A lot of folks these days want to emphasize Jesus’ teachings as if that was the main reason He came. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible actually says about His mission. What He taught was important, but the centre lies in what He came to do: to die an atoning death, and then to resurrect. But why did Jesus have to die before God could forgive?

Justice is a balancing of accounts. We’ve all seen the statue of Justice in front of courthouses. Blindfolded and holding scales, the image suggests the evening of accounts (the scales) and impartiality before the law (the blindfold).

The Moral law is at its heart a value system. The Law says people possess inherent value that goes beyond their usefulness or beauty: that everyone matters just because God made them.

But we have a problem. When I decide what I want is more important than someone elses’s rights and I act on it, I am basically saying that they don’t matter as much as my agenda. I offend against their worth as human beings. The Bible calls this sin.

If God is just, He must punish sin; the account must be settled. If He just lets it slide, He denies the value of the wounded party. We see this in everyday life when a criminal gets a slap on the wrist for some heinous crime. The outrage we feel at injustice is real and appropriate; it would be unfair to the victim for the Creator of the moral law to turn a blind eye to their hurt. And God is fair.

We all sin, in big and small ways, everyday. History gives ample proof that no utopian system of education or philosophy can change the human heart; our history is filled with guns and whips and wars. Granted that as moral beings, there are many instances of nobility and goodness, but we can’t get around the fact that none of us keeps the moral law perfectly. Humanity’s history is, to say the least, chequered.

And since we sin, God must judge us. Our actions have made Him our enemy. How then can God be just and yet show mercy? We’re in a hopeless position.

But what if another took our punishment? One who was sinless, and somehow suffered for us? Justice would be served, the value of the victim upheld, and God could then forgive.

That is why Christ’s atoning death is important.

People misunderstand if they think that in doing so God turns a blind eye to suffering and evil. This is where Christ’s atoning death is key: nothing less than the death of God incarnate was enough to account for the sin of humanity. He paid what we couldn’t pay so He could offer forgiveness to all.

And there is sort of a wonderful symmetry to it all: we were separated from God when we decided not to trust Him – that we knew better, and chose to ignore His law. But His atoning death only becomes effective when we decide that He knows better: that we accept our guilt and decide to trust in His justifying work for us instead of our our own attempts to justify ourselves through good works and religious acts. To choose to trust him is the exact opposite of what got humanity into its bind in the first place. It’s quite humbling.

And both Justice and mercy being satisfied, the choice to trust God changes our hearts in real ways; it’s the work of a lifetime, but we are being remade from the inside out. We look to Him, not our own selfish attempts to justify ourselves: and in doing so become sons and daughters of God in practical fact.

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