Last week we looked at why we need the cross: the problem that all of us sin. Yet, sin is more than just acts of doing wrong – it points to the deeper problem that our very nature has been corrupted so that we put ourselves first in life, over God or anyone else.
Sin is ultimately a rejection of and revolt against God, and so sin is always, first and foremost, against God and breaks our relationship with Him. “God, I’m going to do it my way and live my life on my own.”
Romans 8:7 (NLT2): “For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will.”
This hostility that separates us from God cuts us off him His life, ultimately leading to our death. Thankfully, the central message of the cross and the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Through his death our sins are forgiven and we inherit eternal life.
But let me ask you a question – why should our forgiveness depend on Christ’s death on the cross?
I mean, Jesus commands me to forgive those who have harmed me, but nobody has to die in order for me to do that. Why did Jesus have to die in order for God to forgive you and me of our sins? After all, He’s God – can’t He do whatever He wants; can’t He just forgive me?
And I think God would say “Yes” if God was another human being, but God isn’t another human being – He’s God. And our sins are acts of rebellion against God, the Creator – perfect, holy, and just – Who made the laws we break.
Theologian John Scott, in his book The Cross of Christ, says: “The crucial question we should ask, therefore, … is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all.” (p. 90).
The problem is that God is perfect, and we aren’t – & we’ve rebelled against Him. But, there is some good news – God is love!
1 John 4:16 (NLT2): “We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love….”
This is great news that God is love and so important – it offers us hope for mercy and grace, which God offers to us through Jesus Christ. But, at the same time the Bible also affirms that God is holy and just.
The basic meaning of holy is separateness, withdrawal, and we talk of God being holy for He is unlike anything or anyone else. But what makes God holy is His very character, His nature, which is pure, just, completely loving and kind – there’s nothing and no one like Him. It’s divine perfection against human rebellion, God as He is versus us as we are, a holy God and an unholy people.
You see, when it comes to you forgiving me or me forgiving you – we’re all in the same boat, as imperfect sinners. You and I have never met anyone who was completely holy and perfect.
I have this feeling that if I had ever met Mother Teresa or Billy Graham or even the Apostle Paul, I would feel incredibly humble and even unworthy in their presence – but they’re still human like me, and they sinned, too.
We really don’t have an earthly frame of reference to having an encounter with a holy, perfect and completely just God, who’s very nature is good and pure and just and always right – He can’t help it. As the only perfect God and Creator, He can only do what is right – period! And all creation and all of heaven proclaim His amazing and holy glory.
Isaiah 6:3 (NIV): “And (the seraphs) were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”
And God’s very nature, His holiness, cannot condone sin. Nor can He be in its presence, and because we sin, it sets up a huge problem.
Isaiah 59:2 (NLT2): “It’s your sins that have cut you off from God….”
Sin separates us from God, for God’s goodness and holiness and purity cannot exist in the presence of sin. But, God’s holiness and justice and righteousness go a step farther – they reveal our sin, showing us how far short we fall of God’s standards and desire for us.
The Law, such as the Ten Commandments, is an expression of God’s character and serves as a plumb line showing how far we have missed the mark.
One night a family was doing a devotional that included the story of the Ten Commandments. The husband asked, “How many commandments did God give to Moses?”
Seth, their 5-year-old son, replied, “Too many!” (mod., PT.com). It really can feel like “too many” because anything like the commandments lifts up standards for us to live by that pretty clearly show how much we miss the mark. And God’s perfection and holiness are the ultimate standard that show us how far off the mark our lives can get because of sin.
When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God, He realized how holy and just God was, and how far he fell short of that mark.
He cried out: “… ‘It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips….’” (Isaiah 6:5 NLT2)
Nothing will humble us like comparing ourselves to God’s perfection & holiness. And because God is perfect & holy, our sin prevents us from coming into His presence.
Which sets up the problem – how could God, out of His great love for human beings, forgive sinners without compromising his holiness, and how could he express His holiness in judging sinners without frustrating His love? (p. 90)
How could God be true to both His perfect, holy nature and His holy love? This process or act of bringing together God and us, a holy perfect God with unholy sinful human beings, is called atonement.
We can think of atonement as “at-one-ment,” the process or act of bringing together and reuniting God and us, a holy perfect God with unholy, sinful human beings that keeps intact God’s holiness and God’s love. It is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and it is revealed on the cross.
John Stott: “At the cross in holy love God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience himself. He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross divine mercy & justice were equally expressed & eternally reconciled. God’s holy love was ‘satisfied.’” (p. 91)
But a lot of folks don’t really get the importance of the cross because they haven’t taken seriously either the huge problem of our sin or the majesty and holiness of God. It’s only when we begin to grasp the incredible glory of our holy God and are convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit and realize that we really are sinners that we realize how much we deserve eternal death and hell and see the necessity of the cross.
God’s love and His holiness and justice are satisfied through the sacrifice and death of His Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. If we don’t understand this, we cannot understand the lengths God went to in Christ to redeem and restore us, while always being faithful and true to Himself.
Ephesians 5:2 (NLT2): “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.”
Jesus loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice to us, dying on the cross for us, showing us the true, sacrificial character of love, of God’s love.
But why does it have to be Christ’s death? We can’t understand the importance of Christ’s death unless we also have some understanding of the system of sacrifices in the Old Testament, because the very nature of these sacrifices explains a lot of what Jesus accomplished. On one hand, these sacrificial offerings affirmed the Israelite understanding that they belonged to God, they were His, for He created them and gave them life. On the other hand, they acknowledged their separation and alienation from God because of their sin and guilt, and something had to be done.