What exactly is the atonement and why did Jesus need to die in order for us to go to Heaven? At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make any sense. What is the chemistry between a nearly naked man hanging on two pieces of wood and the forgiveness of every sin I currently am or ever will be guilty of? I mean, if God really wanted to, couldn’t he just snap his fingers and then magically make all record of our sins disappear?
The question at hand refers to what is known as the atonement, which is the work that Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation. But before we answer why he had to die and how that removes our sin and grants us righteousness, we should look at the cause that led to Christ’s coming to Earth.
The Reason the Atonement
The Bible tells us that Jesus came to Earth as the result of two things: his love and his justice. Love, being the first of the two, can be seen most easily by reading what is likely the most popular passage in the entire bible, John 3:16. Here we read that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Herein lies a problem, because since God is also just (Ezr 9:15), no amount of love can pay the penalty for our failure to obey the rules he has set in place. So when someone breaks his law, someone has to take the punishment for that crime in order for it to be forgiven; this sounds similar to the rules in our homes as children, in our schools as teenagers, and in our courtrooms as adults.
If we were to examine ourselves honestly and openly, we will find that we have all sinned and fallen away from a position of honor with God; and we deserve to be punished as a result of our actions. But we have been given this offer, that we can be made right in God’s eyes again by accepting the gift that Jesus Christ paid for with his life, on the cross. His execution served as the payment and punishment for the sins we have committed; and it is because of this that we can come back into God’s favor. By allowing us to do so, God displayed his virtue, honor, and love for us. (Rom 3:23)
The Need for the Atonement
Why did Jesus need to die on the cross? Well, to put it simply, he didn’t. He didn’t have to come to Earth at all, but he chose to; and knowing that should strike us deep within our hearts, especially when we consider that God didn’t even spare the angels when they sinned against him, but instead cast them into Hell and committed them to chains (2 Pet 2:4). It’s important to understand, yet often overlooked that God could have chosen to leave us in our guilt, like criminals awaiting our sentence from the judge, and we would have no right to complain because God would only be giving us what we deserve.
But God loves us - like a father loves his children, or a groom loves his bride - and it is because of his love that he decided to save some of us; and as a result, someone else had to take the punishment for the laws we have failed to keep. This is what Jesus accomplished by living a perfect life, free of sin, and dying on the cross as an innocent man.
How the Atonement Works
You may be asking yourself now, ‘;Why did Jesus have to live a perfect life and die on the cross in order to pay for our ability to enter Heaven when this life is over?’ This requires us to look at two features of Christ’s life: his obedience and his suffering.
Jesus lived a life that was free from any sin (1 Pet 2:22; 1 Jhn 3:5). As a result of this, he earned the forgiveness for the sins we have committed as well as our righteousness (Rom 5:19). But this is only half of the necessary work, because being forgiven only places us back on neutral ground. Simply put, if this was all that Jesus had done, we would only be in the same position that Adam and Eve were in before the fall which is recorded in Genesis 3. In order to be granted fellowship with God forever, we - like Adam and Eve - would have to obey God flawlessly.
We now come to the topic of Christ’s suffering. Though Christ endured different kinds of affliction and sorrow, the primary aspect that we will focus on here, is his suffering for our sin. As was stated above, Christ took on himself the punishment for our sins, so that we did not have to take it on ourselves (Rom 5:8).
To understand the chemistry of the atonement a little better, allow me to provide the following analogy:
Again, imagine you are a criminal (which you are) awaiting your sentencing in the courtroom. As the judge prepares to start, a man bursts into the room and says that he is offering to switch places with you and serve this and any future sentence in your place. After further investigation and discussion with the judge, he is convinced that the man is guilty of no crimes and agrees to go through with the offer, so long as you are willing to let him do so.
Since the man - who of course is Jesus - has lived a life in perfect obedience to the law, he is in a position where he can stand in your place in order to take the punishment for your crimes and not be punished for any he has committed - which is the first part. The second part, is the act of him actually going through the sentence or punishment for your crimes and taking the burden onto his shoulders and letting you go free. Why? Because he loves you, and he is just.
In this we see fully, the work and achievement of the atonement in Jesus’ ministry.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 568-573