Michael Morrison has a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is Dean of Faculty and Instructor in New Testament for Grace Communion Seminary. He is the author of Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing and Who Needs a New Covenant? The Rhetorical Function of the Covenant Motif in the Argument of Hebrews.
Articles by Michael Morrison:
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In March or April of each year, Christian churches typically set aside a day to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ. And whenever we participate in the Lord’s Supper or Communion, we commemorate the death of Jesus. It’s an important part of Christian faith and practice. Today, I’d like to explore some of the reasons for this, and I would like to begin by asking a multiple-choice question:
Why did Jesus die?
Actually, there are multiple answers.
For example, there is a medical answer to the question of why Jesus died. Maybe it was dehydration, or heat stroke, or an electrolytic imbalance in his bloodstream that caused the muscles in his heart to stop working.
And there is a social or political answer to the question of why Jesus died: the religious leaders were afraid that he was going to cause a rebellion against Rome, and that would cause Rome to kill thousands of people. So Jesus was put to death to avoid the risk of a war. He died because the religious leaders wanted him dead.
And there is a spiritual answer, too, and again there is more than one right answer. The Bible tells us that
- Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8).
- He died for our sins (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Colossians 2:14).
- He died to justify us, to declare us righteous (Romans 5:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
- He died to redeem us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13).
- Jesus died to destroy the devil, and to free us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).
- He died to reconcile all of us to the Father (Romans 5:10; 1 Peter 3:18).
- He died to win a victory over powers and authorities (Colossians 2:15).
- He died so that we could live for him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Now, some of these biblical statements are just the tip of the iceberg.
For example, the Bible says that Jesus died “for our sins.” But there is a deeper question right after that. Someone might ask, Why does his death have anything to do with our sins? What’s the connection between him dying, and us living? How does this work?
Theologians have answered this question with various “theories of atonement.” Depending on how you count these theories, there are a half dozen or so. All of them have some biblical support, and each of them makes sense to at least a few people.
Atonement is an old English word meaning at-one-ment, the condition of being “at one” with God – what the Bible calls reconciliation. But in modern theological usage, the meaning of atonement is usually focused on the connection between Christ’s death and the forgiveness of our sins. There’s more to salvation than just the forgiveness of sins, so the question can be expanded even larger than that, but to keep our discussion a manageable size, let’s just look at what Jesus’ death does for our salvation.
One common theory of the atonement is called the penal substitution theory. The word penal comes from the Latin word poena, from which we get the legal word subpoena, and the English words pain, and penalty, and penitentiary and penance and penalize. A list of punishments for crimes is called a penal code. When England sent criminals to Australia, it was called a penal colony. The word refers to a penalty prescribed by a judge.
This theory, when it comes to Jesus, is that Jesus was a substitute for us, paying our penalty for us.
One song puts it this way: I owed a debt I could not pay, and he paid a debt he did not owe. That’s really a financial metaphor, but it’s a similar idea. One person is a substitute for another, paying a penalty on behalf of someone else. We deserved to die, but Jesus died for us, so we don’t have to.
Now, like I said, that is a common theory. In fact, it is so common that some people think that it’s the only explanation for why we can be saved by the death of Jesus. Maybe it was the explanation that made the most sense to you, and maybe it is the way you have explained the gospel to other people.
But as we have just seen, the Bible gives a number of other explanations, and they each add something to our understanding of how we are saved by the death of Jesus.
Actually, if we take a closer look at the penal substitution theory, we will see a few problems with it, and we will see that it’s a good thing the Bible gives some additional explanations as well. If we are going to explain the gospel as a substitute punishment, it will be helpful for us to know where the difficulties are, so that we can avoid some mistakes.
1. The first problem I will mention is not in the theory itself, but the way it is sometimes used. The story sometimes goes like this: God is perfect, and he gives us perfect laws, but we don’t keep them. We sin, and God’s sense of holiness and justice says that we deserve to die. He is angry at us and wants to punish us.
But along comes Jesus, who loves us and volunteers to die for us. Hey, Dad, he says, if I pay the penalty for them, will you stop being angry at them? So the Father and the Son make a deal, and Jesus dies for us, and God is happy with us if we have faith in Jesus.
The big problem with this is that it makes Jesus quite different from his Father. God the Father looks like an ill-tempered grump who has to be talked into loving us, who has to be paid off, and Jesus is the nice guy who figures out a way to change his Father’s mind.
But this is not the way that the Bible describes God the Father and God the Son. The Bible says that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, God made human, a person in whom the fullness of the deity lives. Jesus told Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). The Father and the Son are in perfect agreement. The Father loves us just as much as Jesus does, and Jesus hates sin just as much as the Father does.
