It isn’t enough to say that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins. While it is a true statement, it is only part of the picture. So I want to revisit a basic question: What did Jesus intend to accomplish (and, since He rose again, we can confidently say that He did accomplish) in His death?
Wise Words from C. S. Lewis
Before I get into this, I want to clarify that not everyone agrees on what precisely Jesus did on the cross. And that’s okay. While there are some answers that are heretical, for the most part there is room for variation. On this point I’d like to quote C. S. Lewis:
We believe that the death of Christ is just that point at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be—the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning…A man may eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
While there is great benefit in understanding what Jesus did on the cross, we cannot be too quick to condemn anyone whose understanding might be lacking or moderately misguided. While there are serious problems some people believe, I will not be addressing anything too bizarre.
The Aspects of Jesus’ Death
Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to doing one thing. Here we have an infinite, transcendent reality of the Triune God interacting strangely with man. What happened between the Father, the Son, and mankind on the day of the cross is not something that can be completely captured in human mind, much less so with a single phrase. So I want to bring up, in a rather non-technical fashion, some of the major vantage points for understanding Jesus’ death (and resurrection, really, since the two cannot be separated).
Jesus’ Death as Legal Punishment for Sin
This understanding is all that many Christians have ever heard of. Jesus died to pay the price for our sins. We—humanity—had broken God’s law (see Rom. 2:1-3:20). We had brought God’s wrath upon ourselves and deserved legally to suffer (Rom. 6:23a). But Jesus stepped up to the plate on our behalf, let God in the judgment seat declare Him guilty of our sins (Gal. 3:13), and suffered the punishment we were due (Rom. 5:6-8). Then He rose on the third day, being innocent of the crimes for which He had died and raised by God as a testimony to the salvation He had brought us. So now we are declared righteous in God’s court on the basis of Christ’s good legal standing (Rom. 5:1), which He gave to us.
Jesus died to pay the price for our sins…But if all Jesus did on the cross was take the whipping we deserved for our evil, we would still remain evil, only not whipped.
While this all true, more or less, it is not enough to speak of Jesus’ death only in this way. After all, we know there was more going on there than just legal statuses. It is overly simplistic to say that our guilt was transferred to Jesus and His righteousness transferred to us as though sin and goodness were just like money or court documents. There is a deeper reality. If all Jesus did on the cross was take the whipping we deserved for our evil, we would still remain evil, only not whipped. And if all Jesus did was to rescue us from punishment, can what we would all consider the most powerful and gracious act in all history have nothing to say about all the other problems and realities in the world beyond God’s just wrath?
Jesus’ Death as Victory over Satan, Sin, and Death
There are, however, many aspects to Jesus’ death. It is also readily apparent in Scripture that Jesus’ death heralds some kind of victory over the malevolent forces in the world. When Jesus lived a life without sin and died for sin, He nullified the power of sin (Rom. 8:3). When Jesus rebuked Satan, cast out demons, and ultimately resisted Him all the way the cross, only for Satan to seemingly win before Jesus rose again, He defeated Satan (see, um, all the Gospels). And bound up with these two victories, by rising again from the dead Jesus even defeated death itself (1 Cor. 15:54b-55). According to Hebrews, this all forms a great liberation, an end to slavery for humankind, because through His death He destroyed the one who holds the power of death—that is, the Devil—and freed those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).
Jesus’ death heralds some kind of victory over the malevolent forces in the world…So the human race, all of whom had been slaves of Satan, sin, and death, could be set free.
In this understanding, Jesus’ whole life was lived in opposition to those enemies, and at the cross He climactically brought them down into death, with He Himself being the only one to return. So the human race, all of whom had been slaves of Satan, sin, and death, could be set free. Therefore now we need not follow sin, for Jesus made it powerless. We are not bound to be conformed to the god of this world, for Jesus has overthrown his rule and established His own kingdom. We can finally have no fear or worry of death, for Jesus has overturned it and will raise us all as God raised Him. This is all accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus’ Death as the Beginning of New Creation
As if all we covered already were not enough, Jesus death even has a wider scope and power. When Jesus died, He also marked the end of this old creation, and when He rose He marked the beginning of the new one (Col. 1:18-20). We read in Isaiah and Revelation especially of the new creation, a renewal and remaking of the heavens and the earth, where everything is as God intends for it to be. Forget even Eden; this new world is better. While all creation now groans and longs for this (Rom. 8:20-23), it is dependent very much on humanity (ibid). We are God’s image in the world, the top of creation. The destiny of the world is bound up in our destiny. Yet our own destiny is bound up in Christ’s. Since Jesus’ death defeated the enemies of humanity and creation, and canceled the punishment we deserved, we are free to share in His resurrection (Rom. 6:5-9). Just as He was raised from the dead, so we will be raised from the dead. And when we are raised from the dead, the time will be here for all creation to be remade.
