The cross of Jesus as the centerpiece of the atonement and our reconciliation with God has never been an easy matter to understand. “If God required all that torture, blood, and pain for his beloved son, how does it square with a loving God?
If you’re seeking clarity and meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, just follow the historical events as they are reported, and then ask some basic questions about human behavior, the circumstances of Jesus’ death, and God’s involvement in it:
- Go back to the beginning of things. Who thought of violence and murder in the first place? God? No, the first report of them is at the hands of Cain (Genesis 4:8). In other words, the violent taking of life was a human creation. From the very beginning, fallen, sinful people have abused, mistreated, exploited, and wantonly killed other people and have continued to repeat the pattern in each and every generation up to the present day.
- God knows all about the future. But even if that weren’t true, he still could have easily predicted what would happen to his beloved Son after sending him into the world to disclose himself to his creatures (Luke 20:9-14). The pattern was already set: when Old Testament prophets came to speak to a rebellious and stubborn people, they usually ended up either persecuted or dead. Jesus said as much (Matthew 23:37). So it wasn’t hard for anyone to figure out what Jesus’ destiny would be, since he was not just another prophet, but the very embodiment of moral perfection. He was marked for death from the very beginning (Genesis 3:15; Luke. 2:35) just because of his absolute righteousness colliding head on with corrupt human nature.
- Now God adds his masterstroke to all this. Just as in his world he decides not to abolish evil (yet), but rather to enter into it and turn it his way, he decrees that salvation of the human race would come about not in spite of human evil, but directly because of it. In a sense, he said, “Alright, by the inevitable murder of my son, I’ll allow you to sink as low as you possibly can. You can’t do any worse than persecuting and killing the Prince of Righteousness. And then, I’ll declare that this lowest, most sinful act you can commit will be the very instrument I use to save you. Your snatching away of Jesus’ life (Acts 3:15) will become his deliberate giving (John 10:17, 18). Whereas you deserve death for your sin, I’ll choose to transfer your unrighteousness to my Son and credit you with his righteousness. He will pay the moral debt of sin for you and you will enjoy the benefits of his perfect righteousness.”
So the main point of the cross of Jesus is this: God takes a routine human crime of violence aimed this time at his Son, decides to use the ultimate evil act by turning it upside down and exploiting it for his own devices—to save human beings from judgment and destruction. He allows Jesus to take our place by absorbing into himself all the judgment due us. He could have done it some other way, but he chose this way. Just as in the Old Testament he exploited the evil events of Joseph’s life in order to save both Joseph and all the guilty offenders—to bring good out of evil intentions—so he did in the events of Jesus’ life. This was always God’s blueprint: what people intend for evil God intends for good (Gen. 50:20).
In other words, God chose to use not our goodness, our righteousness, or our fine performance to save us (what most people vainly imagine), but our sin. What better way to bring home the fact that salvation is exclusively of grace and mercy, and not at all by anything we can do or say, or by any merits of our own. In this way God takes 100% of the credit for salvation and gives none to us. Jesus chooses us; we don’t choose him (John 15:16). God calls us while we are still in our moral bankruptcy, brings us by a powerful, superior force to Jesus (the meaning of the Greek in John 6:44), and then he transforms our sinful, unwilling hearts to want the things of God.
It is in the cross that we see most clearly all the issues of God’s stubborn, incomprehensible love for us, his overruling of evil, and his intent to take all of it and ultimately make it work against itself and for the building of his kingdom. That’s why grace is so amazing.
No matter how fallen you may think you are, whatever shame or guilt you feel, whatever grief or sorrow you are facing—there is nothing that God’s grace can’t cover.
Photo by Jacob Meyer on Unsplash