What Exactly Did Jesus Do for Us on the Cross?

What Exactly Did Jesus Do for Us on the Cross?

Section 4: Jesus

Digging Deeper Topic 2: What Exactly Did Jesus Do for Us on the Cross?

Miscellaneous Views

As Christians, we believe Jesus’ death saved us from our sins and made it possible for us to have a renewed relationship with God. The question is: just how did his death do that? Many different explanations have been offered.

The Ransom Theory


Some have thought of Jesus’ death as a ransom paid to Satan. In essence, this view looks at history as a cosmic battle between God and Satan. Because of our sin, Satan was able to gain control over this world and us. God wanted to save us from Satan’s power, but as the ruler of this world, Satan had the right to require that a price be paid for our release. What was Satan’s price? Jesus’ death. In certain versions of the ransom theory, Satan insisted on this because he thought he could gain control of Jesus’ soul upon his death.  But he was wrong. Because Jesus is God, Satan didn’t have the power to hold him. As a result, Satan lost his power over us and wound up with nothing in return.


In one sense, Jesus’ death and resurrection does represent a victory over Satan (See Col. 2:13-15) A major problem with the ransom theory, however, is that it credits Satan with power he doesn’t have. Satan can’t do anything if God’s doesn’t allow it. When Satan wanted to tempt Job, for example, he had to get permission and he wasn’t able to go beyond what God allowed (Job 1:8-12, 2:1-6). That’s because God is the supreme authority in the universe. As a result, Satan has no right to demand anything from him.

The Satisfaction Theory


This view was popular during the Middle Ages and was first presented by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canteberry (1033-1109). At the time, society was governed by a feudal system where the common people lived and worked on the land, but that land was owned by the nobility. In exchange for the right to work the land, the people owed more than just rent. They were required to pay homage to the lord on whose land they lived. In that context, breaking the law was viewed as an offense against the lord and his honor. With that picture as a background, Anselm saw our sin as an offense against God’s honor.

In the face of our sin, God had two options to maintain his honor. He could punish us or he could allow us to make satisfaction for our offense. God didn’t want to punish us, but he knew it was impossible for us to render satisfaction for our sin. Satisfaction required restoring what was taken plus some additional amount to compensate God for the damage done to his honor.  The trouble is, even if we were to give God everything we had and render perfect obedience to him, we would simply be giving him what we owed him. As a result, there would be no “extra” to compensate him for his lost honor. So what was God to do? Well, he could render the satisfaction himself by becoming human. Because he was sinless, Jesus didn’t deserve to die. As a result, his death on the cross went beyond what was required and therefore counted as satisfaction on our behalf.


The satisfaction theory looks at sin primarily in terms of God’s honor. But the issue is bigger than that. Sin is more than just a personal offense against God’s honor; it is a violation of his justice as well. Any explanation of what Jesus did for us needs to take that into account. The satisfaction theory may explain how Jesus’ death upheld God’s honor, but it doesn’t adequately explain how it upheld his justice.

The Moral Influence and Example Theories


The moral influence view sees Jesus’ death on the cross differently than either of the two theories above. Jesus’ death wasn’t a payment made to Satan or to God on our behalf. It was simply a way for God to demonstrate the depth of his love for us in the hope that it would prompt us to draw close to him. In a similar way, the example theory sees the cross as a teaching moment. Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross is the quintessential example of the obedience and trust God desires. God wants us to learn from Jesus and exhibit similar obedience and trust in our own lives.


The problem with both the moral influence and example theories is that they fail to acknowledge Jesus’ death actually accomplished something. It’s true we ought to follow Christ’s obedient example. It’s also true that his love for us ought to draw us nearer to him. But did Christ die only to set an example or to spur us on to greater love for God? No. As we’ll discuss in greater detail below, his death accomplished much more than that.

The Governmental Theory


Yet another view is known as the Governmental theory. This view holds that God wanted to forgive us for our sins. Now, strictly speaking, he didn’t need to send Jesus to the cross in order to forgive us. But as ruler of the universe, he wanted to make sure we didn’t get the wrong idea about his laws. They are important, and he doesn’t want us to think we can just disregard them any time we want, knowing we will be forgiven. So to maintain the dignity of his laws, God sent his Son to the cross as a way of highlighting the severity of sin.


Similar to the moral influence and example theories, the governmental theory sees Jesus’ death as an attempt to produce a change in our thinking. In the case of the governmental theory, God wanted Jesus’ death to instill within us a proper respect for his laws. But it’s important to understand that Jesus’ death did more than just produce a subjective change within us. If Jesus had not gone to the cross, God would not have been able to forgive us. As a result, Jesus’ death accomplished something beyond a change in our state of mind. What exactly did Jesus do for us on the cross, and why did it free God to forgive us? That’s what the next view tries to explain.

The Penal Substitution View

If none of the views we’ve looked at so far are adequate, how should we describe what Jesus did for us on the cross? In contrast to the above theories, many theologians opt for what is known as penal substitutionary view. The advantage of this view is that it pulls together two vital truths about Jesus’ death on the cross:

He Substituted Himself for Us

We noted earlier that Jesus served as our representative. In that capacity, his death on the cross was a substitute for our own. We see this substitutionary concept described in Isaiah:

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53:5-6).

The New Testament uses similar language to describe Jesus’ death on the cross.

So he was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28a).

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness” (1 Peter. 2:24).

