We want to suggest a better way to understand what the Cross achieved in relation to our human sinful condition. It achieved two things: first a death, and second a resurrection.
1. A DEATH
If there is one thing the apostles clearly taught about Jesus’ death, it was that he did not die as a mere private individual, but rather for the sins of mankind. He died as a representative. While we evangelicals like to emphasise that our death was transferred to Jesus, the NT writers usually tell the story the other way round: we get to share in his death. His death implicates and involves us all.
We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 2 Corinthians 5:14
We have been buried with him by baptism into death. Romans 6:4
This one representative, who was made like us in every way, has taken sinful humanity (‘flesh’) upon himself. And then he, as the representative bit of our ‘flesh’, has taken it down to the grave .
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in sinful flesh like ours, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh. Romans 8:3
He was put to death in the flesh. 1 Peter 3:18
The wrath of God against human sin, the sentence of death upon us, had been left as it were hanging and not yet executed. Though death had been an ever-present plague, yet human life was allowed to continue. In Jesus the sentence was finally and thoroughly carried through. And in that condemnation, human sinful flesh was put an end to. By setting forth Christ as a place of atonement, God was able to finally demonstrate or reveal his justice, his actual response to sin, which had been put off for so long out of concern to spare his children:
God put Christ Jesus forward as a place of atonement by his blood, received through faith. He did this to show his justice, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. Romans 3:25
That forbearance had left sin active. It had left a question unresolved: was God ever really going to deal with sin – really perform the radical surgery needed to eradicate it? Would righteousness (justice) ever be restored and conquer? Or would sin and violence go on triumphing forever? Since Adam the question had never been settled, not even at the flood. Now at the Cross God finally goes to the root of the matter and finishes it off. He condemns sinful flesh and all its hostile divisions once and for ever in its representative, Jesus.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all. Romans 6:10
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death the hostility through it. Ephesians 2:14-16
Better than saying ‘he died the death we deserve’ is to say ‘we died with him’. Jesus in some way took our sinful humanity to the grave and left it buried there for good.
This teaching that Jesus died to put away our sin is summed up in the phrase Paul identifies as the primitive Christian witness about the Cross:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. 1 Corinthians 15:3
“In accordance with the Scriptures”: this was what God had always said must happen to sin: it must die, along with those who embraced it. From the beginning he told Adam, ‘On the day you eat of it, you will surely die.’ When Adam embraced sin, God pronounced the only remedy: ‘to dust you shall return’.
The flood drew a heavy line under this statement about sin: the only way forward for the creation was through the waters of death.
The exodus told Israel much the same story: freedom from slavery and the new birth of the nation was only possible through the death of the Passover night – death both for the sons of Egypt and for the lambs of Israel, whose blood rescued the people.
Israel remembered this sobering reality each year as they re-enacted the Passover and slaughtered the lamb again and again. Life came only through blood.
If that wasn’t enough of an object lesson, God also gave Israel regular animal sacrifices as a perpetual reminder of the claims of sin: blood was called for to deal with and cleanse it. The only way to take away sin was through death.
The scapegoats on the Day of Atonement spelled out God’s intention for dealing with the people’s sin: one was slaughtered, the other driven out of the camp into the wilderness. Exile and death are the way ahead for cleansing the people of their sin.
Eventually the nation itself went into this exile and death, and became their own sacrifice for sin. God handed them over to their enemies:
Be silent before the Lord GOD!
For the day of the LORD is at hand;
the LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.
And on the day of the LORD’S sacrifice
I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
…At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people.
…because they have sinned against the LORD,
their blood shall be poured out like dust. Zechariah 1:7-17
Here Israel’s exile is viewed as the sin offering. This is a frequent theme in the prophets: Israel’s wickedness cannot be removed by animal sacrifice: she must now bear her own sins in exile (cf Ezekiel 44:12, Hosea 10:2). This was why the priesthood and sacrifices were discontinued at the time of exile (Ezekiel 44:10-13): the nation must function as its own sin offering, its own blood must be poured out to put an end to sin.
