Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Another sermon manuscript, one that I preached this morning. This was actually meant to lead into Communion, which you will see that it does.


His Whole Life Matters

This morning, I want to start by asking a simple question. In fact, it’s a good little church question which a bunch of church people should have a pretty easy time answering. So here’s the question: what are some things that Jesus did for us?

One thing which I did not hear anyone say: that Jesus lived for us. And the fact that I didn’t hear this, and didn’t really expect to, is exactly why I want to preach about this topic. Jesus did not only die for us, but lived for us as well, and this is what I want to look at today.

See, I know two great short slogans which can summarize the Gospel. One of them is “Jesus in our place.” That is pretty great, isn’t it? The other is “God in Christ for us.” Both of these are, I think, very good ways to sum up the Gospel in only a couple words. But what’s something they both have in common? Neither one is only about Jesus’ death. The whole Jesus—life, death, and resurrection—is in our place, and God is and was in the whole Christ for us.

Now, the specific way that Jesus lived for us which I want to talk about today is a doctrine with a ridiculously technical sounding name, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s called the vicarious humanity of Christ. I realize it sounds a bit much, but it’s pretty straightforward. The Christ part is obviously just Jesus, the humanity is of course His being human, and we know as well what vicarious means. It’s one person or thing in place of someone else. In this case it is Jesus, as a human, being a human in our place.

How Jesus Lived for Us

But what exactly does that mean? And what impact should it have on our lives? I want to look at the whole thing in two parts, and so I don’t get carried away I’ll only mention them one at a time. The first part is, as I just mentioned, that Jesus lived for us. From the beginning to the end, from Christmas to Easter, every moment of Jesus’ life was something He did to save us. It didn’t just start counting when He got baptized and began His ministry. It didn’t wait to be meaningful for Him to ride on a donkey into Jerusalem. And it didn’t just start when He was led to the Cross. What Jesus was doing as a human being to save us started when the virgin conceived, and it’s still going.

But how does that work? What does everything Jesus did besides the Cross do for us? To answer this question, I want to look into the concept of the covenant. The basic idea here is that God created a covenant relationship with mankind, where God promised to be our God and He called us to be His people. But from Adam onward, humans have consistently failed to keep up our end. But God is faithful, and He is not willing to let us go so easily. Since we couldn’t seem to manage a right response to God, God Himself became one of us in Jesus Christ, and as a human being fulfilled the human side of the covenant. He gave a saving call to us, and then He answered that call as one of us for all of us. By doing this He created an actual, reconciled relationship between God and man. And that is eternal life.

Now, I’ve said all of this without referencing too much straight from the Bible, so I want to dive in a bit deeper. First, we can see the pattern of God calling us into a relationship with Himself, especially a covenant relationship, throughout Scripture. Some people see this in the Garden of Eden, though not everyone agrees with that. But after that, it just keeps coming. God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 to never destroy the world with a flood and kill everything in it again, which hints at more grace in the future. Next God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising both to bless his descendants and to bless the entire world through them. Then from Exodus through Deuteronomy we see God making a covenant with Israel, a people which Deuteronomy 9:4-5 tell us were no better than anyone else, to be their God, give them a land, and save them from all their enemies. And of course, after this King David receives a covenant from God for an eternal dynasty.

But the problem is that there’s another theme running right alongside this. God keeps making covenants to bless us and bring us to Himself, but we’ve been resisting and breaking them since day one. In Genesis 3, there’s the Fall as the first instance of man just resisting God’s grace to do his own thing. Then in Genesis 9, right after God makes a covenant with Noah and blesses him, Noah gets drunk and passes out naked, leading to a curse on a whole body of his descendants. Then Abraham is given a promise for a son and for a land, but in both cases he takes serious missteps, relying on human help like maidservants and Egyptian surpluses when in need. And of course, once we get to Israel we are all too familiar with their repeated history of God showing mercy, and them falling right back into the same sins. And David, well, we all know how far he fell and how this ultimately led to his kingdom divided two generations later. This whole pattern gets worse and worse until eventually God’s people lost it all in exile.

But what’s great is that right at this point, when it is clear that Israel is a failure and God’s plan to bless the world looks doomed, Jesus shows us. He appears at the center of all these circles and covenants. And at this point we have to combine the idea of representation with substitution. Jesus, by being in the center of all this, represented as soon as He came on the scene all the world in Himself. How does this work?

