The Death of Christ
There was nothing that was potentially accomplished in the death of Christ - no results are left conditional upon what man does. His righteousness was fully completed, the world at large was objectively blessed, and his people were effectively redeemed.
In the beginning of May of 2008 I was preparing one night for a trip that I would be taking the next morning -- I was going to have a 6-hour drive from our home in Phoenix to have an important employment interview in Los Angeles where we would soon be moving for me to begin Seminary.
And I was really excited because there had recently been a first-of-its-kind preaching conference called “Together For the Gospel,” and all the sermons had just become available for download. Those alone would just about fill up my drive out. So I burned the CDs, went to bed, and then got up early for my trip.
But I never expected what was going to happen during that long drive. I had about a dozen sermons and interviews to listen to, but I only listened to one of them. The first sermon that I put into the car CD player was entitled, “Session V - The Curse Motif of the Atonement.” The text of the sermon was Galatians 3:13 - “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”
And I’m not completely sure why this happened, but I was so gripped by this sermon that I listened to it 4 times in a row during that trip. And not only did I listen to it 4 times in a row, I distinctly remember having to pull off of Interstate 10 at a rest area simply because I couldn’t see correctly because I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.
The preacher was a man whom I had at that time not yet heard speak, even though I had read several of his books within that past year. And it was not only the majesty of the gospel truth that he spoke that gripped me, but also I was stunned by his sincerity, his reverence, his clarity, his depth, his passion.
I had never before heard such a clear and thorough and passionate discussion on the truth and glory of the the death of Christ. And I couldn't get enough of it.
And it was also a deeply formative experience for me, because I was on the cusp of beginning Seminary training. The kind of preaching that I heard from that preacher is what I knew I needed to aim for. The people of God whom I might be called to serve one day would need no less than the kind of depth and precision and clarity and passion and reverence that I heard that day over and over again from this sermon by Dr. R. C. Sproul.
If you are like me, you have also benefited from Dr. Sproul’s ministry. And you probably also know that he went to home to his eternal rest this past week. He fought the good fight and finished the course. He guarded the deposit entrusted to him, and he has passed it on to many others who will follow him.
And what Providence it is that we come to the part in our short Christmas series when we are to consider the topic of the death of Christ. The same topic that washed against my soul continually that day through a beloved and faithful teacher almost 10 years ago is now before us this morning.
In a sense, all of the history of redemption finds its fulcrum in the death of Christ. The entirety of the story is climaxed at Calvary. Everything before looks forward to it and everything after looks back at it.
So where do we begin in trying to fill a mere 50 minutes with truth about the death of Jesus?
Well, I thought that I would go a particular direction with the topic -- towards something that I think you will definitely find helpful for your heart and mind this morning.
I want to look into Scripture with you all to see how it is that Jesus’ death on the cross is an effective death. I want to talk about the efficacy of the death of Christ.
You may say, what does that even mean? Efficacy? I know of at least one of you who is likely already opening the dictionary app on your phone.
Here is a very simplistic way to think about what I mean when I say that the death of Jesus Christ is and effective one.
Do any of you have the privilege of being able to regularly view the TV show, “Thomas and Friends” in your house? Thomas is a cheeky, blue train engine who talks and helps us all learn valuable life lessons as he pulls cars all around the Island of Sodor.
And if you are a fan of this show for young kids, you know that there is one goal that every train engine character in the show has. Thomas and Percy and Gordon and all the rest -- they all want to be known by the superintendent of the railway as useful engines. They want to earn that title -- to be called useful.
Put another way -- they all want to be effective engines. They want to be known as trains that do their jobs reliably and safely and effectively. They want to be known as those who actually do well what they are supposed to do.
And I’m not trying to bring the death of Christ down in any way to the level of a children’s TV show, but I am trying to make it clear what I mean by calling his death effective...
I mean that the death of Christ actually accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish. I mean that God looks at the death of his Son and is pleased to say that it satisfied and accomplished everything that it intended to satisfy and accomplish.
In this way, we say that the death of Jesus Christ was an effective death.
So what did God intend for Jesus to accomplish in his death? What was it that would make it effective? What did the death of Jesus actually do?
