Did Jesus Have to Die?
by Dr. David B. McWilliams ©1994
The cross of Jesus was the demonstration of God’s justice (Rom. 3:25), indispensable to our salvation, apart from which God could not save sinners.
The redemption of sinners through Christ’s achievement was in its inception and accomplishment and is in its application a matter of the sovereignty of God’s grace. God was under no obligation to save any rebel. It was impossible that God could be constrained by anyone or anything external to Himself. God was not required to send His Son into the world to die for sinners. Had God permitted the entire human race to sink into perdition, not one attribute of God would have been violated and He would have remained perfectly just.
However, having determined in His eternal decree to save sinners was the death of Christ the only way to accomplish salvation? Could God have saved sinners in some other way? The answer to these questions is important for understanding what God has revealed concerning Himself, and the nature of the gospel. Thinking through these issues adds a dimension of depth to our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice for sinners.
The Punishment of Sin: Necessary?
Could God merely have pardoned sin without punishing sin in His Son who took the sins of the elect upon Himself as their righteous substitute? Does the nature of God demand sin’s punishment, or could God simply have pardoned sin?
Some have maintained that God could have pronounced a pardon for sinners apart from the sacrifice of Christ. Hugo Grotius, for example, taught that the law of God could be set aside by Him, that He could will to relax His law at any point. It was not necessary that God deal with men judicially, on the basis of an absolutely authoritative law broken by man. The atonement was a means by which God maintains good government, but it was not necessitated by distributive justice. Indeed, God could abrogate the law at will and, therefore, might as easily abrogate the law’s penalty.
Others – among whom are some of the finest theological thinkers – maintain that the atonement is necessary because God chose to save by this means. However, it does not arise out of a necessity of God’s nature that having chosen to save sinners it must be by the cross.
Each of these views variously stated and for differing reasons fails to recognize that God’s law is an absolute standard that reflects His nature – especially His abhorrence of sin.
The view of some sounder theologians who nonetheless have taught that God could have chosen to save in some other way is based on a commendable desire to guard the concept of God’s sovereign freedom. It is their claim that the punitive justice of God exists not out of a necessity of God’s nature but simply as a result of God’s freedom. This theory fails to reckon with the fact that God’s will is not abitrary so that, while God’s will is never determined by anything external to it, it is determined by His nature and perfections. Our smallest children are rightly taught by the Children’s Catechism when it asks:
Q. “Can God do all things?” A. “God can do all His holy will.”
No Other Way But Through Vicarious Atonement
Scripturally, it is clear that although God was under no obligation to save sinners, having determined to do so, no other way was available but the vicarious atonement of the Son. The view that God simply could have pardoned sin, or saved in some other way, is contrary to the Biblical portrayal of God’s character. The atonement of the Son was not the best of many options, nor was it the wisest of several possibilities – it was the exclusive way of redemption apart from which no sinner could have been saved!
This conclusion is demanded by Biblical teaching on God’s justice. God is the Judge of the earth (Pslam 58:11). He is just in all ways (Psalm 119:137). His just nature intrinsically abhors sin (Psalm 47:7). His eyes are too pure to look upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13). God cannot consistently, with His nature, leave sin unpunished (Exodus 34:6, 7; 23:7). Those who sin against God are worthy of death (Rom 1:32).
Witsius was correct to query whether, if God could fail to inflict punishment for sin, could He consistently inflict punishment at all “because, in that case, He seems to afflict the sinner without a reason, and ill-treat the work of His hands.” (1) The wrath of God is not arbitrary, it is directed against “all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (Rom. 1:18). The vengeance to be poured out upon the wicked is not based upon an arbitrary decision of a will divorced from the fullness of Divine perfections, but is a just vengeance founded upon God’s hatred of what is contrary to His nature. God must punish sin. Therefore, the reason God chose to save elect sinners through the means of the substitutionary atonement of the Son is because “in His widsom, He saw no other way, by which satisfaction could be made to His essential holiness and justice.” (2) Indeed, this in turn is the great presupposition of our justification before God’s Tribunal. No one can be acquitted before a righteous God who is not himself righteous. The righteousness with which the sinner is justified is an alien righteousness accomplished juridically through the atonement of Christ.
This leads us to consider that the atonment of the Son in the monumental exemplar of the justice of God. The sinner is under the penal sanctions of the law (Rom. 1:18; 3:10, 19-20). It would contradict God’s character and glory for Him simply to pardon sin. Edwards’ remarkable observations should be noted in full:
…sin is heinous enough to deserve (enternal) punishment, and such a punishment is no more than proportionable to the evil or demerit of sin. If evil of sin be infinite, as the punishment is, then it is manifest that the punishment is no more than proportionable to the sin punished, and is no more than sin deserves. And if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (3)
Pause and consider Edwards’ words. They are worthy of much reflection.
