Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

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Scripture tells us, “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin entered the world through Adam, the first of the human race. His human nature, and Eve’s too, were contaminated through sin, and they passed the contamination on through the procreation of the race.

The doctrine Paul is teaching here is called imputation, a fancy word for crediting something to a person’s account. Adam’s sin was charged to the account of his offspring, the human race. You, me, our children, and all of humanity.

This teaching has been the subject of a lot of theological debate. But Paul says all of us have sinned, so don’t worry about whether you are going to have to pay for Adam’s sin. We have our own sin to deal with. Sin’s contamination is universal.

The biblical writers are frank. David writes, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Paul wrote of himself, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Romans 7:18).

“Jesus hung on a tree as an object of open shame so it would be clear beyond any doubt that God was allowing the deathblow of His curse to fall on His Son.”

The final result of sin’s contamination is death. We usually think of physical death, but actually the Bible teaches three kinds of death. There is physical death, the separation of the body from the soul and spirit; spiritual death, in which a person is separated from fellowship with God; and eternal death, in which a person is separated from God forever. Notice that the key element is always separation.

This is why Jesus Christ had to die, because sin is so pervasive and so corrupting that nothing short of His death could eradicate it. At the heart of sin is the desire to be independent of God, to do things our own way. Our human desire for independence from God is a reaction of rebellion. We don’t want to be answerable to Him. The Bible describes this attitude in Romans 1, which we will look at more deeply in a later chapter, “Even though they [unbelievers] knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. . . . Just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (vv. 21, 28).

Independence says, “I don’t want to honor God. I want to do my thing. I want to be my own boss.” This attitude actually originated in heaven—in the heart and mind of the angel Lucifer, who said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). Any attempt on our part to be independent of God is an expression of sin. And, like Satan, who was cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12–15; Luke 10:18), we are kept from heaven until we acknowledge our sin and accept Jesus’ sacrifice that removes sin’s penalty.

The Standard That Defines Sin

Romans 3:23 declares the standard by which sin is measured: “the glory of God.” In other words, when God measures this problem called sin, He measures it against Himself, not your neighbor or the person at work. God doesn’t say, “You are a pretty good person”; He says, “You are not as good as I.”

Most non-Christians either don’t understand or don’t believe that, so they don’t think sin is a big deal. They don’t see why someone has to die to answer for sin. They think God judges using scales to weigh our good deeds against our bad deeds, or else He grades on the curve. But the Bible says everyone falls short—we fail to measure up to the standard, because the standard is God’s perfection. Who can measure up to that ultimate standard? No one!

Imagine two travelers missing their flight at the airport. One traveler misses the flight by just five seconds, while the other person is forty-five minutes late. Is the first person any better off? No, it’s irrelevant how far short of the standard the two people fell. They are both stuck at the airport.

In the same way, we have fallen short of heaven, and it doesn’t matter whether we miss heaven by an inch or a mile. God must respond to sin because His controlling attribute is holiness.

The prophet Habakkuk said, “Your eyes are too pure to approve  evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor” (1:13). When even righteous people in the Bible came face-to-face with God’s holiness, they weren’t casual about it. Isaiah, like Habakkuk an obedient prophet, still cried out in the presence of a holy God, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5), a word that means he was coming apart at the seams.

Job—not a prophet yet a godly man who had been commended by God (Job 1:8)—met an awesome God after his testing and realized his sinfulness: “Now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5b–6). Stand in Job’s or Isaiah’s sandals for a minute, and you’ll understand why Jesus had to die for sin and why no one else but Jesus could make that payment.

Since God is the offended party when we sin, it is His prerogative to determine on what basis sin shall be atoned for and forgiven. That basis is clearly spelled out in Hebrews 9:22: “According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

A Blood Sacrifice

The means by which God forgives sin is the shedding of blood. Anything less than that doesn’t get the job done. All of the moaning and groaning and promising to turn over new leaves that people do will not remove sin. Sin is a capital offense. It carries the death penalty. Why did God decree that blood was the required payment for sin? Because the shedding of blood requires death, since “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11).

The requirement of blood to deal with sin goes all the way back to Eden, when God killed an animal to cover Adam and Eve after they sinned (Genesis 3:21). The animal’s death satisfied God’s requirement and substituted for their deaths. Christ’s death was, therefore, a blood atonement. He offered Himself as a sacrificial substitution for the death our sins deserved.

The apostle Peter, who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, made this great statement: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? The Bible explains why, and when you see it you’ll be grateful for the cross. The Bible says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Notice that the Law of Moses had a curse attached to it. Just three verses earlier Paul had written, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10).

