What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?

When we consider how the death of Jesus on the cross affects us, we should first find the consensus of the New Testament writers—there is none!

Next we can turn to the consensus of the Church Fathers throughout history—there is none! In fact, ideas among the Fathers vary tremendously. Christian thinkers proposed many atonement theories through the ages—several with large followings. Some theories also produced significant variations, and some believers combined together elements of more than one theory.

So what does Jesus’ death on the cross do for us? New Testament writers agree that something very important happened, but there is no agreement on what it was other than it was very significant. Usually, the writers mention Jesus’ death only briefly while talking about something else and without clarifying how they think it works.

The New Testament proposes no theory, and there has never been agreement among believers.

New Testament writers primarily use three terms in talking about Jesus’ death on the cross: Cross, Blood, and Sacrifice. I think ‘Cross’ and ‘Blood’ should be thought of simply as his Death. We will look at sample passages of each to get an idea of their usage. They will be mere snippets.

Titian

Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

References to the Cross in the Death of Jesus

Paul refers to the cross (death):

Lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 1 Corinthians 1

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6

And in other books attributed to Paul:

In one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Ephesians 2

And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Colossians 1

Having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2

Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Colossians 2

Peter adds:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2

These are only snippets, of course, because the cross is mentioned only incidentally rather than being elaborated on. We hear that Jesus’ death on the cross involves reconciliation, canceling our legal indebtedness, bearing our sins, and triumphing over the powers and authorities.

But none of the passages suggest how any of these things work, and we should not try to harmonize them into some larger, clearer truth, as though they all have the same perspective in mind. There is insufficient substance in the mentions to tie them together. The same is true of the following passages.

References to Blood in the Death of Jesus

There are far more references to blood (death) than the cross in conjunction with the death of Jesus.

Jesus, himself, mentions his blood even before the crucifixion:

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22

Paul mentions the blood:

Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. Acts 20

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! Romans 5

Other books attributed to Paul mention the blood:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace Ephesians 1

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2

Through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Colossians 1

Other writers speak of the blood:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. Revelation 1

Again, there is no real explanation of exactly how the death of Jesus impacts us, and the perspectives seem quite mixed.

References to Sacrifice in the Death of Jesus

The third term used in reference to Jesus’ death is sacrifice.

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. Romans 3

Just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4

These few references to sacrifice bring up imagery from ritual temple sacrifice in Jerusalem, even mentioning the temple term ‘atonement’. It is certainly not clear to me that they are suggesting anything other than an allusion to Jewish ritual, even though many believers today emphasize this atoning sacrifice as the key to understanding the dynamics of Jesus’ accomplishment for us in his death on the cross.

However, the writer of Hebrews carries the theme of Jesus as sacrifice well beyond the simple allusions of the previous writers. He compares Jesus’ work on the cross to temple ritual and sacrifice in a more detailed way.

Here are some of his statements:

Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. Hebrews 7

But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Hebrews 9

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Hebrews 9

These references to Jesus as sacrifice have been expanded and misconstrued to the highest level by some believers, leading to an atrocious theory of how Jesus’ death impacts our salvation. It is called Substitutionary Atonement or Penal Substitution. We will talk about this theory of the death of Jesus next time.

Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness

The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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76 Responses to What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?

  1. Chas says:

    Tim, almost all of these interpretations of what Jesus’ death means are from the epistles of Paul and 1 John, with hardly a hint from the Gospels, which suggests that the authors wrote them with the intent of changing the behavior of people in certain churches to conform with their own views. It could be said that they were trying to make people come into line by making them feel guilty for Jesus having to make a sacrifice for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, you could be right. But, on the other hand, the gospels are about the life and teaching of Jesus during his lifetime, and reflection on the meaning and significance of his death on the cross is perhaps absent because it had not yet occurred. After his resurrection the stories dealt with the impact of his resurrection rather than the meaning of his death; that would come later as his followers grappled with its significance.

