The subject of the cross addresses God’s righteousness, man’s sinfulness, and Jesus’ substitutionary death which satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin and reconciles us to the Father. Certainly other characteristics of God are seen at the cross such as love, mercy, and grace; however, this article will primarily be concerned with His attribute of righteousness. The cross makes sense when we see it in connection with God’s attribute of righteousness.
Everyone is Sinful
The problem between God and man is a problem of separation caused by sin (Isa. 59:2). It’s not a problem that originates with God, for He is immutable and His righteousness is constant. It is people who have sinned and moved away from God. And it’s not just a few people who have sinned, but everyone. Scripture reveals, “there is no man who does not sin” (1 Ki. 8:46), and “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). Furthermore, “there is none righteous, not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The subject of sin is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew חָטָא chata and the Greek ἁμαρτάνω hamartano are the two most common words for sin, and both have the basic meaning to miss the mark. God’s laws are a reflection of His righteous character, and when a person sins, he/she misses the mark of God’s character and will. “The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is against God, even when the wrong we do is to others or ourselves (Gen. 39:9; Ps. 51:4).”
People are sinners in three ways: first they are sinners by imputation of Adam’s original sin (Rom. 5:12-21), second, they are sinners by nature (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 7:19-21; Eph. 2:3), and third, they are sinners by choice (1 Ki. 8:46; Rom. 3:9-18). Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden is the first and greatest of them all, for he incurred the penalty of spiritual and physical death that God righteously and sovereignly promised would come if he ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. “The LORD God commanded the man [Adam], saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17). Both Adam and Eve “took from its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:6); however, Adam alone was held responsible by God for the disobedience that occurred in the Garden of Eden, for he was the spiritual head of the marriage. Because of Adam’s rebellion against God, sin and death entered the human race (Rom. 5:12, 18-19) and spread throughout the universe (Rom. 8:20-22). “Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned [when Adam sinned]” (Rom. 5:12), for “through one transgression [of Adam] there resulted condemnation to all men” (Rom. 5:19a), and “by a man [Adam] came death, by a man [Jesus] also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). All of Adam’s descendants are born into this world spiritually dead in “trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and are by nature “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), “separate from Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), “alienated” from God (Col. 1:21), helpless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies (Rom. 5:6-10).
Sin permeates the thoughts, feelings and volition (i.e. will) of every person. This does not mean that people are as sinful as they can be, but that all are equally in a state of sin and their sinful condition has completely separated them from God and rendered them helpless to save themselves. “All are under God’s wrath and in need of salvation. The religious and nonreligious, the educated and uneducated, the rich and the poor—all are in need of God’s saving grace and are hopelessly lost without it.” Admittedly, this dark picture of the sinfulness of mankind is difficult to accept; however, God’s estimation of mankind set forth in Scripture is true.
People are Helpless to Correct the Problem of Sin
The problem is not only that everyone is marked by sin, but they are helpless to correct the problem of sin. Sin is a stain that cannot be washed away by self-effort; however, throughout history, many have tried to win God’s approval through a moral lifestyle and good works. Scripture reveals that good works and/or adherence to laws can never win the approval of God. In the sight of God, “all our righteous deeds [צְדָקָה tsedaqah] are like a filthy garment” which have no saving value whatsoever (Isa. 64:6). The words translated “filthy garment” in Isaiah 64:6 literally means a “menstruation garment” which conveys in strong and offensive language the “best deeds of guilty people.” If people were to gather all their “righteous deeds” and bring them to God and demand their trade-in value, the results would be rejection and eternal separation from Him in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:12-15).
Many unbelievers fallaciously hold to the strange notion that if they follow the Mosaic Law (or follow any system of good works) they will win God’s approval and be accepted into heaven. This is wrong. The Biblical teaching is that we are “not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal 2:16), for “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21). Rather, we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24), and “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28; cf. 4:5). Salvation is “the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8b-9), for God saves us “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5).
If human works make people righteous, then credit belongs to those individuals for the work they accomplished on their own behalf in bringing themselves to God. But human works never save. The credit for our salvation belongs completely to the Lord Jesus Christ because of His substitutionary atoning work on the cross. The cross of Christ is an offense to the arrogant self-made man who must admit his helplessness and sinfulness before a righteous God.
