6 Categories of the Cross

Categories of the Cross

Jesus Christ is, in fact, an expression of the temper of the whole New Testament. For explaining the cross, the New Testament uses many images, many categories, many modes of thought blended together. These various categories and modes of thought serve to enrich our understanding of the cross and its meaning.

1. Sacrifice

The cross is represented for instance as sacrifice, as we’re going to see more fully in a moment, whenever we hear of the blood of Christ. In speaking of the blood of his cross, sacrificial ideas are being invoked.

Proclaiming Christ in a Pluralistic Age

J. I. Packer

In 5 never-before-published lectures originally given in 1978, theologian J. I. Packer tackles common objections to Christianity—including secular humanism, pluralism, and universalism—by preaching the glory of the gospel and Christ crucified. 

2. Ransom

Similarly, the cross is represented as a ransom, not only a sacrifice for sins, but a purchase delivering us from captivity and jeopardy as the payment of a ransom does. Again, the cross is represented in the New Testament as victory, triumph over the devil and demonic forces. “Through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”—Christ broke his power—in order to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15).

Colossians 2:15 agrees: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” To the eye of faith, at least, it’s plain that Christ on the cross triumphed over demonic hosts and led them in his train as their conqueror. Whatever the world sees when it looks at the cross, that is what the eye of faith sees. Christ sloughed off the forces of evil, triumphing over them on the cross. There’s the thought of victory.

3. Redemption

Again, the cross of Christ is represented in the New Testament in terms of redemption, a price paid for the freedom of a slave. We’ve already noted Paul using the category of reconciliation, the word that speaks of the mending of our broken relationship and the establishing of peace where previously there was alienation.

4. Propitiation

There is also in the New Testament that term propitiation, which the Revised Standard Version translates expiation, presumably under the influence of professor C. H. Dodd, who argued very influentially from 1930 onward that this word hilastērion in the Greek (and hilasmós) signifies only the putting away of sin from God’s sight, but not the quenching of his wrath, because, said Professor Dodd, there is no personal wrath of God against sinners to be reckoned with. Suffice it to say that I believe Professor Dodd misconstrued the New Testament at that point.

And I take propitiation in the sense that, really, belief in the wrath of God compels one to take. Propitiation, according to the background of usage in secular Greek, and also in the Greek Old Testament, signifies the putting away of the wrath of God by removal of that which evokes it. And that I believe is precisely what it means to say, that the cross of Christ was a propitiation for our sins. That which provoked God’s personal judicial hostility to us sinners was put away, namely the guilt of our sin.

Propitiation is a word expressing the complex idea of the quenching of God’s wrath by the removal of that which evokes it, namely by the putting away of our sins. This is part of the glory of the cross. In all these terms, the cross is presented to us by these New Testament writers. And reading these passages as I do, I find myself constrained to affirm what the mainstream of Protestant theology has affirmed for centuries and more, namely, that the basic notion—the fundamental notion underlying all the other notions that concern the achievement of the cross—is the notion of substitution.

Christ sloughed off the forces of evil, triumphing over them on the cross.

5. Substitution

The Son of God, who for us and for our salvation had become man, endured the sentence that a holy God had declared against our sins, in order that the guilty—you and I, the offenders—might go free, our sins being forgiven and our relationship with God being put right, which is what that phrase “righteous before God” or “the righteousness of God” means.

I don’t find myself able to doubt that the notion of penal substitution (or penal satisfaction, as it used to be expressed) is in fact the heart of the New Testament message of the cross.

6. Satisfaction

Let me say a word about that term satisfaction. It’s a word that has been used in Christian atonement theology from very early days. It first came into theology from Roman law. It signified that which is done in order to cancel out a legal obligation. Anselm, one of the pioneer Christian theologians of the atonement in the eleventh century AD, construed the notion of Christ’s death as a satisfaction for sin in terms of what nowadays we would call damages, compensation—an offering made to God to satisfy his honor, his dignity, which our sins had outraged. Luther, more scripturally, expounded satisfaction in terms not of compensation for sin, but rather in terms of penal substitution, Christ passing under judgment for our sins.

This is exactly what the New Testament is talking about. This is also what our prayer book is talking about. When in the 1662 communion service, it instructs us to pray, it teaches us to give thanks to God for his tender love toward mankind, which prompted him to give his Son, who “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” for our sins.

It’s the same language as the Heidelberg Catechism had used at the end of the sixteenth century, when it taught the Christian to declare: “My only comfort in life and death is that I belong unto my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins.” Satisfaction is the old word, and I conceive it was a good one. It expresses the thought that Christ did all that needed to be done in order that our sins might be put away from God’s sight.

This article is adapted from Proclaiming Christ in a Pluralistic Age: The 1978 Lectures by J. I. Packer.

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