Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why Should Jesus' Execution Bring Salvation?

In comments earlier today, Spencer Troxell, posed an important question:
I wish I understood why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified for the sins of the world. Can you explain this to me without saying "For the wages of sin are death, which is the answer that I'm always given, although it's not a logical answer. WHY IS IT THAT one man's murder by an angry mob somehow offers salvation to that mob?

This has always troubled me. You're one of the smartest christians I know, so hopefully you can shed some light on the subject.
First of all, I'm probably not one of the smartest Christians Spencer knows and I'm apt to prove it in what I write below.

Secondly, he's not alone in wondering about the Biblical insistence that Christ's death was necessary to bring about salvation for humanity. I think about it myself sometimes and just this evening, before our Midweek Advent worship, a member of the congregation I serve as pastor remarked, "I'm looking forward to seeing how you answer that question because it's something I wonder about."

The Bible is insistent that Jesus had to suffer and die for fallen humanity in order to bring us salvation. The Gospel of Luke, for example, says that the risen Jesus told two of His disciples, who were skeptical of the word they'd gotten from some others of Jesus' followers that they'd seen Him alive at His tomb, "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”" (Luke 24:26)

But why was it necessary? There are, you should know, many theories of atonement among Christian theologians. (Atonement is a word from Old English, literally a compound word meaning at one-ment. The idea is that Christ's death on the cross brings reconciliation between God and humanity, making them one.) Honestly, all these theories are little more than informed conjecture, none of which can really tell us why God chose to use Christ's death on a cross and His resurrection to bring about that reconciliation. But that God has made that choice, the New Testament is emphatic.

Both John's Gospel and the New Testament book of Hebrews refer to the ancient Jewish custom of sacrifice of unblemished lambs in connection to Jesus. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, these lambs were sacrificed on the altar at the temple in Jerusalem. The lambs were stand-ins for people who realized that their sins, their violations of God's call to love God and love neighbor, the themes of the two tables of the Ten Commandments and later, incorporated by Jesus into the Great Commandment. The lambs bore the sins of the repentant and for yet another year, they and God were at one.

In John's Gospel, John the Baptizer sees Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

But, the New Testament, especially Hebrews, makes clear that there is a qualitative difference between Jesus and all the other unblemished lambs who gave their lives for the sins of others. Hebrews says that all the Jewish religious rites that preceded Jesus were either faint copies of heaven or faint precursors of God's definitive action in Christ. The temple replicated heaven. The lambs sacrificed at the temple could only atone for sin for a restricted period of time. The atonement from Jesus is everlasting.

Hebrews says that Jesus was not only the ultimate sacrificial lamb, but also the ultimate high priest. It was the high priest who sacrificed the lambs on Yom Kippur. Priests had to purify themselves in order to enter the holy of holies where the sacrifice happened. Not so with Jesus because He was sinless. And this sinless sacrifice and priest, Hebrews says, "has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).

From all of this, I think, we get an idea of the seriousness of sin. And in speaking here of sin, I'm not necessarily referring to the individual violations of God's will that are forbidden in God's law, things like false witness, stealing, or misusing God's Name. Those are sins, individual acts that result from the basic human problem of alienation from God and an inward turn to self and selfishness. If we're turned away from God, we're turned away from the source of life. Jesus, Hebrews says repeatedly, has done what all the religious rites of ancient Judaism only hinted at: obliterated sin's power "once for all." (See here).

To God it evidently makes perfect sense that a condition which threatens our eternal lives should be reversed by a perfect sacrifice on the part of an eternally righteous God Who didn't need to experience death. It must make sense to God that our sin should be exchanged for His righteousness, that His undeserved acceptance of death should bring us life.

I don't understand this. Nor can I explain it.

But I do want to suggest a different way of looking at Jesus' death. The angry mobs who cried for Jesus' death and the gutless Roman governor, Pilate, who ordered Jesus' execution were only the proximate causes of His murder. Unlike the lambs offered up by sacrifice by pious Jews on Yom Kippur, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh offered Himself up. His death wasn't really the result of the decisions of jealous priests, angry Pharisees and Saducees, disappointed crowds, or a Roman governor. According to the Old Testament prophecies and the witness of the Gospels in the New Testament, God long ago decided that Jesus would die on a cross. Jesus' death happened at God's initiative, not ours.

Luke 9:51, for example, says that Jesus, when it was time for His crucifixion, "set his face toward Jerusalem."

When Pilate couldn't get answers out of Jesus, he asked if Jesus realized that he had the power to have Jesus executed. "“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above..." (John 19:11).

And elsewhere, while referring to Himself as "the good shepherd," Jesus asserts, "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again" (John 10:18).

Now, what's significant in all of this to me is that it speaks to a premise of your question. Yes, my sin is the ultimate reason that Jesus went to a cross. A sinful world didn't (and doesn't) want the bother of a sinless Savior come to reclaim a fallen world. We harbor the notion that if we can kill off Jesus (or deny His resurrection or deny His existence), we can have the run of things and do exactly as we want. (See here.) But, in reality, had it not been Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, Annas, Judas, the angry mobs, or the sadistic soldiers, Jesus would have died for us anyway. God mandated it and was in control even when Jesus' murderers thought that they were. His resurrection underscored that.