      Like

  2. tonycutty says:

    I do think that the references to the ‘Cross’ are more than just Jesus’s death. I think that Paul deliberately used the word ‘Cross’ because he wanted to refer to the manner of that death, as well as the fact of the death. In addition, Paul could also be alluding to Jesus’s Gospel references to the Cross, from before He was crucified. But for me one of the main things for the Cross is that everything that was bad about humanity was nailed there. Simply referring to the ‘death’ isn’t sufficient; the sin/sickness/flesh etc. has to be seen to be crucified in order to make it helpless and powerless. It all died a criminal’s death, because it was all evil. It deserved it! This is the victory of the Cross. Wow, this Gospel is good news!! Here’s my take on the victory of the Cross, published only yesterday: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2016/02/21/left-in-the-grave/

    I do have my doubts about penal substitution, mainly because while it portrays Jesus as being the Good Guy, it portrays Father God as the Bad Guy. And this is simply not the case, of course. And I look forward to reading your ideas on the matter.

    But I do strongly believe in the Isaiah 53 idea that somehow, Jesus takes on our sicknesses etc. and renders them powerless through the Cross. As to how this applies in daily life, I am still learning! I wish I could take on my wife’s illness onto myself in order to spare her the suffering, but I can’t. However, in the ultimate wish-fulfilment scenario, I know a bloke Who can! And it is of course Jesus; He’s the only One Who can indeed take our illnesses away from us and onto Himself. And I look forward with faith to seeing this happen for my wife. Why it takes so long, I don’t know. But my anticipation is intense 🙂

    Great post, Tim, as always. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      You have some good points, Tony. And I like that you bring up two particular issues: penal substitution and victory over sin, sickness, and the flesh. You anticipate me! The next post is on penal substitution, and the following one is on Jesus as victor over these things you mention.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tonycutty says:

    Oh, and I love the Python-esque reference in your title. What does Jesus’ death on the Cross do for us? More than the Romans ever did, I can tell you! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I like Monty Python, but I don’t recall the reference you mention. Can you remind me of the scenario?

      Liked by 1 person

      • tonycutty says:

        Sure. It was in ‘Life of Brian’; the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene. On YouTube, just search what have the romans ever done for us 😉 The title “What does Jesus’ death on the Cross do for us?” kinda struck a chord!

        And I am now looking forward to your next instalments even more!

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Life of Brian was so long ago for me; I remember it, but I can’t even recall for sure if I saw it. But I have put it on my to do list now!

          Liked by 1 person

          • fiddlrts says:

            My wife and I watched Life of Brian recently. Monty Python is just genius. (On a related note, we are probably two of fewer than a dozen people who actually get our pastor’s references to Monty Python.)

            I look forward to the rest of this series.

            Like

    • Chas says:

      I think that The Life of Brian is the funniest film I have ever seen, because of its sending up the religious aspects of both Christianity and Judaism. (For all those who have been taught Latin it also sends up the way of teaching of Latin in British schools!)

      Liked by 2 people

      • tonycutty says:

        “Write it out a thousand times before sunup, or I’ll cut your bollocks off….” I too was subjected to Latin in a British Public School 😉

        Just never got threatened with that particular punishment – but the teaching method is familiar!

        Like

  4. sheila0405 says:

    These passages tell me that the Jewish rituals of blood sacrifice were incorporated into Jesus’ death, to broaden the message of Jesus to the Jewish authorities who were so opposed to Jesus. However, I still think the whole idea of blood sacrifice is a primitive one, when humans thought various gods were responsible for natural events for which the humans had no explanation. I think I’ve mentioned that I saw a documentary on PBS several years ago in which some Samaritans still practice animal sacrifice as part of their religion. I find it all rather barbaric & unenlightened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, there is a lot of identification of Jesus’ death with ritual temple sacrifice–especially in Hebrews, and you might be right that the imagery is used to catch the attention of Jewish people and help them understand the importance of Jesus’ work. And I firmly agree with you that the primitive concept of offering animal sacrifice to gods is barbaric and unenlightened.