And I have 3 things to give to you all from Scripture as the realities that Jesus accomplished in dying on the cross 2000 years ago. Not what he made possible. Not what he did that rests contingent upon other things to happen later in time. No - I mean that these are three things that were actually and definitively and finally done once Christ died.
1. Christ’s Death Completed His Righteousness.
2. Christ’s Death Blessed The World.
3. Christ’s Death Redeemed His People.
So, first of all, Christ's death completed his righteousness.
1. Christ’s Death Completed His Righteousness
What I mean by this is not very complicated. When Jesus died he did so out of obedience to the will of God the Father, and as such it was his final act of obedience.
Last Sunday we considered Philippians 2:6-8 - the great text of Scripture concerning the fact that Jesus emptied himself in becoming a man.
But also in that text we have clearly stated for us the fact that his death was a final act of obedience.
Philippians 2:8 - “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Paul’s entire point in the verses surrounding verse 8 is to make it clear that Jesus certainly became a man while also retaining his deity. And the paramount example of his humanity lay in the fact that he died.
He took the form of a servant, and he was born in the likeness of men, verse 7 tells us. But that doesn’t fully give us a picture of his humanity. The thing that makes his humanity so real and dear to us is the fact that he died -- That thing that each of us face as an absolute certainty in life -- well, it was a certainty for Jesus, too.
But the difference between Jesus dying and us dying is in the fact that we don’t die out of obedience. We die because God in his sovereign providence deems that it is our time to go. We can do nothing at all to lengthen or shorten the number of heartbeats we get. The number of times we inhale and exhale is forever fixed in the mind of God. The exact date and time of our death is known only to God and unchangeable in his sight.
And since God is the life-giver, he also is the life-taker. Job knew this, we read in Job 1:21 that he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
God takes our life from us without our consent.
But Jesus gave up his life in adherence to God’s will. Jesus chose to die at the appointed time. He became obedient, even to the obedience of willingly dying.
And what Paul is making evident by a couple of different things in Philippians 2 is the fact that Jesus was obedient to everything the Father asked of him -- and if he could obey in laying down his life when told, then he could obey in everything else.
So we see that his death completes his obedience, which is to say that his death completes his righteousness.
And John, in his Gospel, does much to say this exact same thing. Specifically, he does so in John 10.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing 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.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.For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.””
5 times in these verses Jesus says that he lays down his life. He doesn’t merely succumb without resistance to the will of others. He doesn’t say that he’ll eventually stop using his power to prevent himself from being killed. No - he says that there was coming a day in which he would actually lay his life down...willingly, decisively, and obediently.
We know it to be an act of obedience because of what he says there in verse 18 -- “This charge I have received of my Father.”
What charge? What duty did he receive from the Father? The beginning of the verse says that his charge from the Father was to both lay down and take up his life. So Jesus obeys the will of the Father and thus completes his obedience when he lays down his life of his own authority.
And why is this obedience and righteousness of Christ so important? Why do we rejoice in knowing that Jesus’ death completed his righteousness?
Because we’re counting on his righteousness to count for us.
As Paul did -- he says in Philippians 3:9 that his only hope was to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
And he says also in 1 Corinthians 1:30 that Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
And then in 2 Corinthians 5:21 he definitively tells us why Jesus’ obedient righteousness is so important -- “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Our only hope of meeting up to God’s standard is Christ. Our only hope of having God’s favor is Christ having God’s favor. Because we hide in him and in his righteousness -- not our own.
And so we rejoice in the fact that Jesus’ death completes his righteousness -- because his righteousness becomes our legal righteousness as we are found in him.
Yet this completed righteousness is not the only certain reality of his death. We should also note from Scripture that Jesus’ death blesses the world.
2. Christ’s Death Blessed the World
Again. Remember -- we’re talking about what the death of Christ has actually accomplished. There is nothing potential about it. In the same way that his death certainly and actually and effectively completed his righteousness, so too his death certainly and actually and effectively blessed everyone in the world without distinction.
There are things which the death of Christ accomplished which are given as a gracious gift from God to the entire world. As an evidence of his mercy towards and love for the world, God willed for Jesus to die so that he might bless everyone in certain and definite ways.
I thought of a list of these blessings for the whole world that Christ’s death has actually delivered, and I had 14 of them on it. But that’s a bit too much for this morning, so I’m going to pick the top 4.