I don't know why God chose to use the death of a sinless Savior to bring salvation. But when I look back on Old Testament history and when I consider the horrors that human sin unleashes--from the killing chambers of Auschwitz to the terrorist horrors recently unleashed in Mumbai, God's method of atonement doesn't surprise me. Sin is truly grave, killing business. It doesn't shock me that death would play a role in the expunging of its killing power.

In the cross, it seems, God comes into our world and shares the worst of our human experience so that all who surrender to Christ can experience the best of God's experience, resurrection and everlasting life.

I don't get it. But apparently from God's vantage point, it was necessary in order for Him to truly connect with us and take us back from the evil that threatens to take us down for eternity.

This may not be a very satisfying answer, Spencer. But for now, it's the best that I can do. Someone sharper than me can probably see and say more.

[UPDATE: Four years ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Mark Roberts wrote a fantastic series of posts on why Jesus had to die.]


Spencer Troxell said...

Thank you for that thoughtful and honest answer.

My brother suggested to me the other day a theory that Jesus didn't die 'for' man's sin so much as he died 'because' of man's sin. In his theory, God came to earth to show mankind a better way, although he knew that a person like himself would most likely not find a happy ending in this environment. In my brother's mind, the salvation that we received was the message, and the cost of the message was Jesus's death.

I like my brother's version better, but you seem to be right in suggesting that this is not correct from a biblical perspective: God wanted the sacrifice for some kind of ritualistic & symbolic reason.
This is disturbing if it is to be taken for truth.

I suppose that is the Christian dillemma: If we are to be christians, we have to accept what the bible says is truth on faith, sans logic, and although the mind of God is unknowable to us, we have to accept on faith that the being in the driver's seat (who is fond of making unpredictable turns and sudden stops) is sane.

Thanks again for answering my question. You've given me alot to think about.

Mark Daniels said...

Just a few points in response.

(1) I don't believe that "God wanted the sacrifice for some kind of ritualistic & symbolic reason." That would be a religious approach and I don't think that God is religious, if you will. I believe that something actually happened as the result of Christ's death. This is what Lewis was getting at in 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' when he talked about "the deep magic." Somehow, the necessity of punishment for sin was assuaged by Christ's death. (Of course, "the deeper magic" in LWW was that once one without treachery voluntarily gave his life for the traitor, death would "work backwards.")

My point in bringing up Hebrews is that the author of that book said that all of the ritual practice instituted by God in the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the real deal in Christ. But in Christ, an eternally efficacious action has done away with the need for those rites. Christ has definitively changed the universe by His death and resurrection.

(2) Faith doesn't preclude logic. But it does allow for an alternative logic. Sin breaks the human connection to life. God doesn't wants to restore that connection. But it cannot be restored by His simply floutng the laws of the universe He Himself set in motion. So, if you will, He submits to the deep magic in order to enact the overriding deeper magic.

God operates within the logic of self-sacrificing love and is only unpredictable, I think, for our vantage point. But the Scriptures affirm repeatedly that God is changeless and I would argue that, for all the purported contrasts, there is zero difference between the God we find on the pages of the Old Testament and the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

(3) God gave us our brains. We're to use every ounce of our logic in approaching God and life. Sometimes--often, in fact--seeming paradoxes will arise. I can live with those.

Thanks, Spencer. I wish you, Abby, and the boys a very happy Christmas and new year!


P_J said...

Mark, Spencer,

John Piper has written a good, exhaustive, but concise book summarizing the biblical rationale for Jesus' substitutionary death: Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die.

It's available through Amazon, where you can look inside.

Piper explores the themes Mark has mentioned, but also reasons such as: to make us holy blameless, and perfect; to heal us from moral sickness; to give us confident access to God; to free us from slavery to sin; to enable us to live for God and not ourselves; and to show that the worst evil is meant by God for good.

From the biblical perspective, we are not good people who just need a little help and redirection; we are deeply and profoundly wrong, and we are at odds with the God who created us. Jesus had to die to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Sinful people cannot cleanse themselves; guilty people cannot absolve themselves; slaves cannot free themselves; dead people cannot raise themselves.

Only someone from outside, one not tainted by sin, can solve the problem of sin in all its dimensions.

Mark Daniels said...

Very well put, Jeff.

Ilze Henderson said...

24. Thanks so much for this topic. It has been something that has bothered me as well for a number of years now. It seems the more I grew in the faith the more questions I had. No one could provide an answer for me, so I decided to ask the only One who could provide answers and that was Jesus Himself. In His Grace He provided insight to me which I immediately wrote down in a story format and wrote 'The Bible: Behind the Scenes'. I wish I could paste the whole book here, but there is obviously not enough space, but what I can tell you is that Jesus is more than willing to share His Wisdom with you if you allow Him. Thanks again for your comments! God bless.