“When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.” And bowing His head, He yielded up His spirit.” (John 19:30, ESV)
The words “it is finished” are universally recognized as those Jesus uttered with His last bit strength at Golgotha. Often taken for granted as merely a signal of the end of Jesus’ earthly mission, those three little words ought to be a never-ending wellspring of comfort for Christians in every generation. They are evidence that something big was completed. Anyone within hearing distance of the famous last words of Jesus (a single word in the Greek, tetelestai) would have recognized them as those commonly used on a receipt to indicate the full payment of a debt; a ransom had been paid.
Upon speaking these words, Jesus satisfied the wrath of God and wholly bore the sins of His church. He secured an eternal salvation for His bride and made absolute the coming of His eternal glorious Kingdom – all of which was predestined from the foundation of the earth.
Puritan, Matthew Henry, rightly had this to say in his commentary about the moment Jesus spoke those words:
“It is finished; that is, the counsels of the Father concerning his sufferings were now fulfilled. It is finished; all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished. It is finished; the ceremonial law is abolished; the substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. It is finished; an end is made of transgression by bringing in an everlasting righteousness. His sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul, and those of his body. It is finished; the work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed.”
Yet, with all this grandeur and awe-inspiring theology, many Christians will read this and say – if not verbally, then logically: “Yes, this is true – when we add our faith.”
For them, Christ did not secure salvation for anyone on that terrible day, rather He only opened the door of salvation to be possible. The cross of Christ, while powerful, had no immediate salvific promise – only the hope thereof. While I will not deal with the logical fallacy of how Christ can die for all the sins of all men, yet some still go to hell, I do want to point out two very different interpretations of the effectual application of Jesus’s sacrifice and how we understand what was finished on the cross.
One viewpoint (of which I’m an advocate), says salvation for the elect was completely secured and fully accomplished on the cross. The Sovereignty and power of almighty God has only to grant saving faith to those whom He has already purchased, according to the purpose and counsel of His will. Because the souls have already been purchased, this will undoubtedly happen. Those bought by the blood of The Lamb will respond to the call of their God and trust their Savoir. We remain dead in our sin until God makes us alive with Him and grants us saving faith to receive the gift of grace waiting for us. Those famous last words were the sealing of something so permanent and sure that the cosmos knelt in response after Jesus said them.
The other says, salvation, while previously impossible, is now possible. The great chasm of death has been crossed, and Jesus waits, calling all to repent. Those wise enough to heed Jesus’ request of faith, respond with their free will and complete the atonement. For the individual believer, any effectual application of the “It is finished” is directly tied to the acceptance of it. Meaning, the the cross of Jesus is entirely disconnected as an agent of influence upon regeneration. The event is powerless until someone decides it to be true.
To me, this latter viewpoint makes the death of Jesus to amount to little more than an elaborate, well-meaning, open-ended wedding invitation.
I really struggle to understand how anyone who holds to penal substitutionary atonement can believe that Jesus death/sacrifice is not salvific (especially, outside the scope of time) until a human response is given. Can the temporal control the fate of the eternal? Can the vile control where/how the saving grace of God is applied? Must we complete the work He said already He finished? Stated so plainly it makes even less sense. If your soteriology clenches to this view, then Jesus’ finished achievements at Golgotha are vague at best.
For these, it’s hard to say much more was accomplished than hope. A hope, that is, that some will accept Jesus into their hearts and complete the work which He began. If that wording sounds familiar, it’s because I borrowed language from Philippians 1:6 to highlight some irony. The verse reads: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
The truth of the matter is as Jonathan Edwards once said, “the only thing you contribute to your salvation is the sin which made it necessary.” We must never elevate our humanity, influence, and good will over that of Christ’s.
Remember, Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). It starts, progresses, and ends with Him. When Jesus said, “It is finished” that’s exactly what it was – finished. I am convinced that every drop of Jesus’ blood accomplished the task it set out to do – nothing was spilled in vain. Jesus’ death not an act of potential, but of categorical absoluteness. His Bride has been washed clean and Jesus is bringing her to Himself. As Jesus said in John 6, “all those that the Father has given I’ve lost none.” Nothing will prevent the Lord from taking His bride! Those last words spoken by Jesus, though brief, offer every Christian a great deal of comfort as the redemption of the God’s people, His church, is perfected. Rejoice in that!
In closing, I ask you: As you understand the atonement, what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Your answer says much about your view of humanity, the cross, the church, and the person of Jesus.