Last week I wrote about our tendency to use Christian words and phrases without really getting inside them and understanding their meaning. I talked about the resurrection of Jesus and our difficulty of grasping its reality and living in its power. Today I want us to think about Jesus’ death and that basic Christian belief that “Jesus died for our sins.”
Jesus’ death on the cross stands at the center of the Christian gospel. Paul placed it first among those things of “first importance” in his list in 1 Corinthians 15:3. But why would I discuss the death and resurrection in reverse order to that in which they happened? Because the disciples did not understand the meaning of Jesus’ death until he was raised! And we too have to view his death from the perspective of the resurrection or it won’t make sense.
From Crushing Defeat to Glorious Victory
Apart from his resurrection, we would have to view Jesus’ death as a crushing defeat. His enemies won. To the chief priests, Jesus’ defeat proved he was a blasphemer. To the Romans, Jesus was shown to be powerless against the mighty Roman Empire. And the disciples found themselves disillusioned and confused. Was Jesus a deluded fanatic or just another prophet martyred for speaking truth to power? In any case, he lost the battle. It’s over, hope is gone, the kingdom won’t come, and nothing is going to change. Apart from the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus’ death is simple: he was a martyr, a fanatic, or a blasphemer.
But Jesus was raised! Death has been defeated, and Jesus has been vindicated. Looking back from the resurrection, his disciples no longer saw his death as a tragic mistake or a foolish martyrdom. It had to be part of a divine plan, a divine act working somehow for our salvation. The meaning of the cross could no longer be explained by such human motivations as fear, jealously, hatred, feelings of self-importance, and wishful thinking. In view of the resurrection, the cross is revealed as a divine mystery as deep as God’s own being. But what does it mean? Why did God allow it? What did it accomplish? And how does it relate to our salvation?
The resurrection conquered death. That much is clear. But throughout the Bible, death is connected to sin. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other. Paul makes this point concisely when he says in 1 Corinthians 15: 56, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56). Sin is like a poisonous animal whose sting brings certain death. And this connection makes perfect sense. Sin is our turning away from communion with God in an attempt to become the source of our own lives. But since God alone is the source of life, sin brings death. Sin and death are two sides of the same coin. So, the apostles drew the obvious conclusion: since death has been defeated by the resurrection, sin must have been defeated also. And that is what happened in the death of Jesus.
From the perspective of the resurrection—but only from that perspective—the death of Jesus is revealed as a deep mystery, inexhaustible in its meaning. The NT brings out its meaning in many ways. (1) It is a ritual sacrifice in which Jesus, as our representative or substitute, secures for us forgiveness, righteousness, cleansing, and reconciliation. Or (2) it is a battle in which Jesus is the warrior who takes up our cause, defeats our enemies, and brings freedom and peace to us. Or (3) it is a revelation of the love of God. Of course, since it is a divine mystery, it can be all those things and more. All these meanings converge in the faith that God did something for us in the cross we could not do for ourselves: he saved us from sin and death.
For the rest of the essay, I want to focus on the second meaning, the battle Jesus waged and the victory he won.
Jesus the Warrior
Who were the enemies Jesus fought? How did he fight? And what victory did he win? In his ministry, Jesus faced spiritual powers that worked visibly through the falsehood, evil, and violence embodied in the religious and political authorities of his day. He fought not with sword and shield; these enemies cannot be defeated by physical force. He fought with his teaching, his prophetic activity, and his obedience. He proclaimed divine truth to the corrupt powers, and this led to his death because the powers will not be persuaded by prophetic speech. To defeat them Jesus had to let them kill him.
Perhaps an even greater battle was his inner, spiritual conflict. He struggled with the human desire to live and not suffer, especially not to suffer as a criminal, blasphemer, and a rebel. The choice that lay before him was between accepting his Father’s assignment and preserving his life at all costs. This is the test Adam faced and failed. But Jesus did what Adam did not. He won the battle. He did not sin. Jesus trusted God absolutely and gave everything into the Father’s hands. Adam’s assignment was to preserve and perfect what he had been given. And because Adam failed, Jesus had to correct what he did, regain what he lost, and defeat the powers he unleashed.
According to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus began his public ministry by facing Satan in the desert and casting out demons. Some accused him of casting out demons by the power of the devil. But Jesus said it makes no sense for Satan to fight against Satan. He compared himself to a robber breaking into Satan’s house to rob him. You need to tie him up before you can haul away his goods. (Mark 3:20-30). Jesus entered our world and assumed our flesh and blood. He even entered death itself to do battle with sin and death in all its forms. And he won!
Jesus Our Brother
We can see clearly that Jesus won the victory for himself. He conquered sin, and God raised him from the dead. But how does his victory help us?
We have a much more difficult time understanding how Jesus victory could help us than did people in Jesus day. Modern culture is very individualistic. It defines humanity as an aggregate of self-contained and self-defined individuals. Since Jesus is a separate individual and we are individuals, we wonder how his victory can remove our guilt and free us from sin’s power. In Jesus day people possessed much greater awareness of the interconnectedness of human beings. They understood better how the acts and suffering of one individual could affect others. But with thought we can recover some feeling for the deep connections we have to others.
