If asked why it was necessary for Jesus to die, most Christians would probably reply that He had to pay for our sins to give us eternal life instead of eternal condemnation. American revivalist Johnathan Edwards summed this idea well in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” If we see the cross as an angry God and Jesus as satisfying His tyrannical wrath, however, we’ve confused God with the devil and thus miss the beautiful truths that took place on Calvary.
Have you noticed that the contemporary emphasis on a wrathful God who demands penalty for sin is losing ground? The conversation has been shifting from Western legal definitions and judgment to more relevant questions about deliverance and freedom from oppression. I find this a good shift, as salvation should not be construed via a single narrow and shallow approach. According to my understanding, the New Testament provides no doctrinal theories of the cross but rather uses rich imagery to define the various aspects of God’s redemptive work. It includes multiple themes, including sacrifice, conflict, victory over evil, ransom, deliverance, liberation, reconciliation, and restoration. Recovering these biblical images gives us language to better address what occurred on the cross, leading us to rediscover their beauty and value.
To understand salvation in terms of law and justice is to portray God as a judge dispensing proportionate justice, but placing another’s guilt and sin on a blameless man like Jesus violates the fundamental principle of justice. I believe that God judges sin and that the cross confirms biblical justice, but I see God dispensing justice by shouldering responsibility and addressing sin within His own person. I do not see God punishing Jesus. God gave Himself for us, which is not retribution in the traditional sense but rather the greatest act of undying love the universe has ever seen. The death of Jesus honors God’s name, which is the manifestation of the divine character and power that had been refuted by Satan (John 12:28-33). God’s justice is therefore satisfied through His great love.
Gazing upon the scene of the cross, I see Jesus receiving the judgment that is due me as He firmly holds on to God through the darkest, cruelest night. Jesus gave Himself for us, all the way to agony, and if we really look and listen, we will experience the clearest picture of God’s love shining forth. Standing at the foot of the cross, I find God’s answers to sin, death, justice, freedom, faith, and love. Jesus dies as the sinner to establish God’s word on the wages of sin and to affirm God’s opposition to it, but He also dies an innocent Son, completely trusting in the Father’s ultimate expression of incredible love for and devotion to sinners. The cross shows us what God is really like. Through this revelation, I know that God still loves me despite my most degraded and broken aspects. God’s love is most fully present in the cross.
The purpose of the cross was to defeat sin, death, and the devil, and indeed, Jesus was triumphant over every form of sin (1 John 3:8; Hebrews 2:14–15). As Paul put it, Jesus openly disarmed the principalities and powers of evil that were against us (Colossians 2:15). Jesus waged war against hostile forces to win us back. The idea was to expose the world’s plight without God and to display the amazing beauty of His grace lavishly poured out upon it, highlighting the stark contrast between the horrible nature of sin and the pure love of God. Satan, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), was unmasked in his cruel hatred, and God was revealed as the greatest Lover in the face of evil. Jesus possessed the power to come down from the cruel cross and lay His tormenters in the dust, but He chose to accept the worst consequences of sin in order to expose it. He chose the power of love and truth despite the cost! It was God’s divine love, which accepted the consequences of sin and passed judgment to vanquish evil, that brought new life into the world. Thus, the cross became the undoing of sin and death, clearing the way for a pure and untarnished life with God.
The death of Jesus demonstrates the role not only of the sinner but also of God, who does not forsake us. The cross gives us the clearest picture of God’s heart, conveying how He expresses His reign of love. The revelation of God’s love is in the depths of His self-giving; it is there that we fully discover what God is really like! We see the incarnate God embracing us in our sin and abandonment, going deeply into our suffering and death to deliver us through His amazing love. God allowed our sin and brokenness to afflict Him—a voluntary act of solidarity with all who feel guilty, broken, or unloved. This is how God identifies with sinners without collaborating with them or colluding with sin. This is how God shows His amazing love for us, as while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). This is the eternal character of God—always loving and accepting us, without the slightest break. The amazing truth is that God will never stop loving us like this, no matter the cost!
The cross tells me that I am never alone but always held within a relationship. Legal explanations about pardon, justification, or salvation do not describe the intimacy and communion I have with God. The cross is an expression of God’s outrageous act of love, which was meant to reconcile and restore—to draw humanity into an ever-deepening relationship of dignity and unending intimacy! God does not judge the individual but sin itself, in all its complexity and deception. He gives Himself to the fatal consequences of our turning from Him as He enters into solitary with us.
The sacrifice of Jesus was not to placate a wrathful God. Instead, God’s forgiving and cleansing work is seen in this sacrificial imagery. People’s sin and mortality rendered them impure, and sacrifices were required to make them pure and whole because blood is a symbol of life (Leviticus 17:11). The sacrifice acted as a substitution for the individuals life. God’s act to redeem us was intended as a substitution. It teaches us that we all need a perfect ransom for sin. Jesus described His death as a ransom, the buying back of those sold into slavery (Mark 10:45). We need such deliverance from our corruption and slavery to sin. The cross was the rescue that redeemed humanity from its wretched condition, transforming it into a new humanity. God not only rescued us from danger and delivered us from our bondage but also restored relationships by drawing us near. People had been in self-imposed exile, their fears of God separating them from Him, but they were brought back into intimate fellowship with Him. We are now reconciled.