So here are 4 ways in which Christ’s death blessed the world. In no particular order:
1. Christ’s death evidences the fact that he is the Son of God.
This is to say that the death of Christ announces to the world who God’s only begotten and beloved Son is. What a blessing that is -- to make clear to the world who the Son of God is, so that those who are in the world might know on whom to believe!
John the Apostles writes about this blessing to the world in 1 John 5:5-12. If you turn there, I’ll just read verses 5 and 6 so we can see what he’s saying.
“Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”
In verse 5 John talks about believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and then in verse 6 he says that there are things which testify or evidence the fact that Jesus is the Son of God on whom to believe --
One is that he came by water, which refers to his unique and blessed baptism. Another is the Spirit who testifies -- the Spirit of Truth testifies in the hearts of men that Jesus is the Son of God. But the middle evidence is that Jesus also came by blood. The common understanding of this reference is that Jesus came by dying. And so in his dying we have testimony to the fact that he is the Son of God on whom to believe.
So the death of Christ blesses the world by evidencing the fact that he is the Son of God on whom to believe. This is a concrete and certain and effective reality. Jesus really and truly is testified to be the Son to the whole world by his death. Whether or not those in the world accept this clear testimony is another matter, but there is no question that such a firm and objective testimony has been made by Christ's death.
2. Christ’s death identifies him with all men.
Hebrews 2:9 is a stunning verse in the midst of an equally stunning chapter about the person and ministry of Christ. And in this verse we find the following to be true of Jesus:
“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.”
Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while -- which is to say that he became a man -- and one of the purposes of being found in this lower state is so that “by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
This verse is not saying that he died an atoning and substitutionary death FOR everyone, but rather it is saying that Jesus tasted what death is for the benefit of every person by God’s grace.
This is a pretty amazing thing. Even for those who are lost in their sin and who will never turn to Christ -- even for these people Christ tasted death as a measure of God’s grace to them. Every person on the planet to have ever lived has a point of connection to Christ because of the fact that the Son of God tasted the most unifying thing about what it is to be human -- death.
So this is the second certain and real blessing for the whole world that the death of Christ effectively accomplished -- his death provides him with identification with all men. Jesus knows down to the most awful part what it is to be human, because he tasted death. And this experiential understanding is a grace of God to everyone.
3. Christ’s death disarms and openly shames Satan and his demons.
And as is the case for all of these things I’m covering in this section, this is a reality which is true regardless of whether or not a person has come to Christ for salvation or not. It is an objective blessing to the whole world for Satan and his forces to have been both disarmed and openly shamed.
This is what Paul explicitly says in Colossians 2:14-15 --
“by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Now, part of this verse deals with our next main point, but verse 15 makes it really clear that the cross of Christ -- referring to his death thereon -- this reality actually has disarmed and put to open shame the rulers and authorities.
The “rulers and authorities” refer to the powers of darkness which seek to persuade men of error and of the false goodness of sin. But according to what Paul says, do they have a truly effective power? Not at all -- their ability is weak and ultimately ineffective because of the cross of Christ.
And this is a universal grace for all men because of the death of Christ.
It’s not to say that Satan and his forces can’t do anything to harden the lost -- but rather to say that they have been disarmed of their effective power.
I had a really good basketball coach in high school who used to make us practice correct defensive movement by having our hands tied behind our backs. That way we would be sure to maximize every ounce of lateral quickness we could muster with our feet.
Well, it’s as if Christ’s death has bound Satan’s hands behind his back. He can still defend sinners from coming to Christ, but he’s not fully equipped to do so. His hands are tied, as it were.
And the reason this is so is because of the true effectiveness of the death of Christ. His death does save. And for those who are saved by his death, Satan can’t stop them.
What this means for the world is that they have an enemy in Satan who they can see has been disarmed and led out in open shame -- just like someone getting crossed over and falls down on the basketball court because their hands are behind their back.
So not only has God blessed all the world in the death of Christ by evidencing Jesus’ sonship, by identifying his humanity, and by disarming Satan. But also God blessed all the world in the death of Christ by providing a visible remedy for sin.
This is perhaps the most gracious blessing God gives to everyone in the world:
4. Christ’s death provides a visible remedy for sin.
We read of this blessing to the world in John 3. Go ahead and turn there, please.
