The Work of Christ

Representative and substitute, atoning death, and victorious resurrection

Having recently remembered and focused on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those events in the life of Christ associated with his final week on the way to the cross, what is referred to as Holy Week, it is important to linger somewhat longer on a few of the truths and entailments of this aspect of Jesus’ ministry.

Without attempting to be exhaustive, I focus on two texts of Scripture from 1 John that get to the essence of our understanding of the atonement (emphasis mine):

  • 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."
  • 1 John 3:8: "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil."

In the first text, our sin against God and his responsive wrath against us required a propitiatory sacrifice, a penal substitution. He sent his Son, God the Son, Jesus Christ, to be that propitiatory sacrifice. This emphasizes penal substitution, Christus Vicarious.

By faith, we are in union with Christ so our sin is placed upon him and his righteousness is imputed to us, and this means we overcome and we also reign with him.

In the second text, God the Son appeared to destroy the works of the devil. After his defiant rebellion against God, his primary focus against believers was that of accusation (Heb 7:25), which raised fears of death (Heb 2:14-15). Jesus Christ’s death on the cross destroyed the devil and his works, and overcome, or was victorious over, the principalities and powers (Col 2:15). This emphasizes the victory of Christ, Christus Victor.

It is critical that we get these truths in the right order. Christ’s penal substitution is the ground of his victory. Our hope is that Christ lived a perfect life, the life we were to live, obeyed the law perfectly, which we were obligated before God to fulfill, he died a sinless death, which was our penalty for sinning against God and he arose victoriously—Christ died a propitiatory death (penal substitution) which is the ground of his victory. By faith, we are in union with Christ so our sin is placed upon him and his righteousness is imputed to us, a double imputation (2 Cor 5:21), and this means we overcome (Rev 12:11) and we also reign with him (Titus 2:12).

In our EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 5, we explicitly affirm these two major truths accomplished in the death of Christ, the atonement, without attempting to give an exhaustive account (emphasis mine):

“We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. His atoning death and victorious resurrection constitute the only ground for salvation.”

These truths of the work of Christ articulated in this Article are foundationally biblically, even though they do not exhaust the truth or implications of the death of Christ.

Excerpts from Evangelical Convictions

Here are key excerpts on the work of Christ, the doctrine of the atonement, from Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (pp. 121, 128, 131).

Jesus, Our Substitute: Penal Substitution

"When we refer in our statement to Jesus as our substitute, we have particularly in mind the forensic model of the atonement known as penal substitution: Jesus, the Righteous One, died in our place, paying the penalty that we deserved, thus satisfying God’s justice. God’s wrath is thereby appeased, reconciling sinners to a holy God, such that his forgiveness does not compromise his holiness. This process is God-initiated, and is, from beginning to end, an expression of God’s love and grace."

Jesus, Our Representative: Union with Christ

"In his atoning death Jesus acts in our stead and on our behalf. As our substitute, he does what we could never do for ourselves—he bears our sin and judgment, and he takes it away. As our representative he acts on our behalf in such a way as to involve us in what he has done. Jesus goes to his death alone, but he calls us to take up our cross and follow him in the new life that is ours by virtue of our union with him. This new life will be discussed further in Article 6 when we consider the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the finished work of Christ to our lives."

Christ’s Victorious Resurrection: His Victory and Ours

"The cross of Christ cannot be considered apart from his resurrection from the dead. In his faithfulness to the will of his Father, Jesus took on the role of the suffering Servant, bearing the sin of his people, and as a consequence of that faithfulness God raised him from the grave and gave him the name above every name (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Jesus’ resurrection both vindicated his work and demonstrated his victory; and as those in union with him by faith, we benefit from that work and that victory becomes ours."

The Only Ground for Salvation

"In the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. He has accomplished his gracious purpose by entering into our world himself in the Person of his Son, fulfilling his own promise of blessing. He has joined our humanity to himself, so that in Christ the Judge could take the place of those who are judged. On the cross Jesus atoned for our sin, bearing its punishment in our stead. There was displayed all at once the fire of God’s holiness, the darkness of our sin, and the depth of God’s gracious love. There, in a mysterious way, God’s wrath and mercy met, perfectly. And on the third day, when he raised Jesus from the grave, God vindicated his Son and brought victory over sin and death."

Worship and prayer

Often the appropriate response to these theological and doctrinal truths is prayer, singing, and worship, and frequently done simultaneously. Take a few moments to sing (pray and worship) and ponder the truth and implication of Christ’s death as articulated in the second verse of "In Christ Alone":

In Christ alone! - who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21)

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