When Jesus died, He also marked the end of this old creation, and when He rose He marked the beginning of the new one…With death, sin, and Satan vanquished, the recreation will be the perfect hope.
This does much more than you might imagine. The world remade without the wounds we see now. With death, sin, and Satan vanquished, the recreation will be the perfect hope. Earth 2.0 will be the fulfillment of the plan for the ages, all made in Christ, whose death and resurrection is the first physical proof and guarantee of what is to come. In Jesus the old, sin-stained world died, waiting to be resurrected at the end of the age. Everything wrong in the universe is now on the decline, waiting for the day it will disappear. This is a major theme in the New Testament, one which makes a big difference when people ask what difference it makes that Jesus died for us. “Well,” you can tell them, “His death is actually the start of a whole new world.” One without the problems, terrors, and agonies that hurt normal people in their daily lives. That’s more powerful to many people than the solving of a guilt problem they never even knew they had.
Jesus’ Death as Restoring Humanity at the Soul
This actually fits in with the previous point. Part of the new creation is humanity made new, and that starts in the cross as well. See, Jesus’ death didn’t just involve His legal connection to us, but a real and deep connection. Because Jesus was (and is!) human, He was in the place to undo everything bad that Adam did to us. In Adam, all died. This isn’t just because we are legally guilty of Adam’s sin, but because we are all connected with Adam’s same human nature. In Christ, we are all made alive, because we are connected with His human nature, which was perfected in obedient suffering and raised incorruptible. In Adam, all became slaves to sin deep within. In Christ, we are all made free from sin from the inside out. This too is not merely an external law-court issue, but an issue of deep nature. In Adam, we gained the corruption of sin in our being, but in Christ we gained the purity of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. (I did not use inline citations for this paragraph because that would have been complex given the structure. For relevant passages, consider Rom. 5:12-21, 1 Cor. 15, and Heb. 2-5.)
See, Jesus’ death didn’t just involve His legal connection to us, but a real and deep connection…Though we used to be “in Adam,” trapped in the corruption and disobedience he brought to humanity, now we are “in Christ,” freed from corruption and united to God in new life.
In this we see much more than paying a legal price, but indeed we are renewed from the depths of ourselves out because of Christ. Though we used to be “in Adam,” trapped in the corruption and disobedience he brought to humanity, now we are “in Christ,” freed from corruption and united to God in new life. This happens because Jesus lived a sinless, holy, and healing life, died a substitutionary death, and rose victoriously back to life. Therefore He undid sin in our lives and death as our end, giving humankind a marvelous new destiny. All because He died (and rose!).
While it remains profitable to tell people that Jesus died to pay the price for their sins, there is much more to press as well. If the Gospel of Christ crucified is only explained from that simple of a view, it may not ring true or helpful for many people. It might be more like the following conversation:
- Hey, did you know that you’ve rung up a bill of $1 billion?
- Oh, no, I didn’t know that!
- It’s the truth! But my rich friend already paid for it. You just have to sign this slip saying you agree.
- Okay, I’ll do that.
- Good, good. Well, you’re all good now. Farewell!
- Well that was a close one. Alright, anyway, back to my real life.
While this sounds silly, I imagine it is what we sometimes sound like when we present the Gospel. So let us not forget what all Jesus did. It was a grand and powerful act, one which we will never understand fully. God Himself acted as a human to make humanity right with God. If we could ever wrap our minds all the way around that, we would be gods ourselves. So for now we enjoy and proclaim the Good News: Jesus died and rose again for us, according to the Scriptures!