      Like

  5. Pingback: What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us? - Jesus is Lord

  6. rogerwolsey says:

    Good stuff. Worthy of pondering. Necessary for discipleship. I speak at length and in detail about the conventional notions of “the blood” being somehow necessary for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to have been salvific/saving for us in chapter 6 of my book “Kissing Fish.” In my opinion, it’s the most important chapter in the book.

    See also this pieces: 1. “Why they Killed Jesus” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2015/06/why-they-killed-jesus-2/
    2. re: what the cross “means” to us, A Progressive Christian Easter Sermon: “An Insurrection of a Resurrection” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2014/04/an-insurrection-of-a-resurrection-a-progressive-christian-easter-message/

    blessings,

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What Paul does discuss at length is how the resurrection of Jesus is the assurance to us that God’s promise of eternal life with him will be upheld. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of all at the end of the age are part of the one and same thing with a sort of halftime in between. So Jesus is the “first fruit” of the dead to new life and by his example we may take assurance that God will resurrect us as well. “For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’,” 2 Cor. 1.20.

    Using Jewish sacrificial rituals as illustrations was done, I think, to show that (a) the crucifixion and death of Jesus makes sense within the Jewish world view and (b) to demonstrate that Temple sacrifices were obviated by God by the shedding of divine blood (what can top that?). If “there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood,” and God shed his very own blood to prove to fallen humanity that his faithfulness is true, how can other sacrifices continue to be necessary?

    There is a lot of first-century context to all of this that we don’t have and often cannot even guess well. I suspect that the people to whom the apostles preached and witnessed had a much clearer idea than we of what Jesus’ death meant. That doesn’t mean our understanding is wrong, just that ours and their probably do not have as many points of contact as we like to think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good stuff, Donald! I really like your emphasis on the resurrection and its impact on us. I will speak to that also in my post in two weeks.

      I especially resonate with you observation that:

      “Using Jewish sacrificial rituals as illustrations was done, I think, to show that (a) the crucifixion and death of Jesus makes sense within the Jewish world view and (b) to demonstrate that Temple sacrifices were obviated by God by the shedding of divine blood (what can top that?). If “there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood,” and God shed his very own blood to prove to fallen humanity that his faithfulness is true, how can other sacrifices continue to be necessary?”

      I think you are on track here. Well said!

      Like

    • I agree with you, Donald. When we look backward, how early Christians were trying to make sense of Jesus’s death looks primitive instead of the advancement it was at their time. Just as Abraham made a theological “leap” to abandon child sacrifice and substitute an animal instead, the early Christians were making a theological leap to abandon animal sacrifice altogether by saying that Jesus’s death was a “sacrifice” to end all further bloody sacrifices. In the same way, Jesus was making a theological leap to institute a new ritual that involved only the ordinary things available to all people (bread and wine at any supper) so that believers were freed from seeking “communion” with God only at the Temple through bought-and-sold blood sacrifices of innocent animals through the elite priests, and instead realize that “where two or more” were gathered was sufficient for especially when those present are willing to drink the cup of forgiveness, Jesus’s life “blood” if you will. I wonder when we contemporary Christians can let go of literalism and continue the theological leap that God has never wanted blood sacrifices at all (can we give up war? capital punishment?), but has always only been interested in meek hearts, loving hands, and the difficult daily task of sharing our bread and drinking from the not so easy cup of forgiving others and showing mercy. Buying a “sacrifice” (money offerings?) is easy in comparison, frankly!

      Liked by 2 people

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Karen, well said. Very well said! I especially like your comparison of communion around the memorial of Jesus’ blood and flesh to the very different communion with God at the temple. This had never occurred to me.

