The Easter Effect
April 11, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
The Easter Effect
(This article is based on a chapter from Classical Arminianism by F. Leroy Forlines.1 While there are differing theological understandings of Jesus’ passion and death, I found the focus of this one to be meaningful and appropriate to meditate on at this time of year.)
Easter week is just ahead—the week in which we read about and meditate on the events of the last days of Jesus’ earthly life: telling the disciples that He would be crucified; the chief priests and elders gathering in the high priest’s palace plotting to arrest and kill Him; the Last Supper shared with His disciples; the beautiful words He spoke to His disciples and the prayer He prayed for them; Judas’ betrayal; Jesus’ agony in the garden; His arrest and trial by the Sanhedrin; His appearance before the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate; the brutal whipping at the hands of the Romans; the people’s calling for Barabbas to be freed; Pilate washing his hands of the matter and condemning Jesus to death; Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and His glorious resurrection.
Jesus—God the Son—was born, lived, and died for one purpose: that humanity would have the opportunity to become reconciled with God the Father. He came in order to die. As important as all of the events of Jesus’ life are, His death on the cross is central, as it was through His death that atonement was made for our sins; without it, there would be no reconciliation with God, no salvation, no eternal life with God. Of course, the other events of His life are important; without His birth, His death wouldn’t have been possible, and without His resurrection, there would be no application of the benefits of His death. But Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, is the key event which made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and for us to enter into relationship with God.
Jesus died to atone for our sins, but why did He have to? What is it about sin that required His death on the cross for us to be forgiven? To understand why His sacrifice on the cross caused God to forgive our sins, we need to look at five basic points expressed in the Bible: (1) God is sovereign. (2) God is holy. (3) Humans are sinful. (4) God is loving. (5) God is wise. Within these truths lies the treasure which is our salvation.
The reason we need to be forgiven for our sins has to do with the first three points: God is sovereign and holy, and we are sinful. God created all that exists, and as the Creator, He is the one who has set moral boundaries; therefore He is both the Lawgiver and the Judge of the universe. This makes humanity accountable before God. He can’t lay aside His responsibility as Judge, and we can’t escape our accountability to Him.
Besides being the Lawgiver and the Judge, God is also holy, and His purity makes it impossible for Him to tolerate sin. Because holiness is His nature, part of the essence of who He is, and while it is our nature as humans to sin, there is a conflict between humanity and God. Throughout Scripture, God has revealed the moral boundaries, the rules or laws, which we are to abide by. These laws are derived from and are an expression of His holy nature; and for holiness to be holiness, it not only must differ from sin, but it also must not tolerate sin. This intolerance of sin is manifested in punishment for it. And as seen throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, the punishment for sin is severe. It is often referred to as eternal condemnation or eternal fire.
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.2
These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.3
Their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.4
It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. … It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.5
It’s hard for us to fully understand why there should be such a strong reaction against sin, why sin in God’s eyes is so abominable that the punishment for it is described as eternal. Though we can’t fully understand it, we can be confident that God would not punish sin so severely if this did not rise from a necessity in His divine nature.
Because sin cannot be tolerated by God due to His holiness, God’s justice does not allow the penalty for sin to be set aside. The only way for someone to be justified before God is for that person to have absolute righteousness, to never sin throughout their whole life—which, because of the nature of humanity, is impossible. Scripture tells us:
There is none righteous, not even one.6
Since we can’t have absolute righteousness, neither are we capable of producing it, the only means of justification is for absolute righteousness to be provided for us. And this is where Jesus’ death on the cross comes into play.
Author F. Leroy Forlines wrote:
The justice of God demanded that the penalty of sin be paid. The love of God was interested in saving man, but it had to submit to the justice of God. The wisdom of God came forth with a plan that would satisfy both holiness and love. Through the incarnation of Christ and the substitutionary death of Christ, love could fulfill its desire to save, and holiness could hold on to its insistence that sin be punished.7
Scripture tells us that because of the disobedience of Adam, all of us became sinners, and that through Jesus’ obedience, we have been saved.
For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.8
Jesus’ obedience to His Father’s will played a major role in our salvation. His obedience has been portrayed by some theologians as two types: active obedience and passive obedience. Active obedience refers to Jesus living a life in absolute obedience to His Father. He lived an absolutely righteous life. Passive obedience refers to His death on the cross, to His submitting to the wrath of God for our sins, to His dying in our place for our sins.9 Let’s take a look at both, starting with passive obedience.
