Why Did Jesus Have to Die? (Romans 3:21-26)
Big Idea: Jesus died because our sinfulness and God’s holiness could otherwise never go together.
Today is the start of Holy Week, the week that leads up to Easter. It’s when Christians all over the world remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s an important week, but it’s also a week that raises a lot of questions.
That’s why we’re doing a short series called Easter Questions. We want to answer some of the top questions that come up when we think of Easter. The questions are:
- Did Easter really happen? Did Jesus really die, and was he really raised from the dead? This is an important question, and we looked at it last week.
- Why did Jesus have to die? This is what we’re going to look at today.
- Why does it matter that he rose again? This is what we’ll look at next week.
But today: Why did Jesus have to die? Jesus said that his death was the very reason he came to earth. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In other words, when Jesus died, it was fulfilling a purpose. It was for a reason. He gave his life for a purpose. And that’s what I want to look at today. What was that purpose? Why is Jesus’ death something that we celebrate every single week that we gather?
To answer this, we have to get wrestle with a passage that’s not easy to understand at first. Martin Luther, a famous theologian from many years ago, called this passage “the chief point and the very central place of the epistle to the Romans and of the whole Bible.” So it’s worth trying to understand, even though it will take a bit of work.
Why did Jesus have to die? Because of two facts that are otherwise unreconcilable. Here are the two facts: our sinfulness, and God’s holiness.
Fact One: Our Sinfulness
The entire point of Romans up to this point is that we have a problem: we are sinful. Verses 22 and 23 summarizes our problem:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,(Romans 3:22-23)
This sounds pretty strange to people today. D.A. Carson, a brilliant Canadian-born theologian, says:
When I do university missions today, for the most part I am speaking to biblical illiterates. The hardest truth to get across to them is not the existence of God, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, or Jesus’ resurrection. Even if they think these notions are a bit silly, they are likely to respond, “Oh, so that’s what Christians believe.” They can see a certain coherence to these notions. No, the hardest truth to get across to this generation is what the Bible says about sin.
Sin is generally a snicker-word: you say it, and everybody snickers. There is no shame attached to it. It is so hard to get across how ugly sin is to God. …They sometimes become so indignant with this notion of sin that I must spend a lot of time talking about it!
So that’s a problem that we have. We don’t really seem all that sinful to ourselves. Because of this, the problem that the cross is designed to solve doesn’t really seem like much of a problem to us.
But it is a huge problem. Paul’s just finished by bringing the greatest indictment possible against all of us, no exceptions. In Romans 1:18 he began by saying:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.(Romans 1:18)
And then he concludes in chapter 3:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
In other words, we are all guilty before God. We have all sinned. All of us have missed the mark God intended for the human race. All of us have lost the glory of the original creation.
Let’s see if I can make some sense of all of this.
Augustine — or Saint Augustine as he’s known today — was born in 354 AD in Roman Africa. He may be called a saint today, but he lived anything but a saintly life in his time. He wasn’t baptized until he was in his thirties, and he began an illicit relationship with a woman when he was 17 that lasted many years.
But of all the incidents that took place in his life, there’s one that doesn’t seem like much, but it really stands out. Augustine’s neighbor had a pear tree. He writes:
Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither color nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree and carry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late at night after (in our usual pestilential way) we had continued our game in the streets. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs. Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed.
Even though this was a small thing — the theft of a few pears — it was a big thing to Augustine, because it revealed that something was wrong with him. He didn’t need the pears. The pears weren’t even very good. He didn’t even want the pears. But he wanted the excitement of doing something that wasn’t allowed.
Think about this. No need. No coercion. Just an enjoyment of doing the wrong thing. “I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it.”
As Augustine thought about this, he tried to understand why doing the wrong thing was so pleasurable. He began to realize that underneath this seemingly harmless prank was a very serious problem: a sinful nature and disposition. He began to see that his eating from the tree wasn’t all that different from Adam and Eve eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden. It was like a reenactment of the original Fall.
What Augustine came to realize is that there are a lot of seemingly insignificant things that we do that, when you look at them closely, reveal a serious problem. The problem is that we kind of like doing the wrong thing. If you dig a little deeper, you discover that we’re not that different from Augustine, or from Adam and Eve for that matter. The root problem, as one person (D.A. Carson) puts it, “is our rebellion against God, our fascination with idolatry, our grotesque de-godding of God.” It’s revealed in all kinds of big and little things we do everyday: the way we cut corners, lose our tempers, get defensive, and more. Not big things, but little things that reveal a big problem.
In 2009, a German scientist named Jan Souman took a group of subjects out to empty parking lots and open fields, blindfolded them, and instructed them to walk in a straight line. Some of them managed to keep to a straight course for ten or twenty paces; a few lasted for 50 or a hundred. But in the end, all of them wound up circling back toward their points of origin. Not many of them. Not most of them. Every last one.
“And they have no idea,” Dr. Souman said. “They were thinking that they were walking in a straight line all the time.” Dr. Souman’s research team looked for an explanation. Some people turned to the right while others turned to the left, but the researchers could find no discernible pattern. As a group, neither left-handed nor right-handed subjects demonstrated any predisposition for turning one way more than the other; nor did subjects tested for either right- or left-brain dominance. The team even tried gluing a rubber soul to the bottom of one shoe to make one leg longer than the other.
“It didn’t make any difference at all,” explained Dr. Souman. “So again, that is pretty random what people do.” In fact, it isn’t even limited to walking. Ask people to swim blindfolded or drive a car blindfolded and, no matter how determined they may be to go straight, they quickly begin to describe peculiar looping circles in one direction or the other.