        Like

  8. Chas says:

    I have a problems with the cross. Judea was under Roman occupation only from 63BC to 37BC. After that it became a client state with a king who was appointed by the Romans. From 37BC to 70AD (when the Romans violently put down a rebellion and sacked both Jerusalem and the temple) the only Roman soldiers in Judea would have been the ones guarding the port that exported the tribute to Rome. The puppet king would be responsible for civil peace-keeping and the role of the Roman Governor would be only to receive the tribute and assign it to appropriate ships to take it to Rome. We can therefore confidently eliminate the Romans as being the ones who executed Jesus. The Judaic religious authorities would be the only ones who had a motive for killing Jesus, but they would not have used crucifixion, because they abhorred it, since it had been used to kill Jews who had resisted the Hellenization process imposed by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in about 160BC.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I think the history is a bit different than you state. At the death of Herod the Great about 4 B.C., Rome divided the area among three of his sons as client rulers. Herod Archelaus was the ruler (not king) of Judaea from 4 B.C. until 6 A.D. At that time Judaea became a Roman province administered by a prefect based in the port town of Caesarea; this Roman province continued through the rest of the life of Jesus.

      Josephus shares much information on these issues, including that the Romans often moved their military to Jerusalem during the major feasts in order to quell any potential political excitement or uprising. They were quartered at the Antonia Fortress at one corner of the temple for easy access to the temple grounds.

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, Josephus came much later, after the sacking of Jerusalem and the temple, so we might accept what he reports as applying to his own time, but whether he is reliable as an independent historian for the time of Jesus is rather questionable.
        My history extract was taken from Wikipedia, so it might be limited. Maybe I should have another look around.

        Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, sorry, you are quite right in your details. Pontius Pilate was the prefect, rather than governor, of Judea and he would have been responsible for keeping the peace and the imposition of Roman law. My hypothesis therefore evaporates.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, don’t feel bad. I sometimes accept misinformation as valid too. We can’t fact check every source every time.

          Like

      • consultgtf says:

        What is the message, you are sharing, Sir???

        We killed lot of Saints and good people. So how/when did we sacrifice son of god to God?
        But, wait In Trinity how can we accept that, God gets satisfied in one layer/plane, by getting killed on other layer/plane. So he can forgive all sinners… for more than 2000 years, sorry I am confused, please help.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I don’t believe Jesus was sacrificed to God. I will say more on this in the next two posts in this series.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Tim, I agree with you. I had a go at the logic of it and it came out as this:
            In sacrifice as atonement for sin, something that the sinner valued was given as payment to God for God to forgive them. Applying this concept to Jesus being a sacrifice requires someone to believe that God had given something that He valued very highly as payment to Himself for Himself to forgive the sinner. Since Jesus was to live with God in Heaven after his physical death, the only thing that God would have been giving was the rest of Jesus’ physical life. What would that have been worth to God? Only those additional things he could have achieved during an extended life. If God had valued those things highly, He would not have allowed Jesus to be killed. The concept of Jesus dying as a payment for God to forgive our sin therefore does not seem to survive critical analysis, because it contradicts itself.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Interesting thinking and a good question, Chas.

            Like

          • consultgtf says:

            What? if Jesus was not sacrificed to GTF! then why/How could Son of God Die?

            I am confused…

            Like

          • consultgtf says:

            Yes! God is God and Great not a human who gets satisfied with EGO!

            Like

  9. consultgtf says:

    None, infact the Gospel from John is only talking of redemption but all others talk about his death.

    So many disciples died, what is the difference, they were beheaded, their throat was cut.
    Compared to three nails being pierced, and hung for 3 hrs,

    Then, HOW COULD A THREE HOURS HANGING ON CROSS SAVE TRILLIONS? Still saving? Whom are you cheating?

    Like

  10. consultgtf says:

    Superb! Great to hear someone talking like this… May God Bless you tremendously.

    Will GTF, like a human sacrifice?

    How cruel YOU human’s are,

    He is, THEE CREATOR, not your EGO to get satisfied by death which will enable other TO SIN!