And it’s not like Jesus figured out a way to convince God to be merciful – God was already merciful, and the Father is the one who sent Jesus to save us. The Father was not angry with us in the sense of wanting to punish us. No, quite the opposite – the Bible says that God wants everyone to escape the punishment. He is angry at sin, but he wants us to escape the results of sin. So the death of Jesus was not designed to change God’s attitude toward us. Rather, it expressed what God himself did for us.
2. Now let’s consider something else. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. Everybody deserves to die, and it’s like we are all on death row, waiting for our execution. Along comes Jesus and says, Hey, I am willing to die for these people. If we are on death row, that sounds like a pretty good deal.
But an impartial observer says, That’s not justice. Justice does not mean punishing an innocent person and letting guilty people go free, even if the innocent person volunteers for it. If somebody is sentenced to 20 years in prison, we do not let anyone else serve the time for them – and if one person deserves to be executed, we don’t let anybody else volunteer to take their place, especially if they are innocent. That’s not justice.
Maybe you didn’t know this, but in the Middle Ages, punishments could be transferred. If the king’s son got into trouble, then they beat the son’s servant instead. That is the origin of the term “whipping boy.” The servant got whipped, and the prince had to watch him get a beating, and in the Middle Ages, they thought that justice had been served. The penalty had been paid, even if it was by someone else.
But today, many people do not think that this is fair. It does not seem to fit into any category of justice for God to let condemned criminals go free just because Jesus volunteered to die for them. Maybe our sense of justice is wrong, but it will be difficult to argue for that in our culture. Maybe there is a better way to explain what’s going on.
3. Third, the penal substitution theory focuses on the final penalty of sin – in a court of law at the last judgment, we will be found guilty and deserve the death penalty. Now, that is pretty serious, but I would like to point out that the penalty of sin at the last judgment is only part of our problem. It’s only part of the problem of sin, and only part of what Jesus came to die for.
Sin is a real problem in this life. Paul describes sin as a power that grips our lives and enslaves us (Romans 6:20-21), causing us to make bad choices in life – bad choices that hurt us, and hurt the people around us. That’s a real problem, and the good news is that Jesus has done something to solve this problem.
Just paying a future penalty is only part of the salvation that we need. Jesus frees us from the grip of sin – he liberates us from its enslaving power – and by the Holy Spirit, he begins to change us from the inside out. This is doing something about sin from where it begins, not just where it all ends up. This is saving us from our own corrupt selfishness, not just from a judicial verdict. That’s good news, and the penal substitution theory doesn’t say anything about it, but that is one of the reasons that Jesus died.
4. My last point here is that the penal substitution theory says that our salvation was completed by the death of Jesus. The substitute was offered on the cross, and the penalty was paid in full. But there is something important that is missing from this picture, and that is the resurrection of Jesus.
In First Corinthians 15, Paul said that if Christ had not been raised, then we would still be in our sins. The crucifixion is not enough – for the simple reason that the penalty is not the only problem that has to be taken care of, and the atonement of Jesus involves more than paying a penalty on our behalf.
In Romans, Paul tells us that Jesus was raised to life for our justification, and we are saved not just by his death, but also by his life.
Now, if people are really worried about the last judgment and the penalty of their sins, then the penal substitution theory addresses their main concern, and it might be enough for them. But some people have different concerns, and they need a message of salvation that addresses those other concerns. As we mature in the Christian faith, we all need to know that the problem we have, and the salvation that Jesus gives us, involves much more than removing a penalty at the end of this age.
So today, let’s look together at a passage in Paul’s letter to the Colossians that describes several of the ways in which the death of Jesus saves us from our sins.
We can start in Colossians 2, verse 8 – this is the setting for what Paul says about Jesus: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
Paul is dealing with some false teachings that were circulating in the city of Colosse. We don’t know exactly what they were, but we do see how Paul responded to them – and in doing so, he tells us about the salvation that Jesus brought us.
He starts in verse 9 by telling us who Jesus is: “…in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” In other words, Jesus Christ is fully divine, in a human body. Jesus was able to do what he did because he is both God and man. He represents God to us, and he represents humanity to God. Hebrews calls him a high priest, a mediator between God and humanity.
He came to earth and he became human precisely for this purpose, to become our representative. As a representative of all humanity, he died on our behalf – but not only that, as a representative of all humanity, he was raised to life on our behalf. He has joined himself to us, so that we might be joined to him in his journey from earth to heaven, in moving on the path from death to life. More on that in a moment.
