Why did Jesus have to die for us? Could God not simply forgive, like fathers do their children?

Last updated on April 10, 2023

When we think about Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, and in particular when we realize that He, the Son of God, suffered and died because of OUR sin, it is only natural to ask: “Why was this necessary? Why should God not forgive us, rather than allow His own Son to die on a cross? Surely God had it in His power to forgive our sins without Jesus being crucified?”

1. The logic behind our question

As Christians, we know all about forgiveness. We’ve read Matthew 6:14, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13 etc. and we know how important it is for us to offer forgiveness if someone wrongs us. And not just forgive once or twice: in Matthew 18:22, Jesus tells His disciples to forgive “up to seventy times seven”. This effectively means: we should always forgive. Generous forgiveness is a godly principle.

We also know that God forgives. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So if God forgives, all we have to do is confess our sins, right? God is almighty (see Revelation 1:8, Psalm 91:1, or Psalm 80:19 for example) and when we think of Jesus’ own words in Mark 14:36 – “Abba, Father…… everything is possible for You” – we might easily deduce: God can just forgive people’s sins if He wants to. And yet, the Bible says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). It follows that Jesus needed to die on a cross, in order to reconcile the world to God. What have we missed?

2. The logic behind God’s decision

Forgiveness, by nature, is extended by the party who suffered the injustice. If someone insults us, it is we who forgive this person and their insulting remark. They may not even have apologized. If someone robs us, it is we who forgive the thief. They may not even have returned the stolen items to us. If someone causes us great mental or physical pain, it is we who forgive. The person who has caused the pain, cannot undo it. We forgive because we were asked to (Ephesians 4:32) and because forgiving helps and heals us – by distancing us from feelings of anger, bitterness, and revenge.

Jesus even forgave the soldiers who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). When they finally realized Who He was, after His death, it may have helped them to deal with feelings of remorse, anxiety, or fear, over killing the Son of the Almighty God.
But, the crucifixion still happened. Our stolen items are still missing; the sadness over the insult is still lingering and the person who hurt us may still be free to hurt us and others again. In other words, justice has not been served.

3. Yes, but, could God not simply overlook our sin?

God is perfectly righteous. If God were to approve of injustice – which is what He would be doing if He were to overlook our transgressions – He would stop being perfectly righteous. It is therefore not a ‘lack of power’ that prevents the almighty God from overlooking our sin; it is the principle of justness. Fathers forgiving a child only have to consider the impact of their child’s actions on themselves. God has to consider the impact of people’s actions on other people, who have become the victim of such actions and deserve justice.

Also, if God were to let us into His heavenly Kingdom while we were still sinners, God would find Himself surrounded by guilty people. This would not be acceptable to God since He is holy and cannot look upon sin (Matthew 27:46), and it should not be acceptable to us. When we rely on 1 John 1:9, it must be on the understanding that the penalty has been paid and that God is therefore free to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[1]

Is this possible – yes it is. And the good news is: we do not even have to pay the penalty ourselves!

4. What is the principle of redemption?

The gracious decision to forgive someone does not mean that they are exempt from legal repercussions. If, according to the laws of the country we live in, we commit a crime, we must expect punishment even if our victim forgives us. Forgiveness is not an alternative to legal repercussions. This is true in any legal system in the world, and it is true for God. God DOES forgive, but His ‘legal system’ requires justice, as well.

Cultures and societies all around the world hold that criminals who have served a sentence in prison or have otherwise received punishment, have paid for their crime. So how could we pay for a transgression against the Almighty God, our Creator? Will a prison sentence suffice? A lifetime of hard labor perhaps? A fine? But what could pay for this fine? – God has ultimately created everything on Earth and owns it all (Psalm 24:1, 1 Corinthians 10:26, Haggai 2:8). It is clear that this kind of redemption requires something that is much more precious and special.

5. How is it possible that Jesus died for us?

According to Romans 6:23, the appropriate penalty has already been determined: “For the wages of sin is death.” In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites the system of animal sacrifices. Sins were symbolically transferred unto an animal, following which the animal was slaughtered. The death of the animal would suffice to secure a temporary redemption. The sacrifice system was not a random choice: it foreshadowed the blood of Jesus Christ, atoning for our sins – forever (Hebrews 9:12-14).

Jesus, Son of God, the sinless Lamb, is the only Sacrifice valuable enough to ensure permanent redemption for the sins of mankind. He is sinless because He never sinned. There is no-one and nothing more valuable than Jesus: Jesus ‘had’ to die, and it is for this reason that Jesus was born. His death was not an unfortunate course of events: it had been God’s plan all along (John 3:16). This may leave us feeling uncomfortable, but as the Christian pastor and author Tim Keller puts it in his book ‘The Reason for God’[2] :

“It is crucial at this point to remember that the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into Himself. Therefore the God of the Bible is not like the primitive deities who demanded our blood for their wrath to be appeased. Rather, this is a God who becomes human and offers His own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday He can destroy all evil without destroying us.”

As a result, Romans 6:23 doesn’t stop after ‘death’. It continues to say: “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus’ death is God’s gift to us, because the moment Jesus died, we were saved. This is why Jesus’s death in the manner prophesied by Isaiah some 700 years earlier (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) was absolutely essential; without it, His ministry would have been pointless and His resurrection would not have validated Him as the Son as God.

[1] Sin is serious and requires the spilling of blood. See Genesis 3:21 and also the Biblword article on What is sin

[2] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God. Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Penguin Books, 2009.

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