Let’s go back and trace these lines. God created everything, and then He made man at the top, the pinnacle of creation. So man, by being steward over creation, also stands as the representative at the top of creation. Then comes Israel. They were, as I mentioned before, just one nation out of many. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 says:

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.

They were just like everyone else, but were called to bless the world. So now there’s another layer of Israel standing before God as a microcosm of all humanity. But next come the priests and the kings. The priests minister before God constantly on Israel’s behalf, and once a year the High Priest himself represents all Israel when he goes to make atonement in the Holy of Holies. Same goes for the kings, who God treated as a representative of the whole nation, something you can see among other places in how God handled David’s sinful census at the end of Numbers.

Now Jesus sits right in the middle of each of these circles and layers. He is our High Priest, as Hebrews tells us, and the King of Israel, as the Gospels tell us. He is the Son of Man, a man born of a woman. He is, as Colossians 1:15 says, the firstborn over all creation. Basically, as the King and Priest He represents and substitutes for all Israel. As Israel He represents and substitutes for all the rest of humanity, who are no different. And as humanity, He represents and substitutes for all creation. This one man, Jesus of Nazareth, lived as the center of all creation, as the representative and substitute of everyone everywhere. So He lived in our place and for us. He gave God the perfect response of human faith and obedience which He called us to give, and since He was doing that in our place, He won salvation for us all. Saint Irenaeus, who was actually a disciple of a disciple of John, said this:

He [Jesus] fought and conquered…He was the man who struggled for his fathers and through his obedience cancelled their disobedience.

And of course, this obedience had to lead to the Cross, too. If Jesus was going to identify Himself as this representative, He had to face our doomed fate and die with our weakness. But even then, He rose from the dead. So while being our representative and substitute, He came back from death. This was the how the whole thing was completed. He came out victorious, and He came out in our place. All this added up to giving us eternal life, which Jesus Himself defined as a fellowship between God and man when He said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Finally, before I move on to my next point, I just want to read Hebrews 5:7-10 and then quote Gregory of Nazianzus. Hebrews 5:7-10 says:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

And here’s what Saint Gregory has to say about all this:

For that which he has not assumed [that is, taken on Himself as a human] he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.

How We Live from Jesus

Wow. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff alone is awesome enough, and is probably worth at least a year’s worth of preaching. But, I want to go ahead and move on to my second part. As if it weren’t enough that Jesus lived for us in such an awesome way, I want to add a second, following point. Jesus lived for us, and now we live from Him. What’s that mean? It means that none of our human faith and obedience started in us. It all started in Him.

The key passage for this is Galatians 2:19b-20. Unlike what I usually do, I’m going to read this one in the KJV, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

What I especially want to point out is the phrase, “the faith of the Son of God.” If you don’t have a KJV, it probably says “faith in the Son of God.” This is because of the funny Greek behind it, which could in theory be translated in four major possible ways:

“faith of the Son of God”

“faithfulness of the Son of God”

“faith in the Son of God”

“faithfulness to the Son of God”

Now, obviously the biggest difference is that the first two are about something Jesus has, whereas the second two are about something we have towards Jesus. What is interesting to note is that while most translations since the KJV have picked “faith in the Son of God,” many modern scholars have been moving back to agree with the KJV on one of the first two options, the faith or faithfulness of the Son of God. This fits what the rest of the passage is saying. Yes, we believe. Yes, we obey. But even though it is us, it’s also not really us but Jesus living in us. It’s not just our faith, but faith rooted in Jesus’ careful trust of the Father during His earthly life. It’s not our faithfulness, but Jesus’ faithful obedience to His Father. We only share in these because we are, like Paul, in Christ. We died with Him to sin, and have been raised with Him to a new life, His own life.

Possibly, though, some of you may be wondering what I mean by Jesus’ faith, and how for that matter we can live from it. So I’ll go back a bit. Jesus, as I said before, lived the perfect human life in relation to God as our substitute and representative. He did everything for us that God wants us to do. He had faith in His Father, as Hebrews 12:2 says that He is the author and perfecter of our faith who pushed forward faithfully to obey God. And if “faith of Christ” is the correct reading from before, then in Scripture we have several good references to Jesus’ faith and its role in saving us, such as Romans 3:22, Galatians 3:22, and Philippians 3:9.

