Sunday, May 19, 2024

What did Christ accomplish by his death (and how did he accomplish it)?

“It is accomplished” or “Paid in full”?

All who believe the testimony of Scriptures on this subject will agree that Christ only did the will of his God and Father throughout his life, and that he was completely innocent and righteous when he died on the cross. Not only did Christ not deserve to die, but his death was an act of perfect obedience to God. In John 10:17-18, Christ declared,

Therefore the Father is loving Me, seeing that I am laying down My soul that I may be getting it again. No one is taking it away from Me, but I am laying it down of Myself. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to get it again. This precept I got from My Father.

Clearly, Christ was not a passive victim. Instead, everything that occurred to Christ during this time (as well as prior to it) involved his obedience to God’s will. Everything that Christ allowed to happen to him during this dark time fulfilled prophecy and was done in humble obedience to God. Christ had to die in the exact way and in the exact circumstances he did in order to remain obedient to God, as well as to fulfill all that was written concerning him. 

This is most clearly seen from Christ’s tearful and heartfelt yielding to God’s will while praying in Gethsemane. In Matthew 26:36-44 we read the following:

Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, “Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there.” And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed. Then He is saying to them, “Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me…” And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!” Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!” And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for their eyes were heavy. And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word.

In Luke’s account, Christ explicitly acknowledged that what he was about to do would fulfill prophecy (Luke 22:37), which means that Christ was very much aware of the fact that his actions were completely necessary for the fulfilling of prophecy (and apart from which prophecy wouldn’t have been fulfilled). We’re also told in this same account that, while praying to God to let the “cup” pass by from him, our Lord came “to be in a struggle,” and that “His sweat became as if clots of blood descending on the earth” (:44). Evidently, Christ’s struggle involved the decision to exercise his God-given authority, or right, to “lay down His soul” and thus be “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), rather than avoiding the cross (which, in Matt. 26:52-54, Christ acknowledged he had the authority to do).

In light of these facts, let’s now consider one of the declarations made by Christ shortly before he died on the cross. In John 19:28-30 we read the following:

After this, Jesus, being aware that all is already accomplished, that the scripture may be perfected, is saying, “I thirst!” Now a vessel lay there distended with vinegar. Sticking a sponge, then, distended with vinegar, on hyssop, they carry it to His mouth. When, then, Jesus took the vinegar, He said, “It is accomplished!” And reclining His head, He gives up the spirit.

It’s a commonly-held belief among Protestant Christians that the word translated “It is accomplished” in v. 30 (Tetelestai) means “Paid in full.” This particular understanding of the meaning of this word is thought to support the view that Christ died as a “penal substitute” for some or all sinners (i.e., that Christ was punished/penalized by God as a substitute for sinners, and that, in doing so, he “paid the debt” of punishment that sinners are thought to owe God).

Despite its popularity among Protestant/evangelical Christians, there’s no good evidence that Tetelestai actually means “Paid in full” (see, for example, the following article by Gary Manning: ”Paid in Full”? The Meaning of Tetelestai in Jesus’ Final Words). Rather than “Paid in full,” a better translation of Tetelestai is that which is found in the Concordant Literal New Testament (i.e., “It is accomplished”). 

But what did Christ have in mind when he declared this? The following statements from Christ elsewhere in John’s Gospel can help us better understand what Christ had in mind here:

John 4:34

Jesus is saying to them, "My food is that I should be doing the will of Him Who sends Me, and should be perfecting His work.

John 5:36

“Now I have a testimony greater than John's. For the works which the Father has given Me that I should be perfecting them, the works themselves which I am doing are testifying concerning Me that the Father has commissioned Me.”

John 17:4

“I glorify Thee on the earth, finishing the work which Thou hast given Me, that I should be doing it.

As Manning notes in the article mentioned above, “These passages use the closely related word τελειόω, while John 19:30 uses τελέω; both words mean ‘finish.’” We can thus conclude that, on the cross, Christ finished (and thus “perfected”) the work which the Father had given him to do. That is, Christ accomplished everything that the Father gave him to do on the earth.

In accord with this understanding, we know that Christ didn’t believe that, after he died, there would be nothing left for him to do with regard to the salvation of those for whom he died. In fact, it should be obvious that this isn’t what Christ believed or meant when he declared “It is accomplished.” For not even the salvation of believers has been completed yet. Although the work that Christ accomplished when he died on the cross was essential to what Christ knew he would be doing in the future regarding the salvation of those for whom he died, Christ’s death didn’t itself accomplish or bring about this future salvation.

