This article is just one in a long series addressing questions posed by agnostic blogger Larry Simons in his article entitled, 31 Questions Christians Can’t Answer. For the rest of series click here. Enjoy!
15. Why was Jesus’ death on the cross the ONLY way sins could be forgiven?
This question, more than any other on Mr. Simons’ list, goes directly to the heart of the gospel. If there is more than one way to obtain true forgiveness for our sins, if Jesus death was not necessary, then all of our pursuits as Christians are in vain. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as foretold in prophesy and told in the gospels is either the method by which God offered sinful man a way back to Him or it is no way at all. It can not be one amongst others. In order to understand why a few terms need to be defined then a few additional questions must be asked.
Sin is what separates us from God and leaves us helpless against his judgment. The word is used in two distinct contexts in the Hebrew and Greek texts. In one sense it is transgression, crossing a line, or leaving defined boundaries. In the second sense it is missing the mark or the condition of being imperfect. Sin separates us because it puts us in opposition to God who is perfect in all His ways. His perfect justice demands payment for each wrong. To forgive sin without also receiving some form or payment is to just cover it over, the sin remains. The sacrifice of another pays the debt and obtains forgiveness for the sinner.
Forgiveness is all about restoration of relationships and removal of guilt. When we forgive, as humans we relinquish the right to punish, when God forgives He removes the need to punish. This is why forgiveness is contingent on acceptance of the sacrifice of another, it can not be imposed.
When we understand what sin and forgiveness are in their proper context we’re left with the question, why is death the penalty for sin? In the beginning before God even made Eve he made Adam, placed him in the garden, and gave him only one rule, “do not eat of these trees.” Adam’s disobedience is what we refer to as original sin and it infects all of us. Genesis 2:17 tells us that God told Adam that “when you eat of it you will certainly die.” The penalty for doing the one thing God told the first man not to do was death. All other laws arise from the lack of obedience to the first law, therefore the penalty for all disobedience is death.
But did Jesus have to die? How can his death pay for my sins? I suppose He didn’t have to die, but He did have to die for sins to be forgiven. Forgiveness required a sacrifice that was without blemish (see Leviticus 4, 5:1-13, 6:24-30, 8:14-17, 16:3-22). It is also significant that the law required that the sacrifice be killed for the purposes of the sacrifice, it could not die naturally or by accident. And finally the sacrifice had to be public. I’m not sure if there was another method of death that would have fit all of these requirements, but crucifixion certainly does. By all accounts it was a uniquely brutal and torturous death with few ever surviving. It was designed to humiliate it’s victims and intimidate it’s witnesses. Of course all of this hinges on belief that Jesus was who he and others claimed He was, fully man and fully God, this is the only way He could be believed to have lived a sinless life (or do you think you could do it?).
Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” So, from a Christian world view perspective, there is no more central concept than the willing sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, every element of the law and the prophets is preparing and illuminating it. 2 Corinthians 5:21 sums up the gospel and the response to this question perfectly, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”