April 1, 2018

Jesus Christ’s Finished Work Finishes Off Satan and Sin

Jesus Christ's death was itself an exaltation and victory the Son of Man lifted up to draw the sinful world to him, and victory over the forces of Satan and sin and hell.

As we noted in part 1, God as the person of Jesus Christ reconciles the world. Theologians are fond of considering how the members of the Trinity covenanted in eternity to accomplish man’s salvation. They sometimes call it the “covenant of redemption.” But the Bible doesn’t quite call it that, and in fact says very little about a pre-temporal heavenly agreement about who gets to do what in man’s salvation. This is largely an exercise in useless speculation.[1]

But it’s not speculative, and far from useless, to consider that God was in Christ reconciling. Man’s sin turned him into God’s enemy (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21; Jas. 4:4). Man wants to be free from God’s love and God’s standards. Man’s sin, in turn, separates him from God (Is. 59:2). It exposes him to God’s severe judgment (Rom. 1:18–32; 2:5–6). From God’s standpoint, this is not a permanently agreeable arrangement. God overcomes the estrangement by reconciling man. This is what Holy Week is all about. God came as (and not merely sent) Jesus Christ. God is the agent in reconciling. Why? Because sin is personal, reconciliation is personal. Sin isn’t just the impersonal breaking of “natural law;” it’s the breaking of God’s revealed law (1 Jn. 3:1–10). Sin is against God. This is why reconciliation must be by and with God. On the cross, Jesus didn’t meet impersonal demands of impersonal justice. He met the demands of God’s highly personal justice. God suffered his own righteous penalty for (our) sin.

Reconciliation is not Christ’s paying our sin debt to a God waiting to find any reason to judge sinners but finally pacified by another, his Son, a Father who did not feel at that point as the Son did. God sent Jesus to propitiate himself, that is, turn away his own wrath (1 Jn. 4:10), because of his great love for us. God himself poured out his own wrath on himself (Jesus Christ) to save sinners.[2] God is the reconciler.

God doesn’t hide behind Jesus Christ

If we want to know more about the Father than we can learn from the Son, we’re on a fool’s errand. Once a young woman who had suffered degrading sexual abuse as a child and had been battered by evil men and was living in squalor and poverty finally made her way as a last resort to a faithful church on her block. After the service, the pastor greeted her and asked her about her life. In great sorrow she summarized her harrowing history and declared that this church was her last attempt at life. She had given up on God and was almost hopeless and was contemplating suicide.

The pastor immediately related the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, about how on the cross he died after being beaten and battered by wicked men. He told her that if anybody knows and understands her great agony and shame and loss and humiliation, it is Jesus Christ.

She thought for a moment and then slowly she uttered in timid, broken words, “I imagine that if I could believe that God were like Jesus, I could believe in God.”

“Well,” the pastor responded, “I have the most wonderful news in the world for you. God is exactly like Jesus, and if you want to know God, simply trust and give your life to his Son. In Jesus you will learn everything about God that you need to know.”

God doesn’t hide in Jesus Christ. God manifests himself most plainly in Jesus Christ: “God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Not hidden. Manifested. And manifested most, perhaps, at the cross.

The “finished work” finishes off Satan and sin

Because no one less than God is the reconciler, this reconciliation cannot fail. When God acts to finalize his work with man, man cannot thwart him. It is this truth that stands out in Romans 8:32, 39:

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things…? For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 The “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not merely because of, or reflected by, but in. The love of Christ on the cross is the love of God.

The old-timers were fond of calling this the “finished work of Christ.” Because redemption is God’s work through and through, it is a final, enduring work. The present intercession of our Lord at the right hand is not one of an aggressive mediator trying to convince a reluctant party, pestering for concessions, anxiously hoping he will get what he wants from his Father. Christ sat down on his heavenly throne (Heb. 1:1–3). His priestly work is forever finished. He intercedes with a Father who, knowing the pangs of sin-inducing death, longs and lives and loves to forgive in his Son.

Hebrews 1 assures us that as a result of his priestly, reconciling death, Jesus is seated with his Father, sharing in his heavenly rule over the cosmos, waiting until all of his enemies are subdued (vv. 8, 13). The position of sitting on the throne is one of patient, confident ruling. In Christology, it is customary to distinguish between the humiliation of Christ and his exaltation. This language is borrowed from Philippians 2 — “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him … (vv. 8–9). The state of humiliation covers his birth to death, and his exaltation begins with his resurrection. But if pressed too far without reference to other biblical texts, this distinction shields a very important truth: Jesus’ death was a form of exaltation and victory. Our Lord himself said:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (Jn. 12:31–33, emphasis supplied)

In his death, Jesus is exalted to judge the depraved world and Satan who leads it. In Colossians, Paul elaborates on this theme:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (2:13–15).