Moreover, we can be sure that neither John (who, of course, recorded the declaration of Jesus that we’re considering here) nor the original readers of his Gospel Account would have understood the words “It is accomplished” to mean that there was nothing left for Jesus to do with regard to their salvation. They clearly believed otherwise. For example, we know that the salvation of John and all Jewish believers depended on Jesus’ ongoing priestly ministry in heaven (which didn’t begin until after Christ’s resurrection and ascension). In Hebrews 7:24-25 we read the following:

”...yet that One, because of His remaining for the eon, has an inviolate priesthood. Whence, also, He is able to save to the uttermost those coming to God through Him, always being alive to be pleading for their sake” (cf. Heb. 5:9-10; 8:1-2).

We’re also told that it was after Jesus “entered once for all time into the holy places” (i.e., in heaven) that he found “eonian redemption” (Heb. 9:12), and that he’s being “disclosed to the face of God for [their] sakes (v. 24). The same present, ongoing work of Christ in heaven on behalf of believers is also affirmed by John in his first letter (1 John 1:7-9; 2:1-2).

In addition to what we read concerning Christ’s present salvific work on behalf of believers, it’s also abundantly clear that Christ will be active in the future to complete the eonian salvation of both the saints in the body of Christ (Rom. 8:18-25, 28-30; 1 Cor. 15:50-57; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:5-8; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:15-17; 5:9-10; etc.) and the saints of Israel (Matt. 24:13, 30-31; Luke 21:28; Rom. 11:26-27; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 5:1, 4, 10; 1 John 3:2-3; etc.). And we also know that, even after all believers have been saved/given eonian life by Christ, Christ will still continue to reign until death – the “last enemy” – has been abolished, and all have been reconciled to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; etc.).

Thus, although it’s certainly the case that what Christ accomplished when he died on the cross is the basis for everything else that he’s presently doing and will do in the future, we can’t understand Christ’s words in John 19:30 to mean that, when Christ died, there was nothing else that needed to be done with regard to the salvation of those for whom he died. Christ accomplished everything he had to do on the earth (including the fulfillment of all prophecy leading up to his death), but he did not, at that time, accomplish everything that needs to be done with regard to the salvation of sinners.

Christ secured the (future) justification of all mankind by his death

Having demonstrated what Christ’s declaration in John 19:30 means (and doesn’t mean), the remainder of this article will be focused on a truth that is inseparably connected with – and only true because of – the truth of what Christ declared on the cross (i.e., that Christ accomplished/finished the work that the Father gave him to do on the earth).

Ironically, the majority of Christians who hold to the “paid in full” understanding of John 19:30 – and/or who hold to the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement that’s associated with it – completely reject the truth to which I’m referring. While they have no problem saying – even with great conviction and enthusiasm – that “Christ paid for our sins on the cross” or that “Christ took our place on the cross,” they don’t for one second believe that this means that the majority of sinners for whom Christ “paid it all” (or whose “place” Christ took when he died) will actually be saved. If you ask them whether the sins of all mankind are ultimately going to be forgiven by God (or if all mankind are ultimately going to be saved) because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, their answer will almost certainly be “no.” In fact, most Christians are very much opposed to, and even offended by, the view that all sinners will ultimately be saved because of Christ’s death.

In contrast with what most Christians believe (or rather don’t believe) concerning what Christ accomplished by his death, the fact is that, because Christ died in perfect obedience to God (and thus accomplished everything that the Father gave him to do on the earth), everyone for whom Christ died shall be saved. That is, because of Christ’s death on the cross, there is no possibility that the salvation of all won’t happen. It must happen.

The truth of the future salvation of everyone for whom Christ died is not only revealed in a number declarations made by Paul (e.g., Romans 5:15-19, 1 Cor. 15:20-22 and Col. 1:20), but it’s also revealed in the very evangel (or “gospel”) that Paul said was entrusted to him to herald among the nations (Gal. 1:16; 2:2). According to what we read in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the evangel that Paul said he’d brought to those to whom he wrote – and which he referred to elsewhere as “the evangel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the evangel of the Uncircumcision” (Gal. 2:7) – consists of the following two essential facts: (1) “that Christ died for our sins” and (2) “that He has been roused the third day.” 

