What did the death of Christ on the cross achieve? This article looks at three major ways in which people have understood the significance of Christ's death: the moral influence theory, the Christus victor theory, and the penal substitution view of the atonement. The author indicates how the third point of view has the most biblical support.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2012. 3 pages.

Perfect Prize

A few years ago now my brother in-law pulled me aside and asked me privately about a question he had been struggling with for quite some time. He said, "I know that Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins and all that, but don't you think it would have been better if he had stuck around a few more years and given us more instruction?"

His question betrayed what he really believed (or didn't believe) as to what Jesus' death and resurrection has actually accomplished. That is, he knew something of the "right answer" in his head, but what he truly believed about the matter was another question entirely.

What does the cross of Christ mean? It has become the central symbol of the Christian religion. Which is a little strange because in its first century setting, crucifixion was the worst form of punishment possible. It was a horrific, shameful way to be put to death, with people often suffering for days. How then has it come to have such pride of place?

The cross is obviously central to any account of Jesus' life, with each one of the Gospel accounts devoting much space to describing what took place; so much so that some people have described the Gospels not as "biographies" which is a review of someone's life — but rather "thanographies" that is, a review of someone's death. Everyone agrees that Jesus was born so that He might die, but what did His life, death and subsequent resurrection achieve?

Historically there have been three major ways people have understood the significance of Jesus' death. Each one of them has a certain element of truth to it but it is the third one in particular that best represents the Biblical material and has also come under the most attack.

The first is known as the moral influence theory. This interpretation emphasises the inspiring nature that Christ's love can and should have on us. The death of Jesus, then, demonstrates the love of God so dramatically that we cannot help but be convinced of it ourselves and share it with others. Just think of the great classic hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, by Isaac Watts. Who is not moved when they ponder the sacrifice of Calvary? The problem is, however, that this does not present the complete picture. Yes Jesus' death should move us greatly, but to say that this is all that the cross is or does falls hopelessly short.

The second theory is commonly referred to as "Christus victor" with the emphasis being placed on a ransom being paid to Satan rather than God. It is sometimes also referred to as the "fish hook" view of the atonement since at the cross the Deceiver was himself deceived by swallowing the "bait" that the death of Jesus would mean His defeat. However, the "hook" hidden underneath was that in His resurrection Jesus defeated the power of death and therefore released the hold that the Devil has over us.

This particular view was especially popular among the early church Fathers and more recently was the position put forward by none other than C.S. Lewis! Just think back to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and especially how Edmund is redeemed from the claims of the White Witch. Aslan (who represents Christ in the story) offers himself in Edmund's place but because of the "deeper magic" he is able to break the stone table and reverse the curse of death.

Many evangelical Christians are unaware that Lewis himself rejected the third and most popular view of the atonement commonly referred to as penal substitution. In his book Mere Christianity Lewis outlines his understanding of the position, as well as why he rejects it, as follows:

The one most people have heard is the one I mentioned before the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense.

Significantly, Lewis almost argues himself back into the mainstream position when he immediately goes on to state:

On the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. Or if you take 'paying the penalty', not in the sense of being punished, but in the more general sense of 'standing the racket' or 'footing the bill,' then, of course, it is a matter of common experience that, when one person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.

Is it enough to say that Christ has paid the price for our sin "not in the sense of being punished" but rather in the more impersonal way of only "paying a bill"? The Bible clearly says that it's more much more! In both the Old and New Testament Jesus' death is explained as taking away the punishment, which we personally deserved. Just consider the following passages.

He was pierced for our transgression, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:5-6

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.1 Peter 2:24

The so-called New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, as well as many even from within the Christian church, are vehemently opposed to the whole idea of God sending His Son as a substitute to die in our place. They even go as far as to say that this particular view is essentially the same as cosmic child abuse.

The objection is refuted when one remembers that Jesus went to the cross willingly. He did not take upon Himself our sin by accident but by freely laying it down. When understood like this, Jesus' death is the greatest act of love and sacrifice ever made.

Ultimately the problem anyone has in coming to appreciate what the cross has achieved is a spiritual one within the individual. On our own, without the illumination of God's Holy Spirit, it will always seem confusing and thus remain a mystery. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24,

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

What my brother-in-law needs then is not more instruction but rather for God to open his eyes to the meaning of the gospel. That he would see in Christ the perfect substitute for his sins. The One who paid the price the personal price for all the times he has failed to keep God's Law and that in exchange Jesus is also offering to him a righteous standing in heaven since his sin has been replaced with Christ's righteousness (see Zech. 3:3-4).

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