We’re likely familiar with the events of the crucifixion, but the significance of those events is so boundless that it will be the theme of the saints’ praise for eternity (Rev 4–5). Despite this, there has been, historically, and there is, today, great confusion concerning this central and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. We must therefore ask of the text of Scripture, “What really happened on the cross? What is it that Jesus has accomplished in His work of atonement? What is the biblical significance of what our Savior has done on our behalf?”
The atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross stands at the very epicenter of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that the cross-work of Christ is the heart of the gospel. When the apostle Paul summarized the gospel he preached, he encapsulated it by speaking of the atonement: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). The cross is the content of the gospel itself, for “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). The gospel message by which we are saved is “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18). The eighteenth-century slave-ship captain turned Puritan preacher, John Newton, captured it well when he said, “I advise you by all means to keep close to the atonement. The doctrine of the cross is the sun in the system of truth.”
One way to “keep close” to the atonement is to ensure we understand precisely what happened on the cross. We’re likely familiar with the events of the crucifixion, but the significance of those events is so boundless that it will be the theme of the saints’ praise for eternity (Rev 4–5). Despite this, there has been, historically, and there is, today, great confusion concerning this central and essential doctrine of the Christian faith. We must therefore ask of the text of Scripture, “What really happened on the cross? What is it that Jesus has accomplished in His work of atonement? What is the biblical significance of what our Savior has done on our behalf?”
The cross is not a ransom payment to Satan; the chief captive of hell is in no position to demand ransom payments from God. The cross is not an illustration of God’s general moral government of the world. Still less is the cross God’s declaration of the value and worth of humanity, except as it testifies to the depth of our sinfulness. Neither is the cross merely a cosmic victory of good over evil or a good example for Christians to imitate. Most fundamentally, the cross is a work of penal substitution—the Lord Jesus suffering the penalty for the sins of His people as a substitute for them. In His great love, the Father appointed the Son to stand in our place, to bear our sin, to carry our guilt, to receive our punishment, and thereby to satisfy the righteous wrath of God against us.
The Lord Jesus is the Suffering Servant who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa 53:4), who “bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:12). On the cross, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6), and so “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11). He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) by taking that sin upon Himself. The Father “made [Jesus] to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor 5:21); our guilt was counted to be His. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13), in our place. “He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross . . . for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). Simply put, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isa 53:5; cf. also, e.g., Mark 10:45; 2 Cor 8:9; 1 Pet 3:18; Gal 2:20). Penal substitutionary atonement is woven into the very fabric of God’s revelation from beginning to end, because it is the very heart of the gospel message.
But we ought to press further and ask, “What precisely is the character of this substitutionary atonement? What exactly did Christ accomplish on the cross?” Scripture answers with at least five themes, or motifs, of the atonement: (1) it is a work of substitutionary sacrifice, in which the Savior bore the penalty of sin in the place of sinners (1 Pet 2:24); (2) it is a work of propitiation, in which God’s wrath against sinners is fully satisfied and exhausted in the person of their substitute (Rom 3:25); (3) itis a work of reconciliation, in which sinful man’s alienation from God is overcome and peace is made through the blood of the cross (Col 1:20); (4) it is a work of redemption, in which those enslaved to sin are ransomed by the precious blood of the Lamb’s (1 Pet 1:18–19); and (5) it is a work of conquest, in which sin, death, and Satan are defeated by the power of a victorious Savior (Heb 2:14–15). Each of those five motifs is worthy of our reflection and consideration.
First, Scripture characterizes the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ as a sacrifice (e.g., Eph 5:2; Heb 9:26). This imagery draws from the Old Testament’s prescriptions for Israel’s sacrificial worship to God under the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Heb. 9:23), outlined most thoroughly in the Book of Leviticus. As Leviticus begins, the tabernacle has been completed, and the glory of God has come and filled the tabernacle, signifying that the spiritual presence of Yahweh is now dwelling in the midst of His people (cite Lev?Exod 40:34–38). The presence of God, then, becomes a key theme in Leviticus, as the phrase “before the Lord” or “in the presence of the Lord” appears fifty-nine times. Further, Leviticus teaches that this God who is present is also holy; the terms holyand holiness appear 150 times, more frequently than any other book. Thus, Leviticus answers the question: “How can the holy presence of God dwell in the midst of a sinful people?” The answer God gives is that sinners are to make sacrifices to the Lord that will atone for their sin and render them acceptable in his presence. The worshiper “shall offer [his sacrifice] at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf” (Lev. 1:3–4). Immediately we are confronted with penal substitutionary atonement by sacrifice.
The pinnacle of the sacrificial system was the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement. Once a year, the high priest of Israel was to enter the holy of holies into God’s presence in order to “make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel” (Lev 16:17). He was to offer two goats, one to be sacrificed to God and the other to bear the sins of the people and be banished from the Lord’s presence (Lev 16:8–10). The blood of the sacrificial goat was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the place where atonement was made (Lev 16:15). With regard to the scapegoat, “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Lev 16:21–22).
By laying his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessing all Israel’s sins over it, the high priest symbolized that God had reckoned the sin and guilt of the people to be transferred to the goat. Instead of bearing their own iniquity and being banished from the holy presence of God, Israel’s sin was imputed to a substitute. The innocent scapegoat bears the sin, and guilt, and punishment of the people and is banished in their place. By sprinkling the sacrificial blood of one substitute on the mercy seat, and by virtue of the imputation of sin to a second substitute, Israel’s sins are atoned for and the people are released from punishment.
The only other picture of Old Testament sacrifice that rivals the Day of Atonement in Israel is the Passover sacrifice. As the Lord was about to send the tenth plague upon Egypt, He promised to kill every firstborn child and animal throughout the land. And though Israel had been spared from the first nine plagues, they were not automatically spared from the tenth, because they had fallen into idolatry and worshiped the gods of Egypt (cf. Ezek 20:8). In order to be spared from God’s wrath, He required each family to kill an unblemished lamb and to put its blood on the doorposts of the house (Exod 12:13). The Passover lamb died as a substitute for the firstborn children of Israel. The wrath of God was turned away by the blood of a spotless lamb slain in their place. Yahweh forgave Israel’s sins by a substitutionary sacrifice (Exod 12:27).
Both the Levitical sacrifices as epitomized in the Day of Atonement and the rite of the Passover vividly picture the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Passover meal was the setting of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, when He instituted the New Covenant, declaring that His body would be broken for them, and that the cup poured out for them was “the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20). At this Passover meal, Christ declared that the breaking of His body and the pouring out of His blood would be the fulfillment of the Passover. He is, as John the Baptist heralded, “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29), whose “precious blood . . . as of a lamb unblemished and spotless” redeems God’s people (1 Pet 1:18–19), “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Just as the blood of the slain lamb protected Israel from the execution of God’s judgment, so also does the blood of the slain Lamb, Jesus, protect His people from the Father’s wrath against their sin.