How does the cross save us? This is a question about the atonement, that is, how does the work of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross bring salvation?
(This question is not about how we receive salvation — we receive it by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, it is about how the cross effects salvation.)
We often think of atonement as the “payment” Jesus made or the “penalty” Jesus bore for our sins on our behalf in order to turn away the wrath of God. This theory is called “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). It's prominence today is largely a development of the Reformation and has been the front-and-center theory of atonement for much of evangelicalism today. Though other theories have also been accepted by evangelicals, it is PSA that has been given pride of place and is in the driver’s seat about what atonement is and means.
However, the problem of the world and of humanity was not that there were sins that somehow needed to be paid for or penalized. The problem was that mankind was in bondage to sin — we needed to be set free from the power of sin. This was accomplished at the cross. Paul says,
- Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:6-11)
- For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. (2 Corinthians 13:4)
- I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
- But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:14-15)
There is also another major aspect that Christ addressed on the cross. That is the matter of the devil and of death. “The whole world,” John tells us, “is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). But John also assures us that, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
The power of the devil was broken at the cross. When Jesus predicted that He would be crucified, which was about to happen shortly, He said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31). The “ruler of this world” is the devil. At the Last Supper, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of judgment, “because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11). This judgment and casting out of the “ruler of this world,” happened at the cross.
Paul speaks of how Christ, “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:14-15). The principalities and powers are the demonic influences that so often control governments and cultures in the world. It was at the cross that Christ disarmed them, made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them.
The author of Hebrews also speaks of the victory of Christ over the devil: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The power of death was broken at the cross because the power of the devil was broken at the cross.
Through the cross, we are reconciled to God, brought back into proper relationship with Him. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them,” Paul says (2 Corinthians 5:19). “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
In Philippians 2, it is because of the cross that Jesus has been highly exalted and given the name that is above every name, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In other words, the reign of Christ over all heaven and earth has been established by His work on the cross. And now, as Paul says, “He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The saving work of Christ on the cross was not about payment and/or penalty, or appeasing the wrath of God. The very power of sin, of death and of the devil was broken so that now all may be dead to sin and alive to God.