This much everyone agrees with—Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). But what exactly does that mean? How did His death bring us life? Here is the atonement in four parts.
1. Jesus honored God and His purpose in creating man fully and completely. He lived to do His Father’s will in a way that no one else has ever come close to. It wasn’t a begrudging obedience He offered but a joyful, warm, vibrant submission. Following God was to Him what eating is to us (John 4:32ff). And of course, God was honored and delighted by His Son’s life. At whatever level we take His statements about Jesus at Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, we mustn’t fail to hear them in a relational sense as the words of a pleased and proud Father.
This sets the context for approaching the cross. For what we see in Jesus’ death for us is merely the extension and culmination of His life for God. It is imperative that we see His life and death as being from the same fabric. His priesthood is based on “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:25).
2. Jesus died a sacrificial death for our sins (he was not punished for them).
His death was not just another in a series of deaths of good people down through the ages. It was the holy death of the only man who has ever lived righteously. And part of appreciating His holy death lies in understanding how it was a sacrificial death on behalf of the world. Like the OT offering, the life of the sacrifice (Jesus) was given in place of the sinner (us). It is substitutionary. God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NASB). Christ’ death (the extension and culmination of His righteous life) becomes the basis for God offering life to man. Because He fulfilled God’s holy purposes through His life for God and death for the all, His righteous life takes the place of our unrighteous one when we by faith enter into relationship with Him at baptism. Sin is undone by the obedience of Jesus!
3. Jesus’ obedient life and substitutionary death are pleasing to His Father and satisfy Him. His wrath against us is averted by Him (rather than being exhausted) on Him.
Paul will write this in Romans 5:
“Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life? Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have no received reconciliation.” (v. 9-11).
4. Jesus’ atoning death is confirmed by His resurrection.
We hear over and over in Acts that men put Jesus to death but God raised Him up (2:23-24, 4:10, 5:30, 10:39-40, etc.). That is not to deny that Jesus’ death was in accordance with God’s plans (2:23), but to contrast God’s purpose and power with that of man. The righteous life of Jesus could not end at the grave (v. 24). He was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4 ESV). Paul will add that “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (4:25).
There’s more to the cross than atonement just as there is more to life with God than forgiveness of sins. But make no mistake about it—life begins at the cross through the atoning work of Jesus!
“But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).