The words “roused the third day” refer, of course, to the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his death (1 Cor. 15:12-16). But what does it mean for Christ to have “died for our sins?”

Answer: Depending on how it’s used, the word translated “for” in the expression “Christ died for our sins” (ὑπέρ or “huper”) can mean “on behalf of,” “for the sake of” or “concerning” ( In the letter to the Hebrews, there are a number of verses in which we find this term used in connection with sins (see Heb. 5:1, 3; 7:27; 9:7; 10:12). In all of these verses, the author had a “sin offering” in view. With regard to what a sin offering accomplished, consider the following verses from Leviticus:

Lev. 4:26

And all its fat he shall burn on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

Lev. 4:35

And all its fat he shall remove as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on top of Yahweh’s food offerings. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.

Lev. 5:10

Then he shall offer the second for a burnt offering according to the rule. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.

When a sinner on whose behalf a sin offering was sacrificed was forgiven by God, it meant that God would not be reckoning the sin of the individual to them (and that the sin would thus not be a source of condemnation for the one who was guilty of committing it). Thus, in those verses where we find the expression “for sins” being used in connection with a sin offering, it essentially means, “to bring about (or secure) the forgiveness of sins,” or “so that the sins would be forgiven.”

Therefore, to believe that “Christ died for our sins” is to believe that the sins of everyone for whom Christ died shall be forgiven, and that (therefore) everyone for whom Christ died shall be justified.[i] One cannot, in other words, believe that Christ died for our sins and not believe that everyone for whose sins Christ died shall ultimately be justified and saved. To believe that only some sinners for whom Christ died will ultimately be saved means that one doesn’t believe that Christ died for our sins.

But for whom did Christ die? Or (to use the words of 1 Cor. 15:3), for whose sins did Christ die? In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul wrote the following:

“Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all welcome, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, foremost of whom am I.” 

If a person can be considered a “sinner,” then we can conclude that Christ came into the world to save them. This, of course, would include all sinners who “die in their sins” (John 8:21, 24; cf. 1 Cor. 15:17). 

Moreover, since Paul undoubtedly used the expression “Christ died for our sins” whenever he heralded the evangel of the grace of God among the nations during the course of his apostolic ministry, the term “our” should be understood as embracing unbelievers (for it included everyone to whom Paul and his co-laborers heralded – or could’ve heralded – this evangel, whether they actually ended up believing it or not). And the same could be said if Paul instead used the expression “your sins” (rather than “our sins”). This means that, whenever Paul and his co-laborers heralded the evangel, they understood the sinners for whom Christ died to necessarily include every unbeliever who heard (or who could’ve heard) the message they were heralding (and this, of course, would’ve included unbelievers whom they would’ve had no reason to believe were actually going to believe the evangel they were heralding).

Further confirmation of the truth that Christ died for the sake of all sinners (and that his redemptive work will be effective for all sinners) is found in Paul’s words in 1 Tim. 4:3-7. In these verses we read the following:

Godwills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator of God and mankind, a Man, Christ Jesus, Who is giving Himself a correspondent Ransom for all (the testimony in its own eras), for which I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the nations in knowledge and truth.”

Since nothing can prevent God from accomplishing what he wills (Job 42:2; Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10; 55:11; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:15-20; Eph. 1:11), it logically follows that God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind (which, in the above passage, is what we’re explicitly told “God wills”). The fact that most people die as unbelievers is no obstacle to their being saved, for their dying in unbelief is no less a part of the “all things” that we’re told God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11) than is their future salvation. If dying in unbelief was somehow incompatible with God’s will that all mankind be saved, then God would ensure that no one died in unbelief (for God – being God – could easily prevent anyone from dying in unbelief if it was necessary to their being finally saved).

