The Questions of the Cross
Justification, Good Friday, Forgiveness
Each year we take time on Good Friday to reflect on the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross of Calvary, and to remember the significance of that event. It was at the cross that Jesus purchased forgiveness and new life for everyone who would believe. This truth is of supreme importance, and it’s the reason we gather each year—so that we may always be reminded of what a wonderful gift we have been given.
Tonight we are going to look at Romans 5:6-11, which is not specifically about the cross, but it teaches us several truths that help us to better understand the cross. In particular, it answers 3 questions for us: Why was the cross needed? What did the cross accomplish? and How should we respond?
Why Was the Cross Necessary?
Romans is a wonderful book that explains the gospel message in detail. Rather than giving simple answers to our questions, the Apostle Paul explains the gospel message to us logically. He starts by talking about our need for a Savior and then moves on to how Jesus saves us. In Romans 5:6-8 Paul gives us insight into the question of why Jesus needed to die for us.
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:6-8, NLT)
This passage gives us three reasons that Jesus went to the cross on our behalf. First is that we were utterly helpless. This is one of those truths that people often fail to grasp. We tend to think of ourselves as resilient, people who can always find a way to make things work. We like the idea not needing to rely on anyone, but the truth is on our own we are helpless.
The Bible is consistent in teaching that, left to our own devices, we will rebel against God. Without God’s intervention in our lives we will descend further and further into a sinful lifestyle. The book of Judges depicts this fact vividly. It records the early history of Israel in a time before they were ruled by a king. In Judges the Israelites follow a similar pattern over and over again: they rebel against God and get themselves into trouble, and then the Lord delivers them. Then they would turn their backs on Him again and get into even more trouble, and the Lord would deliver them again. The closing words of the book of Judges are this:
25 In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25, NLT)
Judges shows what happens when we are left to our own devices. We like to think that we are basically good people, and that we can/will choose to do good things. But Judges shows us the truth: when everyone does what is right in their own eyes, it leads to terrible sin. As the book of Judges goes on, there is a downward spiral of morality. The priorities of the people got so mixed up that they did evil things because they thought they were good! They were helpless to save themselves, to rescue themselves from the mess they had made. Their only hope was for God to come and rescue them from themselves.
Just as it was in the book of Judges, so it continues to be for each of us. Apart from the intervention of God on our behalf, we will continue to descend ever deeper into rebellion against Him. Apart from Jesus we are utterly helpless. Jesus went to the cross to rescue us from ourselves.
Second, we see that Jesus died for us because we are sinners. There are many churches in our country today who don’t believe in talking about sin. They refuse to talk about sin because they don’t want to offend people. They are afraid that if they tell people they are sinners they will go to a different church, or go nowhere at all. Some of these churches have become very popular, amassing huge crowds. The problem with not talking about sin, however, is that the gospel doesn’t make sense if we don’t recognize the fact that we are sinners!
When we don’t see our sin as God sees it, the cross seems gratuitous. It seems wholly unnecessary. It seems like the unreasonable demand of an evil dictator. But once we understand the nature of our own sin, it makes sense.
Here’s what we have to understand: All sin is serious. At its core, sin is rebellion against God. It is really a form of treason, as we are attempting to overthrow God’s rule in favor of putting ourselves on the throne. Have you ever thought about what is really at the heart of our sinful actions? Why do we do things that God tells us not to? It is because we trust ourselves more than we trust Him! We don’t follow Him because we want to be the ones in charge. All sin is an attempt to dethrone God!
The issue with sin is not only that we are trying to dethrone God, but also that our sinful actions hurt His creation and the people whom He loves. It also hurts us. When we sin, there is a ripple effect. Sin robs us of the life God created us to live. Because God loves us, He hates sin because of what it does to us. God cannot simply overlook our sin and declare it to be “no big deal” because if He does so He would be allowing this evil behavior to continue unchecked. Because God is good, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. He cannot simply pardon us, He must carry out justice.
