There are a number of more liberal theologians today who buck against the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was a necessary payment for sin. They say that God is not a vengeful God who is angry at sin and trying to exact punishment for it. If anything, they say, on the cross, Jesus was just demonstrating the depth of God’s love for us.
A Christian songwriter named Michael Gungor, who wrote the really popular song “Beautiful Things,” summarized this well in a recent tweet:
“[The idea] that God needed to be appeased with blood is not beautiful. It’s horrific. I would love to hear fewer Christian artists sing about a Father murdering his son … If you can’t think of anything to sing to God other than gratitude for taking your shame away through bloodshed, stop singing.”
Gungor isn’t alone.
William Paul Young, author of the The Shack, said in his book Lies We Believe About God,
“Who originated the Cross? If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser … Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge … And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one.”
Singing about blood might make us uncomfortable. But as I read Romans, I just can’t get away from it. In Romans 3:25, Paul says that God presented Jesus “as an atoning sacrifice in his blood” (CSB). Some translations call this propitiation, meaning God’s wrath is satisfied; his claim against you is settled.
Propitiation, or atoning sacrifice, means that God poured out on Jesus the righteous anger he had toward us. And contrary to Young’s opinion, God’s righteous anger toward sin is not a contradiction with his love. It is, in fact, a necessary corollary to it.
When you love someone, you hate the things that destroy them. If you love the cancer patient, you hate the cancer that destroys them.
That’s how God feels about our sin: Sin destroys his creation. It destroys the glory and righteousness that are the foundation of the universe. It destroys us. That’s why God hates it.
When Jesus stepped in to deal with our sin, God was “demonstrat[ing] his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:25).
The sins of all the Old Testament saints had never fully been atoned or resolved; they had only been “passed over,” because the lambs they sacrificed couldn’t actually pay for sin (Psalm 51). They were only symbols of what Jesus would do. It took a perfect man living the life we were supposed to live and dying in our place to pay for our sin.
In other words, all throughout the Old Testament, God forgave people’s sins on credit.
But now that Jesus has come, God has “demonstrate[d] his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
At the cross, God was able to accomplish two things that seemed like they may be in contradiction: God’s justice was satisfied (his righteousness was upheld), and we were saved.
For God to be righteous, sin had to be punished.
People wonder why God couldn’t just forgive our sin and leave it there. Why couldn’t God say, “Well, I think we’ve all learned our lesson. Everybody back in the pool. We’re all good now!”
It’s because forgiveness—real forgiveness—always requires a price to be paid.
Say a competitor spreads lies about your business and does you real harm. What are your options? You could get in the boardroom, launch a counter-offensive, and pay them back. You could prosecute and sue for damages, maybe even take their business from them.
Or you could choose to forgive them. But what does that actually mean?
If you forgive your competitor, that means you refuse to retaliate or even the score. Sounds nice enough. But guess what? In choosing to forgive, you also choose to absorb the suffering their sin caused.
Forgiveness, you see, always implies suffering. This is what happened at the cross. God absorbed the consequences of our sin into himself.
The question I have for people like Young and Gungor is, If Jesus weren’t actually paying for sin, how would the cross be a demonstration of his love? If his death wasn’t actually accomplishing something for us, how would that be love?
Imagine I’m walking along the road with my kids, and I suddenly say to them, “Watch how much I love you guys!” Then I throw myself into oncoming traffic. That kind of sacrifice is only love if it accomplishes something, if it protects them from a threat.
Jesus’ death would only be loving if it was shielding us from something. The beauty of the gospel is that he was. Jesus was paying for sin.
On the cross, Jesus was not just showing us God’s love. He was taking the place of our punishment. Jesus didn’t just die for us. He died instead of us.