Tetelestai: an articulation of the importance of “it is finished.”
The long, arduous, and agonizing process of nailing a criminal to a cross and waiting for them to die is, perhaps, the most gruesome and humiliating form of execution known to man. The Romans perfected this form of torture, crafting an heinously efficient method of crucifying criminals with inhuman cruelty. Such is the punishment to which our Savior, Jesus Christ, is subjected (Phil. 2:5–8). As the carpenter from Nazareth hangs undeservedly on a ratty piece Roman wood erected on Calvary’s mount between two criminals, he is given a “sponge full of sour wine” to “quench” his thirst (John 19:29). He sips this “sour wine” and says, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Of all the sayings of Jesus on the cross, “It is finished” stands out among the rest as a clarion call for Christians of all ages. Like “Remember the Alamo,” “It is finished” is the church’s watchword and the believer’s battlecry. For sinners who keep on feeling defeated in their struggle against sin, “It is finished” is the divine reminder that sin has been “once for all” vanquished because of Christ Jesus.
Sin is finished.
The punishment for sin is paid in full when Jesus cries, “It is finished.” As Jesus is nailed to the cross, so, too, is the “certificate of debt” of our sin (Col. 2:13–14). The full force of God’s wrath because our transgressions is placed on Jesus’s shoulders. Heaven’s own Son takes the bruising and beating you and I deserved (Isa. 53:4–5, 7, 10). For all the sins of your past, and all the sins that you have not even committed yet, God’s righteous indignation has already been satisfied (1 John 4:10). The glorious scandal of the cross is that the blood of God’s Son serves as the reconciliatory ransom whereby sinners find deliverance (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:4–6). Jesus subjects himself to his Father’s fury, suffering all the pent-up disgust God has for you and me because of our sin and rebellion. He takes all of that on himself. “When your reconciliation is made with God,” writes Tobias Crisp, “know from the first time of it till your last breath, there shall not be the least fury in God to you; for that is poured out upon Christ already, and there is not one drop of that poison to be poured out upon you.”1 Jesus, the Son of God, finishes sin’s debt — yours and the whole world’s (1 John 2:1–2).
Righteousness is finished.
As God’s Son finishes the penalty of sin, he also finishes the demand for righteousness, too. “It is finished” means that the righteous requirement of the law has been “finished,” fulfilled, and completed. No more work is necessary to accomplish the righteousness of the law. Christ Jesus obeys every demand of the law in our stead, on our behalf. All has been won by Christ. “The work is done before we begin it,” Alexander Maclaren affirms. “‘It is finished’ was a clarion blast proclaiming that all was won when all seemed lost.”2 The full measure of the righteousness of God is yours because of Jesus’s vicarious death (Rom. 1:16–17; 2 Cor. 5:21). It is Christ alone who does “all for them that God requires of them to be done,” Crisp declares, “and the righteousness of Christ stands in that manner theirs, as if they had done it themselves . . . by the obedience of him alone, we stand thus righteous before God.”3 All that is left for you and I to do, then, is faithfully live in light of what has been accomplished already (Rom. 5:12–19).
Salvation is finished.
“It is finished” means that the burden of salvation is not partially complete. As Jesus hangs on the cross, gasping and dying for the sins you and I have committed, his words were not, “There, now you do the rest!” “I’ve made it a little easier for you, now go try and save yourself!” Not at all! The Champion of our faith did not leave the ends for you and I to determine — because our Lord is not only the Author of our faith, he is the Finisher of our faith, too (Heb. 12:1–3). He clears the way for our salvation and accomplishes all that is necessary for you and I to be assured of it. “When Jesus exclaimed, ‘It is finished!’” Octavius Winslow writes, “by one offering he perfected forever the salvation of his church.”4 Jesus Christ has, therefore, finished all the “doing” in our salvation.
The gospel declares to us that the hope of reconciliation and redemption is “finished” and complete entirely because of the work of Jesus on the cross. “In his law-fulfilling life, curse-bearing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus has entirely accomplished for sinners what sinners could never in the least do for themselves,” Tullian Tchividjian declares. “The banner under which the Christian lives reads, ‘It is finished.’”5 Such are Jesus’s words to us. No further payment is necessary to secure your salvation. God’s recipe of redemption does not require the least smidgen of your own ingredients. The burden of reconciliation is borne entirely by him. Jesus has paid it all, done it all, finished it all. The firm foundation of your salvation and mine is found in the finished work of Christ Jesus on the cross. Such is what the gospel announces to us: that the hope of salvation is not up to you, it’s up to him, and he’s finished it already. And so it is that we can confess, along with Tobias Crisp, “I am quit of all my sins, I stand innocent, for Christ himself hath satisfied the Father to the full for them, and he will never remember them again.”6
τετέλεσται. It is finished. Amen.
Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted: In the Perfection and Encouragements of the Saints, Notwithstanding Sins and Trials, edited by John Gill (London: R. Noble, 1791), 331.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters I to VIII (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 298.
Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted, 212–13.
Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus: As Unfolded in the Eighth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 231.
Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 83–84.
Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted, 445.