If ever a preacher had a challenge it was Bob Carr’s statement: “The thing that puzzles me about Easter is why the sacrifice was required. … No preacher has ever explained to me why the death of Jesus had to happen, why it was mandated, why any message from God to man had to happen by that route.”
He expressed no doubt that the Scriptures recount Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, he just could not see the reason for it. So in response there is no point simply rehearsing the content of the Scriptures, rather it requires showing their logic. So here are two lines to follow – one personal the other explanatory.
The personal is a little tricky because I do not know what lies behind his questions. However, challenging assumptions of a question is an important step in progressing thinking on a topic.
On the surface of Bob’s comment is the doubtful idea that God was communicating ‘a message’ by Jesus’ sacrificial death. While the death of Jesus reveals much to us about God and ourselves, its primary aim was not to communicate a message but to achieve a reconciliation. The gulf between God and humanity is sin – a breakdown in relationship that was not a failure in communication or lack of information but our rejection of God, issuing in an offensive lifestyle, an unwillingness to repent or apologize, and an inability to repay the damage. Those who have been through a breakdown in relationship, a divorce, a fight, a war will know that reconciliation is not a matter of information but action. Real change has to happen, restitution or reparation paid, genuine forgiveness must take place before the relationship can start to mend. Bob is looking for answers to his intellectual puzzles, and there is nothing wrong with that – in fact it is one of his endearing qualities, but his questioning is misleading his understanding of Jesus’ death by placing it in the wrong context.
Furthermore, the personal issue of Bob’s comment is that no preacher has been able to explain ‘to me’ the necessity for Jesus’ sacrifice. It is possible that no preacher ever will be able to explain to him this part of the gospel or any other part for that matter. For the preacher has to meet Bob’s standard of explanation. He is the judge, and jury, of his own opinions and conclusions. He is not saying “I do not understand” but “no preacher has ever explained to me.” Yet what would be required to explain something to him? Is ‘explain to me’ code for ‘persuade me’ to believe?
If you look a little deeper Bob is asking not the preacher but God to justify himself to Bob. But how can God be God in this discussion if Bob is God’s judge? His question is why Jesus’ sacrifice was ‘required’, ‘had to happen’, ‘was mandated’, ‘had to happen by that route’. His question is what law was God under that made the sacrificial death a necessity? But it begs the question of whether God determines morality to which we conform or whether we determine morality to which God must conform? Here is an abiding humbling experience of theological study: we are not discussing something inanimate and less than ourselves, or a creature of equal standing but the one who has created our very basis of justice by which we ourselves are to be judged. God may choose, as he has, to reveal his character and ways to us – and even contract himself to act in accordance with that revelation – but we are in no position to require him to do anything other than what he has revealed.
The explanatory line of answer then, is to show how Jesus’ sacrifice achieves God’s goal of reconciliation in accordance with his character and ways. This opens up a huge range of Biblical concepts though I will only follow one in this article: God’s just mercy.
God’s justice is determinative of human justice, which explains why justice is retributive. Retributive justice is not uncontrollable revenge but giving people what they deserve – reward or punishment as the case may be. It is why we must not penalize the innocent or excuse the guilty. It is why justice is more than social engineering. Some penalties may have utility in rehabilitation or harm minimization but, without clearly identifying the guilt, we have no right to punish.
God’s nature and character is not only that of justice but also of mercy and forgiveness. He is long suffering and patient with us; slow to anger, and not desiring the death of sinners but their repentance and life.
It is in the combination of God’s justice and mercy that the sacrificial death of Jesus is to be understood.
To extend mercy and forgiveness without retribution is neither just nor merciful. Mercy without payment is not mercy but ‘acceptance’. And acceptance of immorality is injustice, especially to victims. Whenever there is a crime, somebody has to pay. Sadly, it may be the victim; it should be the criminal. That is why not only justice but also mercy has to have the element of retribution in it. To forgive the murderer, rapist, thief or war criminal without punishment, places all the cost on the victim and worse, it treats immoral behaviour as acceptable.
God resolves the issue by taking upon himself humanity’s punishment in order to extend his forgiveness to all who repent. He doesn’t accept our sinfulness, but pays for it. He doesn’t punish an innocent third party for our rebellion against him, but willingly takes it upon himself. So that having paid for our sin he can justly forgive us.
Without the cross we either have no justice or no forgiveness. With the cross we have both justice and forgiveness. It is God’s own character of just mercy that mandates his own solution to our rebellion against him – and as a sinner, I for one, am very grateful.