That may be the most important question we face because no one can truly understand the Christian faith without knowing the answer to that question.
Why did Jesus have to die?
Some, who acknowledge Him as a real person who lived some 2000 years ago say Jesus was executed because He was a troublemaker, a first-century rabble-rouser who got on the wrong side of the law and ended up paying with His life. No doubt He was a troublemaker (at least in the eyes of the religious authorities of that day), but that doesn’t really answer the question, because it does not explain the divine motives at work in the death of Jesus.
We will never understand the Christian faith without understanding the cross of Christ, and we will never understand the cross until we see God’s hand at work in the death of Jesus.
Christians understand that the cross is at the very heart of our faith, and without the cross we have no faith at all. What happened on Calvary was the most important event in world history. No event can be compared to it, and it is the key to understanding the message of the Bible.
So why did Jesus have to die?
There are three answers to that question in Romans 3:23-26.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
The first answer to the question as to why Jesus had to die, is in verse 25: “God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood.”
The phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement’ is derived from the word propitiation. It’s a word we don’t really hear in modern English, but a simple definition is to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. As we look at the cross, it means that the death of Jesus turns away God’s wrath.
The wrath of God is something we don’t hear about enough these days. So much of modern gospel preaching is anaemic because many churches preach less than the whole truth to guilty sinners. If all we say to the lost is “God loves you,” we are in danger of making them think that their continued rebellion doesn’t matter to God. Instead, we should be warning them about the impending wrath of God.
The best illustration of propitiation comes from the Old Testament Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual in detail. It had to be the high priest and him alone, and it had to happen on the Day of Atonement, and on no other day. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would take off his regular clothes and put on a sacred linen tunic. He would sprinkle the goat blood on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. That lid, which was made of gold, was called the Mercy Seat. Inside the Ark was a copy of the Ten Commandments, representing the Law of God. By the sprinkling of the blood, the sins of the people were covered. That covering by means of blood was called the atonement. The sacrifice of blood turned away the wrath of God. Why is this important? Because God’s justice demands death as the ultimate punishment for sin.
The symbolism here is important. On any other day, whenever God looked down, He saw the Ten Commandments inside the Ark. The Ten Commandments stood as a testimony against the sins of the nation of Israel. But on the Day of Atonement God saw the blood of the sacrifice that covered the sins of the people of Israel.
The sacrificial system had one major problem though. It provided temporary forgiveness because it was based on the blood of animals. It could not and did not bring complete forgiveness – compete atonement.
But when Jesus died on the cross, the blood that He shed was like the blood on the Mercy Seat. It turned away the wrath of God and covered the sin of the entire human race.
How could that be? In the Old Testament it is the blood of bulls and goats, in the New Testament it is the eternal blood of Jesus Christ which has eternal value in the eyes of God. When Jesus hung on the cross, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that moment all the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus. He became sin for us. All the sins of the whole world were poured out on Jesus. At that moment God turned His face away from His own Son. To call the death of Christ a propitiation means that God’s righteous wrath against sin was now satisfied through the death of Jesus.
So when a sinner accepts Jesus as Saviour, God accepts that sinner on the basis of the sacrifice Jesus made when He died on the cross.
Why is this the only means of reconciliation to God?
Because He is an infinite God of infinite holiness, so all sins committed against Him are infinite in their magnitude. Only a gift of infinite value could turn away the infinite wrath of God. And only God Himself could make such an infinite gift. That’s why our own efforts to turn aside God’s wrath are doomed to failure. We think that going to church every week or taking Holy Communion once a month or saying our prayers or being good or stopping a bad habit will somehow turn away the infinite wrath of God. There is nothing we can do which will turn Gods wrath away.
The wonder of propitiation is that the offended party (God), who has every right to be angry at sinners – He Himself, offers the means to turn away His own wrath, so making it possible for guilty sinners to be forgiven.
The cross is the place where grace and wrath meet. When we come to God through Christ, we come to a friendly Father and not to an angry God.
The second answer to why Jesus had to die was to demonstrate God’s justice.
In verses 25 and 26 Paul says that God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement. He did this to demonstrate his justice.
