On the cross, Jesus took the punishment we deserved for our sin. He did not deserve to die, but He willingly took our place and experienced death for us. Jesus’ death was a substitution, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18), the innocent for the guilty, the perfect for the corrupt.
The doctrine of the substitutionary atonement teaches that Christ suffered vicariously, being substituted for the sinner, and that His sufferings were expiatory (that is, His sufferings made amends). On the cross, Jesus took our place in several ways:
Jesus took our place in that He was made sin for us. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB). As Jesus was hanging on the cross, suspended between earth and heaven, the sins of the world were placed on Him (1 Peter 2:24). The perfect Son of Man carried our guilt.
Jesus took our place in that He experienced physical death—not just any death, but the death of a lawbreaker. Everyone dies, but there is a difference between dying a “natural” death and being executed for one’s crimes. Sin is the violation of God’s law (1 John 3:4), and “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, ESV). Since we have all sinned, we all deserve death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Jesus releases us from that penalty. Although He had committed no crime (see Luke 23:15), Jesus was executed as a criminal; in fact, it is because He was sinless that His death avails to us. He had no personal sin to pay for, so His death pays for ours. Our legal debt has been paid in full—tetelestai (John 19:30). As the old gospel song says, “He paid a debt He did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”
So, Jesus took our place judicially, bearing the penalty of sin and dying in our place. “When you were dead in your sins . . . , God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14). In other words, God nailed all the accusations against us to the cross. God will never see believers in Christ as deserving the death penalty because our crimes have already been punished in the physical body of Jesus (see Romans 8:1).
God’s Law says, “You are guilty of sin against a holy God. Justice demands your life.” Jesus answers, “Take My life instead.” The fact that Jesus took our place shows God’s great love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
But the penalty for sin extends beyond physical death to include a spiritual separation from God. Again, in this matter, Jesus took our place. Part of Christ’s agony on the cross was a feeling of separation from the Father. After three hours of supernatural darkness in the land, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we need never experience that sense of abandonment (Hebrews 13:5). We can never fathom, at least in this life, how much God the Son suffered in taking our place.
We know Jesus’ suffering was intense. In the days leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus expressed distress about what was coming (John 12:27). But those who tried to dissuade Him from going to the cross were sharply rebuked—the offer to avoid the ordeal was a temptation from Satan himself (Matthew 16:21–23), and Jesus had not come to take the easy way out. On the night of His arrest, Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Even with having an angel to strengthen Him, Jesus actually sweated blood (Luke 22:43–44).
In order for us to be saved, Jesus had to take our place and die for sin. He had to lay down His life as a sacrifice, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). His sacrifice was perfect in holiness, in worth, and in power to save. After His resurrection, Jesus showed His scars to the apostles (John 20:26–27). As long as our salvation lasts (forever), the marks of our Savior’s suffering will be visible (Revelation 5:6)—an eternal reminder that He took our place.
“Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering. . . .
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. . . .
The Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all”