The Cross is a Place of Judgment
It is true that the cross represents the love of God toward a fallen world He wishes to save (John 3:16). However, we must also see the cross as a place of judgment, darkness and wrath. Matthew writes, “from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour” (Matt. 27:45). This was a physical darkness that one could see with the eye, though the spiritually blind could not see it for its true significance. This darkness that overshadowed the cross was a picture of wrath that flowed from God’s righteousness as He judged the sin of mankind. “Darkness in Scripture often represents judgment and or tragedy (cf. Exod. 10:21–22; Amos 8:9–10).” Christ on the cross was made to bear the Father’s wrath for our sin.
It was during that time that He bore the indescribable curse of our sins. In those three hours were compressed the hell which we deserved, the wrath of God against all our transgressions. We see it only dimly; we simply cannot know what it meant for Him to satisfy all God’s righteous claims against sin. We only know that in those three hours He paid the price, settled the debt, and finished the work necessary for man’s redemption.
It was on the cross that God’s righteous judgment for our sin was dealt with in the Person of Jesus, for “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). “When the servant bore the guilt of our sins, we are saying that he bore the punishment that was due to us because of those sins, and that is to say that he was our substitute. His punishment was vicarious.” Isaiah writes, for “the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a Guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10). The cross was not forced upon Jesus, and it would be wrong to see Him as a helpless victim of His Father’s wrath. It is simultaneously true that God sent and Christ went. Jesus was willing to die in our place, as the Scripture reveals “Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus said, “I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15), and “no one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18). The cross would reflect injustice if Jesus were forced there against His will. But this is not the case. Rather, Jesus went to the cross willingly and laid down His life and bore the punishment that belonged to us. He bore God’s wrath and died in our place.
Paul states that Jesus “was delivered over because of our transgressions” (Rom. 4:25), as “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21). Peter writes that Christ “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). This was the time when God the Father poured out His wrath upon the humanity of Christ; for “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24). “His body” refers to His humanity, for deity cannot bear sin. God sent Jesus to the cross to satisfy His righteous demands for our sin, and He is satisfied with the death of Christ. We did not ask for this, nor do we deserve it. The cross is God’s solution to the problem of sin.
God Justifies Sinners Because of the Work of Jesus on the Cross
God would be fully justified to condemn every person to the Lake of Fire. However, He created a plan to satisfy His righteous demands toward sinners, and He did this without compromising His love toward those He wished to save. The wisdom of God is seen at the cross where righteousness and love intersect. Righteousness demands punishment for sin. Love seeks to show grace and mercy to the undeserving. The cross is where that happens simultaneously. The result is that sin is judged and sinners are saved by grace through faith completely apart from any human works they might produce. Jesus purchased our freedom with His blood that was shed on Calvary. The Father is propitiated and sinners are justified because of the work of Christ on our behalf. We are forgiven. Jesus is the Hero.
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)
Paul uses several theologically rich words throughout this short section of Scripture such as righteousness, faith, justified, grace, redemption, and propitiation. In the above section, righteousness refers to God’s righteousness. It is a righteousness apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21a), but witnessed to by “the Law and Prophets” (Rom. 3:21). It is the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:22). No one can, by their own efforts, merit the righteousness of God, and it is futile to try. God’s righteousness is given freely, as a gift, to those who trust in Jesus as Savior. The recipients are those who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; cf. Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:1-3). God’s justification of sinners comes “as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24a). To be justified means that God declares someone is in perfect conformity to His righteousness. The sinner who believes in Jesus as Savior is justified instantly, fully, and forever. Justification and sanctification are sometimes confused. “Justification describes a person’s status in the sight of the law, not the condition of his or her character. The condition of one’s character and conduct is that with which sanctification deals.” God’s justification is a “gift”, from the Greek word δωρεά dorea, which refers to something “freely given, as a gift, without payment.” Think about that. God’s justification is a gift, freely given and freely received, without any expectation of compensation from the recipient. This is God’s grace to the undeserving. Grace, from the Greek word χάρις charis, refers to “the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.” God justifies sinners freely, by grace, because of the work of Christ on their behalf.