    Like

  11. michaeleeast says:

    Jesus’ death on the cross does nothing except create a surplus of good – he was innocent.
    The crucifixion was a tragedy – the light went out of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. fiddlrts says:

    I too think that the mention of “cross” rather than just “death” is important. It wasn’t just that there was a Divine ultimate sacrifice. He could have been put to death in an elaborate and theatrical religious ceremony. Instead, I get the strong sense that Saint Paul and the other NT writers are tapping into the disgrace and humiliation of becoming the lowest of the low, the least of the least, the mere human rubbish in the view of the Romans – and indeed the rest of that world. “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree” isn’t just death, it is utter humiliation, loss of honor, and something only the truly cursed of the gods would endure. (Hence why suicide was considered more honorable than capture in so many cultures.) I find the beauty and offense of the cross to be this: it is the ultimate symbol of the upside-down kingdom, where the first are last, the greatest is the servant, and human rubbish, to be left exposed in a dehumanizing way, becomes the one who God has exalted above all else. To me, that is the great beauty of Christianity, and one big reason why I do not wish to leave, even when frustrated and doubtful. There is power in that symbolism that we can barely start to comprehend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • consultgtf says:

      True, every time we sin, we hang God’S on Cross

      Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “It is the ultimate symbol of the upside-down kingdom, where the first are last, the greatest is the servant, and human rubbish, to be left exposed in a dehumanizing way, becomes the one who God has exalted above all else.”

      Fiddlrts, I agree that the NT writers emphasize this point and it is a very compelling one based on what actually happened. I think you are on to something here, but I am not sure the use of cross was pre-planned by God in order to illustrate this point.

      This is a valuable thought to ponder; thanks for sharing it.

      Like

    • Chas says:

      Would the cross not be an elaborate and theatrical ceremony? Wouldn’t a simple killing, with a sword or spear be more likely, since that would minimize the suffering. That would be much more consistent with a kind, loving God. For such a God to have let an innocent person suffer unnecessarily, especially a prolonged agony induced by an instrument that was specifically designed for that purpose, would surely have been perverse.

      Like

  13. michaeleeast says:

    I don’t believe that God is sadistic in this way.
    Which is why I believe in the miracle of the resurrection.

    Like

    • Chas says:

      How would the resurrection remove the agonizing, prolonged suffering of crucifixion? It would already have happened.

      Like

      • michaeleeast says:

        The resurrection happened afterwards it is true but everlasting bliss is some compensation.

        Like

        • Chas says:

          That compensation would have been the same whether Jesus’ death had been quick and relatively painless, or slow and agonizing, so I still think that God would have kept his suffering to a minimum. He would have been able to do that because Jesus heard and obeyed Him, so God could control all of the circumstances of his death.

          Like

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  31. benaiah juma says:

    Jesus is lord of lords and king of kings.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Another Thinking Man says:

    Hi Tim, I’m also suspicious of penal substitution doctrine and I’ve been going back through the gospels to see what Jesus said about salvation. There’s one thing that I’m still considering related to this however. You brought up Matthew 26 and Mark 14 in the article and I was wondering what you think about these. For example, in Mark 10:45, Jesus say that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. And, as you mentioned, in Matthew 26:28 he says that “this is blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. If we do not accept the substitution doctrine, how might we understand what Jesus is saying when he describes himself as a ransom or says that his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins? Or do you know any biblical scholars who have commented on this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thinking Man, you ask some good questions.

      I do believe Jesus’ death and resurrection can be thought of as a ransom–a ransom from the power of sin and of death. When Jesus rose from the dead he destroyed the power of both, and the reference to Jesus’ blood and forgiveness is another way of saying that. However, I think God was always willing to forgive sins–even before Jesus was executed.

      The idea of penal substitutionary atonement actually has a long, slow history of development from Augustine (around 400 AD), to Anselm (around 1000 AD), and Calvin (about 1500 AD). See a more detailed explanation in this article:

      https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/how-substitutionary-atonement-fails/

      Like

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