Tetelestai. There have been volumes of pages written on this one Greek word spoken by our Lord from the Cross. Most translations render the word, “It is finished,” the text saying, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Yet, the word tetelestai was used in the ancient world to indicate full satisfaction of debts, and was stamped on receipts of debtors to indicate that the payment had been accepted, “paid in full.” When the Lord uttered that word, it was a declaration that the Father’s wrath was, at that moment, fully satisfied. This is because it was not the Roman cat-of-nine-tails or the nails or the asphyxiation that killed our Lord; the prophet Isaiah says, “He was beaten and scourged by God [i.e. the Father] for our crimes” (Isaiah 53:4b).
As a perfect tense verb, tetelestai denotes an action brought to its termination with continuing effects. The prophet Daniel recorded that the Messiah would be “cut off, but not for himself” (Daniel 9:26). Therefore, although this powerful verb has no subject, it cannot refer to only Him, merely His physical suffering being finished; rather, the word continues to ring out to the whole world – it is finished. The death of Jesus completely finished God’s redemptive work of salvation, God’s full wrath against sin having been exhausted on His Son and satisfying His perfect righteousness. There is nothing more to be done in order for every man, woman, and child to come to God “with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). The apostle says, “He has made him to be a sin offering for us, who knew no sin…” (2 Cor. 5:21). Adrian Rogers summed it up well saying:
“And, when He died on the cross all that is necessary for you to be saved was done. Don’t try to add your puny two bits worth of self-effort to what the Lord Jesus did on the cross.”1
Yet, this naturally leads to the question, but what about the resurrection? After all, the apostle Paul says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25), and further, “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). It first should be noted that the translation “for” in Romans 4:25 is a poor translation of the preposition διά (dia), but we will come to that later. The question itself, however, divides the crucifixion and the resurrection in such a way that Scripture does not warrant. The apostle Peter said it well in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23-24):
This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge… nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
The resurrection proves and validates that Jesus is who He claimed to be; He is truly “the Life” (John 14:6), and therefore, it was impossible for Him to remain dead. Although the end of Romans 4 says that the Lord “was raised to life for our justification,” the apostle continues in the next chapter saying, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9). The crux of the issue has to do with the related words “justify” and “justification.” The word δικαίωσις (dikaiosis) and the related word δικαιόω (dikaioo) from the same root have varying meanings, such as “to render a favorable verdict, vindicate… treat as just,” or “to demonstrate to be morally right, prove to be right.”2
It is this distinction that is seen in the words of Paul and in the words of James. Paul says in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law,” a clear monergistic view of salvation. James, however, says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), an apparent synergistic view of salvation. The Christian is declared righteous by God through faith, but shown to be righteous to others by works. In the same way, the Lord’s work on the cross is what makes us righteous (Romans 5:9), while the resurrection validates to us that we are indeed righteous (Romans 4:25).
Therefore, the NASB rendering of Romans 4:25 is best which translates the preposition διά (dia) “because of,” saying, “He was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” That is, because we had transgressed, the Father delivered up His Son in our place to justify us, and our justification having been accomplished, He was raised which powerfully demonstrated to His followers that He was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. This was also the reason that between His crucifixion and resurrection “He descended into hell” as the Apostles Creed says, to make known to the spirits of those already dead the power of His redemption (1 Peter 3:19). First, to make the redemption clearly known to believers who had died trusting in His work, but while on earth “only saw [His work] and welcomed [it] from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13). Second, to give the reprobate clearer confirmation that Jesus is the only Savior and there was no other hope for them.
We are completely and fully saved by Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, but if Jesus had not been raised then He was not who He claimed to be, and that is why the apostle Paul says that without the resurrection, “you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). It is as Paul begins the letter to the Romans, Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). He has obviously always been the Son of God with power both from eternity past and while he walked throughout first century Israel, but the resurrection indisputably declares that fact to us. If he was not raised then we are still waiting for the true Messiah.
Although the work of redemption was totally finished at Calvary, nevertheless, apart from the empty tomb, Calvary is shown to be nothing more than the site of another criminal put to death by Rome. Therefore, it is wrong to speak of salvation coming by either the crucifixion or by the resurrection; the two are inseparable, our justification coming by the fact that Christ died in our place and the evidence that He was who He claimed to be is in the fact of His resurrection. As Paul says, “for a good person someone might possibly dare to die” (Romans 5:7); without the resurrection, Jesus may have been a good man who thought He was doing the right thing for the world, but a man nevertheless, and thus, unable to bear the full force of God’s wrath against all past and future sins. Yet, in partaking of the Lord’s Supper we “remember the Lord’s death till He come” because it is His death, not resurrection, that is the particular reason for our justification (1 Corinthians 11:26).
- Adrian Rogers, “The Finished Work of Calvary,” in Adrian Rogers Sermon Archive (Signal Hill, CA: Rogers Family Trust, 2017), Jn 19:30.
- William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 249.