The Atonement: Why Jesus Had to Die

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If you watched the last video I posted on what Jesus went through before and during His crucifixion, then you know the agony and terror He faced. But what makes it even worse is knowing He had to go through with it. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).  The cup He didn’t want to drink from is the cup of God’s furious wrath against sin. Jesus wasn’t afraid of the cross as much as He was afraid of drinking from that cup, but He knew in His heart and He knew from Isaiah 53:10 that it was God’s will to “crush Him.” He knew the time had arrived to fulfill His mission. He knew He had been born for this moment and He knew there was no other way to make things right between humankind and God.

We struggle with why Jesus had to endure something as brutal as death on a cross. The Apostle Paul wrote:

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles,Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-24). 

The reason the unsaved think the cross is foolishness is because they don’t fully understand the true nature of sin and how much God hates sin. Think about pigs. Pigs don’t know they stink. They are born and raised in nasty, stinky pig pens and know no other life. We are like pigs in the sense we are so used to the stench of sin in this world, that we don’t even realize how much we stink and how disgusting we look in the eyes of absolute purity and holiness. Sin doesn’t stink to us because we are desensitized to it. It’s all we know from birth to the grave, but God hates sin and can’t tolerate it forever. It pollutes His creation and He is only allowing it to continue so more and more people can get saved. But the day is coming when the door to salvation will close and God will judge sin.

When you see the ugliness of sin and the holiness of God, you begin to see why Jesus had to die. Yes, He HAD to die. There was no other way and that’s the part that we struggle with because God is God and can’t He just do what He wants? I’ve often asked myself why couldn’t God just forgive our sins by divine decree? If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Aladdin, at the end of the movie, the Sultan finally overrides his own decree and allows a commoner to marry his princess daughter. When asked how he could do that he answers with, “Well am I Sultan or am I Sultan?” That seemed to satisfy everyone and the movie ends, but this is not how God works. He can’t just override His own decrees because He is Holy and never makes bad decrees. Once God decrees something, it is divine law and there is no changing it.

In the book of Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve one rule and He was very clear about what would happen if they broke it.

Genesis 2:16-17– The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Once God declared death would follow disobedience, there was no going back. God couldn’t simply just change His mind and undo His own decree like the Sultan and say, “It’s okay Adam and Eve. I know I said you would die, but I got to thinking about it, and I don’t want that. I’ll let you off the hook this one time but don’t do it again.” We have to understand the nature and perfection of God. He’s not like earthly parents who make threats to their misbehaving children, but then never follow through with the punishment when the child breaks the rules. If God did not act on His own decrees, that would make Him a liar, and if God is a liar, then He isn’t God. As a matter of fact, God can’t lie. (Hebrews 6:18). God has the power and the ability to do it, of course, but that would diminish His holiness and perfection.

The Apostle Paul told us in Romans: For the wages of sin is death… (Rom. 6:24) In other words, if you sin, your payment is death. There is just no way around it because it is the law of God. He said it, it is. But here is where the cross comes in and what Jesus accomplished by dying on it. God had a plan worked out from before the creation of the universe to fix the mess Adam’s race got into. And what’s even better, God fixed it without ever violating His own law! God worked within His own spoken command and never once diminished His glory or perfection. His plan is what we call the plan of “Redemption” and it’s the most beautiful, brilliant plan you’ve ever seen. So, let me break it down for you.

Because all humans are born into sin, we all have our wages of death coming to us. Because God is holy and demands perfect justice, something or someone has to die to pay the sin debt. In the Old Testament it was the death of animals that served as a way of paying toward that sin debt. It was called atonement. (Lev. 17:11). The word “atonement” is an Old English word from the 1500s when it appeared as two words “at onement.” It meant to be one with God. It more recent times it has meant “to cover” and in this case, it meant to cover sin. Recently, however, there has been a shift in modern scholarship to abandon this definitionand intead define atonement: “to wipe, to purge, or pay a ransom.”

William Lane Craig contributes to this discussion by writing the following:

The closest New Testament (NT) word for atonement in this etymological sense is katallagē or reconciliation, specifically reconciliation between God and man. Paul characterizes the apostolic vocation in just such terms: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17-20). When William Tyndale produced the first English translation of the NT from the Greek in 1526, the etymological meaning of “atonement” as “at-onement” was clear in his rendering of 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. “The ministry of reconciliation” was “the office to preach the atonement” (5:18), and the call “to be reconciled to God” was to “be at-one with God” (5:20).[1]

It’s one thing to understand the textbook definition of a word, and quite another to understand God’s purposes behind something. The definition just explains what atonement means but not how it’s attained and how it works as far as God is concerned. So how exactly does atonement work?