Owen similarly expresses the necessity of the sinner’s punishment:
…an injury done to God, infinite in respect of the object, could not be punished, in a subject in every respect finite, otherwise than by a punishment infinite in respect of duration; that the continuation or suspension of this punishment, which it is just should be inflicted, does not undermine the divine liberty, we are bold to affirm, for it is not free to God to act unjustly or not. (4)
God must punish sin, sin deserves infinite punishment because it is an offense against God’s infinite majesty. Therefore there is only One who could save sinners – God become man. Man sinned, man must pay the debt. Sin is infinite, therefore only God could pay the debt. Hence, the inner necessity of the incarnation. Christ’s infinite nature (Deity) gave to His finite human sufferings infinite value (Acts 20:28). Therefore, “when calamity comes, the wicked are brought down but even in death the righteous have a refuge” (Prov. 14:32).
Thornwell rightly points to substitution as the ultimate principle in God’s moral government. “God cannot absolutely pardon. He can only transfer the punishment.” He concludes: “Their sins (i.e., the sins of God’s elect) have been as truly punished as if they themselves had been consigned to the darkness of hell.” (5)
This being the case, how cruel it is to think that God would send His Son to accomplish an unnecessary errand! Had God been able consistently with His nature to forgive sins apart from the death of His Son, the death of the beloved Son of the Father would be the greatest imaginable injustice and contrary to all that is revealed regarding the ineffable eternal love between the persons of the Trinity.
But, Why the Son?
The cross of Jesus, then, was the demonstration of God’s justice (Rom. 3:25), indispensable to our salvation, apart from which God could not save sinners. Why, however, did the Son become incarnate, why the second Person of the Trinity and not the Father or the Holy Spirit?
One must be cautious not to pry into the secrets which belong to the LORD alone! Yet, within limits this question must be pursued since in its answer, in so far as we can answer it, is contained matter for praise. (6)
The first part of the answer relates to man’s creation as God’s image-bearer. The image, ruined and defiled by the rebellion of our first parent Adam, needs restoration by Christ (Eph. 4:23, 24; Col. 3:10). Christ is by way of preeminence the image of God (Heb. 1:3). The derivative, ectypal image of God is restored by Him who is the image of God essentially.
The second element of the answer is found in recalling that man was created by God and fellowshipped with Him as a son (Luke 3:37). Our Savior is the Son of God uniquely. In the wisdom of God we have been adopted and restored to sonship by Him Who is peculiarly, eternally and essentially God’s Son. It seems that in the creation of man in God’s image, man was also created in analogy to the second person of the Trinity. A son ruined the race; the Son redeems the race. (7)
The final element of our answer takes us nearer the hidden things of God; the operations of the Trinity. The Father did not become incarnate, nor the Spirit, because it did not belong to them to take that role in the order of subsistence and operation. We refer at this point to the distinctions within the Trinity which are designated opera ad intra that result in an economical order. To the Father is peculiarly ascribed election and the infinitely loving plan of redemption, to the Son the work of redemption and to the Spirit the application of redemption. This is undeniable, but we cannot without great caution inquire further into this sacred mystery. Let us with hushed silence bow in worship!
(1) Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants (vol. 1; Escondido, California, The den Dulk Foundation) 248. Back to Article
(2) Ibid., 248. Back to Article
(3) Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83. Back to Article
(4) John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, in The Works of John Owen (vol. 1; Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1972) 618. Back to Article
(5) J. H. Thornwell, “The Necessity of the Atonement” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (vol. 2; Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 254. Back to Article
(6) For what follows, cf. Christologia: or, A Declaration of The Glorious Mystery of The Person of Christ – God and Man, Works, 218-220. I am reflecting Owen’s excellent, chaste and careful thought. Back to Article
(7) Of course, the privilege of adoption extends to believing men and women, sons and daughters. However, the race was represented not by Eve but by Adam, not by a daughter but by a son. Adam was a son analogously to the unique Son. Radical feminism is incorrect to argue that God can be viewed as Mother-Daughter-Holy Spirit since the Father-Son relationship of the Trinity is derived from patriarchal interpretations of life. This would reverse the proper order making human relationships archetypal in determining how we view God. The reverse is the case. The Father-Son relationship is an eternal, ontological category and is, therefore, the archetype of which the relationship between God and Adam is the ectype. The Father-Son-Holy Spirit relationship is not a dispensable category but is necessary for our understanding of who God is. Back to Article