Jesus’ Unfinished “Finished Work”

By David Servant

Although Jesus declared from His cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), He was not referring to His work of salvation. The reason we can be certain of that is because Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17, emphasis added). Clearly, Jesus’ resurrection had something to do with releasing us, in some way, from our sins. So, whatever He accomplished on the cross that had something to do with our sins, it was not everything.

So what was “it” that was finished with Jesus’ final breath? Scripture doesn’t say. It would seem reasonable to think that Jesus was referring to His suffering since one second after His final declaration, He died, and His spirit evacuated His body.

Another possibility is that Jesus was referring to all that had been foretold by the prophets in relationship to His earthly ministry and death, as we read just two verses before He declared “It is finished!” this commentary by John: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished [same Greek word as ‘finished’ in John 19:30], to fulfill the Scripture, said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28, emphasis added)

In any case, Jesus was not referring to His full work of salvation when He declared “It is finished!” because His resurrection also played an essential part in our salvation.

Of course, Scripture informs us that Jesus “bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24, emphasis added), that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3, emphasis added), that He “made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20, emphasis added), and that God “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14, emphasis added). So, clearly, the complete atonement for our sins was accomplished on the cross. Jesus’ resurrection did not play any part in atoning for our sins. (Neither did Jesus suffer in hell to atone for our sins, as some have erroneously claimed.)

So, what part in our salvation did Jesus’ resurrection play?

Paul wrote, “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25, NASB).

Based on that verse, it is often said that Jesus’ resurrection proved that His suffering and His (temporary) death were sufficient atonement. Our sin-debt was “paid in full,” and Jesus’ resurrection proved it. But that, of course, is not what the text actually says. That is an interpretation of what the text says.

That particular interpretation often leads to the idea that salvation was fully accomplished on the cross, which implies that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t actually essential for our salvation. Yet Paul believed that if Jesus had not been raised, we are “still in our sins.” For that reason, there must be more to what Paul was saying in Romans 4:25.

If you read some translations of Romans 4:25, you don’t get the impression that Jesus was raised because of an unchangeable accomplished legal fact (“our justification”) but that He was raised so we might live a righteous lifestyle. The Greek word translated “justification” by the NASB in Romans 4:25 (dikaiosis) is often translated in different forms as “righteous.” For example, in 1 John 3:7 we read: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness [dikaiosune] is righteous [dikaios], just as He is righteous” [dikaios]. Note also that the KJV, for example, says, “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” That second clause could be interpreted to mean that Jesus was raised for (that is, making possible) our righteousness (that is, a lifestyle of righteousness).

What I am saying is that Jesus was raised, not to prove that His sufferings were sufficient to make us permanently and legally right in God’s eyes regardless of how we live, but so that we could live righteously by virtue of the fact that He has been resurrected in all who believe in Him. As Paul told the Galatian believers, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Of course, the reason Christ lives in believers is not to be a spiritual hitchhiker, but to make them holy, like Him!

Your baptism was designed to reveal this to you. Paul wrote:

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so that we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:4-6, emphasis added).

And that is why Jesus’ resurrection is essential for our salvation from sin. It is also why, if Jesus had not been resurrected, we would still be “in our sins”—because we would not have the power of the Holy Spirit within us to enable us to live victoriously over sin. Notice Paul didn’t say, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still guilty for your sins.” That would make Jesus’ resurrection part of His atonement for our sins. Rather, Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins,” that is, your life is still characterized by sin.

What I am suggesting certainly harmonizes well with the rest of the New Testament, whereas the idea that Christ’s resurrection only proves Jesus’ sufferings were sufficient, and the subsequent conclusion which often follows—that His sufferings provide for an unchangeable forgiven state for all past, present and future sins of those who allegedly believe in Him—certainly does not harmonize with the rest of the New Testament.

When professing Christians cling to the strange idea that they are righteous by virtue of Christ’s death regardless of how they live their lives, they leave out at least half of the gospel, the part that includes Jesus’ resurrection—which makes possible a righteous life. Note Paul’s explanation of the most fundamental points of the gospel:

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:1-8, emphasis added).

Did you notice Paul’s gospel included the fundamental, “of first importance” facts of both Jesus’ death for our sins and His resurrection, and that He mentioned the latter about five times more than the former? And did you notice that he believed, in contrast to many modern professing Christians, that ultimate salvation requires believers to “hold fast” to their faith, which indicates that he did not believe that Jesus’ death somehow guarantees ultimate salvation for everyone who might initially believe in Him by virtue of an alleged permanent, legal righteousness that is made possible by His sufferings? No, Paul believed that believers should continually “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) through their ongoing obedience.

All of this is to say that, when professing Christians speak about “Jesus’ finished work on the cross” (a phrase you won’t find in the New Testament), and in such a way that makes it sound as if Jesus’ saving work was fully accomplished on the cross and that His resurrection only served to verify that fact, they pervert the gospel, as they make Jesus’ resurrection a non-essential part of salvation. That is a grave error indeed, and one that requires the burial of scores of New Testament scriptures that plainly indicate that “if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13), as well as the fact that Jesus “became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9).

Jesus is risen! And He is risen within all who believe in Him! That is what it means to be “born again”! If you are truly born again, the old person died when you repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Now you are a “new creation”! (1 Cor. 5:17). Continue in your faith! (Col. 1:22-23).