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Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

Holy Week allows us to reflect on the historical events leading up to the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. But simply being able to recite the events from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday does not make you a Christian. Many non-Christians believed Jesus died on the cross. The more important question that needs to be answered as a Christian is why all of this had to take place. Why did Jesus have to die such a gruesome death in such a specific way? To answer this question we first examine the role of sin and evil in the world and then get to know God better.

If you only watch one of the videos in this post, please watch this one. Paul Washer is so good at explaining the principle of the Gospel.

No one is good

God made man in his image (Genesis 1:26-27) – holy and perfect. But Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s one command, inviting sin into the world and corrupting human nature in body, mind and emotions. Sin affects every area of our lives. Therefore, who we are and what we do originates in sin. Gotquestions.org describes sin as penetrating “to the very core of our being so that everything is tainted by sin and “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6).” This concept is known as the total depravity of man.

Total depravity means no one is good. All humans are inherently evil.

Gotquestions.org shows us that the Bible teaches total depravity from beginning to end. Man’s heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). In (Psalm 51:5Psalm 58:3Ephesians 2:1-5) we see that man is born dead in transgression and sin. He is held captive by a love for sin (John 3:19John 8:34) so that he will not seek God (Romans 3:10-11) because he loves the darkness (John 3:19) and does not understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). Therefore, men suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) and continue to willfully live in sin. Because humans are ruled by sin, this lifestyle seems right to men (Proverbs 14:12) so they reject the gospel of Christ as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18) and their mind is “hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is unable to do so” (Romans 8:7).

No One Is Righteous, no, not one;

no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave;

they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood;

 in their paths are ruin and misery,

 and the way of peace they have not known.”

 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:11-20

In this passage, Apostle Paul shows us that we are controlled by our sinful nature. You can see this example in children who, by nature, are jealous, covetous and selfish. Parents must teach their children the importance of telling the truth and of sharing etc.

Paul quotes extensively from the Old Testament to explain how sinful man is. “For example, we see that 1—no one is without sin, 2—no one seeks after God, 3—there is no one who is good, 4—their speech is corrupted by sin, 5—their actions are corrupted by sin, and 6—above all, they have no fear of God” (Gotquestions.org). There can be no doubt that Scripture teaches that fallen man is totally depraved because sin affects all of him including his mind, will and emotions so that “there is none who does good, no not one” (Romans 3:12).

Sin separates us from God. We cannot be in a relationship with God as sinful beings because he is perfectly holy and hates sin.

God is perfectly good

To understand the problem of sin, we have to get to know God better. The character of God is a whole study on its own. I would encourage you to delve deeper into the topic. The one single resource that has affected my faith the most is the American Gospel movie. You can watch the trailer here. Subscribe to their channel for an in-depth look at the theology of Christianity.

To answer why Jesus had to die on the cross, we will briefly discuss only five of the characteristics of God namely God is holy, just, wrathful, gracious and loving.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

1. God is Holy

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!

Isaiah 6:3

The word “holy” can be defined as morally and spiritually excellent, exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness. This video by The Bible Project uses a good analogy of comparing holiness to the power of the sun. The closer you get to the sun, the more you are aware of the heat of the sun. But getting too close can be dangerous. God’s perfect holiness is the reason why Moses could not look at God without dying.

In the presence of God, we become more aware of our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. God’s perfect holiness reveals our need for salvation from sin. We often bring God down to our level and give him human characteristics, but he is nothing like us, and we are nothing like him (Psalm 50:21). If God was more human he would not be a God worth worshipping.

2. God is Just

God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.

Psalm 7:11

Biblical justice refers to God’s righteousness, fairness, goodness and victory. The quest for justice is innate in all humans, but the definition of justice is heavily influenced by our sinful nature. God’s justice, however, is perfectly fair. It implies a perfect relationship with him and with others as if they all bear the image of God. No human meets this standard of justice. Instead, humanity has been propagating injustice since the beginning of time.

God is fully aware of our shortcomings and knows that we cannot be just due to our sinful nature. So He justifies the wicked (Proverbs 17:15), and the ungodly (Romans 4:5) while covering our sins with the blood of Jesus (Romans 4:7-8). God is a righteous judge (Psalm 7:11) that has to deal fairly with all evil.

Some people say God should be like a judge that just writes off the sin of the accused without consequences. But such a human judge would be seen as weak and unfair by the victims of the accused. God is perfect in his righteousness, meaning every sin has to be accounted for. A God that changes his mind, or the standards by which he operates, would not be a God worth worshipping.

3. God is Wrathful

Behold the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.

Jeremiah 30:23

Wrath can be defined as “the emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice,” often translated as “anger,” “indignation,” “vexation,” or “irritation.” Both humans and God express wrath. But there is a vast difference between the wrath of God and the wrath of man. God’s wrath is holy and always justified; man’s is never holy and rarely justified.”