Now, the reason Paul could have assurance that God wills what he does concerning mankind’s salvation is that Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom for all.” The word translated “correspondent Ransom” is “antilutron,” and is a combination of the Greek prefix “anti” and the noun “lutron.” The prefix “anti” means, “instead of,” “corresponding to,” or “serving as the equivalent of,” while the noun “lutron” is the same word translated as “ransom” in Matthew 20:28 and elsewhere. Concerning the meaning of the word “lutron” in Matt. 20:28, we read the following in an entry by Archibald M'Caig in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

The word [Christ] uses bears a well-established meaning, and is accurately rendered by our word “ransom,” a price paid to secure the freedom of a slave or to set free from liabilities and charges, and generally the deliverance from calamity by paying the forfeit. The familiar verb luo, “to loose,” “to set free,” is the root, then lutron, that which secures the freedom, the payment or forfeit; thence come the cognate verb lutroo, “to set free upon payment of a ransom,” “to redeem”; lutrosis, “the actual setting free,” “the redemption,” and lutrotes, “the redeemer.” The favorite New Testament word for “redemption” is the compound form, apolutrosis.

After providing some general cases of the usage of the word “ransom” in the Hebrew Scriptures, M’Caig goes on to provide a number of examples that make it clear that the word antilutron in 1 Tim. 2:6 denotes the payment by which one’s release from captivity (or deliverance from some other kind of undesired condition) is secured, and which corresponds to (or “serves as the equivalent of”) the need for which the payment was required. We can therefore conclude that the salvation of everyone for whom Christ gave himself a “correspondent Ransom” – i.e., all mankind – was, in fact, secured when Christ died on the cross in obedience to God, and that all mankind shall therefore be saved.

Consider the following syllogism:

1. Everyone for whom Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom” will be ransomed as a result.

2. Everyone ransomed as a result of Christ’s death will be saved.

3. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6 will be saved.

And since the “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom includes all mankind (1 Tim. 2:4-5), it follows that all mankind will be saved.

This conclusion is in accord with 1 Tim. 4:10, where we’re told that God “is the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” This verse presupposes that those among “all mankind” who die in unbelief will eventually be saved. If God was unable or unwilling to save those who died in unbelief, then he wouldn’t be “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” He would instead be the Savior of believers exclusively. But this, of course, would contradict the first part of this verse. Since God is “the Savior of all mankind” (and not of believers only), it follows that all mankind – including all who die in unbelief – will, in fact, be saved from the condemnation to which sin leads, and shall be constituted just” (Rom. 5:18-19).

Notice, also, that it was for the testimony that Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom for all” that Paul said he was “appointed a herald and an apostle…a teacher of the nations in knowledge and truth.” Since we know that it was for the sake of the evangel that Paul was appointed a herald and an apostle (Acts 20:24; Rom. 1:1; 15:16, 19; 1 Cor. 1:17; Eph. 3:7; 2 Tim. 1:11), we can reasonably infer that the fact that Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom for all” is essential to, and inseparable from, the evangel that was entrusted to Paul. And since Paul undoubtedly had in view the purpose for which Christ died here, it follows that the words “giving Himself a correspondent Ransom for all” convey the same basic meaning as the expression “Christ died for our sins.”

So the fact that Christ died for our sins and was roused by God means that the forgiveness and justification of every human being must happen. And this means one can’t believe the evangel while also believing, at the same time, that some sins will never be forgiven, and that some human beings will never be justified. Such a belief is simply incompatible with the truth of the evangel. Because Christ died for our sins and was roused by God, the future justification of all mankind is certain to happen (it can’t not happen).

One verse that is sometimes appealed to in defense of the view that Christ’s ransoming work is effective only for some is Matthew 20:28. In this verse we read the following:

“…the Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His soul a ransom for many.

To whom was Christ referring when he spoke of “many” here?[ii] I believe Christ’s later words in Matthew 26:27-28 can inform our understanding of who Christ had in mind here. In these verses we read the following:

”And taking the cup and giving thanks, He gives it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it all, for this is my blood of the new covenant, that is shed for many for the pardon of sins.’

In both Matt. 20:28 and 26:28, we read of Christ speaking of his death as something that he would undergo on behalf of a certain category of people who are referred to as “many.” It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that the “many” being referred to in both verses consists of the same individuals. And in the second verse, Christ connected his death to the new covenant. Elsewhere, this covenant is described as a covenant that God would make “with the house of Israel” (see Heb. 8:8, 10). It’s further revealed that Christ became the mediator of this covenant through his death (Heb. 7:22; 8:6; 9:15-17; 10:29, 12:24, 13:20). This is in accord with the fact that, during his earthly ministry, Christ “was not commissioned except for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24; cf. 10:6). We can thus conclude that those referred to as “many” in Matt. 20:28 are those among “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” who, as a result of Christ’s redemptive work, will be receiving all of the promised spiritual blessings associated with the new covenant. In other words, the “many” of Matt. 20:28 and 26:28 are believing Israelites (those who, in Paul’s day, comprised “the Israel of God” [Gal 6:16]).[iii]

