At the very heart of historic Christianity stands a cross. The Gospel message is that God brought forth redemption from sin through the crucifixion of his Son (Colossians 1:19–20). The cross therefore exists as a distinctive feature of the Christian faith. But how is one to understand the profound meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross? The atonement of Christ has been understood to reflect several perspectives on the overall work of redemption.1
1. Christ’s Death on the Cross as Sacrifice
Many people have interpreted the Messiah’s atoning death on Calvary’s cross as the “perfect sacrifice” that the various Old Testament sacrifices could only point to and suggest but never accomplish (Hebrews 10). Yet Jesus’ sacrificial death was unique in that it consisted of a “once for all atonement” (Hebrews 10:10) that effectively brought about the forgiveness of human sin. Moreover, in offering himself on the cross Christ served as both priest and sacrifice. In other words, in this sacrifice he both officiated and offered himself. In light of Christ’s historic crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate, there is no other sacrifice for sin available or needed. Sin exacted its terrible cost, because the perfect sacrifice required the death of God’s one and only Son.
2. Christ’s Death on the Cross as Forgiveness
The cross of Christ is God’s way of dealing finally and fully with the problem of human sin. Jesus’ atonement took away sin (John 1:29) and brought about full access to God and pardon and remission from all transgressions. God’s forgiveness via the cross results in the complete removal of all alienation between God and the sinner. God’s pardon restores the person to a state of favor, and the Lord remembers their sin no more. Calvary’s atonement cleanses a person from all sin, thus providing true forgiveness, peace, and the restoration of spiritual union with God (2 Corinthians 5:19). This ability to forgive fully and forever is rooted in God’s gracious and merciful nature.
3. Christ’s Death on the Cross as Love
Jesus’ death on the cross stands as evidence of God’s love for human beings. Though human rebellion angered and grieved God he nonetheless responds by providing a way for sinners to escape from his just wrath. The Father sends his Son into the world to die in the place of sinners (John 3:16). The Incarnate Son of God shows his devotion by leaving his heavenly abode and takes to himself a human nature in order to ultimately lay down his life on a Roman cross. The Savior accepts humiliation, pain, death, and, finally, separation from the Father to accomplish redemption. Christ’s atoning death is the definitive demonstration of his agape love for his flawed creatures (Romans 5:8). Theologian Louis Berkhof describes the atonement as being deeply grounded in two of God’s attributes: “It is best to say that the Atonement is rooted in the love and justice of God, love offered sinners a way of escape, and justice demanded that the requirements of the law be met.”2
4. Christ’s Death on the Cross as Victory
Jesus won the ultimate victory. His cross work defeated the hidden and hostile forces that enslaved and harassed humanity. The Lord’s atoning death and bodily resurrection from the grave permanently defeated such colossal worldly powers as sin, death, and the devil.
The Lord Jesus liberated those who had been taken captive (Ephesians 4:8) and emerged as the conquering hero who has broken the bonds of captivity. Jesus is the Lamb of God who defeated the one who stalks about like a roaring lion seeking to devour men’s souls (1 Peter 5:8). Christians celebrate the new VE-Day, “Victory upon the Earth,” through the cross of the Lord and Savior.
Whether adorned frivolously as a fashion statement or serving reverently as a war memorial, the cross always garners attention. It is the cross of Jesus Christ and its fourfold message of atonement that separates historic Christianity from all other religions and philosophical systems.