This post is by Nathan Finn (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Finn serves as Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina
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“When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” Then bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:30, HCSB)
“By this will of God, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all. Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:10–12, HCSB)
Christians believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that men and women can be forgiven of our sins and reconciled with our Creator. Nevertheless, despite this core Christian conviction, it is tempting for even very devout believers to think they have to do some good work to make some sort of ongoing atonement for their sins. We see this throughout Christian history.
During the medieval era, a system of penance developed, eventually becoming codified as a sacrament of the Catholic Church. Acts of penance were assigned by priests to repentant believers to offset the temporal (earthly) consequences of sin. Even more dramatic, if less common, were the medieval flagellants. The flagellant movement thrived in the fourteenth century when monks would travel from village to village, torturing themselves in attempt to appease God’s judgment through the Black Death (bubonic plague). To this day, Catholics believe the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice that, according to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, “re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross” and is “truly propitiatory.”
Perhaps closer to home for evangelicals is the self-atoning motivation common in so much of popular spirituality. I call this “poor man’s legalism,” and it hamstrings the spiritual walks of far too many believers. Many Christians believe, at least implicitly, that they must do certain things to offset the consequences of their sins. More time in prayer today compensates for yesterday’s glance at a sexually suggestive image on the internet. Sharing the gospel with an unbeliever cancels out slandering a fellow believer. Going to the revival service makes up for being unkind to your wife and mean to your children. The list could go on.
The verses cited at the beginning of this post—and, for that matter, the entire book of Hebrews—testify to the finality of Christ’s death. When Jesus said, “it is finished,” he was not merely marking the end of his life—he was announcing the end of the reign of sin and death and the crushing of the serpent’s diabolical head. Though Jesus was gasping for final breath, these words were a spiritual victory cry.
The finality of the cross should inspire evangelicals to cultivate a healthier, dare I say, gospel-centered spirituality. If we are united with Christ through faith, God will always be for us and never be against us—it is finished. We no longer live under the crushing burden of sin—it is finished. We do not need to do anything to keep us right with God—it is finished. Our salvation is secure and, by God’s grace, we will endure to the end of our spiritual journey—it is finished. We can rest in God’s promises in Christ—it is finished.
Though we can rest in the finality of the cross, this resting is not some sort of spiritual lethargy. The finality of the cross frees us for gospel faithfulness and kingdom fruitfulness. We mortify our sins, not to offer up some meager atonement, but to humbly demonstrate our agreement with God’s hatred of all rebellion against his sovereign lordship. We cultivate godly virtues, not to keep God’s favor, but to gradually and increasingly, if imperfectly, own his holiness as our own. We evangelize the lost, not to offset our sin, but because God’s mission has become our mission. We serve others, not in hope God will wink at our sin, but because love of God always issues forth in love of neighbor. The finality of the cross fuels our spiritual journey until we arrive at our final destination.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Are safe, to sin no more.