Behind Golgotha 6: Did Jesus Convince?
Passage: Romans 5:1–5:21
Did Jesus have to die? Here we are, we’ve been talking for six weeks now about the history and meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross and how is it what we haven’t asked a fairly basic question like did he have to die?
But I think it’s an important question as it touches on a lot of different important ideas. The last couple weeks we have been looking at different atonement motifs, different ways of understanding the meaning of what happened on the cross. And this question did Jesus have to die is a way of looking at some of the distinct features of each way of understanding what Jesus did for us on the cross. Historically this question gets to key questions about what level of choice and agency do we have on a macro/systems level.
Did Jesus have to die? The first two motifs we have looked at are Jesus as sacrifice and Jesus as victor over sin and death. In each of those the answer is a pretty clear yes. Under the sacrifice motif the first premise is that we have sinned. Our relationship with God is out of whack. And as such Jesus’ death becomes our restitution. Jesus’ death was necessary because our sin needed restitution. Under the victor motif it’s fairly obvious that in order for Jesus to conquer death Jesus must first experience death. You can’t defeat something if you don’t meet it head on.
And if we look at the question historically its pretty clear that if you did the things Jesus did and said the things Jesus said, and if you’d done it a few times and found people wanted to kill you and were conspiring to kill you as the Gospels said was happening, that you were gonna wind up dead. But that raises questions of human agency: just because a thing is likely to happen does that mean it must happen?
Which gets us back to the first question: did Jesus have todie?
There are two main schools of Christian thought and they hinge on the question of human agency. One is Calvinism which, to be a lot reductionist, says that everything that happens was meant to happen. It was predestined. You didn’t decide to come to church today, it was predestined that you would come here and be bored by Matt’s speculative musings. Everything that happens happens because God decided it would. The other school is called Arminianism and it allows for the possibility of human free will, of human choice. You came here today. You could just as easily have gotten some grocery shopping done. And your choices have an impact on who you are.
What does this mean for Jesus? Well instead of looking at coming to worship on a random Sunday how about we look at something like Adam and Eve eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Did God predestine them to eat of the tree? Or did they have a choice? Was it equally as likely they wouldn’t eat of the tree? And given their act of eating of the fruit of that tree allows sin to enter the world how you answer that question is incredibly important.
Which brings us back to Jesus. I am an Arminian. I believe, for the most part, that we have choice and agency in this world and our choices and what we do with our agency matter. And so when I approach the question did Jesus have to die I want to at least hold out the briefest hope that we as humanity had some say in the matter. Which means there exists the possibility that Jesus didn’t have to die. But to allow for that we need to look at another atonement motif.
This motif begins with choice. In our life, in our morality we have agency. While we are formed by our communities we are also relatively free moral actors. Given that, God comes into this world not so much to solve a problem, but primarily be in relationship with us. God comes in Jesus Christ so that God can more intimately be with humanity. And God can help teach us how to live. God can guide us in following the law because we haven’t been able to do it well on our own. But again, the key thing here isn’t so much Jesus solving a cosmic problem, but Jesus coming because God has always desired a deepening relationship with us.
Another fundamental question tied up in this atonement motif beyond did Jesus have to die is if we had never sinned would God still have come to be with us in Jesus Christ? If Adam and Eve never eat the fruit does God still become incarnate? And if you say no, what does that make of the Trinity? Is the being of God tied up into stuff humanity did? So why am I perhaps making your head spin? Because if you believe that regardless of what humanity did God would still have come to be with us in Jesus Christ than you can imagine a world in which Jesus doesn’t have to die. And then the motivation for God coming to be with us in Jesus Christ isn’t so much as being born to die as it is being born to live.
So let’s assume for the moment that God didn’t come in Jesus as a solution to a cosmic problem, that God didn’t come in Jesus only to die, but that God came in Jesus to be with us. And his three years of public ministry teaching and preaching served a key purpose for what God was doing in the world in Jesus Christ. And he grew and lived to be a man who could become a public teacher and preacher were for a reason. Given all that, what happened when God came into the world? What did we do? How did we respond? We pushed him out. We violently expelled God from our world. We killed God.