This was to lead to a general end of mankind’s evil:
For my decision is to gather nations,
to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
all the heat of my anger;
for in the fire of my passion
all the earth shall be consumed. Zechariah 3:8
This is also sacrificial language: pouring out and burning up in fire. The nations are to become a great sacrifice that will put an end to sin.
Draw near, O nations, to hear;
… For the LORD is enraged against all the nations,
…he has doomed them, has handed them over for slaughter.
…the mountains shall flow with their blood.
…For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
a great slaughter in the land of Edom. Isaiah 34:2-6
The message is clear: sin can only be resolved by being put to death. Therefore death in exile is the fate of Israel, and of sinful mankind.
However, Isaiah takes this whole theme of sin and death and gives it an unexpected twist: a servant of Yahweh will live out this story on behalf of the people. Like the scape-goat on the Day of Atonement, the Servant will go into exile on their behalf. This representative figure will become the national sin offering that finishes sin once and for all, and brings in righteousness:
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous…
he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and was handed over because of their sins.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has handed him over
for the sins of us all. Isaiah 53:11-12, 6 (LXX)
This talk of handing over (Gr. paradidomi) is the language of exile (cf. Lev. 26:25; Isaiah 36:15, 37:10; Jeremiah 34:20, 38:18; Ezekiel 25:4).
Then in the gospel, Jesus comes and calls on people to take up their cross and lose their life with him. He insists that he himself must be ‘handed over’ to Gentiles and killed. Then he goes on his long march to Jerusalem, where he shuts down the temple and its sacrifices. He is actually handed over to the Gentiles, is humiliated and dies in disgrace outside the city. Jesus is playing the part of ‘the Servant’, living out the whole story of Israel in exile, becoming the sin-offering for the people.
All four Gospel writers say that this is what was happening to Jesus: they hammer away at the exile-word paradidomi ceaselessly. It occurs 83 times in the Gospels, usually with reference to Jesus’ arrest and death. They allude to Isaiah’s Servant frequently (e.g. Matthew 8:16, 12:18ff; Mark 14:61; John 12:38; cf. also Acts 8:32-33). Jesus, they insist, is living the exile experience – and dying it. He has become the sacrifice to cleanse the sins of the people.
This is also how Paul understood what Jesus did at the Cross:
He was handed over (paradidomi) to death for our sins. Romans 4:25
He … did not withhold his own Son, but handed him over for all of us. Romans 8:32
Christ loved us and handed himself over for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a pleasing aroma. Ephesians 5:2
When Paul writes that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,’ he is telling the same story as the prophets, but identifying Jesus as the servant who becomes the national sacrifice. When he says ‘He was handed over for our sins’, he is quoting Isaiah 53:12 (LXX). In this light Paul is saying that Jesus died as the sacrifice that finally put the people’s sin to death.
Likewise the writer to the Hebrews identifies this destruction of sin and sinful humanity as the achievement of Jesus’ death:
But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice.
The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, will purify our heart from dead works to worship the living God! Hebrew 9:26, 14
The NT witness is tightly unified on this point, then. This is the first part of Jesus’ achievement at the Cross: he died the death we needed to die, he died it for us, and so somehow he destroyed our sinful ‘flesh’. Death is the only answer to our sin: not something to be escaped but something to be accomplished. For in the Bible story God’s justice is about him fixing his world, about restoring righteousness. He can’t do that without first destroying sin. Before the new house can be built, the old one must be condemned.
There are many other images used to express this in the New Testament besides the ones we have canvassed. But they all point in this same direction.
Evangelicals, failing to follow the story, habitually talk about death as what our sins deserve, as though God’s justice was mainly aimed at meting out just deserts to all. God must by all means balance the books! They miss the big picture of God’s purpose in justice. Redemption, not retribution, is the goal of the Bible’s story. The condemnation of sin comes in because it serves God’s central aim of renewal for the creation. This is why the atonement begins with Jesus’ sin-bearing death, but does not end there.
In fact, all that we’ve described so far has been negative. We have seen what the Cross destroys. But this is merely the ground-clearing for the real work of atonement. Which is tomorrow.
Tomorrow: the resurrection