By faith we trust that what Christ accomplished on the cross forever satisfies God’s righteous demands for sin. We simply believe in Jesus for salvation. A mute quadriplegic, who can never speak or act, can be forever saved because of the work of Christ. Jesus paid it all. No one has the means to redeem his own soul, nor the soul of another. Jesus asked, “what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The answer is “nothing”! If Jesus had not paid our sin-debt to God, there would be no hope of ever being liberated from spiritual slavery, for “no man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him—for the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever” (Ps. 49:7-8). However, Paul writes of the “redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24b), and this speaks of the payment He made on behalf of sinners. “Redemption” translates the Greek ἀπολύτρωσις apolutrosis which means to “release from a captive condition.” Redemption refers to the payment of a debt that one gives in order to liberate another from slavery. Jesus declared “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom [λύτρον lutron] for many” (Mark 10:45), and the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus “gave Himself as a ransom [ἀντίλυτρον antilutron] for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). When we turn to Christ as our only Savior “we have redemption [ἀπολύτρωσις apolutrosis] through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7; cf. Col. 1:13-14). Because Jesus died in our place, He is able to set us free from our spiritual bondage and give us eternal life, but it is only because of His shed blood on the cross that He can do this, for we “were not redeemed [λύτρον lutron] with perishable things like silver or gold…but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). The blood of Christ is necessary, for “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
Redemption implies antecedent bondage. Thus the word refers primarily to man’s subjection to the dominion and curse of sin (see Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 15:56). Also in a secondary sense to the bondage of Satan as the head of the kingdom of darkness, and to the bondage of death as the penalty of sin (see Acts 26:18; Heb. 2:14-15). Redemption from this bondage is represented in the Scriptures as both universal and limited. It is universal in the sense that its advantages are freely offered to all. It is limited in the sense that it is effectual only with respect to those who meet the conditions of salvation announced in the gospel. For such it is effectual in that they receive forgiveness of sins and the power to lead a new and holy life. Satan is no longer their captor, and death has lost its sting and terror. They look forward to the redemption of the body (see Heb. 2:9; Acts 3:19; Eph. 1:7; Acts 26:18; 2 Tim. 2:26; 1 Cor. 15:55-57; Rom. 8:15-23).
All humanity is born into a slave-market of sin. Jesus came into this world and took upon Himself true humanity and died upon a cross to atone for our sins. Because Jesus died on the cross and tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9), He rendered inoperative “him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Those who turn to Christ for salvation can be set free from the slave-market of sin into which they were born, to which they were “subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:15). Once we are saved, we can say with the apostle Paul, “He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14).
What was it that Christ offered as payment for sin? The answer is His blood that He shed on the cross. The payment of our debt occurred at the cross by the Lord Jesus, “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Rom. 3:25a). Propitiation translates the Greek word ἱλαστήριον hilasterion which is defined as, “A sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.” At the cross, God effected the removal of all impediments that hindered a restored relationship with Him, and this He accomplished by the blood of Christ, which is the coin of the heavenly realm that paid our sin-debt. The blood of Christ forever satisfied God’s righteous demands for our sin.
The Apostle John also writes about Jesus’ death as a satisfying payment for sins. He tells us “He Himself is the propitiation [ἱλασμός hilasmos – a satisfactory sacrifice] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2; cf. 4:10). At the cross, God has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). Propitiation means that God’s righteous wrath toward our sin has been appeased. He is no longer angry.
Christ’s absolute righteousness alone satisfies (propitiates) the demands of an absolutely righteous God. The Greek term “propitiate” (hilasteerion) is used only three times in the New Testament. John informs us that “He [Christ] is the atoning sacrifice [propitiation] for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). He adds, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [propitiation] for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Thus, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25).
When God judged Christ on the cross, it was a display “of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). God has dealt with our sin in a righteous manner. He judged it. Jesus was the object of that judgment, and the cross was the place where the penalty was paid. “It demonstrates God’s righteousness, the subject of Romans, by showing that God is both just in His dealings with sin and the Justifier who provides righteous standing for the sinner.” God justifies the sinner who comes in faith, believing in Jesus as Savior (John 3:16; 20:31 Acts 4:12; 16:30-31; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). The word faith translates the Greek noun πίστις pistis, which refers to a “state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted.” Faith has no saving merit, as the sinner places all trust in the Person and work of Jesus Who has accomplished our salvation in full. No works are required (Rom. 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5).
You can be adjusted to God’s standard, because God made Christ to become sin for us. The One who knew no sin, the One in whose lips had never been found guile, took upon Himself our sin in order that He might bear our sins to the cross and offer Himself as an acceptable substitute to God for us—on our behalf, in our place. And when Jesus Christ identified Himself with sinners and went to the cross on their behalf and in their place, He was making possible the doctrine of reconciliation. He was making it possible for God to conform the world to Himself, to adjust the world to His standard so that sinners in the world might find salvation because “Jesus paid it all.” You can be adjusted to God, to God’s standard, through Christ, by His death, by His cross, by His blood, and by His identification with sinners.
