Someone asked me recently: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” She was searching for understanding, but she was also recoiling from the brutal violence of a scene she had heard about since childhood.
The answer should be something we Christians can articulate fully (1 Cor. 1:18). Get your Bible, because it requires a trip through God’s word!
God created mankind perfect, dwelling in Paradise in fellowship with Him. God’s one restriction was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He said, “in the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Satan tricked Adam and Eve. They defied God and ate.
True to God’s word, they died. Not physically; Adam and Eve lived centuries more. They died spiritually. For the first time, they hid from God (Gen. 3:8). God cursed them, took away their access to the Tree of Life, and cast them out of His presence (Gen. 3:24).
That’s what happens to every human being, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When we choose to sin, we experience spiritual death. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23, cf. Jam. 1:15, 1 Tim. 5:6). “So death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
If that spiritual separation goes uncorrected when our spirit leaves our body seeking a home with God, our spirit cannot be welcomed into His presence. Hell is not just fire; it is separation, “away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). The sentence begins, “depart from Me” (Matt. 7:23, 25:41).
This great truth has been constant throughout history. Sin demands death. In the Old Covenant, God allowed the blood of animals to satisfy for the death. “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Since “the blood is identified with its life” (Lev. 17:14), God graciously allowed an animal’s life to substitute for a person’s life.
But an animal is not the moral equivalent of a person. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). That is why animal sacrifices had to be repeated yearly for the nation, more frequently for individuals. Animal sacrifices were “only a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb. 10:1).
The Old Testament prophets revealed a time when the Messiah would come and provide the blood of a New Covenant (Matt. 26:28), under which sins could be truly forgiven (Heb. 8:12-13). Thus, Jesus is “the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus came for many reasons, but most importantly to “offer His life a ransom for sin” (Mark 10:45, cf. Col. 1:20).
Now, the most one person can do for another is save the body—jumping in front of a bullet, or donating a kidney, say. But Jesus’ blood is divine; and powerful enough to answer for the guilt of sin—the sin of one person, or the sin of the whole human race. “By His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24) only because He is the Son.
Jesus’ sacrifice provides the blood for atonement (1 John 1:7). The resurrection provides the victory over sin and death (1 Cor. 15:50-57). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit proves that Jesus has brought His blood into the throne room of God, making intercession once for all (Heb. 9:24-48) as our perfect high priest. So, Jesus had to bear the wrath of God upon the cross, so that we could be forgiven!
As I review what I have written, I worry that I may lose the forest for too many trees. Let me try to bring it into focus. Forgiveness is never about God shrugging His shoulders and saying, “Don’t worry about it … we’ll just pretend that never happened.” The cross stands as awful testimony that God hates sin, and that sin demands death. Jesus prayed in the garden (Matt. 26:39) that there would be a way other than the cross to save mankind. But there was no other way. And so Jesus died. It was ugly, but it was necessary.
God’s grace resembles this: Imagine you get pulled over by a police officer for speeding. You apologize and weep that you are on a fixed income and can never afford the $213.49 ticket. He says, “Sorry ma’am. Department policy. You were speeding, so I must write the ticket.” But when he returns to the car with your ticket, he also presents you a check from his own bank account, for exactly $213.49. The gospel does not teach that God ignores sin nor waives the penalty. God remains true to Himself. He is just. The gospel teaches that God enforces the penalty, but transfers it to the person of His own Son. He justifies through Jesus. He pays the cost. By this amazing arrangement, God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
While Jesus gave Himself for the whole world (John 3:16), redemption is not automatic. Many will be lost (Matt. 7:13-14). It requires faith and repentance to be redeemed. Only then will a person be reunited with God in Paradise, with access once again to the Tree of Life (Rev. 22:1-7). –John Guzzetta