At the very heart of the gospel is the question, why would God put His own Son to death, especially to save people who had rebelled against Him?
Or to put it another way, if God is both all-powerful and infinitely gracious, why doesn’t He simply offer forgiveness to anyone who says, “I’m sorry?”
The answer is that sin must be punished. God’s character and nature demands it.
Because God is holy, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. His justice demands that every sin be punished - no matter how small it may seem to us. If He were to forgive sin without proper punishment, He would cease to be holy and just. God would no longer be God because He would have denied His own character. That could not happen. All offences against God must be punished. That’s why sinners can’t simply say, “I’m sorry” and instantly be forgiven. Someone has to pay the price.
Picture the scene: A man is on trial for some terrible crime, and is found guilty. Before passing sentence, the judge asks him if he has anything to say. The condemned man bursts into tears and with absolute remorse and sincerity apologises for his crime and begs for forgiveness. The judge, clearly moved by how genuine the plea for mercy is, tears up the charge sheet, and tells the man he is free to go.
What would happen to that judge? He would be arrested and thrown in jail. Why? Because he has failed in his duty to bring justice. He has abdicated his responsibility, and failed the justice system.
In our society we understand the principle of justice. As the old saying goes, do the crime and you’ll do the time. You can’t simply let people off just because they say they’re sorry and they promise they won’t do it again.
And the exact same principle applies in the spiritual realm. Sin must be punished, because the justice of God demands it. But because He loves us so much, He can’t bear for us to be separated from Him. There had to be an alternate plan in place whereby God would remain holy and just, but still provide a way of forgiveness for guilty sinners. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a place where grace and wrath could meet. And that place is the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is the paradox of salvation. God is a God of love, and because of this He wants to forgive sinners. But He is also a God of holiness and justice, who must not and cannot overlook sin. How could God love sinners and yet not overlook their sin? The answer is found in the most famous verse in the Bible. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…”
God sent Jesus to die for sinners. In doing so, the just punishment for sin was fully met in the death of Jesus, and sinners who trust in Him are now freely forgiven.
This is the heart of the gospel: God’s holiness demands that sin be punished, while at the same time God’s grace provides the sacrifice. What God demands, He supplies. Salvation is God’s plan from start to finish. It is conceived by God, provided by God, and applied by God.
The third answer to our question is, Jesus died so that we are justified freely by His grace. (Romans 3:24)
The word “freely” here literally means “without a cause.” Salvation comes “without a cause” in us. In other words, God saves us despite the fact that He can’t find a reason or cause within us to save us. This is what makes salvation a free gift, and not something we could ever hope to earn or buy. There is nothing in us that causes God to want to save us. No good works, no inner beauty, no great moral standards, no intellectual merit of any kind. When God saves us, He does it despite the fact that we don’t deserve it.
That’s what grace is really all about. Grace is what I need but do not deserve. God declares us righteous when we have nothing but the stain of sin in our lives. This is the doctrine of free grace. God saves people who don’t deserve it. God saves people who actually deserve condemnation instead. God saves us in spite of ourselves and contrary to what we deserve.
When He saves us, He doesn’t do it because of any potential He sees in us.
We’d all like to think that there must have been something in us worth saving, but human pride dies hard. Our problem is that because of sin, without the grace of God, the only potential we have is the potential for eternal damnation.
There is a story about a man who had a very basic education who became a Christian. One of his sceptical friends heard about it, and trying to make fun of him asked, “are you now an expert in theology?”
“No. I just know that God loves me enough for Jesus to die for me.”
His friend asked him, “Is that all you know about it? Can you at least explain what being saved by grace means? That is one of your central doctrines, isn’t it?”
The man thought about it for a while and said, “Jesus stood in my shoes at Calvary, now I’m standing in His.”
Sometimes the simplest answers are the most profound…
God’s gift of salvation costs us nothing, but it cost Jesus everything.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)
Have you turned in faith to Christ yet?
Jesus has made propitiation for you. He has turned away the wrath of God. He shed His blood and what was a place of judgment is now a mercy seat for you, if you would come to God through Jesus.