Tony Jones, a self proclaimed ‘ecclesiologist’, asks progressive Christian bloggers to tackle the question – why a crucifixion? as part of his #progGod challenge. What makes a Christian progressive? That itself could be a topic worth exploring. When it comes to the cross and its purpose most progressives dismiss the penal substitutionary atonement.
Here is how one blogger put it:
as powerful as the idea of unworthy sinners being saved by a loving Jesus may be, the corresponding idea of an angry God so unwilling to forgive that he has no choice but to murder His only son causes many of us some problems.
Another blogger had this to share:
First of all is the deeply disturbing (and some would say heretical) idea of a God that would NEED a sacrifice of one innocent to pay for the sins of the rest of our sorry asses. A blood thirsty God is frankly a warped vision of the Divine cast in our own vengeful image.
Now I would not categorize myself as a progressive Christian and I doubt many other people would either. For starters I accept the penal substitutionary atonement view. However I do sympathize with progressives in calling for followers of Jesus to be more willing to serve and help others (social justice), I just don’t agree that large government programs, nor debt and deficits, are the way to do that. However, the cross and the subsequent resurrection are central to Christianity so this is a crucial question and I thought I would work through that answer.
The cross is necessary
The first thing to keep in mind is that the Cross was necessary. After Jesus was identified as the Messiah He told His disciples what the future held (Mark 8:31).
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law,and be killed, and after three days rise again.
And when Jesus returned from the dead He reminded the disciples that this was necessary so that all that the prophets said would be fulfilled (Luke 24:26,44).
If the cross was necessary then the next logical question is why was it necessary? Why did God tell Israel through the prophets that Jesus must die on the cross?
Here the Scriptures offer numerous ways to explain why the cross was necessary. The word pictures used by the different authors include being bought out of slavery (redeemed), acquitted in a legal proceeding (justified), satisfying the wrath of God (propitiation), restoring a broken relationship (reconciliation), as a sacrificial lamb that takes away the sins of the world, and as a means to establishing the new covenant. Rather than look at these in detail, we can look at Jesus final night on earth with His disciples as recorded by John and find two reasons why the cross was necessary.
Jesus tells the disciples on that night that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for their friends. But no one would choose to lay down their life for another person unless there was a reason. A reason that goes beyond being a moral example. There must be some imminent danger that threatens another person that you can spare them from or some great advantage that you can give them. So why did Jesus lay down his life on a cross for us?
Jesus wants you to live for Him
That night started off with Jesus taking a towel and a water basin and washing the disciples feet. The disciples are told that this is an example to remind them to serve others. This act is followed by Jesus giving a new command to love others as Jesus has loved. This call to love others and bear fruit will be repeated throughout the night. The love for others will be the telling mark of a follower of Jesus.
But the cross was not just an example of God’s love for us to follow. Jesus knew that we would need help to live out new command. So He wanted to give us an advantage in this life to do just that. That advantage was sending the Holy Spirit who would give us a new heart (Ezek 36:26). However this Helper could not come until Jesus went to the Father. And the new heart was a provision in the new covenant which Jesus established through His blood.
Jesus wants you to live with Him
During that last night Jesus tells the disciples that He will be leaving and where He is going they cannot come. At least not yet. This leads to the questions – where are you going, why can’t we come, how will we know the way? Jesus replies that He is going away to be with the Father but promises to come back for them. In fact He is going ahead to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house. And He would not prepare places for them if He had no intention of returning to get them so that they can come live with Him.
Having told them that He will suffer, die (a little while, and you will not see me), and be raised (a little while, and you will see me) numerous times He reminds them – because I live, you also will live. The cross was necessary because Jesus saw it as the only way for death to be conquered and for people to be able to come and live with Him.
John, later in his ministry, captures this idea that Jesus and the cross were necessary for us to live when he writes (1 John 4:9):
By this the love of God is revealed in us:that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him.
This is followed by the statement:
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
It was not only an incredible example of love, even if it was that, it was an incredible act of love that allowed eternal life to be given to people.We could not live with Jesus until something was done about our sin.Whether one accepts a substitutionary atonement or not, the fact is sin and death were barriers to living with Jesus that had to be dealt with. And the cross was the means to destroying that barrier and establishing the new covenant. A covenant that promised to forgive iniquity and remember sins no more (Jer 31:34).
So why was it necessary for Jesus to lay down his life on a cross for us?
So that we can live with Him and live for Him.