Verse 10: “and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.” So, we have been given everything we need in Christ. We don’t need special rituals or extra works, and we don’t need to appeal to any other powers or authorities. He has all the power and authority that we need.
For example, verse 11: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.”
Wow – did you know that? You have all been circumcised – even the women have been circumcised – in Christ. Paul is not talking about physical circumcision, of course – he is talking about a figurative meaning – he is talking about putting off the sinful nature.
That is exactly what we need. When we are enslaved by sin, when we see that wrong desires live within us, then this is one aspect of sin that we need to be saved from, and Paul is saying that Jesus in some way separates these wrong desires from us, like cutting off a piece of flesh that we don’t need. A little corrective surgery, you might say.
How does Paul figure this? He figures it because Christ is our representative, and what he did counts for us. We see more of this in the next verse, verse 12: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
As Paul says in Romans 6, we died with Christ, and we were buried with him, as symbolized in our baptism, and we were raised with him. We are connected to him, united with him. So when he died, he was not our substitute in the sense that we don’t have to die. No—Paul says that we died with him. He was not a simple substitute, but an inclusive representative.
When he died, we died—and I think that is really good news. That’s because there are parts of me that I wish would die. There are wrong inclinations in me that I don’t want to struggle with for all eternity. So I am happy to know that when I die, those parts of me will stay dead, and only the good me will be resurrected. The death and resurrection of my body will be a cleansing process in which the weeds are thrown away and only the good grain will be gathered into the harvest for eternal life.
Sometimes people wonder, if all my sins have been forgiven in advance, and in the final judgment I am guaranteed a favorable verdict, why should I make any effort in this life? Maybe the reason that they ask this question is because the only way that they have ever looked at Christianity is through the lens of the penal substitution theory. If the only problem with sin is the verdict at the final judgment, and that verdict has already been taken care of, then the logical conclusion is that sin is not a problem anymore.
Now, most people know that that’s not right, but they might have a hard time explaining why, because they are used to thinking that the only reason Jesus came was to forgive us at the final judgment.
You’ve probably noticed that there is a problem with sin even in this life. If your brother sins against you, it hurts. If your spouse cheats on you, it hurts. If somebody steals your money, it hurts. And on the other hand, if you lie, cheat and steal, then you find out that nobody likes you, and that hurts, too. Sin hurts all the way around, both the people who do it and the people around them.
That is why God doesn’t like it. When God tells us to avoid something, this is not just an arbitrary rule that God has put in our way to see if we can jump over it, knowing quite well that we are going to stumble at some point or another. No, God is not out to trip us up. Quite the opposite—he is out to save us. The reason that he tells us to avoid certain behaviors is because he knows that those behaviors cause problems in our lives.
When God forgives us, he is saying, Look, folks. You don’t have to worry about the final exam, because you’re going to pass. But you still have a life to live, and I’m telling you, if you make wrong choices, you are going to hurt somebody, most likely including yourself.
We know, and God knows, that sometimes we aren’t very good about doing even the things we know are right. We break our promises, we let other people down, we betray the trust they give to us, and we feel bad about it. So we need help. Jesus gives us help, and his death is an important part of that.
See, part of us needs to die, and in his death, Jesus gives us a way for those bad parts of us to die, and to stay dead. He is not only our representative – he also includes us in his death. Paul talks about it elsewhere, saying that the old person, or the old self, is dead, and the new self lives, created new in Jesus Christ. We are being recreated, bit by gradual bit, by the work of Christ in us.
There’s a process of “out with the old, and in with the new.” The Holy Spirit works within us to make this process possible. And when we die, the old selfish self will stay dead, and only the new person, created in Christ to be like Christ, only that good part will live into eternity. The old self will die, and the new self will live. We will be saved, and thankfully, we will not be the way we were. All the bad parts will be gone, and we’ll be really glad they are.
My point here is that even though the final judgment has been guaranteed for us, it does matter what we do in this life. The problem with sin is not just a judicial verdict at the return of Christ—it’s got something to do with who we are on a day-to-day basis. We as humans were made in the image of God, and that is who we are supposed to be like. Christ is the perfect human. The more we are like him in this life, the more we are like the way God designed us to be.
All of us start out as a mixture of good and evil, and we look forward to an age in which there is only good. We want to live in a world in which there is no more crying, there are no more tears and there is no more sin. We want to live in a world in which there is only love, and never any betrayal.
If we really want that way of life, we want it now. We want to love other people, and never betray them. We want to be 100 percent faithful. We want to tell the truth rather than falsehood, we want to be generous rather than greedy, we want to be kind rather than resentful, etcetera.