The Bible explains that the obedience of Christ involved Jesus taking our sins upon Himself:
The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all; 10
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree;11
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us;12
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.13
What this tells us is that when Jesus went to the cross, all the sins of the world that had ever been committed and would ever be committed were placed on Him. With all the sin of humanity placed on Him, He took our place and suffered the wrath of God poured upon Him as if He were guilty of all the sins of every human. In a very real and literal sense, Jesus took the place of every sinner.14
While Jesus suffered the physical agony of whipping, beating, and crucifixion, that wasn’t all He suffered. He suffered as much on the cross as sinners will suffer in an eternal hell. He, who had experienced eternal unbroken fellowship with His Father, uttered these words on the cross: My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?15 This was a cry of agony. When He finished suffering for the sins of the world He said: It is finished.16 He was finished paying for our sins, and thus was able to say: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!17
The one whose eternal fellowship with God had been severed because of our sin placed upon Him had paid the penalty and removed the obstacle that separated Him from the Father. The way for His reunion was open, and in opening it for Himself, He opened it for us. He entered into our broken relationship with God so that we might enter into His fellowship with God. He identified Himself with our sin so that we might be identified with His righteousness. We can’t know the depth of the suffering Jesus experienced in being cut off from His Father and suffering His wrath, as we have nothing to compare it with. What we do know is that His physical suffering, along with the suffering of being separated from the Father, was a penalty and punishment equivalent to all the sins of humanity.
As mentioned earlier, the only way one can be justified before God is to have absolute righteousness. Jesus, who was sinless during His earthly life, provides absolute righteousness for us. Jesus’ absolute righteousness stands in for us. His righteousness, so far as our justification is concerned, covers our sins. His obedience becomes our obedience. While we are not able to meet the requirement of absolute righteousness, Jesus has met it for us through His righteousness. We have been given God-provided righteousness, the righteousness of Christ.
Within the New Testament, we are told that Jesus was the propitiation for the sins of the world.
[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.18
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.19
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.20
The word propitiation in the biblical context means to turn away the wrath of God and to restore a person to favor with God. To understand why Jesus is called a propitiation for our sins, let's take a brief look at some key concepts from the Old Testament regarding the forgiveness of sins.
According to the Mosaic Law, in order for the sins of the Jewish people to be forgiven, a sacrifice—which consisted of killing an animal—was required. Some of the blood then had to be sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was a chest made of wood, overlaid with gold. It was about 45 inches long (114 centimeters), 27 inches wide (68.5 centimeters), and 27 inches high. It contained a golden pot which held manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets on which God had written the commandments. The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Temple, in an inner sanctuary called the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement, the day when a sacrifice of a goat was made for the sins of the Jewish people. On that day the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of the goat on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant; this lid was called “the mercy seat.” The Greek word translated as mercy seat is also translated as propitiation elsewhere.21 The mercy seat was the place where propitiation for the sins of the Hebrew people was made. It was as if the priest were saying to the Law, “This symbolizes the meeting of the demands that you require from sinners.”
The blood of the sacrificed animal sprinkled on the mercy seat symbolized the payment of a penalty through a substitute. The demand that sin be punished was symbolically fulfilled, thus God could turn away His wrath. It also symbolically satisfied the demand for righteousness. This sacrifice had to be made once a year in Old Testament times.
What the Old Testament sacrifice did in symbol, Jesus did in actuality. He lived a completely holy life, fulfilling the demand for absolute righteousness. He paid the full penalty for sin, fulfilling the demand for a penalty. Jesus, the propitiation of our sins, through His death on the cross, has met the demands that God’s nature requires: the punishment or penalty for sin and absolute righteousness. Jesus’ sacrificial death fulfills all the requirements, making it possible for God to turn His wrath from the sinner who believes in Jesus and to view him or her with favor, while still remaining a God of justice.
God, because of His nature and being, must separate Himself from those who sin; and in His infinite love and wisdom, He made it possible for us to be forgiven, so that we can have fellowship with Him now and forever. The sinless Son of God suffered the full wrath of God for our sins, so that we might be forgiven through the love and grace of our Father.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.22
This is why Jesus suffered and died for us. Having laid down His life for us in order to secure our salvation, He was raised from the dead, defeating death, and has given us eternal life. This is what we celebrate in the Easter season.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2011).
2 2 Thessalonians 1:8–9.
3 Matthew 25:46.
4 Revelation 21:8.
5 Matthew 18:8; Mark 9:47–48.
6 Romans 3:10 NAS.
7 Classical Arminianism, 205.
8 Romans 5:19.
9 Wayne Grudem wrote: Some have objected that this “active” and “passive” terminology is not entirely satisfactory, because even in paying for our sins Christ was in one sense actively accepting the suffering given him by the Father and was even active in laying down his own life (John 10:18). Moreover, both aspects of Christ’s obedience continued through his whole life: his active obedience included faithful obedience from birth up to and including the point of his death; and his suffering on our behalf, which found its climax in the crucifixion, continued through his whole life. Nevertheless, the distinction between active and passive obedience is still useful because it helps us appreciate the two aspects of Christ’s work for us. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 570–71.
10 Isaiah 53:6.
11 1 Peter 2:24.
12 Galatians 3:13.
13 2 Corinthians 5:21.
14 Classical Arminianism, 206.
15 Matthew 27:46 NKJV.
16 John 19:30.
17 Luke 23:46.
18 Romans 3:24–25.
19 1 John 2:2.
20 1 John 4:10.
21 Romans 3:25.
22 John 3:16 KJV.