Why Jesus Had to Die for Our Sin

During an interview with Howard Conder of Revelation TV Dr. Richard Dawkins posed the following question:

The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his son tortured to death as a scapegoat is surely, from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them? Why did he have to have his son tortured?[1]

Dr. Dawkins’ response to the notion of the gospel message is to be expected. After all both Peter (1 Peter 2.8) and Paul (Romans 9.33) stated that the message of Christ is a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” Dr. Dawkins confirms the Apostle Paul’s who state that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1.18). However, the Dr. Dawkins’ question is worthy of an answer. His question is both a question of theology and moral ontology.

What Dr. Dawkins fails to grasp is the relation of moral ontology to the concept of God. Dr. Dawkins sees God as a moral monster.[2] The thrust of the question is “why the need for plenary substitutionary atonement?” Couldn’t God simply arbitrarily forgive sin? The short answer is no, because of the nature of God He cannot arbitrarily forgive sin and remain God.

           The answer to Dr. Dawkins’ question is grounded in a proper understanding of the nature of God. Dr. William Lane Craig suggests that since, “God is the greatest conceivable being, and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than to conform to it,” then God must necessarily be good.[3]  In other words God is not good because He conforms to some external standard of goodness. God is good by the necessity of His nature. Thus, to subtract goodness from the nature of God would cause God to cease to be God. In short, God had to sacrifice His son for the forgiveness of sin because God is good. That statement blows the mind of many who hear it. So, let me attempt to explain the theological implications of this essential character trait of God.  

The Bible is very clear about the fact that God is good. In response to a Jewish leader who addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18.18 ESV). Jesus was expressing at least two ideas with this reply. First, He reminded the ruler that His theology was askew because no human being is inherently good only God is good. Secondly, He was reminding the young ruler that by identifying Jesus as good he was equating Him with God and thereby insinuating His divinity.  The former, God and God alone is good, is pertinent to this discussion.


            The goodness of God is not just a New Testament concept. In an encounter with Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea God revealed something of His character to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Moses had gone to the mountain top to commune with God and receive the Ten Commandments. While on the mountain the people below became restless and supposed that Moses had died on the mountain. Since they thought Moses was no longer with them they must have thought that God was no longer with them. They encouraged Aaron, Moses brother, to fashion and idol to carry before them on the remainder of their journey. Aaron complied and built a golden calf from their jewelry. The fashioning of this idol was a direct violation of the very Law that God was revealing to Moses as a standard for their covenant relationship. Because of their insolence God intended to consume them with His wrath and begin anew with Moses. Yet, Moses pleaded with God to spare the people and honor His covenant, which of course He did. God instructed Moses to return to the people and deal with the situation.  The result was the slaughter of three thousand men by the Levites and a plague from the Lord.


            In the aftermath of this event Moses asked God to reveal His glory to him. God replied by saying, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33.19 ESV). After instructing Moses to fashion two new tablets of stone and return to the top of the mountain, God honored His promise to Moses and passed before him. As God passed by He said to Moses:


The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin … (Exodus 34.6-7a ESV)


            There is no doubt that God is good. However, the reality is that humanity is not inherently good. The Scripture also bears this out. The apostle Paul makes it very clear in his epistle to the Romans.


What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of god before their eyes” (Romans 3.9-18 ESV).


Paul makes it clear that every human being that has ever lived and that will ever live is radically depraved and utterly and eternally affected by sin. Moreover, every aspect of every human is radically depraved and affected by sin. What Paul is insisting is that the sin of Adam has been imputed to every human being. This imputation of sin has so radically impacted our nature that every area of our humanity has been affected.


            Sin has affected our ability to understand. Sin has caused us to turn away from God. Not a one of us is disposed to do good because of this imputed sin. Furthermore, our every action and attitude is bent continually towards evil. Sin has affected our speech, our walk, and our attitude. We are desperate and destitute. We have every one “turned aside.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23 ESV). God is good and you are not.


            The goodness of God and the wickedness of humanity present a very significant dilemma for God. Do you remember Exodus 34.6-7? We learned of the mercy and forgiveness of God along with Moses, but we did not finish the verse. The latter part of verse seven presents the dilemma that faces God in relation to humanity. The goodness of God demands His holiness, justice, and righteousness. While God is good, merciful, and forgiving, He must deal with sin and sinful humanity. He reminds us of this in Exodus 34.7b: “… but who will by no means clear the guilty of sin…” (ESV). How can God reconcile verse six with verse seven? How can God be both forgiving and faithful to His justice and righteousness in regard to sin? Herein is the dilemma.