In this chapter we have one of the most familiar verses in the whole Bible -- but it’s also one that I believe is misapplied often. It is wonderful to know John 3:16 -- but it’s not wonderful to NOT know what it’s context is.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
So here is the context:
In Numbers chapter 21 we read the story of how the children of Israel had again been complaining against God in the wilderness. And so there was sent into their camp a brood of fiery serpents that would bite the people with a deadly attack.
So the people cried to Moses for deliverance, lest they all die from the snake bites. And Moses heard from the Lord what he should do -- he was to fashion a bronze serpent and raise it up on a pole in the middle of the camp of Israel. And he was then to instruct the people that they were simply to look upon this bronze serpent and be healed. Or to not look and thus die from their bites.
And we have to remember that this is the context for John 3:16.
Jesus is saying that in the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent, he would be lifted up. Jesus would be lifted up to die in the same way that the serpent of Numbers 21 was lifted up.
The death of Christ is to have a similar blessed function for those who are bitten with the bite of sin as Moses’ serpent had for those who were bitten in Israel.
And what is that function?
The purpose of the serpent for everyone was to provide a visible remedy for sin. You want to be healed? Well here is the remedy -- look to the bronze serpent.
So too the purpose of the death of Christ for everyone is to provide a sort of visible remedy for sin. You want to be healed of the bite of sin? Here is the remedy -- look with faith to Christ’s death.
This doesn’t mean that everyone will look to Christ and be saved. Just as not everyone looked to the serpent in the wilderness, and so many died.
But it does mean that God has clearly and effectively and certainly blessed the whole world because of his general love for all people -- that God has blessed all in the world by sending his Son as the visible remedy for sin. All are to know that this Son of Man raised upon to die is the only way to eternal life.
And because of the death of Christ, the remedy has been made clear to all. His death hasn’t saved everyone, but it has made the only way to eternal life clear to everyone.
So, just to review. Those 4 general blessings out of many others that the death of Christ gives to the world are:
1. Christ’s death evidences the fact that he is the Son of God.
2. Christ’s death identifies him with all men.
3. Christ’s death disarms and openly shames Satan and his demons.
4. Christ’s death provides a visible remedy for sin.
We’ve seen how the death of Christ is effective for himself -- for completing his righteousness. And we’ve seen how the death of the Christ is effective for the world -- in providing general blessings to everyone.
But now we move to my favorite part. Next we see how the death of Christ is effective for the Church -- how his death is effective for his people.
The third certain accomplishment of the death of Christ is this --
3. Christ’s Death Redeemed His People
The blessings that I just mentioned which the death of Christ has afforded for the whole world are great blessings. But none of those blessings actually save the sinner.
Seeing evidence for Jesus’ Sonship doesn’t save.
Identifying with the humanity of Christ doesn’t save.
Facing a disarmed Satan doesn’t save.
Merely recognizing the only remedy for sin doesn’t save.
So the death of Christ must do more. It must do something unique for those who are saved by his death. There must be benefits from the death of Christ for his people that are different from the benefits to the whole world at large.
What I mean by this point is what Scripture clearly teaches concerning the certainty of the atonement of Christ. His death has provided a certain redemption. There is no potentiality in it -- there is only certainty.
The death of Christ actually saves. It definitely redeems.
Just listen as I read for you what the writers of the NT said about the atoning death of Christ:
Galatians 3:13 - “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”
1 Peter 1:18-19 - “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
Colossians 2:13-14 - “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
1 Peter 2:24 - “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
1 Peter 3:18 - “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”
Hebrews 10:10 - “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Hebrews 13:12 - “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”
1 John 4:10 - “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Revelation 5:9 - “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 then we have the words of Christ himself in John 10:14-15 - “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”
Let me ask you a question.
Is there anything conditional or provisional in these verses about the death of Christ? Is there anything potential about his death?
Or is Scripture teaching that he has actually accomplished something?
Here are some of the phrases again…
Christ redeemed us
You were ransomed
This he set aside, nailing it to the cross
He himself bore our sins in his body
Christ also suffered once for sins
We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ
By your blood you ransomed people for God
If we put together what these verses are saying, we have indication that Jesus offered a one-time sacrifice for sin which actually accomplished the following things:
Redemption, Ransom, Forgiveness, Sanctification, Propitiation, Reconciliation, Death to sin and Life to righteousness.
