, the atonement of Jesus was necessary. In the incarnation, Jesus had to become truly human in addition with His divine nature so that Jesus could be a representative for mankind – a better Adam (Romans 5:14-21).
If Jesus were not a human being, He could not have atoned for the sins of human beings (Hebrews 2:17). Thus, Jesus willfully humbled Himself and added humanity to His divine nature and became like one of us. He was born of a virgin and lived, being tempted in every way as we are yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), living a perfect life in obedience to God’s law.
It was necessary that Jesus not only die on the cross for His people, bearing the wrath of God the Father on Himself for their sins, but it was also necessary that prior to Jesus’ death that He lived a perfect life earning righteousness that would be imputed (or given) to His people by grace through faith. If Christ only came to earth and died on the cross earning forgiveness for His people without the life He lived, then believers would still never go to heaven. We would simply go back to a state of purity as Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden before they had sinned, only to sin again and need another atonement to cover our sins. Therefore, the life of Jesus was necessary because in His sinless life He earned perfect righteousness on their behalf making salvation possible.
Furthermore, Jesus obeyed the law of God on our behalf so that the merit of His perfect obedience would be counted to us. In theology, this is called the “Active Obedience” of Christ. The apostle Paul in Philippians 3:9 refers to this righteousness of Jesus that is now his own by faith, He says, “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” So the apostle Paul, and us too, do not just need to be forgiven for our past, present, and future sins; we need righteousness, perfect righteousness at that.
This righteousness is only found in the person of Christ. Jesus did not need righteousness for His own sake, for He was sinless. But we who are broken, fallen, and weary due to our sin do need righteousness outside of ourselves to receive a sure salvation that is not rooted in our own sin-stained works, but the perfect works of Christ.
What Jesus Accomplished in His Death
Having looked at the necessity of Jesus’ life, we now come to study His death on the cross. First and foremost His death was for the sake of God’s own glory. In the Old Testament, sins were passed over through temporary atonement sacrifices where punishment on the sinner would not be inflicted immediately. This begged the question, how could a holy God (Isaiah 6:3) get away with this? God remained just in passing over sins previously committed in the Old Testament because God was looking forward to Jesus where He would bear the full payment for the guilt of sin on behalf of the elect. So for God to remain righteous and just, Jesus willfully went to the cross to display that a Holy God does not dismiss sin without a payment.
The cross of Jesus Christ is our glaring reminder that God does not take sin lightly and that no sin goes unpunished. God takes sin so seriously that it took the second person of the Trinity Himself to come to earth, adding humanity to His divine nature, live the perfectly obedient life we never could, and die in the place of the elect taking the punishment that was due them because of their sin. This is what was necessary if anyone was going to be saved!
There is no divine rug that God sweeps sin under as if it does not offend His holiness. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 3:25-26 referring to Jesus on the cross, “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The cross was proof that God was still righteous and just. The Bible reminds us that the wrath of God is poured out on Christ on the cross in our place, or the wrath of God is poured out on us in Hell. Either way, God always deals with sin.
Paul uses the word propitiation in Romans 3:25, and this word means to appease; and in the case of Christ on the cross Jesus’ death was to appease the wrath of God on sin. What significance is this? This means that the death of Christ did not atone for the sins of the entire world. Jesus did not just die for the possibility of salvation, but on the cross He actually atoned for the real sins of specific people. In other words, people were actually saved on the cross. This is why the apostle Paul can relate to the cross of Christ personally in Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ…”.
If Jesus died for every person who has ever walked on the face of planet earth in such a way that He appeased the wrath of God due to their sin then the theological doctrine of Universalism would be true — meaning that no one would be in Hell for everyone’s sins were atoned for. The theological term for what the Bible teaches regarding the atonement is called “Limited Atonement” or “Definite Atonement.”
This means that Jesus died for a specific remnant or people and atoned for their sins, and the Bible says that these people are those whom the Father had given Christ before the foundation of the world (John 6:37-40; Ephesians 1:4-5). These people are those who trusted in the promises of God alone in the Old Testament, and those who will trust in Jesus alone in the New Testament age and now for salvation.
