On the cross, the Lord Jesus took the punishment sinners deserve for their sin. Jesus did not deserve to die; He willingly took every sinners’ place and died for our sins.
The death of Jesus was one of substitution “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18), the innocent for the guilty, the perfect for the corrupt.
Substitutionary atonement describes how He suffered vicariously, substituted for the sinner. Further, it explains that His sufferings were expiatory, which means His suffering made amends for sinners.
Scripture describes the death of Jesus in various ways, but principal among them is the idea that He took the place of sinners in that He who had no sin was made sin for us all (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Sins of the World Were Placed on Jesus
As Jesus was hanging on the cross suspended between earth and heaven, the sins of the world were placed on Him by God the Father (1 Peter 2:24). The death of Jesus was not any death but the death of a lawbreaker.
Everyone dies, but there is a big difference between natural death and being executed for one’s crimes. All sin is a violation of the law of God (1 John 3:14), and “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Since everyone has sinned, everyone deserves death (Romans 3:23; 6:23).
By believing in the death of Jesus, sinners are released by Jesus from the penalty of death. Although Jesus committed no crime (Luke 23:15), He was executed as a criminal. It was because He was sinless that His death avails sinners.
Although Jesus had no personal sin to pay for, His death, as the sinless substitute, now pays for all of our sins before God the Father. Now, the legal debt has been paid in full by the Lord Jesus (John 19:30).
The Death of Jesus Was Judicial
Jesus took our place judicially, bearing the penalty of our sin and dying in our place (Colossians 2:13-14) by nailing all the accusations against sinners to the cross in His death.
See, the law of God demands that all sinners are guilty before a holy God, and the justice of God demands your life.
Jesus came on a death sentence, and in His death, Jesus said to His Father, “Take my life on behalf of this sinner.” The fact Jesus took our place shows sinners the great love of God (John 15:13).
The Death of Jesus and Spiritual Separation from God
The penalty for sin extends beyond physical death to include spiritual separation from God. Jesus took our place since part of the agony of Jesus on the cross was experiencing separation from God the Father.
After three hours of supernatural darkness in the land, Jesus, in Mark 15:34, cried out, “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of sinners, they never need to fear separation nor abandonment from God (Hebrews 13:5). In this life, we can never fathom the depths of the suffering of God the Son, the Lord Jesus, in taking our place for the people of God.
The suffering of the Lord Jesus was intense. In the days leading up to His crucifixion, he expressed great distress about what was coming (John 12:27). Some even tried to dissuade Him from going to the cross, but He sharply rebuked them because it was a temptation from Satan Himself (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus had not come to take the easy way, but to die for sinners.
On the night of His arrest, Matthew 26:38 tells us that Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” With the angel having been sent to strengthen Him, Jesus even sweated blood (Luke 22:43-44).
Jesus had to take the place of sinners for their sins. He had to lay down His life as a sacrifice because, as Hebrews 9:22 says, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” The sacrifice of Jesus was perfect in holiness, worth, and in power to save.
After the resurrection, Jesus showed His scars to the apostles (John 20:26-27). Since our salvation will last forever, the marks of our Savior’s suffering will always be visible to the people of God, an eternal reminder that the death of Jesus took our place and for our sin (Revelation 5:6).
The Importance of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Today
Understanding and believing in penal substitutionary atonement is not a secondary matter because in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul links believing in the death of Jesus as of “first importance,” meaning that to not believe in the death of Jesus makes it impossible to recognize someone’s profession of faith in Christ.
Much of what the Bible describes the death of Jesus in the place of sinners goes back to Isaiah 53, which is the fourth and final Servant Song that reveals how the Servant (Jesus) will redeem His people.
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
Jesus was the one whom God revealed to Isaiah eight centuries before His death. On the cross, Jesus took the sins of sinners upon Himself and bore God’s wrath in their place. The atonement of Jesus made atonement for sinners.
Christians who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus have the forgiveness of sins and peace with God because of what Jesus accomplished in His finished and sufficient work.
The Death of Jesus Is a Matter of Worship for Christians
Jesus died in our place and for our sins. Such truth is not something that should be treated as merely routine nor treated as trite by the people of God. Christ suffered and died because of my sin, and because of your sin.
Since the Fall, the defining issue in the world has always been sin. Today we minimize sin and even neglect it viewing it as “old-fashioned” and “outdated.”
As we have considered the death of Jesus, we need to understand that to have a biblical understanding of sin is critical. Such an understanding will drive us to the cross. Look at the extreme nature of the solution in Jesus to the issue of sin.
If sin were no big deal, then we would be right to ask, “Would God have sent His only begotten Son to die a shameful death on a cross to deal with it?” And further, we should ask the following questions, “What kind of love is this in Jesus?
What kind of love is displayed when God sent His only begotten Son to die for the sins we commit against Him?” Such is the love of Jesus of a kind and degree that sinners can hardly fathom.
Such is the depths of the cross that transformed it from a torture device, a symbol of fear to a symbol of the faith, which also led Isaac Watts to write that famous hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in 1707:
When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God! All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.
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Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOG, Instagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.