He Paid the Penalty We Owed for Sin

The question is: why did Jesus take our place on the cross? To answer that, we need to understand our predicament. Paul describes our problem in the opening chapters of Romans. Because God is holy and just, he hates sin. As a result,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom. 1:18).

In fact, God hates sin so much that he decreed all those who sin deserve death (Rom. 6:23). That’s a big problem for us because we’re all sinners. As Paul explains,

“There is no one righteous; not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God…there is no one who does good; not even one” (Rom. 3:10-11, 12b).

We all, therefore, deserve to be punished for our sin. But Jesus saved us by taking our place on the cross and paying the penalty we owed for sin. He took God’s judgment upon himself to spare us from having to endure it ourselves.

That’s why Paul describes Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of atonement (Rom. 3:25). In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were required to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins. The Hebrew word for atonement means, “to cover.[1]” In the sacrificial system, the blood from the sacrifice made atonement for the sinner by covering the person’s sin. As Erickson explains, “one was delivered from punishment by the interposing of something between one’s sin and God. God then saw the atoning sacrifice rather than the sin. The covering of the sin meant that the penalty no longer had to be exacted from the sinner.”[2]

The Old Testament sacrifices were only a temporary measure, however. They couldn’t deal with the problem of sin in any lasting way (Heb. 10:4). The sacrificial system merely foreshadowed the sacrifice Christ would ultimately make on our behalf. Because Jesus offered himself on the cross, God now looks upon his sacrifice rather than our sin. As a result, we are no longer required to pay the penalty ourselves.

But why would covering our sins in this way prevent us from having to pay the penalty we owe for them? It’s not as if God is somehow fooled. He still knows that we have sinned and that our sin deserves to be punished. The answer is that we are able escape paying the penalty we owe for our sin because Jesus paid the penalty for us. As our representative, he went to the cross and took the punishment we deserved (Isa. 53:5-6).

Jesus death covers our sin in the sense that, when God looks upon Jesus’ sacrifice, he knows the penalty for our sin has been paid in full. As a result, our sins are no longer an issue, and he does not need to look upon them any further.


Doesn’t this view make God look bad?

Some object that the penal substitutionary view makes God seem angry and vengeful. Why would a loving God feel the need to exact a penalty for our sin? Couldn’t he just forgive us?

As we’ve said a number of times, God is holy and just. Those are traits that exist at the very core of his being. He couldn’t stop being holy and just if he wanted to (and he doesn’t want to!).

Now, because he is holy and just, God can’t just look the other way when it comes to our sin. Take a look at Rom. 3:25-26.

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Notice how Paul describes God’s motivation. He sent Jesus to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time in order to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. The implication is that if God had not sent Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, he would not have been just. In other words, God wants to save us (i.e. he wants to justify those who put their faith in Christ), but he must do it in a way that is consistent with his justice. And he couldn’t do that without offering Christ as a sacrifice of atonement. In order to remain consistent with his just nature, God had to ensure that the penalty for sin was paid.[3]

Yet, as we’ve discussed before, God is not only just, he is also loving. That is why he provided a way to save us from our sins.  God’s justice requires a penalty for sin be paid, and his love caused him to send his Son to pay the penalty on our behalf.  The penal substitutionary view thus upholds both aspects of God’s character.

Is it fair?

That raises another question: Is it fair to send Jesus to die in our place? On the one hand, we certainly don’t have anything to complain about. As believers, we’re obviously better off since we didn’t have to the pay penalty ourselves. But what about Jesus? Was this arrangement fair to him? Is it fair to punish someone when they themselves haven’t done anything wrong?

We have to remember the cross is something Jesus himself chose. As the Son, he was with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the beginning. When the Father determined to send him, the Son whole-heartedly agreed to go.

Think back to when you were a little kid. Your father no doubt on numerous occasions told you to clean your room or to do the dishes, but you didn’t want to. You wanted to watch TV instead. You may have eventually complied, but you were probably kicking and screaming the whole time. That’s not how it was when the Son agreed to go to the cross because the Father and Son are always in agreement. There is no division whatsoever between them. Because the Father and Son are one, the decision to go to the cross was more like them having the very same idea at the very same moment.

So Jesus wasn’t sent to the cross against his will, kicking and screaming. It was something he wanted to do because he knew it was required to save us from our sin. That’s why the author of Hebrews says:

For the joy set before him he endured the cross…” (Heb. 12:2).

That doesn’t mean the cross wasn’t a sacrifice. When Jesus looked at the pain and suffering he would have to endure, it caused him a remarkable amount of distress (Matt. 26:36-50, Mark 14:32-46, Luke 22:39-49). But when he looked at the end result—bringing us into eternity with him—it brought him joy.

So going to the cross wasn’t unfair to Jesus. It was something he joyfully chose to do.


When we think of Jesus’ death on the cross, it is correct to see it as a victory over Satan. It is also correct to view his death as the quintessential example of selfless sacrifice and obedience. And when we consider what Jesus was willing to go through for us, it ought to draw us closer to him. But the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross goes beyond any of those things. When we think of the cross, we must come to grips with the reality of God’s justice. Because he is just, God must judge sin. That puts each one of us in a difficult spot. We’re subject to a penalty none of us can bear. Fortunately, because he loves us, God himself became human so that he could go to the cross to pay that penalty for us.


[1] Erickson, 822. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1996), 242.


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