Was our redemption accomplished on the cross or at the resurrection?

by Luke Wayne

The central importance of Jesus' triumphant resurrection from the dead cannot be overstated. But it was three days earlier, when He shed His blood on the cross, that He accomplished our redemption and paid the once-for-all price for the sins of all who believe. Both the cross and the empty tomb are absolutely central to the Christian faith, indeed to all of human history, but as to the specific question of when God's elect were redeemed, it was Jesus' sacrificial death that accomplished this.

The Cross and our Redemption from Sin

Throughout the New Testament, it is clearly stated again and again that our sin was dealt with once and for all on the cross. Paul, for example, writes to the Galatians:

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,'" (Galatians 3:13).

Christ redeemed us from our legal guilt according to God's law by becoming a curse on our behalf. When did He do that? When He was hung upon a "tree" (i.e., the cross).  Paul makes this point even more clear in his letter to the Colossians, not only writing:

"For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven," (Colossians 1:19-20).

But then further expounding this point:

"When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross," (Colossians 2:13-14).

God "made peace" through the blood of the cross. There He canceled our certificate of debt by nailing it to the cross. It is through the cross that He has "forgiven us all our transgressions." As Paul likewise said to the Romans:

"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed," (Romans 3:23-25).

Peter similarly writes:

"knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ," (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Peter teaches that we were redeemed by Jesus' blood, like the sacrificial offering of a lamb without blemish (i.e., a sin offering on our behalf). He further explains his point in the next chapter:

"and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed," (1 Peter 2:24).

John tells us in Revelation that even the heavenly hosts praise Jesus for purchasing (i.e., redeeming) people for God by His blood (i.e., on the cross):

"Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation," (Revelation 5:9).

Even Jesus Himself declared His work of redemption to be finished at the moment of His death, as we read in John's gospel:

"Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, 'It is finished!' And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit," (John 19:30).

Through these and many other like passages, the New Testament makes clear that our redemption was fully accomplished, once and for all, on the cross.

He was raised for our justification

Some will object here, however, that Paul also states that our justification (and thus our redemption) was accomplished at the resurrection rather than the cross. For example, in most translations, we read in Romans 4:

"who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification," (Romans 4:25, ESV).

When it says that Jesus was raised "for our justification," they take this to mean that Jesus' resurrection is what accomplished our justification. This, however, is not what the verse actually says. The word "for" here is a translation of the great preposition "dia," which means "on account of." He was delivered up on account of our transgressions and was raised on account of our justification. He was not delivered up in order to produce or bring about our transgressions. No, He was delivered unto death because we had already transgressed. Likewise, He was not raised from the dead to produce or bring about our justification. He was raised because He had already accomplished it. This is why the NASB translates the passage a bit more clearly: 

"He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification," (Romans 4:25, NASB).

Jesus' death dealt with our legal sin-debt fully and finally. Having thus overcome sin and death, Jesus returned to life. How could He not? Death could no longer hold Him! He had defeated death itself by dying! As Augustine once wrote regarding Christ's sacrifice:

"For He came down and died, and by that death delivered us from death. Being slain by death, He slew death...He endured death, then; but he hung death on the cross, and mortal men are now delivered from death," (Augustine, Lectures on the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Sections 10-11).

Thus, the resurrection is the result of His defeating death, which He did by paying for sin (which is the source of death). The resurrection, then, is the necessary proof that Jesus really did fully and finally accomplish redemption on the cross! As John Calvin wrote when commenting on this very passage in Romans, "the completeness of his favor appears more clear by his coming to life again."1 The New Testament itself explains:

"But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power," (Acts 2:24).

The grave could not keep Jesus. It was impossible. The agony of death met its end. Why? Precisely because the cross had undone sin and, in doing so, defeated death forever. Paul likewise clarifies this later in Romans, saying:

"Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God," (Romans 6:8-10).

Paul makes it clear that it was Jesus' death that dealt the final blow to sin. "For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all." Yet, because of this, Christ was raised immortal, never to die again! A Christ whose body never returns to life would be no Christ at all. It would prove that His death had not paid for sin and that He had saved no one. For this reason, Paul can write: 

"and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins," (1 Corinthians 15:17).

His death paid the price for sin. Sin being undone, death was defeated. Death being defeated, Jesus could not stay dead. Without both the cross and the empty tomb, there is no Christianity. Yet, this does not contradict the fact that it was actually Christ's death that redeemed us.





  • 1. John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 4:25