What did Jesus actually accomplish on the cross?
Who did He accomplish it for?
by John Samson
Who did Jesus die for? If we were to ask this question of Christians today, most would not hesitate for a moment to say, “everyone, of course!”
However, it may be something of a surprise to learn that this has not always been the majority view amongst Christians, and that the question actually needs a great deal of thought.
Let me start by saying that all Christians should rightfully affirm the infinite worth of Christ’s work on the cross. “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world. This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.” Canons of Dort – Second Head of Doctrine, Articles 3 and 4. The value of Christ’s death on the cross is infinite. That cannot be underlined enough!
Yet when we ask such questions as “what was God’s intention in sending His Son to die on the cross?” we have to think about what the cross actually does for people, and for what kind of people.
For example, when Jesus was dying on the cross, many people in human history had already died. In fact, not only had they died, but they were either in expectation of heavenly bliss (such as those in Abraham’s bosom – Luke 16:23) or the dreaded expectation of divine, eternal punishment for their sins. This being the case, we need to ask, “What would Jesus death actually achieve for people who were already lost, with no hope of eternal life?”
And, would Jesus actually be bearing the sins of all these people awaiting an eternity in hell, when He knew it would do them no good?
If He did bear the punishment for all the sins of all people, then why would those in hell be bearing the punishment for their sins? Surely punishment for sin should not be handed out twice – one time on the spotless Lamb of God, and a second time on the people in hell.
These are not the only questions we need to be asking. We need to think about the Old Testament types and shadows, which point forward in time to portray the work of the Perfect Savior when He came. For instance, what exactly did the sacrifice made on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) actually do for those outside of the covenant of redemption? What exactly did it do for the Hittites, the Jebusites, or the Amalekites? Did the sacrifice actually pay for, and cover the sins of everyone in the whole world? And if it did do so, why would God still be angry with these other nations? If Divine wrath is satisfied by means of the lamb’s propitiatory sacrifice for sin, then God’s anger is averted, and He is happy rather than angry with people, right?
Well let’s look at just some of the many scriptures that speak to this issue. When we do, I believe we’ll notice something about God’s intention in the work of Christ’s cross.
Isaiah 53:4-11 ESV
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
I am assuming that as Christians we would all agree that although this was written around 700 years B. C., this passage is a highly prophetic one, speaking of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ and His substitutionary work on the cross. Although there are many things that could be pointed out, please notice that Jesus is said to be “stricken for the transgression of my people,” and that He is satisfied by what He achieves, in spite of the anguish of His soul, and that He makes many righteous in doing so, bearing their iniquities.
Whose iniquities does Jesus bear? Verse 11 tells us it is the “many” He makes righteous.
In the New Testament, we see a similar statement in the words of the angel to Joseph regarding Mary. Matthew 1:21 – “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins.”
This prophetic promise again speaks of the Divine intention of the cross, and the fact that Christ would achieve this intention. Jesus will save His people from their sins.
Further on in Matthew we read Jesus’ own words, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)
In John 10:11, 14, 15, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In the next verse He continues, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Here He speaks of those outside the Jewish fold, the Gentiles. Christ has many sheep amongst both Jews and Gentiles for whom He would lay down His life.
Clearly not all people are counted amongst Christ sheep, as Jesus goes on to say,
26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
30 I and the Father are one. (John 10:26-30)
In John 17, Jesus prayed, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. ” (v. 6-10)
Jesus’ intercession here was not for everyone in the world, but for those the Father gave to Him.
There are also Scriptures that clearly state that Christ gave Himself for His Church:
Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Eph. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church…
Here’s a rather lengthy quote from Dr. John Piper, that’s well worth considering. In commentating on the above verses he said, “There is a precious and unfathomable covenant love between Christ and His Bride, that moved Him to die for her. The death of Jesus is for the bride of Christ in a different way than it is for those who perish. Here’s the problem with saying Christ died for all the same way he died for his bride. If Christ died for the sins of those who are finally lost, the same way he died for the sins of those who are finally saved, then what are the lost being punished for? Were their sins covered and canceled by the blood of Jesus or not? We Christians say, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). And we mean that his death paid the debt those sins created. His death removed the wrath of God from me. His death lifted the curse of the law from me. His death purchased heaven for me. It really accomplished those things!”
“But what would it mean to say of an unbeliever in hell that Christ died for his sins? Would we mean that the debt for his sins was paid? If so, why is he paying again in hell? Would we mean that the wrath of God was removed? If so, why is the wrath of God being poured out on him in punishment for sins? Would we mean that the curse of the law was lifted? If so, why is he bearing his curse in the lake of fire?”
He continues, “One possible answer is this: one might say that the only reason people go to hell is because of the sin of rejecting Jesus, not because of all the other sins of their life. But that is not true. The Bible teaches that the wrath of God is coming on the world, not just because of its rejection of Jesus, but because of its many sins that are not forgiven. For example, in Colossians 3:5-6, Paul refers to “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed,” and then says, “On account of these things the wrath of God will come.” So people who reject Jesus really will be punished for their specific sins, not just for rejecting Jesus.”
