Whose Place Did Jesus Take on the Cross?


Jesus’ death on the cross is part of the foundation of our faith. Yet for an event so important and familiar, many have misconceptions about it. One common misconception is the idea that Jesus died in our place or in our stead. We sometimes hear the terminology that calls this sacrifice the vicarious death of Christ. Vicarious simply means a substitute. This is the idea that many have – Jesus died in our place as a substitute for us.

Let us notice a common illustration that is used to emphasize the presumed vicarious nature of Christ’s sacrifice. [I say this is a common illustration because I have personally heard it, or something very close to it, used on multiple occasions by gospel preachers from the pulpit.] The illustration goes something like this: You are a defendant in a court of law and, being found guilty, are sentenced to pay some outrageous fine that you could never be able to pay. Since you cannot pay, you are going to be sent to prison. Then someone you do not know steps forward and agrees to pay the debt for you. He takes your place. It is as if he was the one who committed the offense because the punishment for your offense fell on him. Your debt is transferred to and paid by him. As a result, you are free.

The parable described above is used to depict Jesus as one who willingly took our place and acted as a substitute for us. The punishment we were due for our sin, He endured. We are thus free from the penalty for sin. This is a heart-warming metaphor. But as we shall see, it is not Biblical.

Jesus Did Not Take Your Place On The Cross

There is one glaring problem with the metaphor. For the parallel to be made between the illustration above and the sacrifice of Christ, the penalty Jesus received would have to have been the penalty we would have received without His sacrifice. Otherwise, it would not be a substitution. Did Jesus die in our place, thus suffering the penalty for our sins? Paul said, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Did Jesus suffer the death that comes as a payment, or wage, for sin? If He died in our stead, He would have. He would have received the wages of sin – death.

What type of death is being talked about in Romans 6:23? Biblically, there are two ways in which one can die – physically and spiritually. Will either of these fit with the idea that Jesus died in our stead? Did He die in our place physically? Or was He a substitute for us by suffering the spiritual death due us?

Let us first consider the idea of physical death. Jesus died on a cross outside Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). None of us faced that death. He did not take our place on a cross. If the particular physical death He endured was a substitute for anyone, it would be Barabbas (Matthew 27:16-26), not us. But this was not even a substitution. Barabbas was simply released instead of Jesus.

Perhaps the physical death of Jesus was just generally in place of us. We do not (did not) face the specific physical death Jesus did. So if His physical death was in place of ours, it would have to be so generally. Yet even after Jesus’ physical death, mankind continues to undergo physical death. Was Jesus’ death insufficient? If He died physically so that we would not have to die physically, then we would be forced to conclude that His death was insufficient.

The other option is spiritual death. This is the type of death that is under consideration in Romans 6:23. Sin results in separation from God and spiritual death (Isaiah 59:1-2; Ephesians 2:1, 5). Did Jesus take our place in this regard – dying spiritually so we would not have to? Separated from God? Torments after death? No, no, and no! Even if one chose to believe that Jesus was separated from God and went to torments after He died (though the Bible does not teach this), He would have only been there a few days. We stand to be there forever if we are not faithful to God. Is that equal punishment? No!

Jesus did not face the punishment we stand to face for our sins. He did not die physically as our substitute. Men still die physically. Nor did He die spiritually as our substitute. He did not die spiritually at all! He died physically, sacrificing His life, so we might not die spiritually. Is that a substitute? No! It is not the same death. So we are left with the question: Whose place did Jesus take on the cross?

Jesus Took HIS Place On The Cross

Jesus’ death was part of God’s eternal plan (Acts 2:23). From the beginning when sin first entered the world, prophecies were made about the coming and sacrifice of Christ (Genesis 3:15). Isaiah 53 prophesied of the suffering of the Messiah. David, in Psalm 22, mentioned specific details about the death of Christ. Jesus even referenced this psalm as He hung on the cross (Matthew 27:46). Many other prophecies throughout the Old Testament could also be listed.

In addition to Old Testament prophets, Jesus Himself spoke of His death. He told His disciples that “He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus told the multitude, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). The next verse tells us that Jesus was indicating, by this statement, the type of death He would die. He knew what was going to happen to Him.