Concerning the efficacious nature of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of those referred to in Matt. 20:28 as “many,” Lorraine Boettner (who was an American Christian theologian in the Reformed tradition) wrote the following (emphasis mine):

Christ is said to have been a ransom for his people — “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many,” Matt. 20:28. Notice, this verse does not say that He gave His life a ransom for all, but for many. The nature of a ransom is such that when paid and accepted it automatically frees the persons for whom it was intended. Otherwise it would not be a true ransom. Justice demands that those for whom it is paid shall be freed from any further obligation. If the suffering and death of Christ was a ransom for all men rather than for the elect only, then the merits of His work must be communicated to all alike

I agree with Boettner that those whom Christ referred to as “many” in Matt. 20:28 are a limited number of people, and do not constitute all mankind. However, I reject Boettner’s view that Christ’s redemptive work is limited to “the elect only” (as he went on to articulate). The very fact that Paul heralded (and was able to herald) the truth that “Christ died for our sins” to those who ended up dying in unbelief with regard to this truth (and who thus weren’t “elect”) proves that Christ died for the sins of all.

Moreover, if Christ’s use of the word “many” in Matthew 20:28 means that he wasn’t talking about all human beings at this time (as Boettner argues), then consistency demands the following: If the word “all” is used in a context in which all human beings are in view, then it shouldn’t be understood as a reference to the same limited number of people whom Christ had in view in Matt. 20:28. Rather, it must be understood as a reference to all mankind. And this, of course, is precisely what we find in 1 Tim. 2:6. In this verse, we’re not told that Christ gave himself a correspondent Ransom for “many,” but for “all.” In other words, what we read in this verse is exactly what Boettner stressed was not the case with regard to Matt. 20:28.

Moreover, if we should understand the salvation of the “many” who are in view in Matthew 20:28 as having been secured through Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf (as I believe Boettner correctly argues), then consistency demands that we also believe that the salvation of the “all” who are in view in 1 Tim. 2:5 (and for whom Christ gave himself a “correspondent Ransom”) is just as certain and secure. In light of these considerations, we can conclude that those referred to as “many” in Matt. 20:28 are not the only people whose salvation was secured as a result of Christ’s redemptive work. As was later revealed through the apostle to whom “the evangel of the grace of God” was entrusted, Christ’s redemptive work will also be effective for all mankind.

How Christ secured the future salvation of all by his death

Before I begin to share my understanding of how Christ secured the future salvation of all by his death, I want to emphasize the fact that our faith in “the evangel of [our] salvation” (Eph. 1:13) in no way depends on whether or not we understand the “how.” That is, we don’t have to understand how Christ procured our salvation in order to believe the simple truth that he did, in fact, accomplish this for us when he died. With regard to our being justified through faith in Paul’s evangel and becoming members of the body of Christ, we need only believe “that Christ died for our sins” and “that he was roused the third day” (and even the faith that enables us to believe this a gift from God). When God calls a person through the evangel of the grace of God (which involves their being given the faith to believe it), they’re instantly sealed with the holy spirit, and given an expectation of eonian life that will be “in the heavens” and “among the celestials.”

Now, Scripture is clear that the problem Christ died to resolve concerns our sins. If it weren’t for this problem, Christ wouldn’t have had to die. We also know from Scripture that God is sovereign and absolutely responsible for everything that occurs in the universe (hence Paul’s affirmation that God “is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” [Eph. 1:11]). Among those who believe this truth, some may find it puzzling why sin would be a problem at all (or at least a problem that would require Christ’s death to resolve). Since sin is clearly a part of God’s sovereign purpose – and only entered the world because it was in accord with God’s plan that it do so – why would God need Christ to die in order to resolve a problem that he himself is responsible for bringing about? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven our sins and saved us without Christ’s death? Why did God need Christ to die for our sins if our sins are a necessary part of God’s “purpose of the eons”?

