Jesus' Redeeming Work
Thomas E. Tyson
If you ask people on what ground they base their hope of eternal salvation, their answers will fall into one of three categories:
- Jesus (what he did)
- Jesus (what he did) plus me (my qualifications)
- Me (I'm trying my best; I'm as good as most people)
Sadly, most answers fall into categories two and three.
The good news, however, is that something has happened, has been done, to provide the needed foundation for our salvation. In human history, a man who was also God was crucified, died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into heavenall for our salvation. What Jesus Christ accomplished is, all by itself, once and for all, the ground of the sinner's redemption! The apostle Peter emphasized this central truth, based on God's promise of salvation as found in the revelation of the Old Testament, when he preached on Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of the book of Acts.
The Importance of Jesus' Redeeming Work
In his sermon, Peter said, "What you're seeing here today is the exaltation of a living man, Jesus of Nazareth, to the place of highest honor. But he has been exalted only after the deepest humiliation of death by crucifixion." Notice that Peter did not call attention to what Jesus said during his ministry, important though that was and is, but rather to what Jesus did, and to what has been done through what he did!
The gospel does not, first and foremost, call people to do anything. Rather, it calls people to believe that something has been doneby Jesus. Further, it tells us that what he did was what the Old Testament prophesied that he would do! He underwent death and resurrection as the promised Messiah, to procure the forgiveness of his people's sins.
In developing his theme, Peter called attention to:
- Jesus' humanity: "Jesus of Nazareth was a man" (vs. 22). The penalty for human sin needed to be borne by a human being.
- Jesus' deity: "It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (vs. 24). Only a divine Savior could truly save.
- Jesus' mission: He was delivered up to die "by God's set purpose and foreknowledge" (vs. 23). What happened was God's intention from the start.
- Jesus' passion: Men "put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (vs. 23). Jesus truly suffered and died.
- Jesus' victory: "God raised him from the dead" (vs. 24). Jesus is thus the Lord of a saved people.
- Jesus' glory: He was "exalted to the right hand of God" (vs. 33). He is our man in heaven, the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45, 47), in whom we live.
- Jesus' power: "He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit" (vs. 33). Far from being dead, he is himself the source of life.
Peter's point needs to be carefully observed. Our faith is important, and the fruit of faith must be evident. There's no doubt whatsoever about that. As Peter himself said, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you" (vs. 38). It is essential that we react when we hear about these things that happened. In fact, if there is no reaction, there is no redemption (cf. vs. 21). But the sermon itself addresses this crucial issue: is redemption a matter of what we do or of what Jesus did? This is not an appeal, in the first instance. It is a proclamationgood news!
The Interpretation of Jesus' Redeeming Work
OK, these things have happened, but what do they mean? Without meaning, the events of Jesus' life may be regarded as interesting, and perhaps even stupendous, occurrences, but not such as would demand a personal response. After all, anyone who thinks that the universe and history are basically meaningless will have little difficulty dealing with otherwise unexplainable eventslots of them may be found. Besides, all religions think that their founding or defining events are better or more important than any other religions' events. So, without an interpretation, people will do what they want to do with this "gospel." It may be very interestingbut, so what? Peter answered that question in his sermon, too.
Peter didn't just leave everybody with the option to do whatever he or she wanted to do with the facts about Jesus. True, in order to understand their significance, there would have to be a commitment to the authority of God's word. But it's important to recognize that although God acts in Christ, he doesn't only act. He talks about it, too. That's the whole genius of the word of the gospel: it is both a news report and an editorial. Each one is valueless, without the other!
A Christ to whom bizarre things happened by chance can't help us! And a "gospel" that only dreams of help can't help us either. In his sermon, Peter spoke of both event and meaningin unity.
Note the marriage between what happened and what it means:
- Jesus did miraclesGod was attesting him.
- Jesus diedby God's set purpose and foreknowledge.
- Jesus rose againGod freed him from the power of death.
- Jesus ascendedGod has made Jesus both Lord and Christ.
- Jesus sent the Holy Spiritthis fulfilling the Father's promise.
The Old Testament said it beforehand. Look at Acts 2:25-28: God will deliver David, and yet that fulfillment is perfect only in the coming Messiah. So, David places himself within the body of Christ. Again, look at verses 34-35: we can't see the fulfillment of this prophecy in David, but only in David's Lord!
That's why we need to face the work of Jesus, for sure, but the work of Jesus as interpreted by God. We must take care neither (1) to make our salvation rest on our following God, or even on our believing in Jesus, nor (2) to interpret what Jesus did in whatever way we want to interpret it.
The Intention of Jesus' Redeeming Work
Jesus did not die on the cross simply to make salvation possibleas though the divine Trinity said, "We'll see what people do with Jesus' redeeming work to complete it, to make it work." Rather, Jesus died and rose again actually to save a definite people.
We're not told who those people are, person by person. But we are told that, whoever they are, their salvation is grounded in the redeeming work of Jesus. The Bible says that "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:19).
And Peter said that Christ's redeeming work happened by "God's set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23). God doesn't plan anything that is not planned in accordance with his wisdom. But also, he can carry out his wise plan. And just what was this set purpose (foreordination) of God? In this instance, it was Jesus' death on the cross that was foreordained!
To what end? God "handed [Christ] over to you" (vs. 23)for death; that is, to bear God's wrath and curse, because that's what death is, the wages of sin. God made his Son to be a curse for us, to receive the wrath due to us for our own sin. This was not making redemption possibleit was providing redemption!
But notice that all this transpired by God's "foreknowledge." What is that? Well, it isn't mere awareness that something is going to happen. Rather, it involves purposefulness. Biblical foreknowledge is knowing, or loving, beforehand. God said of Israel, "You only have I chosen (literally, "known") of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2). He was aware of all nations, but made Israel the object of his love. Similarly, God chose, loved, knew his church beforehand. And it was because of this that he handed Christ over to die on the cross. That was the only way that the church could be saved!
Peter continues, "You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (vs. 23). This, too, is true. Men put Jesus to death, and they sinned when they did it. It was the most heinous crime in history. Somehow, both of these things are true:
- God delivered Jesus up to die.
- Men were responsible for killing Jesus.
I am not saying that two contradictory things are both true. Rather, I am saying that two things are true which our minds cannot reconcile. They are reconciled in God's mind, of course, but remember, his way is not our way! It would be better for us, rather than artificially reconciling these two facts, to respond with the humble admission, "My terrible sins were what made Jesus' death necessary." The purpose of the cross was to provide the necessary sacrifice.
Now, how men respond to the preaching of the cross will reveal whether that sacrifice was for them or not! The law of God shows us our sin and the cross of Jesus shows us the punishment for our sin. Jesus died for the sins of wicked menyes, including even those of whom it must be said, "You crucified Jesus." But that refers to us, too! Those for whom Jesus died are those who believe and rely on his redeeming work alone for their salvation.
The cross of Jesus ought to disturb us. It ought to shake us out of our self-righteousness and self-justification. Christ Jesus suffered nothing by chance or because he lacked the power to deliver himself, but because it was thus appointed by God. This truth, that the death of Jesus was ordained in the wise counsel of God, cuts off all foolish thinking that we might otherwise embrace: that somehow our redemption is grounded in something that we do, even to some degree. That idea needs to be entirely removed from our thinking. It is a broken reed; lean on it, and it will break. Only Jesus and his cross can bear our weight. "We preach Christ crucified"period.
Mr. Tyson is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1999.