Why The Cross? audio (4MB)
1 Cor 1 tells us that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles and you’d have to say this is still the case. People like Richard Dawkins and John Spong want to know what was the point of Jesus dying on the cross. Why couldn’t God just forgive us? If I’m truly sorry for my mistakes why can’t God just accept me? Why did he have to insist that someone pays for what I’ve done. It’s like God’s holding on to a grudge against us.
Richard Dawkins thinks the whole story of the cross is obscene. He says it makes God out to be one of those vengeful gods of primitive times who needed to be appeased by human sacrifice. He, along with others, suggests that the story of the cross is a case of “Divine Child-abuse”.
But is that the case? Or was the Cross really necessary?
Real forgiveness involves costly suffering
The first thing we need to think about is the cost of forgiveness. Is it possible to simply say you’re forgiven and leave it at that? Let me suggest that real forgiveness costs. If someone runs into my car I could forgive them. I could tell them to forget about the damage they’ve done, but would that solve the problem? Well, no, it wouldn’t. My car needs to be repaired and we all know how much that’s going to cost! Either he or I have to absorb the cost. It won’t just magically go away. So I can only forgive the person if I’m prepared to bear the cost of the repairs.
And what about the sorts of injuries that people cause that are hard to quantify: emotional and psychological injuries that cause loss of happiness, or reputation, or confidence, or trust in others. Someone saying “I’m really sorry” doesn’t take away the pain, does it? It doesn’t heal the scars or repair the damage to our confidence or our trust. If we’re to forgive those sorts of hurts we have to be prepared to deal with the injuries ourselves. We have to be prepared ourselves to bear the debt that person owes us for the damage they’ve caused.
So how do you deal with this sort of loss? How does the other person repay the ‘debt’ they owe you?
One way people deal with it is to seek revenge. I heard someone the other day talking about his 18 year old son being murdered. And he said all he wanted to do afterwards was to get hold of the murderers and make them suffer. But would that have solved the problem? Well, not really. It might have made him feel a bit better for a while, but in the end it would have left him as another perpetrator of evil. When someone hurts us we could go around telling everyone how terrible that person is, damaging their reputation and that might make us feel better for a while. But it wouldn’t solve the problem.
You see, the problem with vengeance as a way of collecting on the debt is that in yourself you become harder and more bitter. You may become hostile towards anyone who’s like the perpetrator - men, women, other races, teachers, police officers. And from the other person’s point of view, they or their friends and family may then feel justified in seeking vengeance against you. And so the process begins to snowball, to spiral out of control. So instead of the evil being removed it escalates and spreads, including into you and your own character.
The alternative is that you choose to forgive, to absorb the pain and suffering into your own being. You choose to forgo the opportunity of repaying evil for evil and instead take the suffering on yourself. The irony is though, that this acceptance of pain leads in the end to life; to the end of bitterness and blame. When we find we can forgive someone of the pain they’ve caused us, we take away from them the victory they’ve had over us and replace it with our own freedom of choice. This isn’t a process without cost but it is a rewarding one in the end.
I was thinking about this as I was driving home from the city down Canterbury Rd the other day. It was peak hour traffic with bumper to bumper traffic in one lane. Two contrasting incidents happened. One was a driver who decided to jump the queue by driving down the inside lane then pushing in when he came to a parked car - the sort of thing that gets you really mad. I found myself hoping that he’d speed through the traffic lights coming up where there’s a camera installed and get his just desserts. Did that help me? No. I was no closer to home. All it did was to raise my stress levels as I stewed on the injustice of what he’s done. But the other incident was the opposite. I was coming up to an intersection where cars come out from the left into Canterbury Rd then mostly turn right straight away. I had right of way but I decided to slow down and let the 3 or 4 cars get through. And do you know what happened? I immediately felt good about giving up my right to be first and I drove on relaxed and happy. Those are just tiny examples but you get the picture, I hope. Revenge costs more than we’re going to get repaid by it whereas forgiveness brings its own rewards.
