Eight Glories of the Cross


For the month of April, Crossway Books has graciously allowed our readers to freely download The Cross by Martin Lloyd-Jones. This book is a collection of excellent sermons from one of the foremost preachers of the twentieth century.

This post is written intentionally to be a “gateway” to the atonement goodness provided in Stephen Wellum’s series of posts on the atonement originally written for the Hesed and Emet Publishing House. My aim is to briefly summarize the main points in each of his essays as an appetizer, so that you would take up and read the feast in his original essays, which are linked in the headings.

The Glory of the Cross

It is not merely enough for Christ to be with us; he must also act for us in his life, death, and resurrection. The Bible presents the work of Christ on the cross as a glorious and multifaceted work. In fact, Scripture presents the cross in at least eight complementary lenses: obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice/justification, victory/conquest, and moral example. If we are going to explain the cross biblically, we must comprehend the person and work of God the Son incarnate accurately. To do this, it is incumbent upon us to account for all the biblical data, utilizing the Bible’s own categories and typological structures to capture the fullness and richness therein. Wellum explains, “As we think through the eight ways that Scripture presents the cross, it is imperative that we do so by placing them within the Bible’s storyline, framework, and covenantal unfolding. When we do so, we discover that Scripture’s diverse description of the cross is not isolated or random, but intertwined, complementary, and unified in its presentation of Christ and his glorious work for us.”

While it may indeed be the case that the cross is put forward as a multifaceted work, there is one aspect that stands at the heart of Christ’s atonement. All eight of the motifs being emphasized in this series flow out of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), because this doctrine lies at the heart of the atonement and best accounts for why the divine Son had to die and why he alone can save. Penal speaks to the reality that humanity stands under God’s judgment as we are all dead in Adam and thereby deserving of God’s righteous wrath and condemnation. Substitution speaks to the reality that Christ is the Last Adam and how just as all humanity is dead in Adam, all who believe in Christ are credited with his righteousness. The result of this legal or forensic union is that we are declared righteous before God on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience. We are free from all condemnation and guilt (2 Cor. 5:21; see 1 Pet. 3:18; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:28; Rom. 8:32).

Sadly, there are wide ranging and ultimately spurious attacks that have and continue to descend upon this glorious doctrine of PSA—from both those outside and inside evangelicalism. All of them reflect more about the erroneous thinking of the accuser than they do about the doctrine of PSA. Many attempt to emphasize the “diversity” of motifs surrounding the atonement and in so doing are not inclusive of PSA. The truth of the matter is that in Scripture and theology, penal substitution is another way of proclaiming God’s sovereign grace. It is shorthand for speaking of the triune God in all of his holiness, righteousness, and justice.

As Wellum explains, “Penal substitution is not a view to be replaced by something “better” or dismissed as a relic of the past. There is no greater news than this: Christ Jesus, as the divine Son incarnate, perfectly meets our need before God. In Christ, the triune love of God is gloriously revealed because it is in him that we receive the gift of righteousness by faith.”

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Obedience

The first motif that is vital to grasp regarding the atonement is the obedience of Christ (see Rom. 5:19; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8–9). The necessity of obedience is established right from the beginning of the biblical storyline with Adam, who is called to obey God’s commands in the Garden (Gen 2:17). In Romans 5:12–14, 18–21 Paul explicitly draws connections between Adam’s failure to obey God, and Christ’s perfect obedience, who by his life, death, and resurrection provides justification for all who believe in him (cf. Rom. 5:1).

A crucial point pertaining to the concept of obedience is Christ’s active and passive obedience. Active obedience refers to Christ’s perfect representative life on behalf of his people (Heb. 5:14), while passive obedience refers to his substitutionary death in which Jesus pays the penalty for his people’s sin as a sin offering (2 Cor. 5:21). Without both Christ’s active and passive obedience, salvation is impossible.

For more on how obedience weaves together the biblical storyline and amplifies God’s perfect righteousness, see Wellum’s essay.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Sacrifice

The motif of sacrifice is often used throughout the biblical storyline in connection to atonement. Wellum argues that we must situate this concept within the OT storyline and sacrificial system (see Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2; Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 1:9; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; Rev. 5:8–9; 7:14). This is not new and innovative thinking, as it is precisely what the author of Hebrews does. Wellum writes, “[T]o think biblically and theologically about Christ’s death as a ‘sacrifice,’ we must first think about priestly representation and penal substitution. Why? Because in the case of Christ’s death, he is not merely offering a sacrifice for us (representation); he is also becoming the sacrifice for us (penal substitution).”

While it is rare to find evangelical scholars who reject the importance of the OT sacrificial system in formulating the doctrine of the atonement, it is increasingly popular to emphasize the themes of the exodus/deliverance and the diversity of OT sacrifices to the exclusion of themes like representation, penal, and/or substitution. Diversity, after all, only extends so far for liberalism.