            This dilemma becomes even more pronounced in light of Proverbs 17.15 which states; “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD” (ESV). God must deal with sin by pouring out His wrath on the wicked. In fact, He makes it very clear that for those who have refused to believe His wrath is abiding on them in this present moment. So, the question becomes, “How can God reconcile His forgiveness of sin and maintain His justice without becoming an abomination to Himself?” How can he be both the just and the justifier?


            Once again we turn to the apostle Paul and the epistle to the Romans for our answer which we find in chapter Three.


But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 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 3.21-26 ESV).


            Did you see it? The answer to the dilemma is right there in verse twenty-six. God, through the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ is both Just and the Justifier for all who believe. He reconciled the dilemma through an act of propitiation. Propitiation is a theological term which simply means a covering or appeasing of God’s wrath in regard to sin. As we stated earlier, the only course of action that God has in relation to sinful humanity is to pour out His wrath upon the wicked. If He does not punish sin then he violates His nature and ceases to be God. Sin has a price and that price must be paid. Sins wage is death (see Romans 6.23).  


Death in the Biblical since is not just the separation of ones spirit from the body, but it is eternal separation from God in a place of torment called Hell. In order for one to avoid this eternal pouring out of God’s wrath on sin an atoning sacrifice must be made for sin appeasing and satisfying the justice and righteousness of God. This is where the propitiatory act of Jesus Christ is applicable.


            The Greek word translated propitiation is used a couple times in the New Testament; once in the text above and once in Hebrews. In Hebrews we read; “Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5 ESV). The phrase “mercy seat” is the same Greek word used in Romans 3.25 which is translated propitiation. This is a beautiful picture of the expiatory act on behalf of sin. The context of Hebrews chapter nine involves the high priest’s yearly offering of the blood sacrifice in the Holy of Holies on behalf of the children of Israel. Once each year the high priest would take the blood from the sin offering and go into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood on the “mercy seat” to cover, if you will, the sins of the people for another year. This act of covering was an appeasing act mitigating the wrath of God. This is exactly what Jesus did with the shedding of His blood. “But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing and eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9.11-12 ESV). Christ’s offered a once for all people and once for all time sacrifice for sin. His propitiatory act carried eternal results never to have to be repeated again.


Christ did what you and I could not do. He lived a life that truly fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law.  He did not come to destroy the Law of God, but rather to fulfill that Law (see Matthew 5.17). Then, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21 ESV). The perfect sinless Lamb of God became the vilest thing about you so that you might through Him become the most glorious reflection of His righteousness. He became your sin. He carried your sin to the Cross of Calvary. Christ suffered your penalty for sin on the Cross. “He was crushed for” (Isaiah 53.5 ESV) your sins. In fact it pleased the “LORD to crush Him” (Isaiah 53.10 ESV) on your behalf. Jesus suffered the wrath of God for you on the Cross. Jesus truly became your propitiatory agent. Paul said it best in his letter to the Colossians:


And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2.13-14 ESV). 


Truly, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, but He washed it white as snow.” The question then is how do I appropriate this redemptive power to my personal situation?


Jesus says very clearly the requirements of appropriating His redemptive work on your behalf. At the inauguration of His ministry He is recorded in Mark’s Gospel as saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15 ESV). That is it. Redemption comes to those who repent and believe. What is it that we must repent of and believe?


We are to repent of our sinfulness. We are to turn away from sin and turn towards Jesus Christ. We are to believe that He is who He says He is and that He did what He said He did. If we want to exchange our sin for His righteousness we must understand that “the righteousness of God [is] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3.22 ESV). Moreover, He is “whom God put forward as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3.25 ESV). God is the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3.26 ESV). Those who believe He gives “the right to become children of God” (John 1.12 ESV).


My friend, this faith, or belief, “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10.17 ESV). The question before you today is, “Has God begun to develop saving faith in you?” Is God doing a work of redemption in your heart? You may ask “How do I know?” I will answer with another set of questions often posed by Paul Washer in many of his sermons. “Are you now hating the sins you once loved? Are you now longing for the God you once despised? Has God worked His miraculous redemption in your life?” If not, or If you are not sure then continually meditate on God’s Word and constantly cry out to Him for your redemption until He saves you or you die. If you are sure, then let your pastor know and celebrate your redemption with your new family of faith.



[1] Howard Conder, The Interview, Revelation TV, December 2, 2011. Time: 47:57. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk1RnwbFIps. Accessed January 23, 2014.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 248.

[3] William Lane Craig, “Euthyphro Dilemma,” Reasonable Faith, Available at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/euthyphro-dilemma. Accessed January 23, 2014.


About Ronnie Knight
Follower of Christ, Husband, & Father. B.A. in Theology Masters of Divinity

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