The fact that sin is a necessary part of God’s plan (and that it wouldn’t exist if God hadn’t brought about the circumstances that guaranteed its entrance into the world) doesn’t mean that God doesn’t take sin seriously, or that God delights in its occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth. The very fact that God’s emotional response to sin is frequently referred to as “indignation” (Rom. 1:18; 2:5, 8; Eph. 5:6; etc.) indicates that God is displeased by, and disapproves of, sin. In accord with this fact, we read in Romans 1:32 that it’s a “just statute of God” that those who sin are “deserving of death.” But what makes the “just statute” referred to by Paul a “just statute?”

Well, we know that the “just statute” referred to in Rom. 1:32 is in accord with (and an expression of) God’s displeasure/disapproval of sin. If God wasn’t displeased with sin, then he wouldn’t regard sinners as justly deserving of death. And if God didn’t regard sinners as justly deserving of death – or deserving of any other penalty – we’d have good reason to believe that God wasn’t displeased with, and didn’t disapprove of, sin. But because God is displeased with sin, he would be communicating a falsehood if he didn’t express his displeasure in the way that he’s chosen to do so (for God cannot lie).  But why is God so displeased with sin?

Answer: because sin – which involves a transgression of the divine law that’s summed up in what Christ referred to as the two greatest precepts (Mark 12:28-30) – is contrary to the truth that God is perfectly worthy of our obedience. As the only one who is essentially and perfectly wise and good (and on whom our happiness and very existence depends), God is worthy of being believed and obeyed by all of his intelligent creatures. That is, it’s because of who and what God is that all of God’s rational/moral creatures ought to trust and obey him by loving him supremely and loving our associates as ourselves.[iv] So for God to forgive sins and justify sinners apart from what Christ did on our behalf would be contrary to the truth of God’s absolute and essential worthiness. It would communicate the false idea that God isn’t supremely worthy of perfect obedience from all of his intelligent creatures.

It must be emphasized that one of the divine attributes that makes God worthy of perfect obedience from his creatures is his perfect love. And this love is what motivated God to save his sinful creatures from the very penalty of which their sins made them deserving. And when, in accord with God’s plan (and in obedience to God’s will), Christ died on the cross, the future justification and salvation of all sinners from death was secured. But how?

To better answer this question, it would be helpful to consider how animal sacrifices offered in accord with Levitical law resulted in the forgiveness of those for whom the sacrifices were offered. We know that a key event in the sacrificial ritual was the burning of the sacrifice by the priest. In fact, in one of the earliest recorded instances of a sacrifice being made to God, we read the following:

Then Noah built an altar to Yahweh and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And Yahweh smelled the soothing aroma; and Yahweh said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again strike down every living thing as I have done.” (Gen. 8:20-21)

The clear implication of what we read here is (1) that Noah’s offering was intended to please Yahweh, and (2) that Yahweh was, in fact, pleased by Noah’s offering. In the same way, it’s evident that the sacrifices offered in accord with Levitical law – including the sin offering – were intended to please God (as with all of the sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests, the completion of the sacrificial ritual for the sin offering involved burning the sacrifice so as to create a “soothing aroma” for Yahweh). For example, in Lev. 4:31, we read the following concerning the sin offering:

“…and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to Yahweh. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.”

The burning of the sacrifice – which, again, was essential to the completion of the sacrificial ritual – represented the giving of the sacrifice to God (whose acceptance of it resulted in the forgiveness that the sacrifice was intended to secure). Although all of the sacrifices offered in obedience to God were intended to please God (hence the frequently-used words, “for a soothing aroma to Yahweh”), the efficacy of the sin offering was, evidently, due to the fact that it was more pleasing to God than the sin for which the sacrifice was offered was displeasing to him.

Of course, God had no real need for sacrificed animals (as if a lifeless and subsequently burned-up animal benefited him in any way). And it wasn’t the death of the animal itself that pleased God; rather, what pleased God was the act of offering/giving up to him something that was considered by the one offering the sacrifice to be of relatively great value, as a heartfelt expression of his or her devotion and obedience to God (or an expression of thankfulness or repentance/entreating God’s favor). In other words, it wasn’t the sacrificed animal itself that pleased God, but rather what the sacrifice represented.

Now, keeping these considerations in mind, we know that Christ – being sinless/blameless and perfectly obedient to God – didn’t deserve to die. However, the very fact that Christ didn’t deserve to die (which made his death at the hands of sinners unjust) – and yet still trusted in and obeyed his God and Father “unto death, even the death of the cross” – made his obedience an act with which God was greatly pleased. In accord with this fact, we read the following in Ephesians 5:2:

“…be walking in love, according as Christ also loves you, and gives Himself up for us, an approach present and a sacrifice to God, for a fragrant odor.

