The Meaning of the Cross

By H. Lynn Gardner

The death of Christ on a cross stands at the center of human history. James Stalker describes its significance:

The spot to which we have come is the center of all things. Here two eternities meet. The streams of ancient history converge here, and here the river of modern history takes its rise. The eyes of the patriarchs and prophets strained forward to Calvary, and now the eyes of all generations and of all races look back to it. This is the end of all roads. The seeker after truth, who has explored the realms of knowledge, comes to Calvary and finds at last that he has reached the center. The weary heart of man that has wandered the world over in search of perfect sympathy and love, at last arrives here and finds rest.1

Understanding the meaning of the cross of Christ provides our most profound knowledge of God. The cross displays divine love. If Jesus were merely a man, then the cross represents only human love. Knowing that the divine Son of God died gives power and meaning to Jesus’ death. Jesus’ resurrection assures us he is God.

He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10)* and to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). As the good shepherd, he willingly laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 18).

Established the New Covenant

Jesus’ death established the covenant. As believers we enter into this new covenant with God, accepting the terms God has laid down. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

When we partake of Communion, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Leon Morris says,

We proclaim to others and to ourselves our deep conviction that the Lord’s death is central. It is by that death alone that our sins are put away and that we are brought into right relationship with God. Our participation is a pledge that we, whose covenant with God has been established at such cost, will live in a manner befitting the covenant.2

Restores Our Relationship with God

Sin puts up a barrier and alienates us from God. As sinful human beings, we could never remove our guilt. A righteous God could not overlook sin and say a sinner has not sinned. God demands payment to satisfy his wrath against sin. God acted to remove the barrier alienating us from him, thus making possible peace and friendship again with God.

Christ’s death is the basis for the putting away of God’s wrath.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins (Romans 3:23-25).

The penalty for sin had to be paid. Christ died to pay our penalty. “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). For the believer in Christ, the terrible wrath of God against sin has been removed.

Provides Forgiveness of Sins

Love motivated God to act.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we, be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:8-11).

A little girl heard the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. She blurted out, “Well, if God had been there he wouldn’t let that happen.” But in fact, God was in Christ reconciling us to himself. The Sinless One became the sin offering for sinners (2 Corinthians 5:19-21). He became a substitute sacrifice “for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3), taking our rightful penalty. He tasted death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).

“Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). Believers have been made holy “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). No other sacrifice for sin will ever be needed (Hebrews 10:14, 18). Forgiveness can be found only through the death of the Son of God.

Provides Access to the Presence of God

Through Christ’s death we gain access to the very presence of God.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-22).

After Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn . . . from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51), signifying our direct access to God. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteousness for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). We live in his presence.

Deliverance from Slavery to Sin

Redemption in the first-century world meant setting the captive free, often achieved by means of a ransom, money paid to secure the release of a prisoner of war or a slave. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7, New American Standard Bible) delivering us from bondage.

We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). “His own blood” purchased the church of God (Acts 20:28) and secured “an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

R.C. Sproul states, “He went to his death with no outward evidence of any known disease. But the cumulative pain of every disease was laid upon him. He bore in his body the ravages of every evil, every sickness, every pain known to the human race.”3 While Jesus’ death was a heinous, murderous crime, God worked in this event to make salvation available to us. We will never comprehend all that Jesus experienced in carrying the weight of all sins ever committed in human history. But we believe “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

Defeat of the Devil and Death

The death of Jesus defeated death. “Through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14, 15). Through Christ’s resurrection, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

Christ suffered so that we would not suffer forever. Jesus emerged through suffering as the author of our salvation (Hebrews 2:9-18). Divine suffering puts a new face on human suffering. If the sinless Son of God experienced suffering, why do we think we should be exempt from suffering in this life? We must take up the cross and follow him (Luke 9:23).

Gives New Life

Seth Wilson explains,

God declares that Christ died for my sins. I must accept his death as the evidence of God’s love. I must accept his death as God’s provision for my own death as the sentence I deserve and turn my own life over to Jesus. . . . He died my death, and it is no more my life that I live, but Christ lives in me.4

“And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Accepting Christ’s death as our own, we are buried in baptism into his death, then raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-6).

Martin Luther wrote, “The cross teaches us to believe in hope even when there is no hope. The wisdom of the cross is hidden deeply in a profound mystery. In fact, there is no other way to heaven than taking up the cross of Christ.”5

Alister McGrath shows the powerful relevance of the cross,

God entered into our suffering and dying world in order to bring it newness of life. Those outside Christianity need to learn—need to be told about—its relevance and power for the tragic situation of humanity. . . . A symbol of hope in the midst of a world of death and suffering? Yes! A symbol of a God who is with us in this dark world, and beyond? Yes! In short, the cross stands for a hope that is for real, in a world that is for real. But that world will pass away, while that hope will remain for eternity.6


1 James Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: A Classic Devotional History of Our Lord’s Passion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1950 [1894]), 96.

2 Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning & Significance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983), 42.

3 R.C. Sproul, Surprised by Suffering (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1988), 28.

4 Seth Wilson, Learning From Jesus (Joplin: College Press, 1977), 497.

5 Martin Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation” quoted in Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 9.

6 Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing On the Cross? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 117, 118.

*Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated.


Lynn Gardner has written Where Is God When We Suffer?, soon to be released by College Press, Joplin, Missouri. This article is an excerpt.

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