Was it just for Jesus to die for sins? (Part 1)

How Is It Just For Jesus To Die For Sins?

This was a question we were asked at our Lunch & Learn on Sacrifice and it’s a very good question. There are a few things to consider in answering this question: 1) God, in his justice, allows for a propitiation; 2) God sent prophets to tell us that Jesus was going to do this; and 3) Jesus willingly died for our sins. Let’s look deeper into these important points as we attempt to understand the justice of God in the salvation he gives.

Propitiation

That’s a word we don’t use every day, but it’s an important word from the Bible. Propitiation is defined as a means of forgiveness, or atonement. It has to do with sin and how God forgives it.  Here’s one place where we see it used in the Bible:

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).”

So, propitiation is a means of forgiveness. In this text from the book of Romans, the means of forgiveness is the blood of Jesus – meaning the death that Jesus died. As God said to Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life (Leviticus 17:11).” See, it isn’t so much that Jesus shed blood, but that Jesus died. It was the blood of Jesus that made atonement by the giving of his life.

To take this a little further the word that Paul used here that we translate as propitiation is the same word that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) used as the lid, or mercy seat, of the ark of the covenant (see Exodus 25:17-22). This mercy seat is the place where the priest would take the blood of the sin offering for God’s people and sprinkle it for atonement for sins (see Leviticus 16:15-16). Remember, the punishment for sin is death, as it always has been (see Genesis 2:16-17), but God in his mercy and love for us has allowed for a propitiation – something to take our place and satisfy his justice – in order that we do not have to suffer the just penalty for our sins.

And what was the purpose of God putting forth the life of Jesus as a propitiation? It was to show his own righteousness so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Recall from the post on sacrifice that the foundation of God’s throne and the way of the Lord is righteousness and justice. God’s salvation will be consistent with all of his attributes.  There is no attribute of God that is greater than another as it is impossible for God to be “less” in any way. If, in fact, God is the greatest, then his characteristics will be equal in greatness. Thusly,  his salvation is 100% in keeping with both his righteousness and his justice.

It is useful at this point to broaden the question from  “Was it just for Jesus to die for us” to “Was it just for an innocent animal to die for sins.” The purpose of broadening our scope here is to show that the question actually distracts from the heart issue actually at play.  The heart issue here is a problem with God’s justice.  It does not matter whether we are discussing Jesus’ death, animal’s death, or any other living creature’s death.  Seeing as how God is the one who defines all things and is, in himself, truth, he has revealed the truth that a propitiation is acceptable in his justice. This is why it is said that God is both “just and the justifier” – meaning that God keeps his justice but also justifies (makes righteous) as well.  As men and women created by God, we do not get to question morality that God has put in place.  To ask the question of whether it was just for Jesus to die for us is to place our own sense of morality and justice over and above God’s.  This speaks more toward our rebellion from God rather than the morality or immorality of God’s justice.  At first glance, it sounds like a good question. The truth is, though, that asking the question actually reveals a sinful heart in need of forgiveness.

In our next post we’ll address the prophecies concerning Jesus’s death. Please leave us a comment or question! We’d love to continue this conversation.

Sacrifice

The story of sacrifice is a story that goes all the way back to the earliest times of creation. God created Adam and Eve and he placed them in the garden. He called them good and they were holy. God gave them one command, to not eat from a certain tree. But they disobeyed God and sinned against him which changed them from being holy to being sinful. Because of their one act of disobedience they were cast out of the garden. One sin was enough to lose paradise. This raises a basic question: how can we, with many sins, expect to regain paradise and holiness?

The answer is forgiveness. And what we know of God’s forgiveness is that it will be consistent with his character and the way he rules over his creation. God said that the way of the LORD is “by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).” The Psalmist wrote that God “loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5)” and that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14). So we’re pretty clear on God’s character. How does God’s forgiveness fit within his character?

If God is perfectly righteous (holy, or sinless) then his forgiveness makes us righteous. And if God is perfectly just, then his forgiveness satisfies his justice. When God gave Adam the command to not eat from the tree, he set forth a law: Do not eat from that tree. What did God say would be the consequence of breaking that law? In his justice he declared the penalty for disobedience to be death. So, when Adam sinned, how did God display his forgiveness?