“So, we go back to the problem: in what sense did Christ taste death for their sins? If they are still guilty for their sins and still suffer punishment for their sins, what happened on the cross for their sins? Perhaps someone would use an analogy. You might say, Christ purchased their ticket to heaven, and offered it to them freely, but they refused to take it, and that is why they went to hell. And you would be partly right: Christ does offer his forgiveness freely to all, and any who receives it as the treasure it is will be saved by the death of Jesus. But the problem with the analogy is that the purchase of the ticket to heaven is, in reality, the canceling of sins. But what we have seen is that those who refuse the ticket are punished for their sins, not just for refusing the ticket. And so what meaning does it have to say that their sins were canceled? Their sins are going to bring them to destruction and keep them from heaven; so their sins were not really canceled in the cross, and therefore the ticket was not purchased.”
“The ticket for heaven which Jesus obtained for me by his blood is the wiping out of all my sins, covering them, bearing them in his own body, so that they can never bring me to ruin can never be brought up against me again – never! That’s what happened when he died for me. Hebrews 10:14 says, “By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Perfected before God for all time, by the offering of his life! That’s what it means that he died for me. Hebrews 9:28 says, “Christ also, [was] offered once to bear the sins of many.” He bore my sins. He really bore them (See Isaiah 53:4-6). He really suffered for them. They cannot and they will not fall on my head in judgment.”
“If you say to me then, that at the cross Christ only accomplished for me what he accomplished for those who will suffer hell for their sins, then you strip the death of Jesus of its actual effective accomplishment on my behalf, and leave me with what? An atonement that has lost its precious assuring power that my sins were really covered and the curse was really lifted and the wrath of God was really removed. That’s a high price to pay in order to say that Christ tasted death for everyone in the same way.”
10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,
13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.
14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Did Christ’s sacrifice perfect for all time everybody on the planet (past, present and future)? Surely not, unless we believe in universalism (that everyone will be saved).
In John 15, Jesus taught us that true love can be seen in laying a life down for friends:
13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you…
In Galatians 2:20, Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Can a non Christian affirm that like Paul, he was crucified with Christ? Surely not!
The consistent theme of Scripture is the triumph of Christ’s all conquering work of redemption. When we are given a glimpse into the heavenly anthems sung by the redeemed, we read, “And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
Notice again the consistency of thought here. It does not say He redeemed everyone in every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Jesus, by His blood, actually redeemed people out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation.
The number of the redeemed is vast. Revelation 7:9-10 declares, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Scripture is explicit then in saying that Jesus died for His people, His sheep, His friends, His Church, securing eternal life for them in doing so.
However, many object to this understanding of Christ’s work on the cross, not because of the many clear texts that teach it, but because other verses seem, a least at first glance, to strongly deny this. For instance, 1 John 2:2, speaking of Jesus, states, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
I can certainly see how someone would use this verse to undermine all I have been saying above. Yet scripture, I believe, is not contradictory to itself. There is one Divine Author of Scripture and He does not contradict Himself.
So how are we to understand 1 John 2:2?
I have written elsewhere about the principles of correct interpretation of scripture. There is only one correct interpretation of scripture. Though there may be many applications of a verse, it only means what it was intended to mean when it was written.
In my article entitled “Playing Marbles with Diamonds” (here) I refer to twelve principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), two of which would apply here:
1. Consider the Author – who wrote the book? (what was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?)
2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)
I quote again Dr. James White, when he wrote, “Remember when you were in school and you had to take a test on a book you were assigned to read? You studied and invested time in learning the background of the author, the context in which he lived and wrote, his purposes in writing, his audience, and the specifics of the text. You did not simply come to class, pop open the book, read a few sentences, and say, “Well, I feel the author here means this.” Yet, for some odd reason, this attitude is prevalent in Christian circles. Whether that feeling results in an interpretation that has anything at all to do with what the original author intended to convey is really not considered an important aspect. Everyone, seemingly, has the right to express their “feelings” about what they “think” the Bible is saying, as if those thoughts actually reflect what God inspired in His Word. While we would never let anyone get away with treating our writings like this, we seem to think God is not bothered, and what is worse, that our conclusions are somehow authoritative in their representation of His Word.”
With this in view, we approach the First Epistle of John, which is a letter written to a primarily Jewish audience. So in 1 John 2:2, as in the rest of the letter, we have the Apostle John, a Jew, writing primarily to fellow Jewish believers in the Messiah. He writes of Jesus Christ being “the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only (Hebrews), but also for the whole world (the Gentiles).”
A third principle I mentioned in the article relates to the concept of considering the author’s context. This refers to looking at all of a person’s writings – John’s writings, Paul’s writings, Luke’s writings, etc..
When we look elsewhere in John’s writings we notice in his Gospel an exact parallel in John’s use of words, which give us a great deal of insight as to what he (John) was referring to.
