A Gross Injustice?
Question: Some of my friends think that the teaching that Christ’s death upon the Cross paid the penalty for our sins (which is the very heart of Christianity) is itself reason for rejecting Christianity. They argue that it is unjust for an innocent party to suffer imprisonment or execution in the place of a criminal and that such a practice would encourage sin. I’m stumped. Can you help me?
Response: Their problem is a lack of understanding of what actually happened on the Cross. First of all, Christ is absolutely unique. He is God and man in one Person, the only One who could die for the sins of others. Therefore, His death in our place is not to be taken as a suggestion that others should “suffer imprisonment or execution in the place of a criminal.”
Furthermore, Christ did more than simply die in our place. If that were all that occurred, then Barabbas had the greatest “Christian” testimony of all time. It was literally true that Christ died in the place of Barabbas and thereby set him free. Yet Barabbas knew nothing of the true meaning of the Cross. He did not, so far as we know, understand that Christ had died for his sins, nor did he put his faith in Christ as his Savior. All Christ’s death accomplished for that criminal was to set him free from prison to continue living his old sinful life. That is not the gospel!
Christ’s work of redemption did more than simply pay for our sins. When Christ died, those who would trust Him as their Savior died in Him. The believer has accepted Christ’s death as his very own and, in that act of faith, has given up life as he would have lived it so that the resurrected Christ can live in him. Giving his own testimony, Paul declared:
I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians:2:20)
So the believer does not merely escape from death but is brought through death in Christ into resurrection life on the other side, a life that is no longer his but the life of Christ in him: “If one died for all, then were all dead [i.e. have died in Him] . . . that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them and rose again. . . . Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians:5:14–17):
For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (Colossians:3:3–4)
An Injustice, Yet the Ultimate Justice
Yes, in a sense it was an injustice for Christ to have died in our place. No ordinary person could have satisfied the demand of justice by taking the prescribed punishment for another person. Nor could any ordinary person have accomplished the glorious results of Christ’s death for us by being imprisoned or executed in the place of some criminal.
It is often forgotten that in His death on the Cross, Christ suffered not merely what man did to Him but the eternal judgment that His own righteousness had decreed against sin. He took our sins upon Himself. Thus, the ultimate justice was accomplished because the penalty for sin was paid in full, a penalty that could not have been paid any other way.
Therefore, those who believe in Christ are given eternal life as a free gift of God’s grace on a righteous basis. Such a transaction would not otherwise have been possible. In Christ we see a perfectly righteous and just forgiveness for sin that none of the world’s religions can offer.
—An excerpt from In Defense of the Faith (pp. 136-38) by Dave Hunt