The resurrection of Jesus Christ is gospel truth, but by itself, the resurrection is not the gospel. Although it proved God’s victory over death, it did not take away our sins.
This is where the crucifixion comes in. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes that saving event by saying that the Lord Jesus Christ:
“Gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4).
This verse teaches four important things about the cross of Christ.
1. The willingness of the cross
The crucifixion was a voluntary self-sacrifice. Jesus gave the most precious gift of all. He “gave himself” (Gal. 1:4). He“gave himself up” (Eph. 5:25), or he “gave himself for us” (Titus 2:14). No one took Christ’s life away from him; he freely gave it away: “I lay down my life”—Jesus said—“that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17–18). This is also emphasized in the gospel of Matthew, where an unusual phrase is used to show that at the moment of his death Jesus “yielded up his spirit” (Matt. 27:50).
2. The purpose of the cross
The reason Christ gave himself away was “for our sins” (Gal. 1:4). A transaction took place on the cross. We were the ones who deserved to die because we owe God an infinite debt for our sin. But Christ took our place on the cross. He became our substitute, our sin-offering. He gathered up all our sins, put them on his own shoulders, and paid for them with his death. Thus the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was not merely an example of supreme sacrifice, but an actual atonement for sin.
It enabled God to forgive us by satisfying his pure justice. We learn from this substitutionary atonement how impossible it is to pay for our own sins. Full atonement requires nothing less than the blood of Jesus Christ, the very God. Our confidence lies in the fact that Jesus gave his lifeblood for our own personal sins.
3. The effect of the cross
Christ was crucified “to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). When we think of the cross, we usually think first of the atonement. As we have seen, Christ died to pay for our sins. But Christ was also crucified to emancipate us from this evil age. The gospel is a rescue, like being released from servitude or freed from prison.
Ours is an age of corruption, decay, and death. It is dominated by the evils of war, murder, oppression, slavery, incest, and abortion. Jesus died on the cross to save us from all of it, not just individually, but together, as a new humanity. Even though we continue to live in this evil realm, we are being rescued from it through the cross. The age to come has burst into the present age. We ourselves no longer have to live the way we used to live when we were under the power of evil. Already we are beginning to live the life of the age to come, when God’s will is always done. When we pray—as we do in the Lord’s Prayer—that God would “deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13), we are asking God to finish the work Christ began to do on the cross.
4. The origin of the cross
Christ died “according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). The execution of Jesus of Nazareth was not an unforeseen tragedy, a mere accident of history; it was part of God’s plan for the salvation of sinners.The apostle Peter said as much to the very men who nailed Jesus to the cross. In his famous sermon in Jerusalem, he declared, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
The cross had been in God’s mind from all eternity. Thus it demonstrates the love of God as well as the love of Christ. There could be no conflict within the Trinity, as if a loving Son had to rescue us from an angry Father. On the contrary, the willingness of the Son was in response to the Father’s will. The Father does not love us because the Son died for us. Rather, the Son died for us because the Father loves us. The cross had its origin in our Father’s heart.
This article is adapted from Galatians (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Philip Graham Ryken