The Gospel of John says the last words Jesus Christ spoke on the cross before he died were “it is finished,” which in Greek is one word: tetelestai.
Some Protestant apologists claim that Jesus’ declaration should be translated, “It is paid in full.” According to them, by saying, “It is finished,” Jesus is saying that nothing else must be paid or done because of sin. The Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes writes in his book Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics, “It is highly significant that the phrase ‘it is finished’ can also be translated ‘paid in full.’ . . . The work of redemption was completed at the cross. Nothing further needed to be done. He had paid in full the price of our redemption” (187-188).
Protestant apologists like Rhodes claim that this means there is nothing a person must do after making an act of faith in Jesus in order to be saved, since “nothing further needs to be done” to pay for our sins. Moreover, no believer must undergo purification after death through purgatory because there is no payment we must make with regard to our sins, including any kind of temporal punishment. Dave Hunt says in this context related to purgatory, “There is nothing left for sinners to pay in order to receive the pardon offered by God’s grace. The debt has been paid in full. ‘It is finished!’ Christ cried in triumph just before he died upon the cross (John 19:30). To suggest otherwise is the most serious heresy” (A Woman Rides the Beast, 182).
So how should Catholics understand what Jesus said in John 19:30?
We agree with Protestants that human beings can never atone for their sins. Only Christ, who is fully God and fully man, can satisfy God’s justice and remit the eternal punishment of sin. In fact, Jesus paid for not just our sins, or the sins of those who believe in him. Christ paid for the sins of those who don’t believe in him, and even the sins of people who will never believe in him. That’s why you can tell any person you meet that “Christ died for you.” First John 2:2 says of Christ, “He is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The fact that Christ’s death “paid for” or atoned for our sins does not mean that everything is finished regarding our salvation.
Our Lord himself “did things” for our salvation even after the crucifixion, since the Bible says Christ’s resurrection justifies us. Romans 4:24-25 speaks of “Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” This shows that our justification, and even the act of remitting our sins, was not finished when Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross.
In fact, we have to do something in order to be saved because if Christ paid for all of humanity’s sins, then the difference between who is saved and who is damned can be found only in something the believer does, such as receiving grace through baptism and remaining in communion with Christ until death. John’s Gospel records these truths when Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit [i.e., is baptized], he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), and “if a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).
Christ’s sacrifice atones for all sins, but the Bible says this sacrifice can have no effect if we reject God through disobedience. That’s the point of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.
In that story, a king graciously forgave a servant’s debt, which would mean the king would have to incur the cost himself. Even though the king essentially declared, “It is paid in full!” by forgiving the debt, the unforgiving servant threatened to jail another servant who failed to repay a much smaller debt. In response, the king revoked his payment and had the unforgiving servant imprisoned until he paid his debt (which biblical scholars say was so large that it could never be repaid).
The lesson is clear: God has atoned or “paid for” all of our sins. But if we refuse to cooperate with God’s grace, then the debt can be reinstated. That’s why Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.”
Speaking of Hebrews, the author reminds his listeners that “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11). Painful discipline is just another word for punishment, and so the author makes it clear that beloved children of God can be disciplined, and this discipline yields the fruit of righteousness. Since children of God do not receive the eternal punishment related to sin, then this can only refer to the temporal punishment of sin, rooted in the disordered attraction we have to sin because of how venial sin injures our relationship with God.
So we’ve seen that we can agree with our Protestant friends that Christ fully paid for all of our sins—indeed, all of everyone’s sins—but this doesn’t mean there is “nothing more” we must do to cooperate with God’s gift of salvation. It also doesn’t mean we don’t pay a temporal penalty for our sins through God disciplining us just because Christ remitted the eternal penalty for our sins.
So what did Jesus mean when he said “It is finished”?
First, he did not literally mean “it is paid in full.” That can be a truth we glean from this passage, but Rhodes is wrong when he says we can translate tetelestai as simply “paid in full.”
It’s a form of the Greek word teleō, which just means to “end” or “finish.” The idea that it means “paid in full” is something of an urban legend in biblical exegesis that came from scholars who noted that receipts from around the time of the New Testament had the Greek word tetel stamped on them, indicating that they were paid. But this is an abbreviation, and there are five different Greek words that begin with these letters. One of them is tetelōnētai, which is a different word from tetelestai. It literally means “tax,” or “paid as taxes,” and it can be found on dozens of receipts where it refers to a tax that has been paid.
The word tetelestai, on the other hand, is used in ancient Greek sources to describe finishing artwork or manufacturing, not the paying of debts. In the New Testament, the root word teleō is used for payments only in Matthew 17:24 and Romans 13:6—in reference not to “paid in full,” but to paying taxes.
So if Jesus didn’t mean “paid in full,” then what did he mean when he said, “It is finished”?
One prominent interpretation is that Jesus meant that the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah were now fulfilled in his sacrificial death. Read the preceding verses, which describe what happened after Jesus entrusted his mother to the apostle John:
After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished (tetelestai), said (to fulfil [teleiōthē] the scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:28 is the only other place where tetelestai is used in Scripture. When combined with the related word teleiōthē, we see that the context is related to finishing, completing, or fulfilling messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.
Jesus could also have been referring to the “finishing” of the Last Supper. Scott Hahn proposed this hypothesis in his book The Lamb’s Supper (and in more detail in his 2018 book The Fourth Cup). Hahn notes that Jesus conspicuously did not drink from the fourth cup of the Passover meal. Instead, Jesus refused to drink wine until he came into his kingdom, and then, before dying, he drank sour wine on the cross. Hahn says, “It was the Passover that was now finished. More precisely, it was Jesus’ transformation of the Passover sacrifice of the Old Covenant into the Eucharistic sacrifice of the New Covenant.”
This last word of Christ could include all of these meanings and others that have not been explored. However, we do know that Jesus did not mean that our sins had been paid in a way that removes any obligation to cooperate with God’s grace in order to remain in communion with Christ. John 3:36 puts it well: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”