“Wouldn’t it be unjust for one man to pay for the sins of all? After all, the penalty is theirs to pay. How could the death of a poor Jewish man take on the sins of the world?”
These questions understandably demand a response from the Christian paradigm. After all, certainly it would be unjust for God to allow all the sins of mankind to be paid for by a single, ordinary death, and for all the guilty to go free. That’s certainly how it seems before we begin to uproot our assumptions.
First, we have the issue of sin (which I’ve addressed here). If sin resulted in a sort of debt to be paid (an impossible debt, mind you) then we must ask ourselves this question: to whom do we owe the debt?
Remember in Matthew 9:1-3 that the scribes are astounded that Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic prior to healing him. Why are they astonished? Because only God has the power to forgive sins. Now this is important for understanding who sin is ultimately against. Take a look at Psalm 51:4:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
David is saying that against God, and God alone, has he sinned. Now remember that David is saying this after he has committed adultery and has essentially murdered the woman’s husband in order to cover up her pregnancy. Now certainly we can sin against each other, but sin is first and foremost a sin against God because it is choosing separation from him. Therefore, it is in his choice to allow us back to him. For example, if I did something to seriously harm my relationship with you, and I beg you to forgive me, and I hope for a restored relationship with you—who possesses the final decision on whether or not that relationship will be restored? You do.
Now since all sin is ultimately first and foremost against God, only he can forgive this debt. If God so wished to forgive the sins of mankind, he would be the only one with the power to do the forgiving. Similarly, if I borrowed $20 from you and couldn’t pay you back, only you could forgive that debt; not your friend, brother, or spouse.
But now we ask the question: why death? Isn’t that a little too serious? Couldn’t God just blink an eye and forgive us? Well, there’s a couple things we need to understand first.
Crime is costly. If a crime is committed against a person, it is a cost to that person the crime was committed against. Think about the illustration I gave earlier about me having wronged you in some way. It would cost you to still be my friend. Generally speaking, when it comes to personal relationships, love always has a cost. Why? If wrong my wife in some way, she can choose to continue to love me, but she will pay a price for it. Forgiveness is not cheap. And again, to point back to an earlier example, if I borrowed $20 from you, and didn’t pay it back, who would bear the cost? You would, because you are now $20 short after doing business with me! Crime is always costly. Since sin is ultimately a crime against God, and ultimately results in death (separation), then in order for God to pay for the debt that we owed him, he would have to take in on himself, through Christ. Nothing short of that would have paid the cost that would reconcile us back to him.
But, there’s something else worth noting.
Christ’s payment for our sins wasn’t a cold transaction. God was not rolling his eyes at the bill we accumulated: he paid for it while demonstrating the truest posture of love.
John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
That is the glorious picture of the gospel. It pleased God to reconcile us to himself (Isa. 53:10, John 10:18), even at the cost of his son. That is why when we look at the cross, we see no greater love than God’s sacrifice for humanity, which he alone was fit to pay.
Sin is costly; it costs us our intimacy with God. Only God can pay the price to have the intimacy restored. God paid it through the highest posture of love through death. Because the cost of our separation has been paid, we can now experience intimacy with him. This is why Jesus died.