So if you failed in one point of the Law, you blew the whole thing and came under the Law’s curse (James 2:10). That’s very bad, but here’s something very good. Jesus took our curse for us by hanging on a tree, another term for the cross. To demonstrate his point, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21:23, which pronounced a curse on anyone who hung on a tree.

In Old Testament days, a person who committed a capital crime would be executed, usually by stoning. If the crime was particularly hideous, the dead criminal would then be hung from a tree as the ultimate form of disgrace and shame. This also served as a warning to others, as you can imagine. This was not crucifixion, but the central idea was to bring shame to the criminal. It was obvious to all that a person hung on a tree was cursed.

“Jesus Christ is exalted above everyone and everything in the universe.”

So why death on a cross for Jesus? Because God wanted to demonstrate to the world that Jesus was bearing the curse of the Law for us. Jesus hung on a tree as an object of open shame so it would be clear beyond any doubt that God was allowing the deathblow of His curse to fall on His Son. All so that you and I could go free.

The good news is that God accepted Christ’s death as payment in full for our sins (see John 19:30). God now would no longer impute, or charge, our sins against our account (2 Corinthians 5:19). How could God not do that? Because “He [God the Father] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (v. 21). God charged our sins to Jesus’ account and credited Jesus’ perfect righteousness to our account. The death of Christ allows God to grant sinful men a perfect credit score.

The Motive

So why would God willingly send His Son to the cross and why would Jesus willingly die? If anything sets Jesus Christ apart from all others and makes Him unique, it is His love for sinners like us. He loves people, unworthy as they are. Similarly the Father loved us and sent the perfect redeemer, His Son. Think about it. Would you offer to sacrifice your child for a rebel, a scoundrel? That may sound harsh, but that’s who every man and woman is and that is what God did for us in Christ.

We were not a pretty sight to God, but He loved us even at our worst. “While we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8) when Christ went to the cross. That’s why if you don’t understand the cross, you will never fully understand love. God’s love is His joyful self-determination to reflect His goodness and glory by meeting the needs of mankind.

That’s a big definition, so let me put it in everyday terms. God’s love is always visible: God so loved that He gave His Son (John 3:16). God’s love is also sacrificial. He loved to the point of paying a price for us. God’s love is also unconditional. He had His Son die for us before we got our act cleaned up, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). In fact, God doesn’t want you cleaning up your own act, because you are going to miss some spots. He didn’t put any conditions on His love.

Jesus died for us when we were sinners. What’s more is that He did it both willingly and in all humiliation.

The Cross and Our Humble Savior

The word “humiliation” is a theological term that describes the steps downward Jesus Christ took in leaving the highest position in heaven for the lowest position on earth. The implications of Jesus’ humiliation in coming to earth and dying on the cross are staggering.

On the cross, Jesus literally hung between two estranged parties, His Father and the human race, to bring us to God. The concept of a mediator is an old one. In Job, considered the oldest book of the Bible, the patriarch sensed his need for a go-between so he could plead his case before God. Job was struggling and hurting, as we know. He was desperate for help as his three friends accused him of sin. At one point, Job said, “How can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to dispute with Him, he could not answer Him once in a thousand times” (Job 9:2–3). How can a human argue with God? That’s what Job was asking.

Job recognized his dilemma. God “is not a man as I am that I may answer Him, that we may go to court together. There is no umpire between us, who may lay his hand upon us both” (vv. 32–33). Job wanted a go-between, or “umpire.” This is the same principle as a mediator, one who arbitrates between two parties. In order to be an effective mediator between a perfect, holy God and sinners, someone would have to know how God feels and thinks—someone like God, in other words. And this mediator would have to know how we think and feel—someone like us. Jesus Christ uniquely fulfills that requirement. That’s why the Bible says He is the one Mediator who can stand between God and us.

“We were not a pretty sight to God, but He loved us even at our worst.”

In Philippians 2:9–11, Paul wrote, “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus’ humiliation is not the end of the story. God raised Jesus up from the grave of His humanity and exalted Him in heaven as the God-man. When you and I meet Jesus in heaven, we will not see the pre-incarnate Jesus. We will see the resurrected Jesus, the God-man. Through His willingness to humble Himself to the point of death, even death on the cross. Jesus Christ is exalted above everyone and everything in the universe.

For Further Reading:

The Power of the Cross

by Tony Evans

The cross is an historical event that can bring us to heaven…And a current event bringing heaven to bear on us In The Power of the...

book cover for The Power of the Cross