Jesus also repented for us. Now I realize that sounds weird. How can Jesus repent from sin if He didn’t have any sin? See, the basic point of “repent” is to turn away from something. So Jesus never sinned, but He was constantly turning away from sin when it reared its ugly head to tempt Him. We can see a great example of Jesus doing that in both Matthew and Luke 4, where He resisted all the temptations Satan put before Him and came out victorious. This vicarious repentance is exactly what makes it possible for us to repent, even when we’ve already sinned.

Another thing Jesus did for us was good works. I would give some Scripture to prove that, except for the fact that it is probably pretty obvious. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgave poor sinners, fed the hungry, and throughout His whole ministry did act after act of compassion and mercy. These good works of Jesus are, again, the source of our good works. Whenever we do mercy or show love to people who need it, we’re participating in what Jesus Himself did, connected to Him by the Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus died for us. This is another one that is too obvious to need any specific verses references. In our place, as our representative and substitute, Jesus faced the death due to us sinners. By doing this He killed our old man, the flesh, and then rose again and created for us the new man.

Now, all of this that Jesus did is the ground for our Christian life. When we, as Paul says, walk according to the Spirit, what is happening is that the Holy Spirit is pouring into us the very faith, repentance, good works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Himself from His human life. Because He was man, the sanctified, set-apart life that He lived has become the source of our sanctified lives, something that again ties into Hebrews 5:9.

So because of all this, everything that we do as a Christian, not our fleshly works but our spiritual ones, comes straight from Jesus. It is us, but not us, but Christ living in us. We live by the faith of the Son of God, and the end result of this transformation worked out by the Holy Spirit is fellowship with God the Father through Jesus Christ His Son. And that, in my humble opinion, is altogether wonderful.

Abiding in Christ

So what is the application here? How should this truth, the vicarious humanity of Christ, the fact that Jesus lived for us and we live from Him, impact us? I can think of two major things.

The first is that this doctrine should give us more assurance than ever. Our salvation in every last part is of Christ, not of ourselves. And if it is not of ourselves, our own weaknesses and failures can’t hurt it. There is nothing left to trust in ourselves for. If we believe, that’s from Jesus, who believed perfectly. Even if we don’t believe enough, Jesus did for us. If we do good works, that’s from Jesus, who did the most good of anyone ever. If we don’t do enough good works, Jesus did for us. Like Romans 8:1 says, there is no condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. We are secure in His arms.

This ties into the second application, though. If every part of our new life comes from Jesus, then we have no choice but to abide in Him if we want to live. John 15:4-5 says it well:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

These verses show that we have to rely on Jesus for everything. We have to stay connected with Him to live. So how do we do that? How can we abide in Christ and stay connected? I’ll finish with just a few examples.

Prayer is the first key. In prayer we communicate with God Himself, mediated by Christ our High Priest, with the help of the Spirit’s intercession. This keeps us connected to Christ and gives us His strength.

Scripture is also vital. When we read Scripture with the help of the Spirit, we see Jesus more and more clearly. He said Himself that all the Scriptures testify of Him, so when we read them we grow to know Him even more.

Another important part of abiding in Christ is being a part of His church. The church is His body, a called out community of people bound by His Spirit to each other for service and worship. We cannot abide in Christ without abiding in His body.

Then there’s what most call sacraments, but Baptists usually call ordinances. The first of course is baptism. Anyone not baptized ought to be, because in baptism the Holy Spirit grips us with the visible act and says, “Look! You have died and risen with Christ! You are a new creation!” We can think back on baptism and just remember what a perfect picture it is of what Jesus has done for and with us.

Finally, though, there’s also Communion, which we’ll be practicing today. Baptism is the one time sign of our union with Jesus, but Communion is the ongoing one. When we have Communion, we get to experience a spiritual reminder of how we depend on Christ for our life. Just as we need food and drink, the bread and the cup, to survive physically, so spiritually we rely completely on the life of Jesus which was given for us. Having Communion pushes our hearts towards that reality and remind us that our life comes only from Christ, because He chose to live for us. I’ll finish with a quote from T. F. Torrance and then turn it over:

As one summoned to the Holy Table [the Christian] is commanded by the Word of God to live only in such a way that he feeds upon Christ, not in such a way that he feeds upon his own activities or lives out of his own capital of alleged spirituality. He lives from week to week, by drawing his life and strength from the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and in the strength of that communion he must live and work until Christ comes again. As often as he partakes of the Eucharist he partakes of the self-consecration of Jesus Christ who sanctified Himself for our sakes that we might be sanctified in reality and be presented to the Father as those whom He has redeemed and perfected (or consecrated) together with Himself in one. Here He is called to lift up his heart to the ascended Lord, and to look forward to the day when the full reality of his new being in Christ will be unveiled, making Scripture and Sacrament no longer necessary.

Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

My name is Caleb, and I used to be a Calvinist. To be honest, I’m still kind of like one, but I’m definitely not a 5-point, TULIP believer. In fact, the center of TULIP theology, the L, is my primary problem, the problem which epitomizes what is wrong with the entire system. If by any chance you don’t know, the L in TULIP stands for “Limited Atonement.” According to the uniquely Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Jesus did not die for all people, at least in a saving way. For the Calvinist, Jesus only died to save the elect, the limited group of people God unconditionally chose to save from before time.

Limited atonement is the weakest link in the TULIP chain, and in my opinion this doctrine is entirely unbiblical. TULIP’s L cannot be found in Scripture, nor does Scripture allow that possibility. If you want to dispute that, I’d simply say that texts like Lk. 23:34, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, Col. 1:20, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9, 1 Jn. 2:2 are too explicit and drastically outweigh the flimsy proofs that Jesus death was intended only for some people’s salvation.

Of course, as the title says, this post is not about my own arguments against limited atonement but about one by T. F. Torrance. Torrance, a truly brilliant, 20th century Scottish Reformed theologian, writes in his book Atonement on the hidden Nestorianism hidden within this doctrine. If you’re not familiar, Nestorianism was a Christological heresy which said Jesus was basically two Christs, a divine Christ and a human Christ, united in one body with one mind. Instead of a single Jesus who is fully God and fully man as one person, there was a God-Jesus and a human-Jesus stuck together with “duct tape” flesh.

According to Torrance, limited atonement only makes sense if we look at Jesus the way Nestorians do. I’ll quote what he said:

Three basic questions are raised by this [limited atonement].

(i) Whom did Christ represent in his incarnation and in his death? Did he represent all humanity, or only a chosen few?

(ii) What is the relation between the death of Jesus and the Father in heaven? Did God himself condescend to take upon himself man’s judgment, or did he send someone to represent him and do a work which was rewarded with forgiveness as he saw fit?

(iii) What is the nature of the efficacy of the atoning death of Christ?

After asking about what relation, if any, the incarnation has to the atonement, Torrance writes this:

Atonement and incarnation, however, cannot be separated from one another and therefore the range of representation is the same in both. In both, all people are involved. In the incarnation Christ, the eternal Son, took upon himself the nature of man and all who belong to human nature are involved and are represented, all men and women without exception, so that for all and each, Jesus Christ stood in as substitute and advocate in his life and in his death. Because he is the eternal Word or Logos in whom all humanity is assumed by his incarnation; all humanity is bound up with him, he died for all humanity and all humanity died in him.

Moving on to what he says about the relation between the Son’s death and the Father:

The hyper-Calvinist, however, argues in this way, that in Christ’s life and especially in his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity. On the cross, Christ merited forgiveness sufficient for all mankind…but it held efficaciously only for those whom the Father had given him…Here we must look at the relation posed here between Christ in his human nature on the cross and God in heaven. If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts. In that case the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. But if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.

Besides how can we think of the judgment on the cross as only a partial judgment upon sin, or of a judgment only upon some sinners, for that is what it is if only some sinners are died for and only some are implicated in Christ and the cross? But what would that mean but a destruction of the whole concept of atonement, for it would mean a partial judgment and not a final No of God against sin; it would mean a partial substitution and thus a repudiation of the concept of radical substitution which the atonement involves…Or to put it another way: it would mean that outside of Christ there is still a God of wrath who will judge humanity apart from the cross and who apart from the cross is a wrathful God. But that is to divide God from Christ in the most impossible way and to eliminate the whole teaching of the ‘wrath of the lamb’, namely that God has committed all judgment to the Son.

All above from T. F. Torrance, Atonement, pp. 181-185 (some emphasis mine)

If I were to summarize what Torrance is saying here, the point is that limited atonement can only work if there is a very wrong degree of separation between what Jesus Christ did in his human life and what God Himself does. For the divine Word of God is the image of God in whom all people are created; God is the one in whom we all live and move and have our being. So if God is the one who was acting on the cross, taking His own judgment on sinners, then He would necessarily include all humanity in that action. Only if Jesus died as one mere, although perfect, human among other mere humans could His death be used to save only some humans. This implies Nestorianism, because this only works if Jesus as a human can be separated from Jesus as God.