God is characteristically forgiving and unconditionally loving, but that does not mean that He’s gone soft or lacks the power to deal with sin and evil. On the contrary, human sin corrupts the world that God loves. Redemption does not come without a sacrifice; it costs God everything to gift it to us. Forgiveness as the remedy for sinfulness—the reclaiming from sin—cannot happen without God demonstrating the truth that sin leads to death. That sin was judged at the cross, however, does not imply that sinners can get away with misdeeds or that sin isn’t serious. God can continue loving and forgiving us without being misunderstood about sin’s wages, for He is justified through the cross, where He forgave us. The cross establishes that sin results in death and that sin and death will be permanently extinguished from the cosmos. God became known through the death of Jesus, and He is not a cruel and capricious deity who consigns people to eternal suffering for their sin. God need not punish sinners, lest they get off scot-free. No, the nature of sin is inherently self-destructive, performing as God promised—“the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Everything that stands at cross-purposes with God’s love and peace will be eliminated. Separated from the life of God, sinners will reap the inevitable consequences they have sown.
I think of salvation more as sanctification and reconciliation with a loving God than as legal judgment by Him. Salvation does not end with the cross because reconciliation is about restoring relationships. There is more to be healed and transformed—more relationships to be restored and more dark places to be reclaimed. This is the reality we must reclaim if we are to be a kingdom people called to proclaim the praises of the One who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Being a priestly people requires a special vocation. What God initiated on the cross must continue working in the lives of those He has redeemed. We are to receive that new and better life of unfettered love through the empowering Spirit. We live in a new reality in which we are loved by a gracious God. God is waiting for those who grasp the reality of His goodness and love to stake their lives on that identity by embracing and yielding to it. Such reconciliation will take us beyond the struggles and the temptations we endure as we transform into the people we were saved to be. We can therefore become agents of God’s goodness, truth, healing, and hope with full assurance of salvation.
If we can catch a glimpse of God’s devotion to sinners and truly believe it, we can develop a better picture of God and thus achieve more victories. It was the faith of Jesus as He held on to divine love—even in the face of intense intimidation and despair—that defeated sin and brought new life. The cross was an outright attack—though invisible to us—against the forces of sin and evil, and God’s love was victorious. Beyond exposing the two kingdoms, of Christ and Satan, the cross shows us that despite his claims, Satan does not have control over humanity. Jesus is not only a self-giving God of love on the cross but also a human being like you and me. He is my elder brother, holding my humanity close to God so that sin and death will have no power over me. I am freed to give myself to Jesus, and by identifying with Him, I too become capable of real love like His. Once connected to His amazing life of love, I am no longer enslaved. My old self, which continually falls to the dust, is extinguished as I meet Jesus’ truly human life. As I come alive in response to His amazing love, He changes my broken humanity with His beauty. I am loosed from sin and its condemnation, beginning the journey to become fully restored. I now have a whole new identity as God’s loved possession. No longer am I subject to the power of sin and the grip of an evil king who rules this fallen world. I am freed by a greater power to love God and others as I worship the reigning King. Jesus demonstrates that sinful humanity—the embodied humanity He took to the cross—can still love God purely right here and now. He promises a whole new humanity!
On the cross, Jesus suffered and died a victoriously sinless saint, completely trusting in His Father. Jesus did not let our broken humanity stop Him from engaging with God and turning our humanity back to Him. In the appalling darkness and horror of the cross, Jesus committed Himself fully to His Father’s keeping.
During the final moments of human history, we may face a crisis or bear a cross that will test our loyalty and commitment to Jesus. Some may misunderstand, thinking that we need to achieve perfect moral conduct to meet God’s law. Instead of viewing God’s law within a legal framework, however, we should view it from the relational context of covenantal grace. Rather than pursuing moral achievements, we are simply to participate in this love relationship by gallantly holding on to Jesus’ faithfulness to clearly see through the dark and difficult times that lie ahead. It’s about resting fully and confidently in His accomplishments for us. It’s about being His renewed people and participating in the revelation of His wonderful yet costly life.
Jesus, whose name means “God saves,” provides more salvation than a legal declaration or passport to heaven. The work of the cross is not only something God does for us but something He does in us as we participate and remain faithful to Him. I am thankful to be in right standing with God, knowing that I am pardoned and have been adopted into a new family. I’m justified and grateful, but Jesus’ achievement on Calvary is primarily a cosmic event. If there’s a legal framework to get excited about, it’s the heavenly council where Jesus testifies about God’s character. The angels there need the meaning of the cross to keep them secure as much as we do. Instead of limiting the cross to depicting individual acquittal, we should reclaim this universal perspective. Heaven rejoices because Jesus has made the universe a safer place, now and forever. He has defeated Satan. All of creation has been liberated from a destructive ruler. We are rescued from the danger and power of sin, freed from captivity and bondage, restored as members of God’s family, and offered intimate union with Him and a future place in the world to come. It’s a beautiful picture indeed, but to see it, we must rediscover the value of the biblical images of atonement over doctrinal theories.
Jesus was not punished by God. God offered Himself on our behalf in the person of His Son. I do not to see Jesus as a victim of an angry God but as heaven’s beautiful winner. When we look at the cross in this context, we see the ways in which God lavishes His love on us. Satan’s deceptions about God are unmasked, and his accusations are discredited. Jesus endured the cross to rescue us, anticipating the joy at the end of the journey, when creation with humanity would be restored (Hebrews 12:2). On the cross, Jesus mustered every ounce of strength from His weak, suffering body to shout His victory cry, “It is finished [tetelestai]” (John 19:30). His triumphant cry silences every other voice as it continues to echo across the universe and throughout the ages with a surplus of meaning that will forever captivate us.
Craig Ashton Jr.