And we’re like that morally, every single one of us. The Bible explains the underlying problem, and it’s called sin. And instead of being a fairly minor thing, it’s actually taken over, even when we try to hide it. It’s corrupted us, our relationships with each other, and most of all our relationship with God. It’s ugly, offensive, and treasonous to God.
That’s the first fact: we are sinful. And it’s a real problem.
Fact Two: God’s Holiness
Here’s the second fact: God is holy. In fact, holiness is the adjective used in the Bible to describe God more than every other adjective or attribute. Holiness literally means that God is set apart. As R. C. Sproul put it, “He is an infinite cut above everything else.”
This has a moral element as well, meaning that God is infinitely separated from sin. Habakkuk 1:13 says that God is of “purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” Not only is God completely separate from sin, but he’s angry about it. He’s full of wrath.
Sometimes anger is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t. I think you’ll agree that there are times that it’s right to be angry. In fact, it would be wrong not to be angry about some things. When you read of baby brokers who look for poor women willing to sell their infants to baby farms for huge profits, of women being forced into sex work, of entire families forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts, or girls forced to marry older men, the right response is anger. These are injustices. It would be wrong not to be angry about these things.
So it is with God. God would not be God if he were not angry at sin.
Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God’s wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities against their neighbors and countrymen. He began to understand the necessity of God’s wrath:
My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
So God is angry. He is not angry in a deranged or inappropriate way. His anger is just, and it is right. As Timothy Stoner writes, it’s the jealous anger of a husband whose bride has returned from honeymoon, and is turning tricks on the street for drugs. It’s the avenging anger of a father who walks into his baby’s room and sees a cobra coiled on his son’s lifeless body.
I want you to see this. God could not be God if he wasn’t angry at sin. It would not be right. Anglican theologian N.T. Wright puts it this way:
The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.
I hope you see the problem. We have two facts that just don’t go together. We are sinners. We not only sin, but the sin is part of our very nature. We even like it. And then there is God, who is an infinite cut above us, and who can’t stand the very presence of sin.
What do we do when we have these two irreconcilable facts? What happens when sinners and a holy God who can’t stand sin get together? We can’t stop being sinners, and God can’t stop being holy. The problem seems unsolvable.
How Jesus Brought These Together
So here’s the problem. God is holy, and we are sinful. The problem is that these are two irreconcilable facts. God can’t just accept our sinfulness without compromising his holiness. We can’t be holy, because our sin nature runs so deep. What can be done?
Some people think the solution is simple: God should just simply forgive us. But there are a number of problems with that view. I read this week of a couple that listed their house on AirBnB while they went on a trip to Cuba. One of the renters held a massive party at their house. Three hundred guests and a DJ showed up at their house and partied until 5 AM. When they came back, their house looked like a crime scene. They found a fist-sized hole in the master bedroom, cut marks across the marble countertop and cabinetry, and stiletto pockmarks in the floor. Their clothing steamer was smashed. There were cigarette burns in the basement rug, and a closet wall was smeared with makeup. They found a bottle of Playboy shampoo in the master bathroom. Their daughter’s bed frame was broken into pieces. “Everywhere I looked,” one of them said, “there was something battered or broken.”
They contacted AirBnB, because the company has a host-guarantee program with up to $1 million coverage for each rental. They got nowhere for a while, which was very frustrating.
Now, imagine that AirBnB came back and said, “Good news! We’ve found the person responsible for the damage, and we’ve forgiven them.” You’d be outraged. It’s not their role to forgive the person responsible; it’s your role. And who is going to pay for the damage? You won’t be satisfied until the insurance adjuster comes by, that things are set right. That’s not unfair. That’s very fair. That’s justice.
So it is with God. When it comes to our sin, God is the most offended party. It is God that we have wronged. And justice must be done.
But here’s the thing: Instead of demanding justice from us, God has chosen to satisfy justice for us. Somebody’s compared it to a judge who has a guilty party before him at the bar. The judge pronounces the sentence — five years in jail, a $10,000 fine, or whatever. Then the judge steps down from the bench, takes off his robes, and takes the person’s place in prison or writes out the check for the fine. And we say, “This is what the Christian gospel is all about. It is a substitution.”
But that’s not quite right. In that illustration, the judge is not the offended party. He is a neutral arbitrator of justice. The offense was not against him, and if he was, he would have to recuse himself from the case.
But with God, he is the offended party. But he doesn’t recuse himself, because his justice is perfect. He stands over us and says that justice must be done. But then his Son willingly and joyfully pays the price, so that the penalty is paid, and justice has been done. And our sinfulness and God’s holiness come together without contradiction, because we are no longer guilty. We’ve been set free.
That’s exactly what Romans 3 explains:
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)
D.A. Carson writes:
Do you want to see the greatest evidence of the love of God? Go to the cross. Do you want to see the greatest evidence of the justice of God? Go to the cross. It is where wrath and mercy meet. Holiness and peace kiss each other. The climax of redemptive history is the cross. (Scandalous)
Jesus died because our sinfulness and God’s holiness could otherwise never go together.
First, don’t minimize your sin. The gospel isn’t good news until we realize how big of a problem we have. No blame-shifting. No defensiveness. It’s never an attractive thing when someone doesn’t take responsibility for what they’ve done wrong. Come before God, and come with the full weight of your sin.
Second, rejoice in what Jesus has done for you. I read this in my devotions this week: “In eternity past Christ saw all our faults, and not one after another, but all together” (David Clarkson). And yet he willingly died for us. Jesus has paid the price for us.
We’re going to sing a song with these words that capture it all:
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished.
Father: thank you for the cross. Thank you that at the cross your justice and love met, so that you could be just, and that you could also justify us.
We worship you today. Thank you for the cross. In Jesus’ name, Amen.