Have you ever messed up in a big way and had someone else cover for you or take the punishment?
Think of a small child who breaks a vase in a store. Would their loving parent demand that they stay there until they worked off what was owed or would they willingly pay the price for the damage done?
This is what Jesus' death does for us. We deserved the punishment but He took it for us. We are the child and He is the loving parent. We broke the vase and He paid the price for it.
Jesus’ death on the cross is known as the atonement. To atone for something is to make amends or to reconcile. Atonement is the way God repaired the broken relationship between humanity and Himself.
But why did it have to be this way? To understand why Jesus had to die, we have to understand who God is and who we are in relationship to Him.
What Does the Bible Say About Atonement?
For a time after creation, the world was perfect. The first humans, Adam and Eve, lived in a place called the Garden of Eden. Everything was perfect, for a while. In Genesis 3, Satan tricks Adam and Eve into doing the one thing God told them not to do.
In that moment, sin entered the world and everything changed. Sin is the wickedness in each of us that causes us to act selfishly, to rebel against God, and to hurt one another. Sin forced Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. And everyone after Adam and Eve was born into their sin, separated from God.
The Bible tells us that payment for sin is death (Romans 6:23). In the Old Testament, God told His people to set aside the day of atonement to make sacrifices for their sins. They were to bring an innocent, blemish-free animal as a temporary atonement for their sins (Leviticus 4:3, Leviticus 16:29-30).
No amount of sheep or sheer effort could remove the sin from the world.
God gave a temporary means of forgiveness through the death of animals (Leviticus 17:11). But no amount of sheep or sheer effort could remove the sin from the world, and God knew it. So when the time was right, He sent His son, Jesus, to be the perfect, spotless, and permanent substitute for us. Just as Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death to all people, Jesus’ perfect obedience brought forgiveness for all people (Romans 5:12-19).
Understanding that death is the punishment for sin explains why death was a necessary part of the atonement, but it can sound like just a lot of bloodshed unless we also understand God’s character.
What Atonement Teaches Us About God’s Character
God is not like us. He is perfect and holy, completely loving and completely just. God’s doesn’t make careless decisions or get surprised because it’s not in His nature. He tells us in Isaiah 55:8-9, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Relationship with us is what God has wanted all along. But we are not perfect or holy. And therein, lies the problem.
Just like I can’t hug my mud-covered child and stay clean, a perfect God cannot be in relationship with imperfect people. It would violate His holiness and His innate sense of justice.
We are sinners who deserve separation from God. But because God loves us, He made a way to bring us into His presence for eternity. God’s great justness that required us to be made right with Him and God’s great love for us caused Jesus to take the punishment for our sins (1 John 4:10, Deuteronomy 32:4).
Jesus’ death was the only possible way to atone for the sins of the world and Jesus is the only way to a relationship with God the Father.
What Jesus’ Death Says About Us
A lot of us may have trouble understanding why Jesus had to die for our sins not because we don’t understand God’s holiness but we misunderstand our own level of depravity. In a world where so much sin is accepted and celebrated, it’s easy to believe that we aren’t “that bad.”
Without the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, we would be without hope and without forgiveness. Isaiah 64:6 says even our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Even on our best days and with our best intentions, without the blood of Jesus we would deserve death as the punishment for sin. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 55:6).
We did nothing to earn our forgiveness and everything to deserve punishment. But in God’s great love for us, He sent His son and took our punishment upon Himself.
Jesus died not because we were worthy of it, but because of God’s love and mercy. Jesus gave His life for us so that we can live in freedom and be reconciled to God. He redeems us and gives us forgiveness, freedom, and redemption when we put our trust in Him.