“Christ died for us…”

Reading
Romans 5.8

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.—Mark 9.31b

When Jesus spoke like this of his coming death, his disciples didn’t know what to make of it. So they said nothing.

But Jesus’ followers couldn’t say nothing forever. Pretty soon, the Apostle Paul was writing this in Romans 5.8:

God proves his love for us
in that while we still were sinners,
Christ died for us.

What does Paul mean—‘Christ died for us’? How could this brutal, agonising death ‘prove God’s love for us’?

When I was young, I was given a very clear answer to that question. This was it:

I am a sinner; I deserve to go to the eternal fires of hell. There was a price to pay for sin; blood had to be shed. In the Old Testament, the blood of a pure lamb was sacrificed for human sin. A pure victim has to be found: that pure, sinless victim is Jesus Christ. His blood is shed on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. God’s love is shown through the shedding of Christ’s blood.

(For those who wish to know, this is called the ‘Penal Substitutionary Model’ of the Atonement.) For a long time, this was the only explanation I heard of how the cross shows God’s love to us. So I accepted it. Many people do.

But as the years have gone on, I have been less satisfied with this explanation. It suggests that God cannot forgive sin without blood being shed to appease God’s wrath. But let’s be clear: that just isn’t what we read in the Gospels.

Take, for example, the story of the friends who bring the paralysed man to Jesus. There are so many people, they go up the steps onto the flat roof and remove part of the roof to lower their friend down into the house. Jesus says to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ No blood needed. A bit of sweat maybe in this case, but no blood.

Then there’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father runs down the road to welcome the returning son. The father’s love is given without condition. There is blood here, a fatted calf is killed, its blood is shed; but that’s for a party, not for a sacrifice.

Another reason I’ve been unhappy with this Penal Substitutionary Model is that it can give the impression that God is far away from us and angry with us. I’ve heard sermons that openly said this, sermons that fed an unhealthy fear of God’s wrathful judgement.

But in Jesus Christ, God had already come near to us long before the cross of Calvary. ‘The Word was made flesh, and lived among us.’ In Jesus, God was already present with us, already not far away from us, not holding himself aloof in his righteous anger.

So is there another way to understand how Christ died for us?

There are several, and the scriptures give support to all of them. For example:

Christ died and rose again for us so that we may share his victory over death.

Christ died for us to melt our hearts and turn us towards a life of love and self-giving.

Christ died for us as God’s active gift of self-loving, submitting to sinful human beings who were determined to reject him.

There is no one, single way to understand what it means that Christ died for us.

I’ve been helped lately by a series of videos by Dr Benjamin Myers, who lectures at the United Theological College in Sydney. Let me share something of what I’ve gleaned from him.

Firstly, the death of Jesus was not just the death of anyone. It was the rejection of the sinless one who had

  • forgiven sins,
  • taught about the kingdom of God as a place of welcome for all,
  • healed the sick,
  • cast out the demonic powers,
  • and challenged the religious authorities.

Most of all, the death of Jesus was the death of the one who fully embodied God in his life. The Apostle Paul wrote, ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. (Colossians 1.19)

It was the death of God-made-a-human-being, one of us in every respect—yet without sin.

We could expect that the death of Jesus may have been the death of God’s closeness to us.

Except it wasn’t. God is now even closer still to us. In his death, Jesus shares the ultimate experience with us—the only experience none of us has yet entered. That’s where the shedding of his blood is significant here; he bled out his life for us. That’s how close he has come to us. He has shared death with us. But he didn’t stay under death’s authority.

Imagine this: A human being who embodies the fullness of God, the eternal life and power of the uncreated God, comes into contact with the total emptiness and nothingness of death.

What happens?

BANG! that’s what. Death is destroyed by this meeting. Annihilated. The grave cannot hold him, and Jesus Christ is risen for evermore as Saviour and Lord.

Death cannot survive being touched by the almighty life of God in this way.

In the Orthodox Church’s liturgy for Easter, they sing

By his death he [Christ] has destroyed death,
and by his rising again he has restored to us eternal life.

Christ died for us. He suffered death so that death would have no power over us. In Christ, we can live without any fear of death.

We still die of course, but we live by faith in the life of the resurrection, by hope of eternal life.

The story of Jesus is the story of God coming close to us. It is the story of Immanuel, ‘God with us’. In his birth from Mary, in growing up in Nazareth, in moving among the common people healing and teaching, and finally in his dying, the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Today, Jesus is closer yet, through the Holy Spirit. He is our Guide, our Confessor, our Advocate, our Divine Friend. He walks with us through all of life’s day, through the joys and sorrows, the highs and the lows.

Today, I wanted to show that there is more than one way of understanding that Christ died for us. I’ve tried to share how I best understand it. It’s not so much that one ‘model’ is right and others wrong, but that all of them have something to offer, and people may differ in the one they find most helpful.

However we understand it, in the cross of Christ

God proves his love for us
in that while we still were sinners,
Christ died for us.

And let us all say Alleluia!

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1 Comment

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One response to ““Christ died for us…”

  1. apocalypseicons

    I agree, it is rewarding to keep actively thinking about Bible stories to gain more meaningful insights. Thanks for this Paul.

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