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Why did Jesus have to die?

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Why did Jesus have to die?

Topical Scripture: Romans 5:6–11

Kyle Froelich needed a kidney. None of his family or close friends was a match. A woman named Chelsea heard about Kyle from a mutual friend and agreed to be tested. They were a match. She donated a kidney to Kyle in 2010.

The two started dating after the transplant was complete. Kyle’s health returned, and they got married three years later.

Now they are back in the news: the kidney Chelsea donated is failing. If Kyle doesn’t get a new one within the next year, he says, he’ll be forced to go on dialysis.

More than 100,000 Americans are in need of kidneys, so the wait time for Kyle is between three and six years—time he doesn’t have. Imagine a scenario by which Chelsea donated her other kidney to him. Now he could live, but she would die.

If she did that, would Kyle ever have reason to doubt her love for him?

The “whys” of Easter

We know the “whats” and the “whos” of Easter. We’re familiar with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday. We know about Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and the rest.

So we’re traveling toward Easter this year by asking the “whys.” Last week: why was Jesus born? Next week: why did he have to die on a cross? On Easter: why did he have to be raised from the dead?

Today, our question is: Why did Jesus have to die? We know he died for our sins, but why did he have to do so? Why couldn’t God simply forgive us the way we can forgive each other? The answer offers a profound message of hope and joy every one of us needs today.

Why did Jesus die?

Think of the last sin you committed. Why should a holy God be so gracious to such a sinner as you?

For this reason: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6). “At the right time” points to the specific moment in history when Jesus came. Everything was ready for his appearance (cf. Galatians 4:4): there was a universal hunger for truth, a universal language (koine or “common” Greek) to communicate God’s answer to that hunger, a universal peace to make possible the global expansion of Christianity, and universal roads to carry the first missionaries across the known world.

But it was “at the right time” in another sense as well. Just before we died, Christ died for us. Just before it was too late, when we had no hope of forgiveness and salvation, “Christ died for the ungodly.”

All the ungodly, with no specifications or conditions. All sinners and all sins are included. You have been “died for.” Jesus went to your cross, taking your punishment, bearing your pain, paying your debt, earning your salvation.

Only rarely will someone die for a good man (v. 7), as when a Secret Service agent dies to protect the president or a soldier dies to save the soldier at his side. But we deserved no such consideration: “God shows us love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).

“Shows” (sunistesin) means “to bring together, to marshal the evidence.” As lawyers used their evidence to prove their case, so God uses the death of his Son to prove his love for us. “While we were still sinners,” this happened. All of us have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). All of us deserved death (Romans 6:23). All of us have instead been granted peace with God through Christ.

We are now “justified” by his blood (v. 9a), declared righteous in his sight as a criminal whose record is wiped clean. If God has done this for us in the past, “how much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (v. 9b). The rabbis were fond of the “lesser to greater” argument: if A is true, how much more is B the case. Jesus used this teaching technique often, as with the parable of the persistent widow: if an unjust judge would grant her request, how much more will God answer our prayers (Luke 18:1-8).

In the same way, Paul reasons that if Jesus has already saved us from the sins of our past, how much more will he save us from God’s wrath in the future. Before Jesus’ atonement, we were “God’s enemies”; now that we have been reconciled with him, “much more . . . shall we be saved by his life” (v. 10, italics added). And so “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (v. 11).

Paul’s thesis is simple: we are at peace with God and can be at peace with each other and with ourselves. Why? Because we have been given access to the Father by the Son.

Since Jesus’ death has paid for our past sins, he guarantees our future reward. Now the Spirit redeems our present sufferings by using them to produce persevering character which gives us hope that we will continue to be victorious in the days to come. We can be at peace with our past, our present, and our future.

Why did Jesus have to die?

So, we know that Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we could be made right with God. Here’s the question behind the text: Why did he have to do so? Why couldn’t God simply have declared us forgiven? Why did his Son have to die for us?

If I hit your car while leaving the parking lot after chapel, I assume you can forgive me without someone having to die in my place. I have forgiven people for things they have done to me without requiring someone to die first.

If “God is love” (1 John 4:8), why couldn’t he do the same?

Here’s the problem: God is also “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3). As Scripture declares, “There is none holy like the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:2). His heaven is perfect, a place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

For us to be granted entrance into God’s perfect presence, our sins must first be removed. The debt we owe for them must be paid.

However, the punishment for sin is death: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23); “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). This is because death separates us from the holy God who is the source of life. It’s like cutting off a flower at the roots. It may look healthy, but it is dying and will soon be dead.

The consequence of sin is death. That’s why the payment for sin must be death. That’s why sinners are separated from God for all eternity in hell, a place of living death.

And it’s why we cannot pay this debt for each other. Because I have committed sins, I cannot die for yours. It’s as if I owe the hundred dollars in my pocket to the bank; I cannot use it to pay your debt and mine.

The only person who could pay the debt of our sins would be someone who never committed sins of his own. And only one person in all of human history has lived a sinless life. Not Muhammad, or Confucius, or Buddha, or anyone else. Only Jesus.

That’s why Jesus could die on the cross for our sins. It’s why he had to die on the cross for us to be forgiven for our sins.

Visited by the Prince of Peace

What does his death for us mean for us?

First, it means that we can be forgiven and granted eternal life if we will receive the gift of salvation he offers. A gift must be opened. We must receive by faith the gift he offers by grace.

Second, it means that we should value ourselves as he values us. Our Father decided that we were worth the death of his Son. No greater valuation could be placed on us than that.

Third, it means that we should serve him in gratitude for such grace. Not so he will love us, but because he already does.

We are taking the Lord’s Supper today, a meal first shared by Jesus and his disciples in the upper room. A thousand years ago, the Crusaders constructed a space in the vicinity of the first upper room to commemorate that event. We take our group there whenever we visit Israel.

One reason the Crusaders located the structure where they did is that they found a first-century sculpture in the immediate vicinity. It depicts two baby pelicans eating from their mother’s body. The tradition in the day was that in times of extreme drought and famine, the mother would allow her babies to eat her flesh and drink her blood. This became one of the first symbols for the Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ offer of the bread and cup to symbolize his body and blood given for us.

This sculpture is displayed by the exit of the Upper Room to remind visitors of the significance of the place. As we take the Supper of our Lord today, let’s return to the cross it signifies. Let’s remember his death for us. And let’s receive and share his grace with gratitude for such love.

Where do you need his grace most today?

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