When a nation finds itself under attack by an enemy and its soldiers defeat that enemy, the whole nation is saved. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon for the first time and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” everyone rejoiced! When a scientist discovers a cure for a dreaded disease or unlocks one of nature’s secrets, everyone benefits!
Our humanity is a shared possession. We cannot become fully human alone, and we recognize our humanity in each other. We can think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, experience the same sufferings and dream the same dreams. Humanity is one spiritual possibility that is partially manifested in each of many persons. I need you to awaken what is possible for me and you need me for the same reason.
And in Jesus Christ, God became one of us; he shares our humanity and we share his humanity. He achieved something in our humanity that no one else had or could achieve: One of us resisted sin, did not fall, and trusted God absolutely. One of us gave himself to God unreservedly and is united to God unbreakably. He passed through death to eternal glory. One of us! One of us sits at the right hand of God in heaven! In him the fullness of humanity has been saved! And he knows how to make this happen for us, for you and for me. What he accomplished he can share with us because he is one of us.
Jesus Our Commander-in-Chief
We don’t have to follow the plot of Adam’s fatal story. Our brother Jesus invites us to enjoy his victory. We already share a natural bond with him simply because he is one of us…but he invites us to form a personal and spiritual bond with him. We do this by getting to know him, trusting him, loving him, and following him. And he has something for us to do. Jesus won the decisive battle, so the enemy cannot win the war; but the war is not over. Jesus is our Commander-in-Chief, the Holy Spirit is our strength, and our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). And I am so glad we get to join the fight! There are no living veterans of this war, because our tour of duty lasts to and through our death. You can’t outlive your assignment. As long as you are alive you have work to do! Important work!
It is not accidental or arbitrary that in the NT baptism is the first response of faith to Jesus Christ. Baptism reenacts in a symbolic way the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. And it sets out a pattern for the Christian life. In submitting to baptism we publically declare that we need and accept the victory Jesus won for us. Symbolically we die and become new people, and we promise to follow the pattern of his life. In some Christian traditions, baptism is called a sacrament. The English word sacrament comes from a Latin word sacramentum. A sacramentum is the oath of loyalty Roman soldiers took when they entered the Roman army. Paul comes very close to this meaning when in Romans 6 he calls on the Christians in Rome to remember what they did in their baptism. You died and were raised with Christ. Baptism is a representation of the battle Jesus fought and the victory he won. It is our promise to fight that battle, and it anticipates our victory through the power of his death and resurrection.
“Jesus died for our sins.” What does it mean? It means at least this: Like a courageous soldier Jesus faced, fought, and defeated our most powerful and deadly enemies, which are sin, death, and the devil. To win this battle he had to allow himself to be killed, because no life can be declared faithful until it’s completed in death. But by killing him, our enemies made him the victor and ensured their own defeat. Because it was through Jesus’ complete faithfulness to his Father unto death that he won the battle. And it was all “for us.” Jesus fought the most difficult battle ever fought and gained the greatest victory ever won. It is no small honor to be invited by this Commander to join this army to fight this war.
Your three options sound as if they roughly correspond with the Penal Substitution, Christus Victor, and something like John Hick’s “supreme demonstration of divine love” view, respectively. I love how you unpacked the different aspects of the Christus Victor view, how Christ triiumphed in so many more ways than one. Usually the warrior aspect gets played up above all others. Christ’s victory over death in the Crucifixion and Resurrection paves the way for each of us to conquer death day by day in our own Christian walks.
What I’m wondering is this: Do you seem room for taking an “all of the above” approach to the three responses you sketched out above? I see strains of all three (and perhaps more) of the major Atonement views clearly rooted in Christian theology and Scripture. Christ died “as a ransom for many,” took the “keys of death and Hades,” and “demonstrates His own love” through His death. The problems seem to arise when one tries to endorse one aspect of the Atonement to the exclusion of other aspects—i.e. adopting a demonstration of divine love as a means of circumventing a wrathful/vengeful God, or taking a Christus Victor approach to avoid the justice/love dichotomy, etc. Perhaps the Atonement is, in truth, something so deep that all of these perspectives point to something real and true in our Lord’s crucifixion.
Yes. That is why I began with the resurrection and worked backward. (The disciples also had to do this!) I wanted to make precisely that point. The cross like the resurrection is an act of God and is as deep as the being of God. So, we should not be surprised that its meaning is polyvalent. There is so much more that needs unpacking! I think I see some ways in which these three complement each other. Perhaps, we can explore these features in future essays. Thanks for commenting!
RON, I HAVE READ AND ENJOYED ALL OF YOUR COMMENTS. KEEP SENDING THEM. GOD IS BLESSING YOU AND MARTY AND YOUR FAMILY. REES BRYANT