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Why the cross of Christ? It’s a simple enough question. – The answer is profound. To understand, we have to go back to the beginning …

The death of Jesus did not just happen privately, in secret, unannounced. His death was made a public spectacle for all to see. In just a few short years of ministry, this ‘son’ of a carpenter from Nazareth, as was supposed, had become well-known throughout all Judea and Galilee as a preacher of righteousness – as one who worked miracles of healing and who attracted large crowds wherever He went. The news of His crucifixion reverberated throughout all Jerusalem and its environs. Many had been wondering if He were the promised Messiah or a prophet of God and the expectation of His arrival in the city for the Passover had given rise to great excitement. People had witnessed His coming as of one who had spoken with authority and power – not at all like the rabbis with whom they were familiar. Nevertheless, among the members of the Sanhedrin, Jesus was feared as an outspoken rival – a thorn in the side whose teaching threatened to undermine their position of authority and the established order. It became expedient for them to conspire that He should be charged with sedition and be put to death. In so doing, they acted as foretold in the very Scriptures they were supposed to uphold.

Nevertheless, what this shows is that the Christ did not appear among us in the flesh simply to die. Although it was possible for the incarnation, death and resurrection to have happened without public revelation, it was necessary that He should minister openly and have witnesses who were able to testify and confirm faithfully of His bodily resurrection and of all that He did and taught, for the purpose of our salvation and our reconciliation to God. For it is through the Gospels that we learn about Jesus the person and come to understand what it means to know Him and to be one of His disciples, in Spirit and in truth. For, it is in Jesus that we have the revelation of God Himself.

Man’s sins scourged and pierced His mortal flesh. In His body, therefore, He truly bore man’s sins; but also mentally, in His heart. He was burdened by those sins and came that He might take away those sins. He laid down His life – a life of holiness and true righteousness, yielded up in faithful witness of the love and the power of God over sin and death that we might come to believe, repent and be saved.

By the grace of God, because God is love, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, was revealed from heaven for our salvation, to redeem mankind from sin through the offering He made of Himself for the sake of all who truly believe, that they, receiving forgiveness of sins, should die unto sin themselves and live unto God in Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the righteousness which is by faith.

The Son of God came that He should ‘bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:37, NKJ). Yet, perhaps the greatest truth of all: ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor.15:3, NKJ), remains for many the greatest mystery.  How can the death of Christ have any merit with respect to our sins?

Why did Jesus die?

Ever since the passing of the apostolic fathers, this question has been the subject of much debate and controversy. – And none more so than today! For answers, we need to go back to the beginning. For although we ought to appreciate contributions that scholars and theologians have made to our understanding from times ancient to modern, all must be judged against the biblical revelation – especially that revealed in the New Testament.

On the eve of the crucifixion, anticipating His own sacrifice as the Lamb of God, after eating a Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus took wine and poured it out for them, saying: ‘This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’ (Mat.26:28, NKJ). The blood was representing His life. – As Leon Morris, the late well-known author and theologian, commenting on the phrase: ‘life is in the blood’ (Lev.17:11), remarked: ‘life yielded up in death’ was the sacrificial meaning of ‘blood’ (The Cross in the New Testament, p.219). In making the perfect offering of His life to God for us, it was necessary for Him to suffer and die. The true reasons for His sacrifice are told in the Scriptures. The inspired words of their writers guide us in our quest for the hidden treasures of God’s wisdom and supply all that is required for the knowledge of salvation. Even so, as Paul remarked, we need to rightly divide God’s word (2 Tim.2:15). The Holy Bible was prayerfully written and compiled. It needs to be prayerfully studied if we are to spiritually discern its truth. We have to leave behind our prejudices and presuppositions. We must be aware of context, both historical and textual, and seek to know meanings in the original languages where necessary.

Context and perspectives matter. If Jesus had become ‘sin’ and ‘accursed’, was this ‘the reality’ from God’s perspective, or was this how Jesus was perceived and judged from a worldly point of view? We are guilty and as sinners are undeserving of eternal life. The old self deserves to die. That is biblical and just. Punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty clearly is not.

The Bible states: ‘The soul who sins shall die. […]The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself’ (Ez.18:20, NKJ). ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both’ (Prov.17:15).

Biblical statements such as these, that would seem to oppose any idea of penal substitution, are sometimes dismissed with the reasoning that such verses merely refer to the justice of God in human affairs and cannot, therefore, be applied to justice in situations where divine – human relations are concerned, as that undertaken on our behalf by Christ. However, such reasoning implies double standards on the part of our Creator.

We know it is wrong in terms of human justice to punish the innocent in the place of the guilty. Such an act would be judged immoral and indefensible. However, the law in the conscience that gives man a sense of right and wrong comes from God (Rom.2:15) and does not function according to ‘human standards’. Man is created in the image of God and intuitively knows right from wrong. Without doubt, our conscience bares witness. Moreover, so do the Scriptures.

One must set aside or suppress one’s own natural, God-given conscience with respect to justice in order to accept the stoical impassive logic of Penal Substitution theology. It should come as no surprise that the earliest written evidence for this idea in Christian literature is to be found in the writings of the stoic Christian philosopher and teacher Clement of Alexandria and his followers of the Alexandrian School, upon which he had great influence. At the cross, Jesus received the injustice of man, not the justice of God. In Acts, we read that He was ‘deprived of justice’ (Acts 8:33). The justice of God was the resurrection.

Sometimes it is argued that ‘the end’ (man’s salvation) justified the ‘means’ (penal substitution). It is reasoned that this was how the obvious moral issues could be overcome. However, this is a reflection of Machiavelli, not Scripture. It suggests God ‘caused’ the death of His Son when, in fact, the sinfulness of man was the cause. God’s love caused Him to act to save us from our sins.

Jesus died in the fulfilment of His witness and propitiation for us and for our salvation. The Father sent His Son for this purpose. The gift of Himself, on our behalf, in perfect obedience to the Father’s will, fulfilled all righteousness. The holy, sacrificial offering of His ‘life’, apart from sin, was the propitiation – received by God and accepted for all who truly believe and repent.

When we look to the cross, we need to see not just a man, or even a ‘good’ man, hanging there – we need to see that here was the perfect Man, the Son of God – undefeated in His confrontation with evil, yielding His body to death and despising the shame, in order to fulfil all righteousness for our sakes and to witness to His truth through the power of the resurrection, that we might believe, repent and be saved. We need to understand that here was the Son, offering hope to the needy, comfort to the downhearted, deliverance for the sick, release for the oppressed, the forgiveness of sins, justification, adoption by the gift of the Holy Spirit and everlasting life for all who seek to be established in the likeness and love of God.


Norman McIlwain

July, 2013


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