Still you say, shouldn’t wrongdoers be held accountable? Yes, of course they should. In some cases that’s the job of the police and the courts. In other cases it’s appropriate for us to confront them, but only if we’re first ready to forgive them. It’s only when our motivation is love that the outcome will be positive. Otherwise the desire for accountability is simply a desire for revenge, in disguise. And it’ll have the same consequences.
The Forgiveness of God
But what about God’s forgiveness of us. Let’s go back to the question we started with. Why couldn’t God just forgive us, cancel the debt? Why did he have to send Jesus to die?
As we’ve seen, forgiveness always involves a cost. It involves suffering of some sort on the part of one person or another. So if God is a God of love what else can he do but become personally involved in suffering the things that we deserve to suffer?
The problem of us sinning against God is that it makes it impossible for us to enter his kingdom. Sin, as we saw a couple of weeks ago is putting ourselves in the place of God. If we’ve put ourselves on the throne then there’s no place for us in God’s kingdom where he alone can reign.
Just as sin is putting ourselves in the place of God, death is essentially being removed from God’s presence forever.
So what does God do? He could leave us to die or he could bear the cost himself. Remember that Jesus is God. This is not the case of a wrathful God demanding that someone else’s blood be spilt to satisfy his anger. Nor is this just a needless example of sacrificial love. If that were the case Richard Dawkins would be right, it would be an obscene act.
No, Jesus had to die because there was a debt to be paid if justice was to be upheld. God himself takes human form so he himself can bear the cost of our sin by his death on the cross. He fulfills his desire for both justice and love at the same time and in the process destroys evil without destroying us, the perpetrators of that evil. On the cross he substitutes himself for us.
Real Love is a Personal Exchange
Some people ask why a God of love can’t just ignore what we’ve done and move on. Well the reality is that you can’t help someone who’s suffering without entering into their suffering in some way. If you counsel someone with emotional problems, you inevitably enter into their suffering. In helping them you get emotionally drained. That’s why every psychologist has another psychologist that they go to regularly to detox.
Think about what it’s like to raise children. Being a parent involves great sacrifice doesn’t it? You have to choose to either give up your freedom or theirs. You have to enter into their dependency so that eventually they can enjoy the freedom and independence that you have.
So life-changing love towards people with serious needs always involves a substitutionary sacrifice. And that’s what God does for us on the cross
John Stott puts it like this: “The essence of sin is us substituting ourselves for God while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We ... put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God ... puts himself where we deserve to be.”
The Great Reversal
In Mary’s song in Luke 1 Mary says “ He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53 NRSV).
Little did she think when she sang those words that she was describing not just the rich and powerful of this world but God himself. God lowers himself to human form, takes the role of a servant, puts himself in our place in order to lift us up to glory, to the status of sons and daughters of the King.
And in the process he fulfils the demands of both love and justice. This is the genius of the cross. No other solution would have satisfied both. And no other solution could end the spiral of evil and violence brought about by the fall of humanity. Only Jesus’ death on the cross, his life given up for those who were his enemies, those who owed him everything because of their rebellion against him; only that could end the cycle of vengeance and lawbreaking that’s been going on since humanity first disobeyed God.
But you know, if Jesus’ death was simply an example for us to follow it’d be of no use would it? I might be greatly moved by it. I might be inspired to change my life around, to be more loving, more forgiving, more generous to those who are weaker than I am, but it’d be like making a new year’s resolution. It wouldn’t last longer than my short memory span. That resolution would fail the first time someone cuts me off at the lights, or insults me, or tries to manipulate me.
But listen to what God has done by his death on the cross (Eph 2): “You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved-- 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Christ’s death, changing places with me, has made a fundamental difference to who I am. It’s brought me back to life and made me ready to sit with God in his throne room. I’ve been brought into the life of God. I’m there already. Wow! Was the cross ever worth it!