When I was a young boy, I used to sit with my grandfather and watch Matlock. The show was about a folksy, small-town lawyer (played by Andy Griffith) who got his clients acquitted, not merely on some legal technicality, but by revealing the real culprit in dramatic fashion in the courtroom. This move was made even more pleasing by the fact that Matlock did not look like a high-powered, big-city lawyer. He wore the same (cheap) light-gray suit in every episode, often with mustard on the lapel, and he spoke with a molasses-covered drawl. In a word, this advocate seemed unimpressive.
So, too, on Calvary. The New Testament refers to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit as our Advocates (John 14:16; 1 John 2:1). The term has many meanings, but one refers to how Christ’s work on our behalf has removed the Accuser’s legal accusation against us. In our case, this “not guilty” verdict is not because we’ve never sinned. It is because the penalty has been paid, the judgment has been carried out, and the prosecutor (Satan) no longer has a case.
Because Jesus took up our humanity (see chapter 2 of How Jesus Saves) and justly bore our judgment (see chapter 3), the Accuser’s accusations no longer have merit. The book of Hebrews says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (2:14). That’s why Jesus’s death on the cross breaks Satan’s legal power. The cheirographon (Col. 2:14) that signified our debt has been paid in full, so the sleazy lawyer has been hurled out of court. Not even Matlock could orchestrate such an unexpected acquittal!
The book of Revelation makes the same point. There the author hears a loud voice from the throne announcing the good news: God’s people have “triumphed” by “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11). Therefore, “the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down” (10b).
In sum, Jesus’s faithful life and sacrificial blood bring the defeat of Satan because they remove his ability to call for still more judgment on Christ’s body—which is us.
This matters for the way you view your past, your present, and your future. Your sin is serious. Make no mistake about it. But you don’t have to listen to the accusatory voice when it says you’ve gone too far to be forgiven. The conviction Satan calls for has already been served. And if you give your allegiance to King Jesus, then the Spirit (the other Advocate) now dwells in you—testifying that you are God’s beloved child. What’s more, this same Spirit is working to transform you on the path of holiness. Satan’s enslaving power has been thwarted. That’s why Revelation pictures the slain Lamb atop the victor’s throne. By his sacrificial death Christ “purchased” with his “blood . . . persons from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). The crucifixion drives the nail in Satan’s coffin. Hence the cross is spoken of as Christ’s instrument of exorcism, through which “the prince of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).
Where Cross and Kingdom Meet
Of course, Calvary is not the only battlefield in Christ’s triumph. One subset of Christians (often, conservative evangelicals) has been so eager to exalt the cross that they sometimes fail to appreciate how every chapter in Christ’s story contributes to God’s coming kingdom. Meanwhile, another group (often, progressives) have been so quick to emphasize kingdom service—helping widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—that they overlook the singular event of the cross as more than just a loving example. As is often the case in our polarized culture, both sides need to be corrected. The kingdom and the cross belong together. For as Jeremy Treat argues: “The kingdom is the ultimate goal of the cross, and the cross is the means by which the kingdom comes.”*
There’s a reason Jesus’s saving death did not take place just after his birth, when the wicked King Herod was killing Jewish babies (Matt. 2:16). For while the cross stands at the center of gospel preaching (1 Cor. 2:2), it does not stand alone—as if all the important parts of redemption have been covered in the Apostles’ Creed, when it skips from Jesus being “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The stuff in the middle matters too. Long before the empty tomb, Christ’s work was couched in terms of a kingdom-building conquest.
In psychedelic fashion, the book of Revelation pictures Jesus’s birth as a scene of apocalyptic combat. There’s even a seven-headed dragon (Satan) waiting to devour the Christ-child, only to have the baby snatched away to safety (Rev. 12:1–6). From this vantage point, Christmas is less a silent sentimental night, and more a violent cosmic contest.
The war continues in Jesus’s public ministry. Christ’s obedience in the face of wilderness temptation is a triumph that contrasts with the failures of both Adam and Israel. His healings reveal a Holy One who is eradicating the forces of death even while he lived. And his casting out of demons shows him driving the Evil One from his stronghold not just in creation, but in the human body itself. To be Israel’s Messiah was not just to make religious claims about God, morality, and salvation, it was to fight the ultimate cage fight against Israel’s true Enemy: not merely Babylon or Rome, but Satan himself.
Each page of the Gospels tells the Christus victor story in multiple dimensions. Yet at each turn the victories are paradoxical. Jesus is clearly pictured as the great Davidic king, the long-awaited Messiah who will restore God’s suffering people. Yet he is most like David not in the bloody beatdown of his foes, but in a kingship marked by tears, abandonment, allegations of insanity, and ultimately a raspy cry from the cross that is a quote from Israel’s suffering psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46).
But the story doesn’t end there. Easter also sings the song of Christus victor. After all, few moves carry more swagger than the ability to mount a comeback over death, walk boldly from a borrowed tomb, and live forever in a body that no longer experiences the results of human fallenness. Old Alexamenos really would have been a fool if his Lord had simply remained there dead upon on the cross. Without the resurrection, our faith would be futile, and we would still be stuck in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Thankfully, both the empty tomb and Christ’s ascension to the throne of heaven chant a common chorus: Christus victor!
Putting It All Together: A Satisfying Atonement Doctrine
The radical nature of the solution reveals the true depths of our predicament. But because Jesus is the true Adam and true Israel, he can faithfully represent us and even bear the judgment we deserved. That’s why the cross becomes an instrument of victory: Sin’s debt has been paid and Satan’s accusations no longer have power over us.
Jesus saves because he triumphs over death and the devil. Yet he does so in the most surprising way: He wins by losing. He conquers by his own knockout. And his cross becomes the wood for a King’s throne. Yet this strange victory is not some bit of metaphorical nonsense. It is not the same as me leaning over my concussed friend at the cage fight and saying, “Good news, man; you won!” Christ’s victory is real.
In fact, it was foretold as far back as Genesis 3. There we find the “first gospel”—the protoevangelium. God tells Adam and Eve that the woman’s offspring will one day crush the serpent’s head, even as the deadly serpent simultaneously strikes the servant’s “heel” (Gen. 3:15). The prophesy is of a double deathblow, a conquest that involves the victor’s fatal piercing. That strange triumph happens on the cross, and in every moment of Christ’s ministry.
This is an excerpt from How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People by Joshua McNall. In both the book and accompanying videos, McNall addresses this great Christian doctrine with simplicity without sacrificing the nuance this topic demands.
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In these pages you will:
- Come to understand the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection
- Engage with a book that is highly readable and written in ordinary language
- Appreciate the goodness, beauty, and truth of God vis-a-vis atonement doctrine
*Jeremy R. Treat, “Exaltation in and through Humiliation: Rethinking the States of Christ,” in Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 114.