Jesus’ death on the cross was substitutionary (Mark 10:45; Rom. 5:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18), paid the redemption price for sin (Matt. 20:28; Gal. 3:13; 4:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:15), cancelled our sin debt (Col. 2:14), propitiated the Father (Isa. 53:4-6, 10-12; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), and reconciles sinners by grace through faith (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:8-9; Col. 1:19-20). The result is salvation to those who accept the free gift of eternal life that was accomplished by Jesus. In the Bible, it is always God who saves the sinner (John 3:16; Tit. 3:5). It is God who gives the sinner eternal life and imputes to him a righteousness he does not deserve and could never manufacture on his own (John 10:28; Rom. 4:1-6; 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). The sinner never saves himself. If the sinner could save himself, then Jesus’s death on the cross would not have been necessary.
The word salvation is used in the Bible to indicate a work of God in behalf of man. In the present dispensation its use is limited to His work for individuals only, and is vouchsafed to them upon one definite condition. Too much emphasis cannot be placed on the fact that now, according to the Bible, salvation is the result of the work of God for the individual, rather than the work of the individual for God, or even the work of the individual for himself. Eventually the one who is saved by the power of God may, after that divine work is accomplished, do “good works” for God; for salvation is said to be “unto good works” (Eph. 2:10) and those who “believed” are to be “careful to maintain good works” (Tit. 3:8). Good works are evidently made possible by salvation; but these good works, which follow salvation, do not add anything to the all-sufficient and perfect saving work of God.
Salvation is an all-encompassing provision. It begins and ends with the work of Christ who satisfied God’s righteous character and demands for sin. It is all that God does for unworthy sinners because Christ was judged in our place. He atoned for our sin by His shed blood on Calvary. He paid the redemption price and liberated us from spiritual slavery and an eternal punishment that was surely ours. He did this freely, in love, and provides salvation by grace to all those who come by faith, trusting in Him alone as Savior.
God is perfectly righteous and cannot approve of sin. All humanity is under guilt and condemnation because of sin. We are sinners in Adam, by nature, and by choice. More so, we are helpless to save ourselves from the slave market of sin into which we were born. God, in love, did for us what we could not do ourselves. He satisfied every demand of His righteousness by judging our sin in the substitute of His Son, Jesus, Who came into the world sinless, lived a perfectly righteous life under the Law, and went to the cross as an innocent Man and died in our place, the just for the unjust. The result is forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the gift of righteousness to those who believe in Jesus as their Savior, trusting that His work on the cross satisfied every righteous demand of the Father. This blessing to us is an expression of God’s love and based on His grace.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.
- Christ to the Cross
- The Righteousness of God
- Biblical Righteousness: A Word Study
- The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53
- The Gospel
- Soteriology: The Study of Salvation
- Atonement for Sins
 Merrill Frederick Unger, R. K. Harrison, Howard Frederic Vos et al., “Sin” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Rev. and updated ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 1198.
 Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich., Kregel Publications, 1995), 188-189.
 Francis Brown, et al, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, 723.
 Ibid., 723.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible, Matt. 27:45.
 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, 1309.
 Edward Young, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 348.
 Though reference is here made to Jesus’ humanity, this in no way diminishes His divine nature. Jesus is the God-Man. He is one Person. He is eternal God (Isa. 9:6; John 8:56-58), yet He was born of a woman in time and space (Gal. 4:4). He is omniscient (Ps. 139:1-6), but as a boy, He grew in knowledge (Luke 2:52). He created the universe (Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; Col. 1:15-16), but as man, He is subject to its weaknesses (Matt. 4:2; John 19:28). We struggle to comprehend the union of God and Man; however, it is with certainty that the Bible portrays Him this way (John 1:1, 14; 20:28; cf. Luke 1:31-33; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), and this truth is essential to Christianity. As God, Jesus is worthy of all worship and praise (Luke 24:51-52; John 9:38; 20:28; Heb. 1:6). As a perfect sinless Man, He went to the cross and died a substitutionary death in my place (Mark 10:45; Rom. 5:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Pet. 3:18), and bore the wrath of God that rightfully belonged to me (Isa. 53:1-12), so that I might have the gifts of righteousness and eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9).
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible, Rom. 3:24.
 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 266.
 Ibid., 1079.
 Ibid., 117.
 Merrill F. Unger, “Redemption,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago, Ill., Moody Press, 1988), 1068-1069.
 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 1252.
 Bracketed comments belong in quote.
 Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, 333.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible, Rom. 3:26.
 William Arndt, et al, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 818.
 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine, 89.
 Lewis S. Chafer, Salvation (Philadelphia, PA: Sunday School Times Company, 1922), 1.