But what was it all for? What did it accomplish? How does this read that ends with us killing the God who came to be with us, function for our atonement? To move us forward we turn to the words of Paul.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
This is a perfect distillation of the Gospel right here. You see at just the right time when we were still powerless Christ died for the ungodly. Christ died for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When we made a truly terrible choice, when we opted to kill God in Jesus Christ rather than listen to God in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ died for us. This is how much our God loves us. This is how far our God will go to be with us. That even though we made the choice to turn away from our God, even though we made the choice to put our God on the cross, even though our love has failed time and time again, our God still came to be with us in Jesus Christ and comes to be with us again and anew. Our God never gives up. Our God never stops trying.
And so how is this atoning? How is this good news? Because given the possibility, let’s be honest given the high probability, that in coming to be with us in Jesus Christ it wasn’t going to end well, God still did it anyways. Because that’s how God loves. And even when we kill Jesus Christ, even when we kill God in Jesus Christ, God isn’t going to stop loving us. God is never ever ever going to stop loving us and God is never ever ever going to stop going to every length possible to save and redeem us. That kind of love has power. That kind of love is miraculous. Dare I say that kind of love is undeniable?
And that’s how, in this motif, the cross functions for our atonement. We look to the cross and we see the limits God is willing to go to in order to be with us. God faces death. God faces derision. God faces abandonment, betrayal, and torture. God faces the worst humanity can offer in Jesus Christ in the name of love. In the name of the love God has for us. In order to call us back to Him.
And when we see how much God loves us, when we see what God’s love looks like in action, it does something in us. I don’t know about you but it does something within me. I’m blown away. I’m taken aback. In some respects I’m broken. I’m broken about the decisions I have made to push God out of my life. I’m broken about the fact that if I had been in the crowd the day Jesus was tried I surely would have shouted crucify. Because I know I’ve told God to get out. I see the ways in which the selfish choices I make, the sinful choices I make wound God. Literally. They pain God. Literally. And God will never stop being wounded and hurt and pained by my sin.
And it makes me want to be healed. It makes me want to be saved. It makes me want to be justified and sanctified. It makes me want to be the person God created me to be.
Even as I know I’ll never fully get there.
For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
You see as we ponder God’s love for us revealed on the cross our love for God grows. As we see that God’s love for Jesus cannot be bounded or ended by death, as we see God’s life raise Jesus from the dead we see that God’s love for us will not be bounded or ended by death. And our love for God grows. As we see God’s love played out in time, in history, in our world through moments of celebration on Easter and moments of pain and dejection on Good Friday, when we see what God’s love for us cost God, we are wooed and won and our love for God grows. And as our love for God grows, we are saved. We are healed. God redeems us. God wins us back. We are drawn out of ourselves; we are less oriented towards self-interest and self-preservation. We are oriented towards God and what God desires for ourselves, for our lives, and for our world.
Next week is Easter Sunday. This next week is Holy Week. We have a number of programs and events and worship opportunities to help you walk through this crucial week. We have spent the last six weeks talking about what happened on this crucial week, how we got here, and what it means. But as we conclude today’s sermon let me put a coda on this series so that we might be primed as we encounter this story again and anew this week.
Romans 5: 12-21
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned — To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We have spent the last three weeks talking about different atonement motifs. One thing all motifs agree on is that things are not as they ought to be. Adam sinned and in Adam’s sin, disobedience, death, and sin reigned supreme. We are born under the weight and under the rule of sin. But thanks be to God the story’s not over.
I love the way Paul talks about atonement here. I love the way Paul talks about justification here. He calls it the gift. Over and over he talks about the gift saving us from sin. The gift saving us from death. The gift overcoming the trespass. We can talk about what Jesus’ death on the cross means, the different ways of looking at it, the different ways different motifs emphasize different aspects. And we can ask speculative questions until our heads are hurting. But when we boil it all down here’s what the cross of Christ is to us, here’s what Golgotha is to us: the gift. The gift of God to overcome Adam’s sin and our sin.
We’re going to be telling an important story this week. A big story. A story we believe is the hinge on which the entire history of the cosmos turns. As you approach this story Paul gives us the best way to look at it: a gift. What we are about to tell, what we are about to experience, what we are about to reflect on, what we are about remember is God’s gift to us. Holy Week is God’s gift to us. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s gift to us. And that gift can overcome anything and everything that is holding you back from fully embracing our loving God. As you experience this story this week, may you see and experience the gift. And may you greet the risen Christ with arms wide open. Let us pray.