Fellow church members occasionally ask: “If all our sin was dealt with when Jesus died on the cross, why must we still confess it?”
The answer is partly found in an oft overlooked aspect of Christian belief—Jesus’ ascension. According to the New Testament, God raised Jesus from the dead, and then, 40 days later, took him up into heaven (Acts 1:9–11). Romans, Hebrews, and 1 John all describe the ascended Jesus actively working for his people in God’s heavenly presence. Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25 identify Jesus’ present activity as intercession. In 1 John 2:1–2, Jesus serves as an advocate before the Father.
But why do God’s people need an advocate? Is the Crucifixion not enough for our salvation? I would answer no. The single event of the Cross is not sufficient—only the person of Jesus is sufficient. If all we had were the Cross, then we’d have no salvation. As important as Jesus’ death is, Christ’s saving work involves more. We need Jesus’ ongoing ministry of intercession for our salvation. Hebrews identifies Jesus’ ongoing intercession as key for Jesus “to save completely those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). To reduce Jesus’ saving work merely to his dying ignores this important aspect of Jesus’ present ministry for his people.
Salvation isn’t accomplished just because Jesus died but because he was also raised and ascended into heaven. There, continuously interceding for us, Jesus maintains the New Covenant better (permanently better) than the Old Testament sacrifices and priests maintained the old. Hebrews and 1 John describe Christ’s heavenly ministry using concepts drawn from Old Testament sacrifices and priestly ministry. Hebrews looks to the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) to explain how the ascended Jesus ensures his people’s salvation. The earthly high priests entered God’s presence in the Holy of Holies once every year to offer the sacrifice of atonement by sprinkling blood.
But Jesus did something better. He ascended to God’s presence in the heavenly Holy of Holies once for all time. There, as an ever-living sacrifice, he offered himself before the Father the way the earthly high priests offered the sacrificial blood (Heb. 9:6–7, 24–26). Hebrews says that Jesus took his seat at God’s right hand after he made purification for sins (Heb. 1:3). Jesus presently rules on the heavenly throne as God’s exalted Son. Hebrews also affirms that Jesus now serves as the Great High Priest who continues to work for the salvation of his siblings. He is seated, but he is not silent. Even now, the ascended Christ ministers as the Great High Priest in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Heb. 8:1–2), perpetually interceding for his people (Heb. 7:25). This is part of how he saves us completely.
Similarly, 1 John reflects on Jesus’ work in the light of Jewish sacrifices: Jesus himself is the “atoning sacrifice” now located in the Father’s presence (1 John 2:1-2). As in Hebrews, Jesus is not silent in God’s presence. He actively advocates for his people when they sin. This advocacy supplies the rationale for John’s admonition to believers to continually confess their sins (1 John 1:9). The reality of ongoing sin requires ongoing confession and forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ ascension makes this possible because Jesus, who is the atoning sacrifice, presently pleads with his Father for his people. Unlike Hebrews, 1 John does not identify Jesus as high priest, but Jesus’ ongoing advocacy clearly implies his priestly ministry.
In Romans 8:34, Paul also highlights the importance of Jesus’ ongoing intercession at God’s right hand as a central means for preserving relationship between God and God’s people. No one can condemn those who are in Christ. This truth depends not only on Jesus’ death, but, as Paul says, even more on his resurrection and present intercession at God’s right hand. Paul can therefore confidently declare that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Jesus’ love extends beyond the Cross—his death, resurrection, and ongoing intercession at God’s right hand are essential for his people’s salvation. Take out any one of those elements and, like the Jenga tower that falls to pieces when a key block is removed, Paul’s confident claims in Romans 8:35–39 collapse.
The preceding reflections do not do full justice to the significance of Jesus’ ascension. They only highlight some of the important implications of this event. They remind us that our ascended Lord is not sitting silently in his Father’s presence. He actively intercedes and advocates for us, ministering before the Father as our merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 2:17). We need this ministry as we continue to wait for the Lord to return and make all things right (Heb. 9:28). Our salvation is completely contingent on Jesus—the one who died but even more rose, ascended, and presently intercedes for us.
All of this brings us back to our opening question. Why do we continue to confess our sins and seek forgiveness even after professing faith in his salvific death? We do this, boldly even, because Jesus ascended as our great advocate, our high priest (Heb. 4:14–16). He has returned to his Father and ours to intercede on our behalf. This present work is an essential part of the ongoing relationship that he, the Father, the Holy Spirit, and we as God’s people share. Jesus’ ascension, we might say, is part of how he maintains the New Covenant relationship he inaugurated at his death. Atonement in the Old Testament wasn’t accomplished simply by slaughtering animals; their bodies and blood had to be brought to the altars by priests with prayers offered. Similarly, Jesus’ ascension brought him, the crucified and resurrected one, into God’s heavenly presence to minister as his people’s high priest. He is the atoning sacrifice who died, rose, and now intercedes for his siblings. He ensures his people will receive the salvation God has promised them. We still sin and fall short, but we have an advocate in heaven. We can, therefore, confidently proclaim his death, until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
David M. Moffitt is Reader in New Testament Studies, University of St Andrews, Scotland