Think about it this way—we all like the idea of a judge who would pardon us if we had committed a crime. We like to think that we probably don’t really deserve the punishment the judge could mete out, so it seems right to us when he grants us a pardon. But we don’t like the idea of a judge who simply pardons someone who has wronged us. If someone were to murder a member of your family and the judge agreed that the person was guilty but simply overlooked what they had done and declared them innocent, would you see Him as a good judge? Of course not! Because God is good and righteous, He must punish sin. The penalty we have accumulated for ourselves is so great that we cannot possibly bear it. We are utterly helpless sinners—which is why we need Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
The third reason Jesus had to die was to demonstrate his love for us. The greatest sacrifice we can make for another person is to give our life in order to save theirs. It is the highest expression of love there is. The fact that Jesus laid down his life in order to save ours is an incredible expression of His love for us.
Paul points to human examples and says that it’s uncommon for a person to be willing to die in the place of another. It’s hard for someone to give their life for a perfect stranger. But sometimes we hear a story about a person who lays down their life because they feel the other person is more deserving: the single man who sacrifices his life in order to save the man with a family at home; the woman who jumps in front of traffic in order to save her child; the soldier who jumps on a grenade because by sacrificing himself he can save his whole platoon. These are wonderful examples of love, but they pale in comparison to what Jesus did.
In verse 10, we are reminded that Jesus died for us when we were still His enemies. We don’t think of ourselves as enemies of God, but apart from Jesus’ intervention in our lives that’s exactly what we are. Remember what is at the core of our sinful attitude? It is a desire to overthrow God, to remove Him from our lives, to make Him into our slave—into a genie who will give us what we want, but will not make any demands of us. Jesus didn’t die to save people who were family, friends, or more deserving than He was—He died to save His enemies.
Imagine the President of the United States allowing himself to be executed in order to save an insurgent. Imagine him giving his life in order to save the life of someone who was seeking to overthrow the United States. That kind of love is so foreign to us that it almost doesn’t even compute. But that’s the kind of love Jesus showed us at the cross. He died to save those who were utterly helpless, those who deserved condemnation, and those who stood as His enemies in order to demonstrate His great love for us.
What Did His Death Accomplish?
We’ve seen why Jesus needed to die, so now the next question is what did His death actually accomplish? What did Jesus actually do by going to Calvary? We see the answer to that question in verses 9 and 10.
9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. (Romans 5:9-10, NLT)
We are told that because of Jesus’ death we are made right in God’s sight. In other translations instead of saying we are made right, they use the theological term justified. What does it mean to be justified or made right? It means that justice has been served, that the penalty has been paid and that God no longer looks at us and sees criminals or sinners, because we are not those things any longer. One way people define being justified is that it is “Just as if I’d never sinned.” Jesus’ death erases our sin from our record. He makes it so that as we stand before God, we no longer stand as sinners, but as His dearly loved children.
How does that happen then? How did Jesus’ death justify us before God? His death paid the penalty that we owed. Paul says that we are justified by the blood of Christ. Blood throughout the Old Testament was symbolic of purification from sin. The Israelites offered many sacrifices that required the shedding of blood. These sacrifices were intended to be a vivid reminder of the fact that sin always leads to death. Sin has serious consequences.
As we established earlier, God could not simply overlook our sin. It had to be punished. When Jesus died on the cross, that’s what was happening—He was bearing the punishment for our sin. The punishment was not merely his death, it was not even the intense physical pain he endured; on the cross Jesus bore the wrath of God that we had earned for ourselves. The physical agony that Jesus endured pales in comparison to the spiritual anguish he faced. God poured out all of the punishment that you and I deserved on Jesus. He took it all, so that we wouldn’t have to.
