Why did Christ have to die?
The supreme importance of the death of Christ is obvious from Scripture. Jesus’ death was prefigured in the entire Old Testament sacrificial system. It was also predicted or described in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Daniel 9:26). It is said to be mentioned over 175 times in the New Testament (R. A. Torrey, What the Bible Teaches, p. 144), and approximately one-fifth of the four Gospel accounts focus on the last three days of Jesus’ life. Our Lord plainly said that He came to die (Mark 10:45, John 3:14-15, 10:11). And with this the New Testament writers agree (Hebrews 2:9 and 14, 9:26, 1 John 3:5). The death of Christ as an atonement for our sins was the central reason for the incarnation.
The character of God demands payment for sin. His law has specified the payment to be death (Genesis 2:17, Ezekiel 18:4, Romans 6:23). So the principle becomes, “Whenever sin is committed, someone has to die.” God, being holy and just, could not overlook sin without ceasing to holy and just. James Denny wrote, “There can be no gospel unless there is such a thing as a righteousness of God for the ungodly. But just as little can there be any gospel unless the integrity of God’s character be maintained” (The Death of Christ, p. 119). Similarly, H. C. Thiessen stated, “God cannot pardon sin merely on the ground of the sinner’s repentance. That would be impossible for a righteous God to do. God can pardon only when the penalty is first paid. In order that God might be able to pardon a sinner and to remain righteous at the same time, Christ paid the sinner’s penalty. He had to die if God was both to justify the ungodly and Himself remain just (Romans 3:25, 26)” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 314).
Four words summarize the accomplishment of the atoning death of Christ:
1. Satisfaction (Christ’s death in relation to God’s justice and wrath). Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice and pacified His wrath against sin. Another word which can be used for satisfaction is “propitiation,” which Wayne Grudem defines as, “a sacrifice that bears the wrath of God against sin and thereby turns God’s wrath into favor” (Systematic Theology, pp. 509-510). Grudem writes concerning God’s forgiveness prior to the cross, “God had not simply forgiven sin and forgotten about the punishment in generations past. He had forgiven sins and stored up his righteous anger against those sins. But at the cross the fury of all that stored-up wrath against sin was unleashed against God’s own Son” (p. 575).
“. . . being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:24-25, NASB).
“. . . And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2, NASB).
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, NASB).
2. Substitution (Christ’s death in relation to man). The Bible teaches that Christ died in our place—instead of us. The atoning death of Christ was substitutionary (or vicarious). He died as our substitute, taking the punishment that we deserved.
“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b).
“God made him who had no sin to be sin [a sin offering] for us . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7b).
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows . . . . he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. . . . the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
3. Redemption (Christ’s death in relation to sin and the penalty of the law). Through Christ’s death we have been redeemed and ransomed. Jesus paid the price to set us free from captivity to sin and from the condemnation of the law. He purchased us and bought us back to Himself, like a slave purchased for freedom.
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
“Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28b).
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. . .” (Galatians 3:13)
4. Reconciliation (Christ’s death in relation to God’s favor). This refers to the restoration of man to favor and fellowship with God. Through the atonement, believing sinners have been brought back into God’s favor after estrangement. Fellowship between God and us, previously broken, has been restored, and we have been reconciled to God.
“For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Romans 5:10)!
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight . . .” (Colossians 1:21-22).
In summary, all four of these emphases are included in the atoning death of Christ:
(a) Satisfaction—to God
(b) Substitution—for man
(c) Redemption—from sin
(d) Reconciliation—with God
In conclusion, the death of Christ was necessary in order for God “. . . to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). What a beautiful truth this is! God’s holiness required Him to be just; God’s love prompted Him to become the Atoner and thereby the Justifier of those who believe in Christ. Who but God would have ever thought of this solution? All praise is His.