Now, it is entirely valid to argue that the OT sacrifices are diverse, and that this diversity of themes ought to continue in our understanding of atonement in the NT. But, to dismiss the notion that OT sacrifices were given to atone for sin is to commit violence against the clear teaching of the text, and to gloss over both humanity’s greatest need and God’s gracious solution. This is where the theme of sacrifice intersects with the theme of obedience, in that God provides his only begotten Son: our prophet, priest, and king, who was obedient, even to the point of dying a sacrificial death on our behalf.

For more on how this doctrine draws together the themes of Christ being our Priest-King, and embeds his atoning work within the OT sacrificial system as its fulfillment, see Wellum’s essay.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Propitiation

After demonstrating how and why obedience and sacrifice intersect and link together in Christ’s atoning work for us, Wellum picks up the theme of propitiation next. While propitiation needs to be distinguished from the previous two motifs, it is not hard to see how it interlocks with them. Just as Christ’s sacrifice is an aspect of his passive obedience, so too is propitiation. Wellum defines propitiation as follows, “[T]o turn aside a person’s wrath or anger (and in relation to the cross, God’s wrath) by taking away our sin.”

What dimension does propitiation add to our understanding of the atonement? Wellum explains, “God is presented not only as the subject who initiates our redemption in the gift of his Son, but also the object of the cross, namely the one for whom the cross is offered.” This corrects potential misunderstandings of the “ransom theory” of the atonement. While Christ’s incarnation and death certainly frees us from Satan’s power and our lifelong slavery to fear of death (Heb 2:14–15), it does not purchase us back from the devil. Satan is neither the primary subject or object of the cross. God is.

God’s personal wrath is against the sin and the sinner, and the only means of escape from him is if he pours out his wrath on a substitute. This is precisely what our triune God has done in the cross of Christ. This is a hard pill to swallow for many. Now, we must be careful to define God’s wrath rightly, that is, as an extrinsic perfection flowing from his love, justice, and righteousness. It is not an emotional disturbance in the inner life of God. Nor is there any hint of “divine child abuse” in propitiation, as God’s wrath is poured out from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, upon the human nature of God the Son incarnate, who willingly dies in the place of ruined sinners (John 10:18). In propitiation the drama of redemption is displayed as thoroughly God-centered, and this ought to evoke our most reverential worship.

For more on how God’s wrath is rightly seen as the expression of his love for righteousness towards sin, and how to make sense of analogical/univocal language in reference to God’s character, see Wellum’s essay.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Redemption

The word, concept, and theme of redemption and ransom is another way Scripture interprets the achievement of Christ’s cross (see Mark 10:45; Rom. 3:24–25; 1 Cor. 6:19–20; Gal. 3:13; 4:4–5; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13–14; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18–19; Heb. 9:12, 15). Wellum provides the following definitions of redemption and ransom: “As a word and concept, ‘redemption’ conveys the idea of being liberated or ‘bought back,’ either as a purchase or ransom. In the latter use of ‘ransom,’ it also conveys the idea of ‘deliverance’ or ‘liberation’ from a state of bondage and captivity by the payment of a price, not merely an act of deliverance.” While the themes of redemption/ransom find their genesis in the OT Exodus, they can by no means be separated from the firstborn son as a representative figure for the nation.

Moreover, God inaugurates the old covenant with blood, and as the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). This typifies the new covenant, where “Christ, was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). Wellum explains, “[T]he Passover and Exodus serve as types that point forward to the need for something far greater, namely, for God to provide his own Son as the Passover lamb to redeem his people from sin.” The only possible solution for mankind’s sin is for God the Son incarnate to die in our stead as a perfect substitute, and for his shed blood to cleans us from all unrighteousness, accomplishing our salvation by providing full payment for sin (1 John 1:9; Eph. 1:7).

For a more in depth unpacking of how Christ’s redemption of his people is foreshadowed to us in the OT and fulfilled in the NT, see Wellum’s essay.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Reconciliation

In reconciliation, we turn our attention to what God has done to abolish the hostility resulting from sin and estrangement between him and us, and one another. Not only are we by nature “God-haters” (Rom. 1:30) and “hostile towards God” (Rom. 8:7), God is by nature against sin and the sinner and actively expresses his wrath against all unrighteousness of men (Ps. 5:5; Rom. 1:18). Apart from God initiating reconciliation by making atonement for the sin that separates us from him, we would remain like the rest of fallen mankind, “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

But, in Christ, we are first and foremost reconciled to God through his substitutionary death (Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:17–18; 3:12; Heb. 10:19–22), and subsequently, the “wall of hostility” separating us from one another and from God is destroyed when Christ pays the penalty for sin and bears the hostility in himself on the cross (Eph. 2:14–18).