Jesus came to earth to die on the cross in order to make salvation possible. A sacrifice was necessary because of man’s sins. Jesus was the only one qualified to make that sacrifice. He needed to go to the cross to atone for the sins of man. Jesus did not take my place on the cross. He did not take your place on the cross. He took His place on the cross.

Punishment For Sin

If Jesus died in our place, and His sacrifice was in fact perfect, then the logical conclusion is that we are free from the possibility of condemnation – we cannot be lost because the wrath of God has been eliminated. Not only that, but all mankind would be free from condemnation. Jesus died for the world (John 3:16). If in passages like Romans 5:8 (“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”), the “for” means “in the place of,” then He was the substitute who took away punishment for all men. Therefore, all would be saved; no one would be lost. But this is not the Biblical view regarding Jesus’ death. While His sacrifice was perfect and He died for the world, not all will be saved.

The Bible describes Jesus’ death as an atonement sacrifice (Romans 5:11). Atonement has to do with the restoring of relations between two parties – reconciliation. In relation to Jesus’ sacrifice, the two parties reconciled would be God and man. In fact, while the King James Version translates Romans 5:11 to say that through Christ’s death “we have now received the atonement,” the New American Standard translates the passage, “we have now received the reconciliation.” This was the type of sacrifice Christ made – an atoning sacrifice.

The concept of atonement is repeatedly used in the Old Testament. We can look there to help us comprehend the idea so we have a better understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. One passage to consider is Numbers 16:41-50. There we find that the people “grumbled against Moses and Aaron” because the people believed they were responsible for the deaths of those who rebelled against them (Numbers 16:41). As a result, the Lord became angry with the people and determined that He would “consume them instantly” (Numbers 16:45). So Moses told Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun!” (Numbers 16:46). Aaron followed Moses’ instructions “and ran into the midst of the assembly…and made atonement for the people” (Numbers 16:47). As a result of Aaron making atonement for the people, “the plague was checked” (Numbers 16:48).

With the example of the Israelites in Numbers 16, we have sin on the part of the people resulting in God’s wrath being poured out upon them. Aaron made atonement for the people and stopped the wrath of God. The people now had a second chance. The wrath of God had been delayed, but not eliminated. These people were still set to be punished if they were unfaithful to God. In fact, the majority of them were later punished. The Lord “made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the Lord was destroyed” (Numbers 32:13).

The parallel can easily be made between this and the sacrifice of Christ. First, we have sin on the part of mankind: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As a result of sin, “the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (Colossians 3:6). Romans 6:23 tells us, “The wages of sin is death.” In the face of God’s wrath for man’s sin, Christ came and made atonement for us. We now have a second chance. The reason why we know Christ’s death was an atonement sacrifice, and not a substitution, is that the wrath of God has not been eliminated, merely delayed. His wrath has been postponed so we might have time to “come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But if instead, “we go on sinning willfully,” we have only to look forward to “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).

Israel was still punished for their disobedience even though atonement had been made for them. In the same way, we too will be punished, despite the sacrifice of Christ, if we do not repent. Paul wrote to the saints in Rome and told them, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). God’s kindness was manifested when Christ atoned for our sins in His death. Yet He did not die in our place, thus eliminating the possibility of condemnation. He made salvation possible. If we reject His sacrifice, we are “storing up wrath for [ourselves] in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).

Let us rejoice and be thankful that the Lord made salvation possible to us. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). We have all sinned (Romans 3:23). We deserve punishment for our sin (Romans 6:23). But Christ came and made atonement for us to give us a second chance to be reconciled to God. Let us take advantage of this time to be faithful to the Lord so we can enjoy the salvation made possible by Christ’s sacrifice.

