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.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
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?