Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

A question I find amazingly interesting is, “Why couldn’t God have just waved His hands and forgiven our sins—why did Jesus actually need to die?”

Since God is all-powerful, it's easy to wonder why He couldn't simply snap His fingers and set the world aright, avoiding Jesus's death and sparing the Church the challenges of evangelism. If nothing else, the question explores an interesting concept. If we could experience forgiveness without having to navigate the challenges of Jesus’s ministry, wouldn’t that be better?

What prefaces this question is a consideration of God’s power. God's power is such that He spoke into existence, not only the looming mountains in the west, but the earth below and the vast universe beyond. He is omnipotent, able to conquer worldly armies and the devil without breaking a sweat. But if this is true, why engineer such a complex redemption? Wouldn't it have been preferable for God to simply hurl our sins into another dimension or sweep them under a giant cosmic rug? I know when I forgive someone I don’t sacrifice any animals in my yard to do it, so what’s the issue?

Clearly God had both the power and the will to save us. But desire and ability are only two parts of the equation. The Lord of Lords is more than simple power and determination. His nature is sophisticated and diverse, a reality we must consider when weighing this question.

The fact is, even though God’s power is perfect and infinite, there are just some things He cannot do. For example, no amount of God’s power can cause Him to sin, and sin is precisely where our conversation takes us today.

Justice and the Human Condition
Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both an abomination to the Lord.” The labeling of what is wicked, good; or what is good, wicked; are exceedingly sinful mistakes (cf. Prov. 24:24). If a municipal judge were to set a murderer free or imprison an innocent man, we would say that Judge is "wicked." We all recognize the ethical disaster of “justifying” wicked people and condemning the innocent. What's important to note is Proverbs 17:15 is an expression of God’s perfect justice. As the Great Judge, God never rules incorrectly. He always deals with the innocent and the guilty just as He should.

Now let’s rewind back to the beginning, past World War 2, past the Crusades, past Moses, all the way to the Garden of Eden. When Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, he invited sin upon all who would come after him. As our representative before God in the Covenant of Works, Adam acted on our behalf. This means that whatever he did, it was as if we did it. Adam’s actions precipitated "the fall" of mankind, a cataclysmic event wherein humanity “fell” from God’s favor and became His enemies. Therefore, all of us, because of Adam’s sin, are born wicked and objects of God’s condemnation. This unfortunate reality exposes us to one of two hazardous human conditions: God must punish sin.

Contributing to our situation is the fact that God is not an apathetic heavenly king; He maintains rigid standards. While God tolerates sin to a degree at present, ultimately sin will not be tolerated at all, it will be destroyed, and sinners will be judged (Ro. 6:23). Sin has no place in God’s perfect kingdom, another reality that exposes us to our second hazardous condition: we lack the perfect righteousness required for God’s kingdom (Ro. 3:23, 5:12).

To summarize, God’s Word says that our sins must be punished and we must achieve a positive righteousness (through perfect obedience) in order to be reconciled to Him (Mt. 25:26).
All of this means that, despite His infinite cosmic power, God cannot simply wave away our sins. He cannot sweep them under a rug or delete them from His hard drive. To do so would be a violation of His own law and, according to His own words, “abominable.” It would be just as sinful for the God of creation to dismiss our sins as it would be for our local judge to free a condemned murderer.

God is not limited by a lack of power, He is constrained by His holiness. Because God is good, just, and holy, simply calling sinners righteous is not an option.

Gospel Implications
You may wonder, “Isn’t the point of the gospel the fact that God saves us ‘while we are sinners,’ as Romans 5:8 says?” After all, isn’t that what Martin Luther meant when he called God’s people, “simul justus et peccator,” meaning, at the same time sinful and justified? The answer is yes—but only because of Jesus.

As we’ve established, the only way to resolve our hazardous conditions is for our sins to be truly punished and our righteousness truly perfect. God will accomplish this in one of two ways. Unfortunately, many choose the default option—judgement.

Hell, a place of eternal punishment for sin, is the final destination of sinners who have chosen judgment over repentance. As our righteous judge, God is good and just to condemn sinners in this way. In fact, His justice makes it impossible for Him to do otherwise. But the alternative is Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus accomplished for His people something truly awesome. It's what we call “The Great Exchange.” The Great Exchange is the event wherein our sins are traded for Christ’s vicarious life of righteousness. Specifically, Jesus took our sins upon Himself, which were then truly punished on the cross, and imputed (gave) His righteousness to us, addressing both aspects of our fatal condition (Ro. 8:14). In this context, vicarious means it is as if we truly lived Jesus’s perfect life, and He lived ours.

It has been said that, at the moment Jesus took our sins, He became the “greatest sinner ever known” because, though He was without sin, He took within Himself a multitude of sins to bear their punishment on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul refers to this when he says Jesus “became a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13), a curse He took on willingly in order to glorify His Father and rescue His people.

Jesus had to die because it was the only way God’s loving plan of redemption could succeed while upholding His justice, a point Paul makes in Romans 3:26 when he identifies God as both just (God maintained perfect justice) and justifier (God justifies His people, declaring them righteous in Christ).

God desired ‌to reunite His people to Himself, adopting them into His family forever. He loved us so much He took the drastic but necessary steps to reunification, namely sending His Son Jesus to die willingly on our behalf.

When we ponder God’s act of redemption, we must remember how all His attributes work in harmony. Not only is the miracle of salvation, the forgiveness of sins a display of God’s power, but of His love, mercy, graciousness, and a commitment to His own justice, too. The death of Jesus was not merely a more complicated way of doing things, it was the only way.

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