Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Obedience

Posted by: Stephen J. Wellum

In my previous post, “The Glory of the Cross,” I noted the difficulty of trying to capture all that our Lord Jesus achieved for us, given that the Scriptural presentation of the cross is so rich and multifaceted. In that post, I argued that the theological view of penal substitution best accounts for what the cross is centrally about; namely, that Christ Jesus went to the cross as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin to bring about our eternal redemption.

In this and subsequent posts, I want to go back and think through all the ways Scripture presents the glory of the cross. My goal in doing so is not only to think through how the Bible portrays the cross as a beautiful gem that can be looked at from many angles, but also to demonstrate that penal substitution best accounts for the richness of the Bible’s teaching. Again, the true biblical test of any theology is whether it accounts for all of the biblical data. It is my contention that penal substitution does exactly this.

Though in making this claim I stand with the Reformation and historic evangelical theology, sadly there are many today even within evangelical theology who deny, or relegate such a doctrine to the periphery. They claim that penal substitution is reductionistic in its handling of the biblical data, or even that it distorts Scripture since it views the cross through the lens of only one or two biblical images. What is needed, we are told, is an openness to multiple perspectives, rather than reduce the Bible’s multi-colored presentation of the atonement to a lifeless, boring monochrome.

Obviously these charges against penal substitution are serious and cannot be ignored. No Christian who loves the Bible and is committed to sola scriptura wants to neglect any portion of God’s Word in our understanding of the cross. To be biblical entails that we listen to all of Scripture, not just one portion of it. Theology must always avoid reductionism; no biblical evidence is allowed to to be de-emphasized or eliminated in our thinking about the cross. 

Is Penal Substitution Reductionist?

In light of these charges we must ask ourselves—are proponents of penal substitution actually guilty of reductionism? Does our insistence on the preeminence of this doctrine eliminate the richness of Scripture in thinking about the cross? There are at least two reasons to answer in the negative. 

First, when one considers all the rich and diverse language of Scripture in regards to the cross, set as it is within the biblical framework of God, humans, and sin, we see that only penal substitution best accounts for all of the data. We will see why this is so over the next couple of blogs.

Second, as diverse as the biblical description of the cross is, it is important to keep in mind that diversity of words and images does not necessarily lead to divergence. Rather, what is striking about the Bible’s diverse presentation of the cross is how interconnected its words, imagery, and concepts are. As we will discover, Scripture gives us at least eight ways of thinking about the cross: obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice/justification, conquest/victory, and moral example. Yet none of these themes, especially when placed in the Bible’s covenantal categories, are isolated or random. In fact, what we discover is that they are intertwined with each other. It is simply not the case that the Bible’s diverse teaching about the cross obscures its meaning. Rather, taking into account the entire Bible’s description of the cross more clearly and fully brings to light the cross’s meaning. 

For example, think of Romans 3:21–26. In this one paragraph we find diverse language about the cross—righteousness/justice, redemption, and propitiation—and yet all of it is to be understood under the larger presentation that Christ’s cross is the better new covenant sacrifice (Rom. 3:21). Or, think of Colossians 2:14–15. This wonderful text brings together judicial and conquest images, but it does so by locating the victory of Christ in his payment of sin set within covenantal demand and provision. Or, think of Hebrews 2:14–17. Here the entire person and work of Christ is set within the context of Adam/last Adam, obedience, conquest, new creation, and Christ as our great high priest who acts as our representative and substitute. Later in Hebrews, Christ’s death is viewed in light of the biblical covenants, as the fulfillment and antitype of the Levitical sacrifices, and as the inauguration of the new covenant. Or, think of Galatians 3:10–13, a text set within the context of covenantal shifts from old to new covenant. The assumed logic being that under the old covenant, everyone was under God’s curse since no one could offer the perfect obedience God required of his image-bearers and covenant members. But Christ, the incarnate Son, who is perfectly righteous, died in our place, bearing the curse we deserved, and rescuing us from sin, death, and God’s judgment.

With these preliminary observations in mind, let us now turn to the Bible’s interconnected description of the cross to discover how only penal substitution best accounts for the biblical teaching. We begin with the word, “obedience.”


This word/concept expresses Christ’s perspective of the cross and why he sovereignly chooses to lay down his life for our salvation (John 10:14–18; Heb. 10:5–7; 12:2). As such, it is one of the words that Scripture uses to explain the meaning of Christ’s cross. As a word, it is primarily developed in three places (Rom. 5:19; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8–9). As a concept, it can be found throughout the New Testament—e.g., the servant theme (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28; see Isa. 42:1; 52:13–53:12); the purpose of Jesus’ coming to do his Father’s will (John 5:30; 10:18; 12:49; Heb. 10:5–10; see Ps. 40:7); the perfected in suffering theme (Heb. 2:10–18; 5:8–10); and Christ’s submission to the law as our covenant representative (Matt. 3:15; Luke 2:51-52; Gal. 4:1–4).

To grasp the full significance of Christ’s obedience, we must place his work within the Bible’s overall storyline. In fact, Romans 5 does precisely this. Here Paul sets Christ’s obedience that leads to our justification (5:18) over against Adam’s disobedience that leads to humanity’s condemnation before God (5:12–14, 18–21). Adam is presented as the covenant head and legal representative of humanity who, by his disobedience, has put all humanity under the penalty of death, both spiritually and physically (Gen. 2:15–17; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Thankfully our Lord Jesus Christ, the last Adam, is the new covenant head of his people, and by his obedient life and death, has paid the penalty of our sin and secured our justification (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:18–21). Our Lord, then, by his obedient, representative life (active obedience) and substitutionary death (passive obedience), pays our penalty and secures our legal standing before God. Why must he do so? Because “in Adam,” we are condemned, and what we need is perfect covenant obedience rendered for us before God. 

As we turn to Hebrews 5, we see similar truths, yet now from a “priestly” perspective. In Hebrews, one cannot think about Christ’s obedience apart from his incarnation and identification with us as the last Adam (Heb. 2:5–18; see use of Ps. 8) for the purpose of dying for us as our great high priest (Heb. 2:17–18; 5–10). When we link Romans 5 and Hebrews 5 together, we see how both texts emphasize Christ’s obedient life and death by linking together God’s covenantal relationship to us, the need for an obedient covenant-keeper, the priestly work of Christ who offers himself as apropitiation for our sins, and Christ as our legal representative and penal substitute. These same truths are also taught when we link these specific “obedience” texts with texts that emphasize the “concept” of obedience. For example, think of the texts that stress Christ’s willing and glad submission to his Father’s will (John 5:30; Heb. 10:5–10), by coming under the requirements of the law-covenant, and obeying the law for us as our covenant head (Gal. 4:4) in order to save us from our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).

Though the obedience theme is only one way Scripture helps us think about the cross, it is a crucial theme that places Christ’s work in the context of the entire canon of Scripture. When the word/concept is properly placed within the Bible’s unfolding covenantal story, the best explanation of the meaning of the cross is that our Lord Jesus has obeyed for us as our covenant head and died for us as our penal substitute. In subsequent posts we will develop the other ways the Bible describes the cross, but as we’ve hopefully seen, obedience is a crucial place to begin.

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