In John’s Gospel, chapter 11, verses 51-52, John wrote these words, “he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
In chart form, the parallel with 1 John 2:2 becomes clear:
Dr. Phil Johnson (who provided this helpful chart) writes, “There is little doubt that this is how John’s initial audience would have understood this expression. “The whole world” means “people of all kinds, including Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, and whatnot” as opposed to “ours only” i.e., the Jewish nation. What the apostle John is saying in the John 11 passage is particularly significant: Christ died so that he might gather “the children of God” the elect, from the whole world.”
I believe therefore that rather than undermining the case for Christ’s death for His elect sheep, 1 John 2:2 actually affirms it. When we understand the verse in its Johannine context (the writings of the Apostle John) then the correct interpretation becomes very clear.
In Hebrew culture, it is the father who chooses a bride for his son. In the same way, the bride of Christ was chosen by the Father, then given to the Son, and all in this number are without fail raised up to eternal life (John 6:37-39). The Son loses none of those given to Him by the Father.
A second objection to this, that needs to be dealt with are the words of Hebrews 2:9 which say,
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Surely “everyone” means everyone, right?
Well usually, yes, but not always. This in fact has to be determined by the context in which the words are spoken. For example, if a teacher asks his class of students, “Is everyone present?” he is not asking if everyone on the planet is present in the room, but rather all the students enrolled in the class. That’s how the word everyone is used, and so it is the context in which the words are used that determine what is meant by the words. The question in Hebrews 2:9 is whether “everyone” refers to all human beings without distinction, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group.
To determine the answer to that question, lets now read Hebrews 2: verses 9 -10 together:
9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Immediately after saying that by the grace of God Christ tasted death for everyone, the writer of Hebrews explains that God’s intention or design in the cross of Christ was to “bring many sons to glory” (verse 10). Christ tasted death for everyone, because it seemed fitting to God that the way to lead His children to glory was through the suffering and death of Christ.
The “everyone” of verse 9 refers to the “everyone” of the sons being led to glory in verse 10.
Verses 11 and 12 confirm this is indeed the context for the use of “everyone” (in verse 9):
11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,
12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
Following the thread of these verses, the sons God is leading to the glory of heaven through the death of Christ are now called the brothers of Christ. It was for everyone of these that Christ tasted death.
Hebrews 9:15 declares, “Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” According to this text who does it redeem? Answer: The called.
Christ’s work on the cross achieved all of the Divine purposes for it. The intent of the design was not merely to try to save all, but when all was said and done, the plan could fail for many because of that stubborn thing called “free will,” with the Savior sad for all eternity because many He died for received no benefit for all His labor. No, He died a satisfied Savior, giving Himself for His friends, for His sheep, for His people, for His Church, and fully accomplished the work of redemption for all in this number.
All who are particularists (who believe that not everyone will be saved – that some people will in fact spend eternity in hell) believe in some type of limitation to the atonement of Christ. The Arminian limits its power, for it only becomes effectual through man’s cooperation; the Reformed person limits its extent.
As C. H. Spurgeon said, “The doctrine of Holy Scripture is this, that inasmuch as man could not keep God’s law, having fallen in Adam, Christ came and fulfilled the law on the behalf of his people; and that inasmuch as man had already broken the divine law and incurred the penalty of the wrath of God, Christ came and suffered in the room, place, and stead of his elect ones, that so by his enduring the full vials of wrath, they might be emptied out and not a drop might ever fall upon the heads of his blood-bought people.” (Sermon 310 – “Christ our Substitute – New Park Street, Southwark)
Elsewhere he preached, “I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than an universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it.” (Sermon number 173 – Metropolitan Pulpit 4:121)
In another sermon, Spurgeon said, “Once again, if it were Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own evidence that there is a lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit must be cast some of the very persons, who according to that theory, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a thousand times more frightful than any of those horrors, which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of particular redemption.” (C. H. Spurgeon – Sermon 204 – New Park Street Pulpit 4:553)
This doctrine of the particular redemption or definite atonement of Christ, speaks of God’s design in the atonement, and who it was God was intending to save when Christ went to the cross. Christ died as a substitute who bore the full weight of God’s wrath on behalf of His people, paying the penalty for their sin. Christ intended to save His sheep and actually secured everything necessary for their salvation. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation.
Singer and songwriter Steve Camp wrote the following: “When the Lord Jesus Christ declared from the cross,”It is finished!”, He had:
fulfilled the Law;
went beyond the veil;
satisfied God’s justice;
propitiated the Father’s wrath;
satisfied His holiness;
fulfilled all righteousness;
confirmed the gospel;
redeemed the elect;
justified His own from the penalty of sin;
quenched the guilt of our sin;
crushed the head of Satan and destroyed his hold of death;
abolished death and its sting;
fulfilled all redemptive Messianic prophecies;
secured for us eternal life;
brought us into intimacy with God;
imputed to us His perfect righteousness;
instituted a new covenant;
and brought us into peace with God forever!”
Christ did not build a wide bridge that merely went most of the way from heaven to earth, requiring all who were willing to jump the final few yards. It was a narrow cross shaped bridge, that extended all the way from heaven to earth, with Jesus the Savior, walking the bridge, finding His sheep on the other side in spiritual death, raising them to life, and carrying each one safely to heaven in His arms.
Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, based on the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone! Christ’s all sufficient work affirms this!