This is where the God of the Bible begins to offend our sinful nature. Many believers and unbelievers alike feel that the wrath of God is too intolerant. They see a moral monster in the Old Testament, but the authors of Scripture all agree that God’s wrath is just (Romans 2:5). God is perfect. He hates sin.

“God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.”

J.I. Packer

Joseph Scheumann writes that God’s wrath is to be feared because of our total depravity and because we are condemned apart from the work of Christ (Romans 5:1). He further explains that God’s wrath is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments. “It is common to think of the Old Testament God as mean, harsh, and wrath-filled, and the God of the New Testament as kind, patient, and loving. Neither of these portraits is representative of Scripture’s teaching on the wrath of God.” (See Jeremiah 30:23, Nahum 1:2, Romans 1:18, Revelation 19:15).

If God did not hold sinners accountable for sin, he would not be a God worth worshipping.

4. God is Love

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

“But God is love. He can wipe away sin and the effects of sin without payment. He makes the rules, why can’t he change them?” This is often the sentiment to the cross. If God had to eradicate all evil, he would have to eradicate all mankind, because all mankind is evil. Instead, he made a way for our sins to be forgiven and his justice to be satisfied. This is love. If God had to break the law for love and take away the consequences of sin, he would be a sinner. But God cannot sin. If God changed his mind about such important matters, he would not be trustworthy.

God’s love and wrath are not opposed to each other, but rather complementary. The cross of Jesus is the greatest example of the wrath of God, as well as the most beautiful example of the love of God.

5. God is Gracious

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 

Matthew 5:44-45

God’s grace is shown through his undeserved kindness and favour which he gives delightfully. Jesus Christ died for us when we were still sinners (Romans 5:1, 6-10). God gave his life as a gift to justify us (Romans 3:23-25) and save us from his wrath.

God saved the Israelites despite their disloyalty and continuous disobedience. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God offered us a generous gift of salvation.

Let’s have a look at how he did it.

Someone has to pay

Since the beginning of the Bible, all sins had to be paid for. In the Old Testament God commanded the Israelites to atone with animal sacrifices. The punishment for sin is death and the only way to avoid death is through the atonement. The act of sacrificing the animal did not erase the sin but rather pointed forward to the only true sacrifice of Jesus, the spotless Lamb (1 Peter 1:18-20).

Because God is perfectly holy he cannot be in a relationship with sin. But He wants a relationship with us so our sin has to be dealt with.

Since God is perfectly just sin must be judged fairly, and payment must be made.

We can return to the courtroom setting to explain the events on the cross. Someone has to pay the penalty for the crime. The Judge can demand payment from the sinner, or someone else can pay instead. Similarly, the sin of the world had to be penalised. Either God would destroy all mankind as punishment, or some other payment had to be made. Jesus became the ransom for our sins on the cross. He paid the price for us to go free. Forgiveness requires the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). It requires payment – whether by the sinner or by a Redeemer.

This demonstrates God’s perfect love and gracious nature.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:24-26

The crucifixion of Christ was not cosmic child abuse as some progressive churches want to suggest. Instead, Jesus is the hero of the story.

Seeing as He is perfectly just and holy, God’s wrath had to be poured as punishment for sin. And because he is loving, Jesus Christ bore this punishment on our behalf.

Remember, Jesus is the Son of God – he is both man and God (Hebrews 2:14-15). Therefore, God took the punishment of our sins upon himself, reconciling all those who believe in the sacrifice of Christ to Himself. This act of Jesus Christ is referred to as penal substitution. The term can be defined as follows: “The word penal means “related to punishment for offences,” and substitution means “the act of a person taking the place of another.” So, penal substitution is the act of a person taking the punishment for someone else’s offences. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the Substitute, and the punishment He took (at the cross) was ours, based on our sin (1 Peter 2:24).”

God saved us from himself (his wrath), by himself (through the death of the Son of God), for himself (to have a right relationship with us). This is perfect love.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

1 John 4:9-10

Since the Fall God has made this plan to save us from our sin. Jesus, as part of the Trinity, agreed with this plan. Being without sin, he voluntarily laid down his life for his followers (John 10:17-18). On the cross, Christ was treated as guilty and his righteousness was imputed to us – as believers, we become sinless in the eyes of God.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

I hope you agree that the beauty of Good Friday is found in the perfect, selfless love of Jesus Christ. I pray that you get to know Christ better throughout this Easter period and grow more in love with him daily until you meet him face to face.

Disclaimer: I am not educated in theology. I am a follower of Jesus who needed to read a post like this five years ago. The purpose of this blog is to explain the gospel in simple terms to encourage deeper study into these theological concepts. The best place to start, of course, is by reading the Bible. This reading plan by The Bible Project is an excellent introduction to the whole Bible as one story leading to Jesus. I highly recommend that you delve deeper into penal substitutionary atonement by watching this series by Mike Winger. I am grateful to Tim Keller for his book King’s Cross which opened my eyes to the value of Easter.

Here is one of my favourite songs that describe the victory of Christ on the cross: The War is Over by Josh Baldwin

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