Read Wellum’s essay on reconciliation to see the other ways in which this multifaceted and expansive concept of reconciliation is revealed to us in Scripture.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Justice/Justification

In justice/justification we get to the heart of the Reformation: justification by faith through faith in Christ. This is a legal/forensic concept that draws our attention to God as judge, and how in Christ he declares us acquitted of the guilt/penalty of our sin. As Wellum reminds us, “a person who is justified is ‘just,’ not as a description of his moral character but as a statement of his status or position before the court.” This is where earlier themes of obedience, propitiation, and reconciliation are crucial, because together they highlight how and why God is indeed just in forgiving sinners on the basis of God the Son incarnate’s person and work.

Moreover, the earlier doctrines provide a firm foundation for the complete sufficiency and finality of our justification in Christ. Were he not fully satisfying in his active and passive obedience as our sacrificial Lamb, then justification would be pending, but since he is all of these things and more for us and our salvation, we can be assured that it is indeed finished, once for all (John 19:30; Heb. 10:10, 14).

To read more on how this doctrine coheres with previous atonement motifs and reinforces Wellum’s central tenant that penal substitution is at the heart of the atonement, read his essay on justice/justification.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Christus Victor

Christus Victor is a well-attested atonement motif throughout the history of the church, as it was common in the Patristic era to speak of the primary object of Christ’s death being “the powers, namely, sin, death, and specifically Satan.” This theory is receiving revived interest in our day as many either reject or denigrate penal substitution, as it allows for the focus to be entirely placed on Christ triumphing over evil, and avoids the unpopular notion of God’s wrath/propitiation. Wellum argues that “when one looks at Scripture, it is not difficult to establish the truth that Christus Victor is a dominant theme and major motif in understanding the achievement of Christ’s cross.” It could be argued that the dominant theme of the Bible is “kill the dragon, get the girl,” as the promised seed of the woman crushing the skull of the dastardly serpent undergirds the entire storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 12).

But Wellum astutely observes that many modern proponents of Christus Victor are guilty of speculative presentations of the doctrine that leave the rails of the biblical storyline. Patristic theologians like Cyril of Alexandria and John of Damascus noted that the tendency in their day was to embellish the ransom theory to such an extent that Satan was given undue authority in the atonement. But in our day, proponents who herald Christus Victor to the exclusion of penal substitution tend to do so to highlight Christ’s solidarity with victims of hegemonic powers, and they understand the “powers and authorities” mentioned in texts like Colossians 2:15 to be earthly governmental figures and not demonic powers.[1]

1. For a popular contemporary argument along these lines, see N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne: San Francisco, 2016).

For more on how Christus Victor is best seen as the fruit of penal substitution, and how to properly situate the doctrine within the biblical storyline, see Wellum’s essay.

Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Moral Example

Wellum concludes his reflections on the Bible’s descriptions of the cross by focusing on the cross as a moral example. All the previous motifs are crucially important if we are to think rightly of all Christ has accomplished for us. But Scripture also presents Christ’s self-sacrificial, voluntary, act of self-giving love as exemplary for the Christian’s life (e.g., John 13:12-17; Eph. 5:1–2, 25–27; Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Pet. 2:18–25; 1 John 4:7–12).

We must be careful, as in all of these motifs, to not denigrate penal substitution, and focus on moral example to the exclusion of the heart of Christ’s mission to save sinners (Luke 19:10). As Wellum warns, “This view gained prevalence in the Enlightenment and it continues within non-orthodox theology. Its problem is that it reduces all of the biblical teaching to this one image, and it guts the cross of its substitutionary nature ‘for our sins.’” We must remember that Christ’s death on the cross is “utterly unique and unrepeatable” in that God the Son incarnate dying is a once for all time act for the full forgiveness of sin. No mere mortal can replicate such an awe-inspiring work. Thus, while “it is never enough for Christ merely to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live,” the Bible does teach that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

For more on how to keep the unique, unrepeatable, and objective work of Christ on the cross central, and how to rightly work out the implications of this in imitating the example of Christ on the cross in our own lives, see Wellum’s essay.



  • Michael Carlino

    Michael Carlino is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and SBTS. He currently serves as the Operations Director for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and as the Student Associate for the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at SBTS. He has written several published articles and reviews, including If Christ Is Not Savior, He Cannot Be Liberator: A Response to Ibram Kendi. He is a member of Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial and serves as one of the youth group leaders.

Michael Carlino

Michael Carlino

Michael Carlino is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and SBTS. He currently serves as the Operations Director for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and as the Student Associate for the Mathena Center for Church Revitalization at SBTS. He has written several published articles and reviews, including If Christ Is Not Savior, He Cannot Be Liberator: A Response to Ibram Kendi. He is a member of Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial and serves as one of the youth group leaders.