So limited atonement has a closet heresy. Just when you think a doctrine couldn’t be more unbiblical…

I suppose I’ll close with a passage from Hebrews, one which when given serious thought leaves no room for a limited atonement, because Jesus is God (which the author pounds on in the chapter before this quote) and human.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything under them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says:

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil…For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 2:10-14,17

Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

Happy Resurrection Day! (Or, Why Easter Rocks)

Happy Easter, everyone! Today is that marvelous day when we all sing of one reality: He is risen! The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, rose from the dead on this day around 2000 years ago. As it is written, “God raised Him from the dead.”

Today, I do not feel the need to correct any errors, at least directly, because the Resurrection is a reality of what is right and good. Easter is for happy celebration, so correction feels out of place. I do, however, want to simply highlight some of the great truths about the Resurrection, so that we can rejoice in and meditate on them for this Easter day. Without further ado, let’s remember what the Resurrection means for us:

The Resurrection means that our physical bodies will be resurrected. If anything is clear from Jesus rising, we can know that His rising is the cause and the guarantee of ours (John 14:19, Rom. 6:5, 8, 1 Cor. 15:20-23, 2 Cor. 4:14). Our salvation can never be complete without our bodily resurrection, because God made us to have bodies, and in fact if we don’t physically rise from the dead through Christ then we are still lost in our sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15)! But praise be to God that He has raised our Lord from the dead, so that all us of who die in Him will be resurrected just like He was (Rom. 6:8). And when we are resurrected, we will receive the eternal life of knowing God, and His Son whom He has sent (John 17:3, 1 John 5:20).

The Resurrection means that we are forever united to God in intimate fellowship through Jesus. Jesus was and is the God-man, the one person who holds together in Himself both divine (Col. 2:9) and human nature (1 Jn. 4:2). He is completely God and completely human united together in His very being. So because He carried that closeness through His entire human life and death, in the end to come out victorious risen, God and humanity are forever reconciled! Jesus Himself is the one Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), the person with one foot in God’s life (John 1:1) and the other in our human life (Heb. 2). By the power of an unending life (Heb. 7:6) He forever keeps us in the Father’s presence. For we are in Christ (Rom. 8:1, 12:5, 1 Cor. 1:30) the Son, and the Son is in the Father (John 17:21), and the Father is in the Son (John 17:23).

The Resurrection means we are justified, brought into a right standing before God. The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Even though we were sinners before God, condemned in His sight, Jesus took on our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), died, and then rose. This was the final act needed to make us right in God’s sight, for by coming back from the dead Jesus gave us a new life not under law and its condemning powers. For whoever has died is free from the law (Rom. 7:1, 4), and in coming back to life Jesus brought us a new life apart from the law (7:6). This means there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). By raising Jesus from the dead, the Father stamped His approval on Christ’s entire life and work of salvation (Acts 5:3-32, 17:31), meaning we are certainly now righteous in His sight.

The Resurrection means that all creation will be redeemed and made new. Jesus did not rise just to give us new life, but in fact He did this to restore the whole universe! As we see in Romans 8:19-23, creation itself is eagerly waiting for the Spirit to restore the world to glorious freedom (and at this point Paul’s already established the connection between the Spirit’s regenerating work and Christ’s resurrection). Jesus reconciles all things in heaven and earth to God (Col. 1:20), even the broken creation, which will be put through the fire (2 Pet. 3:10-13) to become a new creation (Rev. 21:1). All this is accomplished by the Resurrection of the Son of God.

How can I even conclude reflecting on such a wonderful truth? I’ll let Paul do it for me. Since Jesus rose from the dead:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Romans 8:31-39

Happy Resurrection Day! (Or, Why Easter Rocks)

What Did Jesus’ Death Do, Exactly?

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!).

Conclusion

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:

Stranger:
Hey, did you know that you’ve rung up a bill of $1 billion?
You:
Oh, no, I didn’t know that!
Stranger:
It’s the truth! But my rich friend already paid for it. You just have to sign this slip saying you agree.
You:
Okay, I’ll do that.
Stranger:
Good, good. Well, you’re all good now. Farewell!
You:
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!

What Did Jesus’ Death Do, Exactly?