In our consideration of Jesus as our High Priest, we saw that His death is one of the key aspects of His priestly work. Christ’s death, Hebrews 9:11–28 explains, was a sacrifice offered “to put away sin.” We cannot understand the work of Christ unless we understand what happened in our Lord’s crucifixion.
As we consider the issue of our Lord’s atonement, let us note that Scripture describes what the crucifixion accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, the death of Jesus is described as the ransom paid to God to free us from our bondage to sin and also as the defeat of Satan (Mark 10:45; Col. 2:13–15). Christ even describes His death as the supreme illustration of His love for His friends (John 15:13). However, while we should not forget how the atonement is these things, we must emphasize that the chief reality of the atonement is that it was a penal substitution.
In penal substitution, the penalty that is due to us for our transgression is paid by a substitute, namely, Jesus Christ. The principle of penal substitution undergirds the old covenant sacrificial system. God told Adam that the penalty for sin was death (Gen. 2:16–17). In the old covenant sacrifices, the people placed their hands on the sacrificial animals, thereby identifying with them, and then the animals were put to death (see Lev. 4). This depicted the transfer of sin and guilt from the sinner to the substitute. The sinner could live because the animal died in the sinner’s place, bearing the punishment the sinner deserved.
But since “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), the animal sacrifices of the old covenant did not effect true atonement. They were types and shadows that pointed to the only true atoning sacrifice, which was offered once for all on Calvary by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (vv. 5–18). This final and only effective act of penal substitution was foreshadowed by the entire old covenant sacrificial system and explicitly predicted in Isaiah 53. The prophet tells us that God laid on the Suffering Servant (Christ) our iniquity (Isa. 53:6)—our sin was transferred to Him in the atonement. He was pierced and crushed for our iniquities, “cut off out of the land of the living . . . for the transgression of my people” (vv. 4–5, 8). In other words, Christ endured the punishment His people deserve in their place. If we trust in Him alone for salvation, we need not fear eternal death, for Jesus bore our sin on the cross so that we will not receive everlasting judgment (v. 10; John 3:16).