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  1. WONDERFUL!!!!! You would not believe what just happened and how God used this article to open my eyes! My husband and I lost our baby daughter 3 years ago when she was 6 weeks old. We have had to children since that time. I was raised in church all my life and have always heard that Jesus took my place on the cross. This evening while my 2 1/2 year old daughter was saying her prayers, she was talking in her prayer about Jesus dying on the cross and 3 days later the stone rolled away and Jesus went up to heaven…after that she stopped praying and asked me “Mom….did sissy die on the cross and then go to heaven?” My response was “No, Sissy did not have to die on the cross because Jesus did so in her place.” My daughter finished praying and went to sleep. I felt an unbelievably uneasy feeling about the words that I spoke to my daughter and did not know why b/c I truly thought I spoke the truth. I could not go to sleep and felt compelled to go to the computer and google it. When I did….this article came up and I read it and WOW!!!!! Amazing!!!! My eyes were opened to truth!!!! So thank you to whomever the vessel is that God used to teach me truth!!!!

  2. Ashley, I’m sorry for your loss. At the same time, I appreciate your attitude of wanting to search for the truth, even when it may be different than what we have previously heard or believed. May we all have that attitude and strive to grow everyday.

  3. It is even simpler than that. We receive the wages of sin–death. But God never intended for us to stay dead. But he needed justification to resurrect us. Jesus was it. He lived a sinless life and did not earn the wages of sin that he received. So God was justified in raising him up. But what about what Jesus lost sacrificing himself like that? God righteously restores all that is his to him, just like he did for Job. We believers are his because he is our king and we are his people. There is the justification–we belong to Jesus to whom all is righteously restored. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Some reject Jesus, so they are not his. They are resurrected as well, but they are judged and cast away into the lake of fire.

    As you say, Jesus did not take our place on the cross. He took the place in righteousness where we fall short. He is our righteousness substitute.

  4. Kurt, that’s an interesting thought. I don’t know that I’ve heard that angle on this before. But here are my initial thoughts:

    1. The wages of sin that we receive refers to spiritual death, not physical death. It sounds like you’re making your point under the assumption that the death in Romans 6:23 is physical death (though I could be interpreting your comment wrong). Physical death is a CONSEQUENCE of sin, but spiritual death is the PUNISHMENT (wages) for sin.

    2. What did Jesus lose when He sacrificed Himself that God needed to restore to Him? His earthly life? If so, this was only temporary as He later left the earth and ascended back to heaven. Or was it His spiritual life? We both agree that Jesus was sinless. So He did not face a spiritual punishment for sin, but suffered the physical death on the cross. If what was restored to Jesus refers to His place in heaven, then He lost this, not on the cross, but at His birth.

    I’ll have to chew on your comment a little more. But those were my first thoughts.

  5. I believe the death of Rom. 6:23, the wages of sin, is complete death, spiritual and physical–they just happen at two different times. And I believe the resurrection occurs similarly; spiritual “resurrection” at the time we are born again, and physical resurrection later. Spiritual and physical death is the wages of sin. Condemnation–eternity in the lake of fire–is the punishment. Punishment comes after judgment–that is the second death. Heb.9:27; Rev 20:5-6, 11-15.

    What Jesus lost was his kingdom. John 12. He was sent to be king, and people received him as such. But then he was crucified. We believers receive him as our king. He came to be king and was crucified instead. The kingdom is restored to him. He could have called legions of angels and held on to his kingdom, but God needed a sacrifice to justify the resurrection, so Jesus lost it all for the Father and for sinners, but God is restoring it to him. Acts 1:6

  6. Osvaldo Rivas says

    Dear Brother Andy; I just can say that this is an complete, but deep thought about Christ death. last night my older son was asking me abut this because he saw a video on the internet talking about Christ who was crucified instead of us, and I told them that this is not the way that Bible teach Jesus death on the cross; this article of course reinforce my understanding of this very important doctrine of the Bible. thank you for posting this excellent espiritual food.
    sincerelly and very respectfully:

    Osvaldo Rivas

  7. Osvaldo, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the article helpful.

  8. Larry DeVore says

    Excellent article, Andy. Worthy of serious consideration. The word propitiation is translated as “atoning sacrifice” in the NIV. I think that is correct. If Jesus died for me personally, then would He not only do that, but die another death for you, etc.?

  9. Thanks, Larry. There are many holes in the substitution theory of atonement. But many people have not considered it carefully.