Why Did Jesus Die?


Before transitioning from Point 2 of the Canons of Dort to the next Points, I thought it would be beneficial during this Holy Week to pause and consider the meaning of Jesus’s death. Over the years, theologians have discussed the reason for Christ’s death and its meaning, offering a number of different explanations. While these views have been pitted against each other at times (as if only one of them is correct), it seems best to seek to integrate them as they work together and help us better grasp the meaning of Jesus’s death – recognizing that it is powerful and probably beyond our ability to fully explain. Here are some of the different views and where they are found in Scripture.

Penal Substitution

This is the idea that Jesus took the penalty (thus, penal) in our place (thus, a substitute). While some recent writers have sought to deny this truth, it is at the heart of how the Bible explains Jesus’s death. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Other places where you can find this idea in the New Testament include Jesus’ words that he would give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) and the idea of Jesus as our “propitiation” for sin that turns away the wrath of God (see Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 4:10). Isaiah 53 also notes that our sins and iniquities were placed on the suffering servant, who is Jesus.

The Old Testament points to the need for a substitute to take the penalty of sin through the sacrifice of animals with the New Testament book of Hebrews explaining that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). However, Hebrews also shows that the animal sacrifices could not pay the penalty for our sins: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Instead, they were a reminder of the need for forgiveness: “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” (Hebrews 10:3). Therefore, the Old Testament sacrifices point to the need for Jesus. Jesus could take our place because he was human — just like us (Hebrews 2:10-17), but without sin. Because he was human, he can stand as our representative, and he willingly took on this assignment

While penal substitution is at the heart of the meaning of Jesus’s death, other views discussed by theologians also give us insight into the meaning of Jesus’s death when we integrate them with this view.

Christ’s Victory Over the Powers (also called Christus Victor)

The idea that through his death, Jesus defeated Satan and the forces of evil can be found  in many early Christian writers but also in some contemporary writers as well. We see this idea in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (also see Hebrews 2:13, 1 John 3:18). Jesus also talks about his ministry as defeating Satan (see Matthew 12:29; Luke 10:18). However, this theory does not adequately explain the reason for the death of Christ because it does not discuss what it means that “Christ died for our sins.” When integrated with penal substitution, we can see that Jesus died for us so that we would be forgiven, and in the process, has freed us (and ultimately the world!) from the forces of evil. It is not only that we aren’t condemned, but that we win!

Moral Influence

This is the view that Jesus died to give us an example of how we should suffer for righteousness and to show us God’s love for us so that we might live for him. We see this idea emerge in a couple of places, such as 1 Peter 2:21 (“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”) or 1 John 3:16 (“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers”.). Jesus’s death does show us that God loves us, as Romans 5:8 notes: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This verse highlights, however, that Jesus’s death was caused by our sin — again, indicating the need to believe in a penal substitution that shows God’s love. When someone dies to save another person, that is love; however, the death of a good man for no reason is not a result of love . Jesus did not die simply to provoke a response of love in our hearts — he died for pay for our sins. But at the same time, recognizing that Jesus died for me should lead to me wanting to live for him, following him on the journey of the cross. We must practice what we profess; if Jesus died for us, it should change our lives.

Bringing them Together: A substitute who takes our punishment and leads us to victory while showing us love

As we remember Christ’s death this week on Good Friday, let us not only think about the victory and example of Christ’s death, but recognize that the victory and example comes through Jesus’s substitution for us in taking our sins. Let us understand the meaning of his death more, but also recognize that we can never fully explain what Jesus has done for us. As R. W. Dale wrote over 100 years ago, “The power of the great sacrifice for sins of the world lies in itself, not in our explanations of it.” (The Atonement [London:  Congregational Union of England and Wales, 1905], 405).

May we not just know what Jesus has done for us, but may we feel it in our hearts and have our lives changed by the power of the cross – and of his resurrection!

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