Friends, Jesus did not die in order to make these things possible. He died in order to make them effective. He died in order to make them yours and mine. He did not die in order to make them yours and mine if we only would do what was necessary to actuate them.
Can you imagine what Scripture would sound like if it were not this way?
“Christ might have redeemed us from the curse of the law by possibly becoming a curse for us”
“He himself might have borne our sins in his body on the tree...By his wounds you have possibly been healed.”
Or if there was something left up to us to “seal the deal,” as it were -- then we’d restate these verses like this:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might do all that he could do to bring us to God”
“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to do all that he could in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”
Sadly, I’m afraid that there has been much teaching in the church in my lifetime that has portrayed the death of Christ to be no more than the following:
It’s as if when Christ died, he made a sacrifice that was for sins in the sense that it could potentially be for sins. The credit of payment for sin sits in a bank somewhere, and all you have to do is ask for it and it will be applied to you. But if you don’t ask for it, then all this credit that Christ earned on your behalf is just discarded and you have to go suffer for sins that Christ already suffered for. You were just too proud to ask for his payment.
What kind of an atoning death is that? If this were the case, then Christ’s work isn’t done! He has to go stand outside the bank and hold the sign to try to get people to come inside and take advantage of the great deal he died for. Otherwise he’s made a sacrifice for naught.
No - perish that thought!
Christ died and then was raised and then what did the Father say to him? “Sit at my right hand.” The work of the Son was finished. He paid for actual sins in full such that his sheep would be reconciled to God. And God rewarded him with the honor and glory of the seat at his right hand.
Christ’s death effectively atoned for the sins of his sheep.
To quote the preacher I opened with this morning, Dr. Sproul -
“The atonement Christ made on the cross was real and effectual. It wasn't just a hypothetical thetical atonement. It was an actual atonement. He didn't offer a hypothetical expiation for the sins of His people; their sins were expiated. He didn't give a hypothetical propitiation for our sins; He actually placated God's wrath toward us. By contrast, according to the other view, the atonement is only a potentiality. Jesus went to the cross, paid the penalty for sin, and made the atonement, but now He sits in heaven wringing His hands and hoping that someone will take advantage of the work He performed. This is foreign to the biblical understanding of the triumph and the victory Christ achieved in His atoning death.”
So we say that the death of Christ was an effective atonement. It effectively redeemed those whom he was supposed to redeem. He actually bore all the sins that he was supposed to bear. He actually offered his body in death for those he was supposed to offer it for.
And thus the Holy Spirit works in concert with the Son and with the Father in order to regenerate those for whom Christ died. All whose sins were borne by Christ -- each one of these sinners will be regenerated such that they will respond in faith to believe in Christ.
I wonder if any of you wrestle with thoughts of whether or not you are really forgiven of your sin.
Could it be that you wrestle with this because you have thought that God’s forgiveness of you actually rests upon your shoulders -- that you have forgiveness only because you asked for it?
What questions of doubt this would put on your mind...
“What if I wasn’t sincere enough?”
“What if I didn’t ask the right way?”
“What if I forgot to confess something?”
But when we think on the fact that Christ’s death for his people was an actual atonement -- that it was a certain redemption -- does that not give all the assurance we need?
None of it is up to us. There is no ball in our court. 2000 years ago it was settled. Christ died for your sins.
So when you know the delights of saving faith now -- when you have your faith fixed firm on Christ alone -- when you cling, perhaps weakly, to Christ as your only hope -- then you can know for sure that your cling of faith alone is necessarily complemented with the overwhelming grace of the death of Christ for you.
If you’ll permit me, I’d like to close with one more quote from Dr. Sproul. He’s done so much to shape my thinking on this topic, and so I hope he can shape your thinking, too.
“One of the sweetest statements from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is this: "`Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world"' (Matt. 25:34b). There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake. Rather, from all eternity, God determined that He would redeem for Himself a people, and that which He determined to do was, in fact, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, His atonement on the cross. Your salvation has been accomplished by a Savior Who is not merely a potential Savior but an actual Savior, One Who did for you what the Father determined He should do. He is your Surety, your Mediator, your Substitute, your Redeemer. He atoned for your sins on the cross.”