When Adam sinned, he realized he was naked, and became ashamed. So, he made a covering for himself from leaves in order to cover over his own shame. However, God replaced Adam’s attempt to cover his own shame by covering Adam with the skin of an animal. This was God forgiving Adam. God sacrificed an animal himself and used the skin of that animal to cover over Adam’s shame and demonstrate his forgiveness. God, in his mercy, allowed for a substitute to take the punishment that Adam deserved. God himself sacrificed, killed, an innocent animal in order that his justice would be satisfied. He then used that animal as a sign of Adam’s forgiveness which resulted in his being made righteous by God. Adam did not earn his righteousness and he did not pay the penalty himself. Instead, God did everything on Adam’s behalf.

In this new paradigm of being cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve taught their children what they had received from God. They taught them sacrifice. Two of their children, Cain and Abel, made offerings to God one day. Cain made his offering with wickedness and evil in his heart. Abel made his offering by faith. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. God accepted Abel’s offering because it was by faith. Interestingly, Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice. The offering of the person of faith was a blood sacrifice.  The pattern of sacrifice can be seen in these first two generations – blood saves because there is life in blood sacrifice. As God said through his prophet Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life (Leviticus 17:11).”

Years later God’s people were enslaved in Egypt under an unjust ruler. They cried out to God for salvation and he heard his people. God sent punishments upon Egypt, the last of which was to kill the firstborn son of every household. God used his prophet Moses to warn the people of this final punishment and told them that if they sacrificed a lamb and put it’s blood over the doorposts of their houses, then they would be spared from God’s punishment. The blood of the sacrifice saved God’s people from God’s  punishment.

Later in history, God gave his people a king named David. David was also a prophet, and God showed David that there is a deeper meaning to sacrifice. David questioned how the blood of animals could be sufficient to cover sins in any kind of meaningful way. Year after year God’s people had to sacrifice animals. Wasn’t there a better, more permanent sacrifice? God also revealed to David that someone from his household would always rule over God’s people. In time, after God’s people rebelled against God and he punished them, God sent prophets to declare that a king from David’s household would come to save God’s people and rule them forever. This coming king became known as the Messiah.

Around 700 BC God sent a prophet named Isaiah. God spoke through Isaiah that the coming Messiah would be born of a virgin. He also said that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. He would be one who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins, and that the punishment that brings us peace would be upon him and by his wounds we would be healed. This pointed to the deeper meaning of sacrifice. Blood from animals had been the accepted sacrifice by God but here we see God revealing that a person would be the accepted sacrifice. How could this be? Well, if we think about what sacrifice does, it takes the punishment that a person deserves and places it on an animal. But, an animal’s blood isn’t the same as a person’s blood, because an animal’s life is not as valuable as a person’s life to God. What’s unique about this coming Messiah is that he would be the only person who God ever says would or should shed blood for the sins of others. No other person would be accepted.

Long after Isaiah, we meet John the Baptist, who was a very important prophet. He revealed who the Messiah was. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared him to be the Messiah and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is the only person whose blood God will ever accept. Jesus was the final sacrifice. Jesus lived sinless. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God that we cannot live. He alone is the righteous man. The blood of the only righteous man was shed for unrighteous sinners. If God allowed for a physically blemish-free animal’s blood to satisfy his justice, how much more the blood of the morally blemish-free man? In this way God’s justice has been satisfied in full. God’s righteous requirement of perfect obedience obtained by the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. God’s forgiveness is offered through the death of Jesus and made sure through his resurrection.

If we could summarize this story, the entire Bible (all of human history, really!), it would be in one verse: Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is a wage? It’s something we earn. Do we earn righteousness? Do we earn forgiveness? Do we earn mercy? No. We earn death because we sin.

By contrast, what is a gift? It is something given, not earned. It is given freely by the one who can give it; but it must be accepted. What is God’s gift? Eternal life is the gift of God. But this gift is only given through Jesus. God has given us a gift and all it requires of us is faith in the sacrifice of Jesus. As we see through the story of Abel, God is pleased by faith. We are saved by faith alone, through Jesus Christ alone. This is God’s gift to us. We are saved from God’s punishment by the blood of the Lamb. Our shame of sin is covered by the sacrifice of Jesus. All we have to do is accept God’s gift by faith.