This is traditionally a season of penance, repentance and self-denial leading up to the greatest celebration on the Christian calendar, Easter, which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, it is a good time to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ several centuries ago.
Since, as Christians believe, the death of Jesus on the cross was God’s plan, the question logically arises: Why did he die? What was the intention behind his gruesome execution on the cross?
Several answers have been given historically, but I think they may be summarized into 2 broad categories:
- Christ as an Example for humanity
- Christ as a Substitute for sinners
Christ as an Example
To many, the death of Jesus was meant to portray the love of God condescending to suffer with his creatures. This act on God’s part would soften our hearts and move us to repentance. In other words, Christ did not die in order to satisfy divine justice. Another view under this category holds that Christ taught faith and obedience as the way to eternal life and he demonstrated this through his life and death, urging us to follow his example. The point of these answers is that although the Cross has an impact on us, it was not designed to take away our sins. It displays God’s love and teaches us to live sacrificially for the good of others. These answers are inadequate because they do not take into account all that the Bible reveals about the death of Christ, and they generally deny that God’s justice requires payment for sin.
Christ as a Substitute
The second view is the orthodox Christian view. While the cross reveals God’s love and also teaches us to lay down our lives for the good of others, the death of Jesus is primarily a payment for the sins of the world. John the Baptist called him the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). This view sees his death as a penal substitution.
By penal, it means Jesus died as a punishment for sins (Isa. 53:4,5; Rom. 6:23). God was not merely interested in making a point to humanity or teaching a lesson. Through our sin, humanity had offended God (cf. Gen. 3) and justice must be carried out. This Jesus accomplished.
By substitution, we mean he died in place of others (Isa. 53:6, 12; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Heb 9:28). He did not need to die for his own sins for he was sinless. What he did he did in our place, guilty helpless sinners.
Praise be to God for His indescribable grace!