That is why Paul says that we are saved from condemnation—it isn’t that God will not punish our sin, but rather that our sin has already been punished. God punished Jesus in our place. This is the good news of Good Friday, but it is also sobering news. It reminds us that though salvation is given to us freely, it was not gained cheaply. In a sense, Good Friday is similar to Memorial Day in the United States. Memorial Day is a time when we celebrate the freedom we enjoy in our nation, while acknowledging that freedom is purchased at a great price—the lives of American soldiers. In the same way Good Friday is to be a time when we celebrate the forgiveness and new life that belongs to Christians, while at the same time remembering the great cost at which that freedom came.
How Should We Respond?
That leads us to the third question answered by this text: How should we respond to what Jesus has done? Paul answers that question in verse 11.
11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:11, NLT)
Paul tells us that the proper response to what Jesus has done is for us to rejoice in our new relationship with God. We should rejoice in the fact that Jesus has taken us from being enemies of God to being friends of God. This is wonderful news! This is why a day in which Jesus was punished for us, tortured, and killed can be called Good Friday—because it is good news for us!
If we understand what happened on Calvary, then it will change us. It is impossible to truly understand the depth of your own sin, to imagine the punishment that you deserve being poured out on Jesus, who was perfectly innocent, and to be unmoved by that truth. If we understand what happened at Calvary, it will have a profound effect on the way we live. It will cause us to rejoice!
What does it mean to rejoice in our relationship with God? It means:
- Trusting Jesus with your life. It means giving up trying to be good enough to somehow erase the bad things you’ve done in the past, and instead resting in the knowledge that Jesus did what you can’t.
- Sharing the good news with others. If we understand the great gift we have been given, we will want to share it with others. That might mean inviting someone to church, trying to explain to them what Easter is all about, or sharing your own story of what God has done in your life.
- Refusing to continually punish ourselves for things that have been forgiven. When we understand the great cost of our sin, it is tempting to constantly beat ourselves up when we fall. We aren’t perfect yet, but we are forgiven. We aren’t to take our sin lightly—we should seek forgiveness and do what we can to repair any damage we’ve done, but we must ultimately recognize that no matter how badly we’ve messed up, Jesus’ sacrifice has covered it.
- Extending to others the kind of forgiveness that Jesus has extended to us. He loved us when we were His enemies and forgave us—shouldn’t we be willing to do the same to the people in our lives?
- Understanding that our salvation isn’t because of who we are, but because of who Jesus is. That changes our whole outlook on life. It should keep us from feeling smug or superior to people who aren’t Christians, because we recognize we are really no better than they are—we are simply forgiven. It should give us a profound sense of humility and gratitude toward God.
- We should live in a way that seeks to honor God as King. Sin, at its core, is a lack of trusting in God. It is putting our own preferences, desires, and wisdom above His. If we recognize that we are no longer God’s enemies, but instead His friends, then we will seek to live our lives the way He has told us to. We don’t do that in order to earn forgiveness (because we can’t!); we do it in order to honor the One who has given us a forgiveness we don’t deserve. We do it because we believe that He alone is King.
Paul tells us that this is the natural response to an understanding of the cross. If we can stand before the cross unchanged, then we haven’t truly understood it.
Good Friday is a day that is a strange combination of mindsets. On the one hand, it is a day of mourning. We mourn over our sin. We mourn over the fact that because of our sin, Jesus had to bear the penalty of our sin on the cross. But at the same time, it is a day of rejoicing. We rejoice that God has loved us so greatly. We rejoice because we no longer bear the penalty of our sin. We rejoice because we have gone from being enemies of God to being His friends. We rejoice because Jesus’ sacrifice did what no amount of trying to be good could do.
As we reflect on the cross and remember the last day of Jesus’ earthly life, we should remind ourselves of why He went to Calvary. He went there because we needed Him, He went there because of our sin, but He also went there because He loved us and because He did, we can be forgiven. It’s a bit of an enigma, but Good Friday should be a day of mournful rejoicing. That’s the appropriate response to the cross.