The evil inclinations that enslave us, we want to put to death, and in Jesus they have been put to death. What happened to Jesus on the cross is not just something that happened to him—it happened to us as well, and this is the key to the change that we each want to happen within ourselves.
1 Peter 2:24 puts it this way: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, [why was he crucified?] so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” Jesus died not just to take care of the future day of judgment, but also to make a change in the way we live right now.
Let’s go back to Colossians 2, and pick it up in verse 13: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” We were dead in our sins – living the way that leads to death. And we were spiritually uncircumcised: our sinful nature was in control.
So without Christ, we had two problems: First, that we were dead; we were on the path that leads to death. And second, that we had this sinful nature in us, enslaving us. Christ takes care of both problems for us – not just the verdict on the day of judgment, but also in the day-to-day way in which we live.
What is involved in this? First, it says, “he forgave us all our sins.” Notice that this is in the past tense. When did he do it? Let’s read verse 14: “having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Now, this verse has had some translation difficulties, but some archaeological discoveries have made the meaning pretty clear. The NIV has “written code” here; the Greek word is cheirographon, which means handwriting. Archaeologists have discovered that this word usually refers to a handwritten note of debt. We had a debt that was against us, a debt that stood opposed to us, and Jesus took it away from us and nailed it to the cross. The debt is gone, which is another way of saying that Jesus forgave us all our sins.
He didn’t just forgive some of them, such as the ones we happen to be aware of, and the ones we happen to repent of. He does not wait for us to itemize everything we’ve ever done wrong and say “sorry” for each one of them. In fact, he doesn’t wait for us at all. This is all past tense – he did it when he died, before we were even born.
As it says in Colossians 1, verses 21-22: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight.”
Once we were enemies, but even when we were enemies, God sent Jesus to die for us, because he doesn’t want us to be enemies. He doesn’t want to punish us, or to have us suffer from the consequences of sin. So he sent Jesus, and through the death of Jesus’ physical body, we have been reconciled to God. That was done even before we knew about it. It was done before we were born. It was done because God wanted us to be friends rather than enemies.
We might call this a unilateral cease-fire. We might continue struggling against God, but he does not retaliate against us. He does not want to punish us – he sent Jesus to earth so that we could escape the negative consequences of sin. He wants to save us, to help us escape. So he cancels the debt – he tells us that we will be declared righteous on the day of judgment.
Now, this advance declaration of “no penalty” doesn’t do us a lot of good if we insist on living in sin, if we insist on banging our head against the wall and shooting ourselves in the foot. If we act foolishly, then there may not be any penalty in the next life, but there sure is a penalty in this life. God does not take that away. Jesus did not die to somehow make it OK to sin. Sin still produces pain and suffering, and God wants us to stop it, because he loves us and he loves the people around us.
You have probably noticed that it’s not very easy to just stop sinning. We’ve got habits. As Paul says in Ephesians 6, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but spiritual forces that are our enemies. We need victory over those spiritual forces that lead us into sin. Thankfully, Jesus did that for us, too—and he achieved that victory not by force, but by his death on the cross.
Colossians 2:15: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” This is what is often called the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. It means Christ is the Victor, the one who conquered not just death, but all spiritual enemies, by his death on the cross. One of the enemies that he conquered was death itself, and one of the reasons that he died a public death is to demonstrate to everyone that he has indeed won a victory over death itself. He has been there and come out the other side.
We win our spiritual battles only because he has triumphed over all our spiritual enemies, and that even includes our own tendencies to sin. Christ conquered every spiritual enemy that we have. It is his strength that is the key to the Christian life.
Colossians 1:20 says that Christ has reconciled to himself all things. Romans 8:21 says that Christ has redeemed the entire creation. By his death on the cross, he has won a cosmic victory that is much, much larger than the verdict given to humans on the day of judgment. The entire creation needs to be fixed, and simply paying the penalty of human sin is only a small part of what Christ did on the cross. Yes, he gives us a verdict of “righteous.” But he does a lot more than that – he takes care of every enemy, and everything.
So why did Christ die? He died to forgive our sins, so that we escape the final judgment. He died so that we would die with him, so that our old and corrupt self might be eliminated, so that we can get rid of everything within us that isn’t like what God created us to be. And third, he died to give us victory over every spiritual enemy. He died to liberate us from the power of sin that resides within us. He died to liberate us from the power of death itself.
And last, and perhaps this is overlapping with the meaning of Easter, he died so that we might live, so that we might be raised with him into newness of life, into life the way it ought to be lived, into life the way that it will be lived in the eternal age to come. Amen.