“Why do we do this?”
We’ve all thought his, haven’t we? We’re processing some data, we’re writing a report, or we’re engaged in a routine task, and we suddenly realize, “There’s absolutely no reason for this.”
We ask around, “Why is this process or report necessary?” No one seems to know and no one wants to know. “We’ve always done it that way,” or “Don’t ask questions, just do it,” are frequent responses.
Sometimes—though rarely—someone says, “Good question. Either we should find out why this is necessary or we should stop doing it.” After a bit of investigation and research, a reason is discovered; and it’s a good one. The meeting or the process is absolutely and indispensably necessary and there’s no other way of accomplishing the aim.
Why did Christ do this?
Have you ever applied the same question to Christ’s death? Why did he do this? Was it really necessary? Why did Christ have to die, and to die such a death?
Though it’s rarely asked today, it was asked by many in the 19th century and many wrong answers were proposed. In Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, Scottish theologian George Smeaton addressed a number of these erroneous and dangerous answers. Among them were:
- Christ’s death was prophesied and therefore had to happen to fulfill these prophecies.
- Christ’s death was necessary to confirm his teaching.
- Christ’s death was necessary to impress humanity with God’s love.
Smeaton argued that there was a much deeper necessity involved: the morality of God’s government. God could not pass over sin without his justice being completely and perfectly satisfied. As Smeaton said:
There could be no other reason sufficiently important for God to abase Himself and to be made in fashion as a man, and suffer on the cross; for God would not subject His Son to such agonies if sin could have been remitted without satisfaction.
The error that had taken the deepest hold in Smeaton’s day was idea that the atonement was a way of impressing the human mind with God’s love. This, said Smeaton, turned Christ person and work into a mere drama, an act, a theatrical performance, that was designed to make an inward impression upon humanity but had no impact or influence upon God and his moral government.
Silence does not mean denial
Smeaton concedes that Christ was relatively silent on the necessity of his dying to satisfy divine justice. However, he defends this silence by explaining that Christ was addressing Jews who were already familiar with the necessity of an atonement. The whole history of Israel and especially of the sacrificial system had developed in them the core idea that sin must be punished by sacrifice to God.
The whole Old Testament was thus calculated to bring into prominence the necessity of an atonement, and to sharpen the conviction that sin required a higher sacrifice; and the sacrifice, presupposing the sinful deed, showed the inviolability of the law and covenant.
Smeaton even went so far as to say that the primary reason for Israel’s election and separation from the nations of the earth was to demonstrate to the world that sin must be punished, but that sacrifice could avert punishment. Christ took that national consciousness for granted in his ministry and therefore did not speak much about the necessity of an atoning sacrifice. He knew the Jews knew that an atonement was indispensably necessary.
Beheading the Hydra
Not surprisingly the same error is rearing it’s ugly head in our own day. Smeaton cut off one head of this hydra, but other heads appear in different forms at different times. Whatever the form it takes though, the root cause and remedy are the same. Just as in Smeaton’s time, present denials of the atonement are rooted in an ignorance and neglect of the Old Testament (see here and here for evidence of that). Only by recovering its core message—God must punish sin, but God’s anger can be satisfied and averted by sacrifice—will the indispensable necessity of Christ sin-atoning death be recovered.
Previous Posts in this Series on the Atonement
Was Jesus ever ill?
The Most Sympathetic Man in the World
What did Christ believe about the atonement?
The Four Essentials of a Successful Atonement
Three Old and New Errors about the Atonement
How to Measure the Immeausurable