At the cross, Jesus squashed the “principalities and powers,” the satanic spirits at war with God. We stood guilty under God’s holy law, and our disobedience enslaved us to Satan. God in Christ “wiped out” that guilt, because God bore his own righteous penalty. He erased not just that penalty, but also even the “handwriting of requirements,” the condemnation of the ceremonial law that always reminded the Jews of their sin (Heb. 10:3).[3] In Jesus’ death, our sins are blotted out. The metaphor is of a triumphant king, returning to his home country, displaying his defeated captives as a great spectacle for all his citizens to see. Matthew Henry captures the victory beautifully:

The Redeemer conquered by dying. See his crown of thorns turned into a crown of laurels. He spoiled them, broke the devil’s power, and conquered and disabled him, and made a show of them openly — exposed them to public shame, and made a show of them to angels and men. Never had the devil’s kingdom such a mortal blow given to it as was given by the Lord Jesus. He tied them to his chariot-wheels, and rode forth conquering and to conquer — alluding to the custom of a general’s triumph, who returned victorious.

In this way, our Lord’s entire redemptive work is an exaltation by which he plunders Satan’s kingdom (Mt. 12:24–30). Jesus Christ’s exaltation was not delayed until his resurrection, which, along with his ascension to his heavenly throne, is the apex of his exaltation. But his death itself is an exaltation and victory, preparing the way for the transition to the full victory in the resurrection and ascension.[4]

One reason we are disinclined to perceive this fact is that we can’t get our minds around an exaltation that includes humility and suffering. But it is precisely in these tribulations that we detect God’s victory in Jesus Christ. It is the slain-but-resurrected Lamb on his throne of deity whom the heavenly hosts worship (Rev. 5:8–13). God shows himself to be God in our Lord’s death on the cross, high and lifted up in meeting the demands of his own holiness in sacrificing his own life for the world. Put another way: we see in the cross something of God that we cannot see (or certainly not as clearly) anywhere else. We see God exalted in a way that is an affront and scandal to the sinful world (1 Cor. 1:18–25; Gal. 5:11), a world which prizes an exaltation of pride and dominance and comfort. But God in sacrificing himself for sins is exalted in humility and subservience and agony.

Jesus Christ’s death was itself an exaltation and victory — the Son of Man “lifted up” to draw the sinful world to him, and victory over the forces of Satan and sin and hell. 

While the apostate chief priests scribes and elders mocked Jesus’ claims as Messiah since in their view Messiah could never suffer crucifixion (Mt. 27:41–42), the Roman centurion and his friends at the foot of the cross declared after Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v. 54), God in Christ exalted himself in reconciling the world. On the cross, he was not less King than in the resurrection and ascension, though King in a different way. In his resurrection and ascension, he reigns over the cosmos. In his death, he reigns over the guilt and bondage of human sinfulness and the satanic principalities and powers that exploit that sinfulness. It is in this sense that our Lord’s redemptive work can be described as a transition from humiliation to exaltation.

For this reason, the gospel of reconciliation will not fail. And for this reason, anxiety is never appropriate for a child of God, no matter the (temporary) victories of Satan and sin. In the memorable words of Longfellow:

Though the mills of God grind slowly;

Yet they grind exceeding small;

Though with patience He stands waiting,

With exactness grinds He all.

But when we do not see God as the reconciler we might be tempted to diminish the great, global gospel promises. We might recognize that God has delegated the task of world evangelization to the church, but then forget that God himself in the person of his Son is in our presence wherever we declare that gospel (Mt. 28:18–20). God himself is reconciling sinners. For this reason we move boldly in confidence at the success of the gospel. Charles H. Spurgeon asserts:

The success of the Gospel is in no jeopardy whatever. Jesus must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.

If the devil can persuade you that Christ is going to give up the war, or is going to fight it out on another line and dispense with your efforts, you will soon grow idle. You will find an excuse for laziness in some supposed conversion of the world by miracle, or some other wonderful affair. You will say the Lord is coming and the war will all be over at once, so there is no need of your fighting it out now. Do not believe it! Our Commander is able to fight it through on this line—in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, by the power of the Eternal Spirit, we are bound to keep right on till this world yields before God….

No gunner may leave his gun, no subordinate may disperse his band, no officer may suggest a retreat. Brothers and Sisters, Popery must fall! Mohammedanism must come down! All the idol gods must be broken and cast to the moles and to the bats! It looks like a task too gigantic, but the bare arm of God — only think of that — His sleeve rolled up, Omnipotence, itself, made bare — what can it not accomplish? Stand back, devils! When God’s bare arm comes into the fight, you will all run like dogs, for you know your Master! Stand back, heresies and schisms, evils and delusions! You will all disappear, for the Christ of God is mightier than you!

O, believe it! Do not be downhearted and dispirited! Do not run to new schemes and fancies and interpretations of prophecy. Go and preach Jesus Christ unto all the nations! Go and spread abroad the Savior’s blessed name, for He is the world’s only hope! The cross is the banner of our victory! God help us to look to it ourselves and then to hold it up before the eyes of others till our Lord shall come upon His Throne. Amen.[5]

 God will win, because God is the one reconciling.[6]

[1] Herman Bavinck, acknowledging that this idea “among the Reformed was not free of scholastic subtlety,” does make a biblical, though inferential, argument for it. See his Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 3:213–216.

[2] Leon Morris, The Atonement, Its Meaning & Significance (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1983), 151–176.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker 1993), 21:190–192.

[4] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1978, 1987).

[5] Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons (Edmonton: Still Waters, 1990), 50–51.

[6] I am indebted to John Barach, Matthew Colvin, John M. Frame, and Brian G. Mattson for valuable suggestions to earlier versions of this essay. I alone am responsible for its content.

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