Consider this, if the election of the Father (Ephesians 1:3-12) was not universal, and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-28) was not universal, then why would the atonement of Jesus Christ be universal? That would put the persons of the Godhead at odds with one another. No orthodox protestant Bible teacher would say that the whole world is the “elect of God”, Reformed or not, and no one would say that everyone is regenerated or born-again. So if these works of God are limited, why would the effect of the cross not be as well?
The Bible explicitly teaches that the atonement of Jesus Christ is definite, simply meaning that Jesus died only for those whom God has chosen to save by His mercy (Romans 9:16-23).
Consider these passages:
John 10:11 – “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Matthew 20:28 – “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Hebrews 9:28 – “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.”
The whole of Scripture in the New Testament, and I would say even in the Old Testament symbols of the atonement of Jesus, point to a definite atonement where Jesus is not just dying on the cross, hoping that His death saves some, but is actually dying in the place of all whom the Father has given Him (John 6:37-40), securing their salvation.
Sinners do not just need the life of Jesus, but we also need the death of Jesus. For what Jesus accomplished in His life on behalf of those whom the Father had given Him came to a climax at the cross as Jesus became their substitute on the cross, bearing the wrath of God the Father, not for His own sin, but for the sin of the elect. You see, on the cross we see the love of God and the wrath of God come together.
The love of God in that Jesus was not forced to the cross, but joyfully gave Himself up for sinners – “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But we also see the wrath of God poured out on Jesus, to the point that Jesus experiences being forsaken from God the Father and their fellowship that Christ had enjoyed eternally with Him as Jesus was enduring God’s wrath upon Himself for the sin of the elect. Jesus says in Matthew 27:46, “‘Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?‘ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'” Jesus was forsaken so that God’s people would not be.
Furthermore, what Jesus accomplished on the cross is what theologians call the “Great Exchange”, meaning that on the cross Jesus took the sin of His people and became their substitute – dying the death they deserve and bearing the wrath and punishment from God the Father that their sins justly earned. The prophet Isaiah, 700 years before Jesus came to earth in the incarnation, prophesied of the death of Christ in this way: “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NASB95).
Again, no orthodox Christian would say that Jesus bore the sins of all people on the cross in a way that led to salvation for all people. “Universalism” is a heresy that denies the Biblical reality of Hell. So if Jesus paid for sins on the cross, then the benefits of the cross must only go to those who trust in the gospel of God’s grace – that salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, according to Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone.
Many Christians today unfortunately treat the cross as some retroactive event where Jesus did not bear the wrath of specific sins for specific people, but made an atonement that had the possibility of saving no one. They believe that when someone trusts in Jesus, then in some retroactive way Jesus dies a substitutionary death for them without having done so when the event actually occurred. This is a bad theology that attempts to rob God of His glory in Christ dying only for those whom the Father has given Him, securing their salvation and it becoming realized to the Christian at the moment God regenerates them in their life by grace through faith.
The Bible is clear – “These whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:30, NASB95). Notice who is the initiator of the “golden chain of salvation” – God, not the sinner. Salvation is of the Lord (Psalm 3:8) and those whom God has predestined, Christ atoned for; because if He did not then they would have no hope for being called, justified, and glorified.
So the crucial question is this – did Jesus atone for your sins? If you will turn from your sin and trust in Jesus and His finished work on the cross as being sufficient to save you then YES! Faith is a gift of grace given by God (Ephesians 2:8-9), therefore if you have any type of faith toward Jesus, no matter how small, then that is a sign that God has chosen you unto salvation and your sins were atoned for on the cross of Christ.
When Jesus said “it is finished” in John 19:30, what He finished was atoning for your sins and securing the righteousness you need for salvation to be received as a gift of grace through faith alone. Jesus never turns away a weary sinner, in fact He calls all sinners who sins make them weary to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Are you weary? Do you need rest? Come to Jesus. His burden is light. Your coming to Him will reveal, even if you did not know, that He first came to you in redeeming love (1 John 4:19).