Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Couldn’t God Simply Forgive?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Couldn’t God Simply Forgive?

We have just observed Holy Week. Our spirits have been solemn, turned inward and upward more intently than at any other time of the year. We have remembered Jesus’ last days on earth and and his suffering on the cross. Yesterday, we rejoiced in Christ’s resurrection and victory over death and sin. Today we carry the glow of Easter and the promise of new life.

In this time of Easter celebration, let’s continue to reflect on what has happened through the events of Jesus’ final days on earth. Why did the cross have to happen. Really, why did Jesus have to die when God is all-powerful and all-loving? Why couldn’t God simply forgive our sin and wipe the slate clean?

Many of us have been taught that Jesus had to die to pay the price for our sin. He took our sin on himself, as holy, sinless God, and died our death so that we could live forever with God. But this concept can be a little perplexing. Why did God require a payment? Couldn’t he set the rules and simply cancel out any payment owed? Did Jesus die only to show us that he loves us?

I’ve been reading more of Tim Keller (The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Reason-God-Timothy-Keller-ebook/dp/B000XPNUZE/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1398092539&sr=1-1&keywords=the+reasons+for+god)). What he has to say on Jesus and the Cross has helped to peel back the layers on explanations we’re either used to hearing or that still leave us with questions.

Keller talks first about the costly nature of forgiveness. No one “just” forgives if the wrong has been great. It involves refraining from taking revenge. It involves absorbing the wrong and taking the cost of it fully on yourself instead of making the other person pay. It’s difficult and, in reality, involves a kind of death within the self. Yet, ultimately, it is the only way we can be free from the prison of bitterness and anger.

Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer do it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change. Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of the sin yourself. Everyone who forgives great evil goes through a death into resurrection, and experiences nails, blood, sweat, and tears.

 

Should it surprise us, then, that when God determined to forgive us rather than punish us for all the ways we have wronged him and one another, that he went to the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ and died there? As Bonhoeffer says, everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins. On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale. I would argue, of course, that human forgiveness works this way because we unavoidably reflect the image of our Creator. That is why we should not be surprised that if we sense that the only way to triumph over evil is to go through the suffering of forgiveness, that this would be far more true of God, whose just passion to defeat evil and loving desire to forgive others are both infinitely greater than ours. …

 

Jesus’s death was only a good example if it was more than an example, if it was something absolutely necessary to rescue us. And it was. Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was  a debt to be paid–God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born–God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering. ~ Tim Keller, The Reason for God

Keller goes on to talk about real love, and how only by sharing with another person or even changing places with them can we really love. We give up our autonomy in order to love another. It’s true in parenting, in friendship, in marriage, in care for those who suffer. Without the Cross, God wouldn’t be a God of love.

And Keller points to the way Jesus reversed the rules of our world. Coming down from his heavenly throne, he suffered with the oppressed so that they could be lifted up.  “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross,” said John Stott. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In the Cross, Jesus initiated a counterculture, turning upside down the values of power, recognition, status, and wealth. Now Jesus’ followers live with different motivations, changed minds and hearts.

Last year we used Lent material for families called The Messiah Mystery (available through Family Life). Kids find clues in the Old Testament that point to Jesus and his death and resurrection. In clear and significant ways, the Old Testament prefigures Jesus’ death as perfect, spotless Lamb. For instance, the story of Abraham and Isaac tells of an only Son who would come and give his perfect life as a final sacrifice for sin. And the story of the first Passover, when the Israelites were leaving slavery in Egypt, tells of one whose blood would cover not the doorpost but the heart of each person who accepted his gift and would forever end slavery to sin and a need for further atonement for sin. These are just two examples. The symbolism in each story goes wide and deep, pointing unmistakably to Jesus, his death, and resurrection.

My own understanding has been deepened over this past year. The theology comes a little closer, and the remembering means even more.

{This post was adapted from a post originally published here at Living in the Word on 3/26/2013}

How was your observance of Holy Week meaningful in a new or re-newed way this  year?

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