There are different theories out there about this doctrine. The one espoused in this video is penal substitutionary atonement, for all of you more advanced students out there. If you are new to this doctrine, just know there are different camps that all look at this in different ways, so you can study them all if you like, but for this video, we will understand the atonement to be penal in the sense that Christ paid a penalty and he was a substitute in our place to pay the penalty. It’s bloody business to be sure because death is the form of payment necessary according to God’s own law.

There is an old Christian hymn called “There is Power in the Blood,” and I can’t tell you how many times I sang that in Church over the years.  I can still hear the congregation singing “There is power, power wonder working power in the precious blood of the lamb.” That may sound strange to sing about blood and I’m sure people outside of Christ who don’t understand the atonement would think we’ve all lost our minds and joined a cult to sing about blood. But they don’t understand that there truly is power in the blood. Why? Because the life is in the blood. God told Moses in the book of Leviticus:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement (Leviticus 17:11–). 

In the OT, God have the Israelites specific laws regarding worship and sacrifice, and atonement for sin is what made it possible for the people to approach God. Without blood, no one could approach the Lord. But everything the ancient Israelites had to go through in their worship at the tabernacle and temple was only a lesson to point us to the future Lamb of God–Jesus Christ who laid down life willingly for our sins. And that is what the book of Hebrews is all about in the NT–how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. Let me share with you an important passage from the book of Hebrews that summarizes what I’m saying.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest…he entered once for all into the holy places…by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctifyfor the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish

Without blemish…this is so important and explains why we can’t make atonement for our own sins. to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant… since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:11-15).

So you see, a death was required to redeem or make atonement for the sins of the people. But the problem is, any death won’t do. No human death can satisfy the requirements of an acceptable holy sacrifice without blemish. In other words, we can’t offer ourselves as payment because we are just paying for our own sins. That’s why God had to become man so there could be an acceptable sinless death

We see later in this same chapter that the shed blood from the atonement also had a purifying effect. In verse 22 it says: And according to the Law…all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Heb. 9:22). John also wrote confirming this: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). This is also why John could write in the book of Revelation: They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14). So, the blood has a cleansing effect, which sounds like an oxymoron because we usually associate blood with stains.  But on a spiritual level, the blood of the atonement wipes our slate clean thus making us righteous in God’s sight. But why is there no forgiveness without blood? Because God is just and until justice is served, there can be no reconciliation.

As long as the Israelites made payments to cover their sin by sacrificing animals, God withheld His wrath and justice. But it had to be the shedding of blood to come up with the right form of payment. Jesus shed His own blood to satisfy the justice of God.

Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice to cover our sins because the blood of bulls and goats just wasn’t able to secure eternal redemption (Hebrews 10:4). It was going to take a son of Adam, a flesh man to get Adam’s race out of the sin problem. However, this was a major problem because all of Adam’s children were too weak and sinful to offer an acceptable sacrifice, but watch how brilliantly God overcame the seemingly impossible predicament. God, to make it perfectly legal, became a son of Adam! That is why Paul called Jesus the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). A new “Adam” was needed to obey God fully so the curse of death could be removed. Jesus, because He was perfect, fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law. Now God could say to the court in Heaven, “Look! A man, a son of Adam has fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law and now I can restore my life and spirit back to them.” Because Jesus was innocent and lived a sinless life, He had no sins to pay for so His death could pay for ours. Paul wrote concerning this: He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). God put on Jesus the sins of the world so He could put on us the righteousness of Jesus. And how do we receive this righteousness? By Faith (Ep. 2:8-9).

The atonement is a complex doctrine, to be sure, but one thing comes through clear as a bell–what Jesus did on the cross was the greatest display of God’s love He could have shown. As the Apostle John wrote:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).

Now that we have studied the cross and the atonement, we’re ready to look at some of the promises of God opened up to us as a result. In the next video we are going to look at regeneration, which is where the Spirit of God recreates our human spirit and we are reborn with eternal life. But all of this is made possible because of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ shed blood made us clean vessels to contain the presence of God, and that is exactly what we’re going to explore in the next video so don’t miss it.

     [1] William Lane Craig, Atonement and the Death of Christ (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020) 12-13 Apple Book.