That is, Christ died for our sakes (or gave himself “up for us”) by giving himself to God in an act of perfect obedience (for a more in-depth consideration of what Paul meant here – and how it relates to a number of verses from the letter to the Hebrews – see my article “An approach present and a sacrifice to God”). And as is evident from the words “for a fragrant odor,Christ’s sacrifice was greatly pleasing to God. In fact, we know that God is more pleased by Christ’s obedience unto death than he is pleased by the ongoing, perpetual obedience of his own holy messengers from the fact that, following his death, Christ was exalted by God far above them, and graced with the name that is above every name” (Eph. 1:20-22; Phil. 2:8-11; Heb. 1:2, 4; 2:8-9). 

We also know that the “superabundance of grace” that is the result of Christ’s sacrifice is such that, “where sin increases, grace superexceeds” (Rom. 5:17, 19-20). At the present time, it’s only believers who are the beneficiaries of this superabundant grace. But ultimately, all mankind will be. And since the grace in which sinners are justified by God corresponds to the extent to which God is pleased by Christ’s sacrifice, we can conclude the following: Christ’s faithful obedience “unto death, even the death of the cross” – i.e., the obedience that Paul said is for all mankind for life's justifying, and through which the many shall be constituted just (Rom. 5:18-19) – is exceedingly more pleasing to God than the combined sins of all people of all time are displeasing to him.

Thus, we can understand God’s need for Christ’s death for our justification/salvation as simply reflecting his commitment to acting in a way that is in accord with the truth. If God were to forgive sins and justify sinners apart from, and without regard for, Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf (which, again, is more pleasing to God than our sins are displeasing to him), then God would be acting contrary to the truth that he is supremely worthy of obedience, and (consequently) displeased by sin. And God can no more act contrary to what is true than he can act contrary to his own nature.


Christ’s sacrificial death (the ultimate act of faith in, and obedience to, God) is the basis on which God is justifying believers at the present time, and will justify all in the future. When God justifies sinners, he’s expressing/acting in accord with the truth that he’s exceedingly more pleased by Christ’s obedience unto death than he is displeased by our sins. This means that it’s not only the case that God desires and wills that all sinners eventually be justified and saved (which is absolutely true); it’s also the case that, because of Christ’s sacrifice, God must justify and save all sinners (for if he didn’t, it would communicate the false idea that God is more displeased by our sins than he is pleased with his Son’s obedience unto death).

[i] While there are some who think that forgiveness and justification are “mutually exclusive” states, and that only justification – and not the forgiveness of sins – is “for” the body of Christ, I’ve argued elsewhere that this view is erroneous: see 

[ii] Some believe that those referred to as “many” in Matt. 20:28 are identical with “the many” referred to by Paul in Rom. 5:12-19. I don’t think this view is correct, however. Paul was referring to all mankind when he referred to “the many” in Rom. 5:12-19, and was contrasting them with two men (each of whom is referred to by Paul as “the one”). However, no such contrast occurs in Matt. 20:28, and there is no indication that Christ was referring to all mankind here. And in contrast with Paul’s reference to all mankind in Rom. 5:12-19, the article “the” is not used in Matt. 20:28 in connection with the term “many.” That is, it is not “the many” in Matt. 20:28, but simply “many.” Moreover, when Christ declared what he did in Matt. 20:28, the future justification of all mankind through the obedience of Christ had not yet been revealed (for it was to Paul that Christ later revealed this truth). 

[iii] For a defense of the view that “the Israel of God” denotes a different company of saints than “the body of Christ” (and that, therefore, the “many” referred to in Matt. 20:28 doesn’t include the saints in the body of Christ), see the following articles: (part one of four) (part one of two) 

[iv] It is for this reason that I believe Christ understood sin to be a “debt” (or something very much like a debt). In Matthew 6:12 we read that Christ taught his disciples to pray, “And remit to us our debts, as we also remit those of our debtors. In Luke’s account, we read, “And pardon us our sins, for we ourselves also are pardoning everyone who is owing us (Luke 11:4; cf. Matt. 18:21-35).